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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Agrarian Laws

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Fixed Tenure of Land.

With the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, and the consequent transition from their former nomadic mode of life to agricultural conditions, fixed tenure of landed property became a natural institution. At the time of the consolidation of the monarchy, not only each tribe but each clan and each household was permanently settled upon some well-defined, larger or smaller, area. The estate passed, through inheritance, from father to son: where the sentiment of filial affection was particularly strong, it was not permitted to become the possession of a stranger, as is shown in 1Kings 21:3 , "The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee" otherwise, there was nothing in the way of disposing of it by sale (Genesis 23:9 ), or barter (1Kings 21:2 ), or gift (Genesis 23:11 ). Whenever the sale of an estate became necessary (as in the case of poverty), in accordance with an ancient custom, the next of kin enjoyed the privilege of preemption ("the right of redemption," Jeremiah 32:7 Ruth 4:3,4 ). According to the older accounts preserved in the Bible, for example, Judges, i., the conquest of Canaan was gradual and protracted indeed, it was not completed before the reign of Solomon. Moreover, the invasions were made by the tribes singly there was apparently at no time anything like a concentrated effort. Each invading horde naturally settled on the territory it conquered. But nothing is known about the manner in which the land was parceled out among the individual clans or households.

Distribution of Land.
The information contained in Joshua, chaps. xiii. et seq. , is based upon the theory that the conquest of the greater part of the country was the work of one generation under the leadership of Joshua, who, before his death, distributed the land by lot among the various tribes in shares proportionate to the number of souls constituting each household. The tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, to whom the country east of the Jordan had been assigned by Moses, were permitted to return to their homes. Special cities, forty-eight in number, scattered through the country, were allotted to the Levites. All this agrees in detail with the instructions which are found in the closing chapters of Numbers (xxxii.-xxxvi.), and which is assumed to belong to the later strata of the Priestly Code they are probably nothing but the result of the unhistorical reflection of after-times. It is clearly provided (Numbers 36:9 ) that in no case may land be transferred from one tribe to another.

Rise of a Moneyed Class.
Somewhat older and quite idealistic in the expectation of miraculously altered geographical conditions is the plan of allotment adopted by the prophet Ezekiel in the constitution he outlines for the restored people (Ezekiel 45 et seq. ). With the exception of a reservation for the Temple and its ministers (priests and Levites) and for the domain of the prince, the whole country is divided by the prophet into twelve strips, which are to be inhabited by the Twelve Tribes. The wish is expressed that "my people be not scattered every man from his possession" (Ezekiel 46:18 ). Partly in consequence of the Syrian wars by which the northern kingdom was harassed for nearly a century, and partly through the rise of commerce and of a moneyed class in the population, the impoverished peasant was forced to mortgage or sell his small farm. Vast estates became concentrated in the hands of a few they "joined house to house and field to field," unscrupulously dispossessing the poor, who hired themselves out as laborers or sold themselves and their children into slavery. Against this state of affairs the prophets, nearly all of whom were themselves children of the people, raised a cry of indignation, vehemently denouncing the greed of the rich landlords of Samaria and Jerusalem. Their denunciations, while perhaps barren of immediate results, ultimately led to the formulation of laws directed against aggression on the part of the ruling classes. Thus, the removal of landmarks is made one of those great offenses against which the divine curse is invoked (Deuteronomy 19:14 , 27:17 Hosea 5:10 ).

Institution of Jubilee Year.
The Jubilee year was mainly instituted in order to prevent violent changes in the tenure of lands (Leviticus 25:23 et seq. ). The land, the law declares, properly belongs to YHWH, who is sole landlord, while all the Israelites are but his tenants. Therefore the land must not be sold in perpetuity. It may be leased, or its crops may be sold but in the Jubilee year the land returns to its original owner. The price paid for a piece of land must differ according to the number of crops expected before the next Jubilee, the year of release. The original owner may reclaim his property at any time he chooses— according to the Mishnah (' Ar. 9:1), however, not within the first two years after the sale— by refunding to the buyer the value of the crops remaining until the Jubilee. When, through poverty, he is not in a position to redeem the property himself, the right and the duty of reclaiming it devolve upon his nearest kinsman. Houses in villages are reckoned as part of the ground they may therefore be reclaimed at any time, and are released in the Jubilee year. But a house in a walled city may be reclaimed only during the first year after the sale if it be not redeemed within that period it becomes the perpetual property of the buyer and is not released in the Jubilee year. Exception is made in favor of dwellings in Levitical cities, which may be reclaimed at all times, and are released in the Jubilee year. Pasture land around a Levitical city may not be sold. The release of land as a general institution appears nowhere in the earlier literature of the Bible. The nearest approach to it is the provision in the scheme of Ezekiel that, while the prince may give away parts of his domain to his sons in perpetuity, the lands received from him by his servants are to become his again in "the year of liberty" (Ezekiel 46:16,17 ). The year meant is apparently the seventh year. According to the Deuteronomic code (Deuteronomy 15:7-13 also Jeremiah 34:14 ), it was the year for the release of debts and the manumission of slaves the year of Jubilee seems to be modeled upon the Sabbatic year and represents a later and more comprehensive development. The law was probably never enforced. According to the Talmud (' Ar. 32b ), the Jubilee ceased to be observed with the transportation of the trans-Jordanic tribes by the king of Assyria (1Chronicles 5:26 ). For additional information concerning the rabbinical interpretation of the laws see Mishnah (' Ar. ix.) Maimonides, "Yad haḤ azaḳ ah," 3:7,7. See also Jubilee, Shemiṭ ṭ ah .M. L. M.


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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Agrarian Laws'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tje/a/agrarian-laws.html. 1901.

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