The Economics of Leviticus

Culture war conversations often end with a verse from Leviticus, the old testament book of laws. After the verse has been quoted, it does no good to point out that the implied solution is impractical or unfair or causes needless suffering. God has given his command and we should be carrying it out, whether it makes sense to us or not.

Strangely, though, the economic parts of Leviticus aren’t quoted with the same air of ultimate authority. If they were, Biblical literalists might have to become radicals rather than reactionaries.

For example, when vulture capitalists ruin towns by closing factories and shipping jobs overseas, someone might quote Leviticus 19:9-10, which clearly denounces business practices that wring out every last dime of profit.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.

The foreigner? You mean, like, illegal aliens? Could be. Leviticus 19:33-34 says:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

It doesn’t say anything about a green card, it just says “resides among you in your land”. (Don’t argue with me, argue with God. I’m just reading literally.)

But by far the most radical part of the book is Leviticus 25, the chapter that institutes the Jubilee Year.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.

“Their own property” includes anything that has been sold or repossessed:

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property … [and] if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.

Basically, every 50th year all mortgages and foreclosures are cancelled and land goes back to its original owners. Anybody whose debts forced them into slavery is freed.

I know what you’re thinking: “That would never work.” And you’re absolutely right: It would never work with our modern capitalist notion of private property. But guess what? Leviticus has a completely different understanding of property:

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

So the Earth itself belongs to God, while human deed-holders only own what the land produces.

If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops.

Leviticus was talking about an agrarian economy. If you wanted to apply this today, you might generalize to something like this: The Bible does not support private ownership of the means of production. The owner owns the product, not the means of production.

Taking Leviticus 25 seriously would force a sweeping re-visioning of the economic system. That would be a lot of work, and cause a certain amount of distress for the people who own property under our more free-trading definition. Why go to all that trouble? Unless you think this the Word of God or something.

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  • Anonymous  On July 9, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    I just forwarded the passage on immigration to Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Assn, and some other folks. Since many who revile the undocumented are also Biblical literalists, this is a very important passage!

    Rev. Roger Christan Schriner

  • Anonymous  On July 10, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    This is one I like too, “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal;and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)

    Those of us lucky enough to get a paycheck get it every week or two. Clearly this is against biblical law.

  • Rolo Tomassie  On July 10, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Unless you are a RABBI and reading this in Hebrew its as much a flawed argument as the other sides argues. also Rules made for 4000 years ago might not apply anymore. Just likes rules for you child don’t’ apply to the adults in the room.

    • weeklysift  On July 11, 2012 at 7:19 am

      That is, of course, my point. Evangelical Christians read Leviticus one way when it supports their prejudices, but read it a completely different way when it tells them to do something they don’t want to do. If 4000-year-old rules shouldn’t apply to billionaires, maybe they shouldn’t apply to gays either.

  • Marchelo  On February 3, 2013 at 4:12 am

    I am so glad that you were happy with them Jenn. Your family was a dehgilt to work with. Thank you for the beautiful compliment. My best to you, Eddie and the girls and I will pray for a swift and safe return.

  • Anonymous  On January 2, 2020 at 12:13 am



  • By Roll Over, Mr. Madison « The Weekly Sift on July 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    […] The Economics of Leviticus. You can’t have a culture-war conversation without somebody quoting Leviticus. What if you couldn’t have an economic conversation without somebody quoting Leviticus? That would change a lot of things, right down to our basic understanding of property. […]

  • […] The Economics of Leviticus « The Weekly Sift. Rate this:Share this:MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in 2012 […]

  • By Bedrock « The Weekly Sift on September 24, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    […] Here are some of the posts from recent weeks that you might find interesting: My Paul Ryan triology (1, 2, 3), Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide, How Lies Work, and The Economics of Leviticus. […]

  • […] were they actually to be followed.  I became interested in this whole topic, in fact, thanks to an article entitled “The Economics of Leviticus” by Doug Muder.  Muder is both a Unitarian Universalist and a prolific writer.  You may have read some of his […]

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