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Agrarian Law

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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To this, or some such heading, belongs the consideration of the peculiar laws by which the distribution and tenure of land were regulated among the Hebrew people; while the modes and forms in which the land was cultivated belong to Agriculture.

The Hebrews were for the most part a pastoral people until they were settled in Palestine, and their pastoral habits were mainly instrumental in keeping them distinct and separate from the Egyptians, who were agriculturists, and had a strong dislike to a shepherd life (Genesis 46:34). But when they became an independent and sovereign nation, the same result of separation from other nations was to be aided by inducing them to devote their chief attention to the culture of the soil.

It was, doubtless, in subservience to this object, and to facilitate the change, that the Israelites were put in possession of a country already in a state of high cultivation (Deuteronomy 6:11). And it was in order to retain them in this condition, to give them a vital interest in it, and to make it a source of happiness to them, that a very peculiar agrarian law was given to them. An equal distribution of the soil (Numbers 26:53-54) was the basis of the agrarian law. By it provision was made for the support of 600,000 yeomanry, with (according to different calculations) from sixteen to twenty-five acres of land each. This land they held independent of all temporal superiors, by direct tenure from Jehovah their sovereign, by whose power they were to acquire the territory, and under whose protection they were to enjoy and retain it. But this law was guarded by other provisions equally wise and salutary. The accumulation of debt was prevented, first, by prohibiting every Hebrew from accepting of interest (Leviticus 25:35-36) from any of his fellow-citizens; next, by establishing a regular release of debts every seventh year; and, finally, by ordering that no lands could be alienated forever, but must, on each year of Jubilee, or every seventh Sabbatic year, revert to the families which originally possessed them. Thus, without absolutely depriving individuals of all temporary dominion over their landed property, it re-established, every fiftieth year, that original and equal distribution of it, which was the foundation of the national polity; and as the period of such reversion was fixed and regular, all parties had due notice of the terms on which they negotiated; so that there was no ground for public commotion or private complaint.

This law, by which landed property was released in the year of Jubilee from all previous obligations, did not extend to houses in towns, which, if not redeemed within one year after being sold, were alienated forever (Leviticus 25:29-30). This must have given to property in the country a decided preference over property in cities, and must have greatly contributed to the essential object of all those regulations, by affording an inducement to every Hebrew to reside on and cultivate his land. Further, the original distribution of the land was to the several tribes according to their families, so that each tribe was, so to speak, settled in the same county, and each family in the same barony or hundred. Nor was the estate of any family in one tribe permitted to pass into another, even by the marriage of an heiress (Numbers 27); so that not only was the original balance of property preserved, but the closest and dearest connections of affinity attached to each other the inhabitants of every vicinage.

For this land a kind of quit-rent was payable to the sovereign proprietor, in the form of a tenth or tithe of the produce, which was assigned to the priesthood [TITHE]. The condition of military service was also attached to the land: as it appears that every freeholder (Deuteronomy 20:5) was obliged to attend at the general muster of the national army, and to serve in it, at his own expense (often more than repaid by the plunder), as long as the occasion required. In this direction, therefore, the agrarian law operated in securing a body of 600,000 men, inured to labor and industry, always assumed to be ready, as they were bound, to come forward at their country's call. This great body of national yeomanry, every one of whom had an important stake in the national independence, was officered by its own hereditary chiefs, heads of tribes and families (comp. Exodus 18 and Numbers 31:14); and must have presented an insuperable obstacle to treacherous ambition and political intrigue, and to every attempt to overthrow the Hebrew commonwealth and establish despotic power. Nor were these institutions less wisely adapted to secure the state against foreign violence, and at the same time prevent offensive wars and remote conquests. For while this vast body of hardy yeomanry were always ready to defend their country, when assailed by foreign foes, yet, being constantly employed in agriculture, attached to domestic life, and enjoying at home the society of the numerous relatives who peopled their neighborhood, war must have been in a high degree averse to their tastes and habits. Religion also took part in preventing them from being captivated by the splendor of military glory. On returning from battle, even if victorious, in order to bring them back to more peaceful feelings after the rage of war, the law required them to consider themselves as polluted by the slaughter, and unworthy of appearing in the camp of Jehovah until they had employed an entire day in the rites of purification (Numbers 19:13-16; Numbers 31:19). Besides, the force was entirely infantry; the law forbidding even the kings to multiply horses in their train (Deuteronomy 17:16); and this, with the ordinance requiring the attendance of all the males three times every year at Jerusalem, proved the intention of the legislator to confine the natives within the limits of the Promised Land, and rendered long and distant wars and conquests impossible without the virtual renunciation of that religion which was incorporated with their whole civil polity, and which was, in fact, the charter by which they held their property and enjoyed all their rights.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Agrarian Law'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​a/agrarian-law.html.
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