Monday, October 15, 2012

Israel, the first Communist country?

    No word in 20th century America is so laden with distaste and ire as "communism" (the word that's likely replaced it in 21st century America is "intolerance").  When we hear it, we think of soldiers goosestepping next to ICBMs in countries that squash individual rights, independent thought and that esteem the Bible very little.  But let's do a word study before getting to our text in Leviticus, in an attempt to regain some objectivity.
This is a pumpkin carving, believe it or not!
     The big idea behind communism is collective priority:  the concept that individuals exist to serve the group to which they belong.  As a wise man once said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one." (Spock, Star Trek II).  Of course, this concept is in direct opposition to the bedrock principle of our founding fathers:  individualism, or the group (i.e. the government) exists to safeguard the rights of the individual.  While there are elements of both of these concepts in America today (just ask someone on 'Social' Security), at the moment, the influence of individualism still outguns the sway of collectivism, and "communism" is still a dirty word.
     So how would you react if you found communist elements in the Bible, specifically the Mosaic Law?  This is the first verse I'm thinking of:
"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with Me." (Lev. 25:23)
     So God declares that in Israel, no individual owned land in actuality, but kept and used in stewardship for its true Owner, the Almighty.  Wait a sec... doesn't God know about private property?  What about the Fourth Amendment?  Do we have to drag God in front of the Supreme Court, and declare His Law unconstitutional?  I wax sarcastic to illustrate how the "rights" we claim in America may or may not be such in God's sight.  Let's look at the context:  Lev. 25 describes the extent and effects of the Jubilee, the 50th year, or the 7th Sabbath year.  In regards to land, any transaction would only be in effect until the Jubilee;  this would limit the value;  the seller would be selling the use of the land for growing crops.  At the Jubilee, the land would return to the family to whom God granted it after the Conquest.  The only way to circumvent this law was to resort to murder (I Ki 21:1ff).
     Try to suspend your horror at the restriction on the "right" to buy and sell property, and think about the effects of this ancient legislation:  in any society, there is an inexorable tendency of the rich to get richer, and the poor to get poorer.  We live in a country with a sizable middle class, but you must realize our situation is the anomaly:  during the Middle Ages in Europe, the gap was extreme, with something like 97% of folks constantly starving, and the 3% leeching obscene wealth and comfort from their labor.  So what effect would returning land every 50 years have?  It would 'redistribute' (again, a dirty word in some circles) wealth from those who made wise investments, were frugal, or won the lottery to those who fell into economic disaster, intentionally or otherwise.  In a society without food stamps, Social Security or Obamacare, this periodic law hit the reset button for those with no other financial options.  The ancient world was not a "land of opportunity", where you could file for unemployment, declare bankruptcy or refinance your home... it was a grim, brutal place where often a good year didn't mean extravagant Christmas presents, but merely ensured that you wouldn't starve to death.
     So in ancient Israel, the land return at Jubilee was a divinely perfect solution to curb our insatiable greed and our use of others as our personal doormats in our quest for riches.  The sense of covenant community in Israel (and the Church today, not America!) was to be such that those blessed with wealth knew they have what they have only to bless the have-nots.  This is exactly what we see in the first Christians (Acts 2:44).  Whether that's labelled communism or something else, feel free to make your own judgment.  Next, we'll look at another life-saving institution in ancient Israel, a relationship extensively used metaphorically in Scripture, and essential to understanding our standing with God... slavery.

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