1 Kings 21 gives the story of Naboth’s Vineyard, and its theft by the wicked queen Jezebel on behalf of her husband Ahab. By showing God’s harsh condemnation of the practice of eminent domain, by which the land of common people is stolen by governments (or companies) for selfish benefit, the story itself (and the laws it is based on) are a landmark in showing God’s view towards the protection of private property and who they are designed to protect. As someone who believes very strongly in personal property rights, it is the purpose of this essay to examine how these rights apply to all, and what sorts of theft the Bible condemns.
Let us first examine the situation of 1 Kings 21 in light of the legal doctrine of ancient Israel (and its surrounding nations). Let us summarize the situation. Ahab wants the land of Naboth, who owns a vineyard next to the King’s palace in Jezreel, so that he can make a vegetable garden (a contrast that some sharp-eyed biblical scholars, like Provan, Long, and Longman, connect to the slavery in Egypt of leeks and onions rather than the land flowing with milk and honey (and wine) that God promises to Israel in the promised land. Naboth absolutely refuses to sell his ancestral heritage, as is his right, to the king. As far as Israelite law is concerned, he has that right, and there is nothing that the king can do about it–which is why Ahab responds by feeling peevish and despondent.
The response of Jezebel is instructive. She taunts Ahab about really being a king, taking advantage of the heathen (Gentile) absolute monarchies (see Matthew 20:25-28) and their absolute power regarding land and the lives of citizens to judicially murder Naboth under false pretenses using false witnesses. Naboth is put to death wrongfully, in a death scene that has several Christological parallels, and Jezebel “gives” his land to Ahab. God’s response to this theft and murder is to pronounce that Ahab’s whole dynasty will be wiped off the face of the earth, and Ahab’s repentance (since he was not the mastermind of the murder) delays that judgment until after his death, in the time of his son Jehoram, when Jehu the son of Nimshi exterminates the Baal-worshiping and corrupt House of Omri.
Let us therefore begin our examination by considering the issue at stake. Does the Bible grant citizens the absolute right to deny selling (much less giving) their property to the state? The answer of 1 Kings 21 is unequivocal, and shows that God absolutely condemns those governments who consider themselves as having an absolute right over the lives and property of their citizens. According to biblical law there is no right of absolute domain because people own their land (especially in the countryside, or for Levites in the city–more on this later) directly from God, and do not have the right to alienate their descendants from the land. To steal the land of common people for government purposes in the eyes of 1 Kings 21 is tantamount to theft from God Himself, and punished with the extinction of that immoral government.
Let us note that 1 Kings 21 is not the only place where the prophets make this condemnation about the practices of corrupt governments taking the lands of others. Let us turn to refer to Amos 7:17, where at the end of a harsh prophecy against a corrupt government official in Bethel, Amos severely comments that Amaziah (the name of the corrupt priest of Bethel) will die in a defiled (presumably foreign) land, that his wife will become a prostitute, that his sons and daughters will be slain by the (Assyrian? Israelite?) sword, and that his land will be divided and that Israel will go captive. The rampant abuse of the property rights of the poor (a theme throughout Amos) will lead to the judgment of Israel being removed from the land. Those who fail to respect the property rights of the poorest citizens will lose their own property in judgment from God.
Leviticus 25 is a lengthy chapter that deals with a set of related concerns, the seventh year land Sabbath, the Jubilee where all debts were forgiven and where all property was restored to its original owners in the countryside (only city property could be alienated, except that city property belonging to Levites who had no tribal inheritance), the redemption of property by the kinsman-redeemer in the case of an indebted relative, the prohibition on lending at interest to the poor, and the provisions for short-term indebted servitude (limited to seven years) for debt. All of these laws and concerns are related.
It is striking, and typical, that the corrupt so-called Theonomists like Gary North who claim to support the protection of private property believe that these laws have been “done away with” by the coming of Jesus Christ. This is because these laws do protect property, but they protect the well-being of the poor that Gary North and his associates wish to be able to exploit freely and without restriction. On the other hand, the Theonomists do correctly note that private property rights are protected and that God’s law (especially the laws of Leviticus 25) limit the size of government, precisely because they protect the rights of all property holders from exploitation from either the wealthy or the government. Freedoms and rights are only secure to the extent that they are secure for the poorest among our societies. Corrupt exploitation of the poor by the wealthy (and by government that support their interests) will often lead to an equally unbiblical and corrupt use of the power of the government to exploit the property rights of the rich. The true enemies of private property are the tendencies of corrupt wealthy and powerful people to exploit and dispossess the poor of their rightful property by panting after even the dust of the poor, and in the response of demagogues to use popular discontent at those corrupt wealthy to then engage in class warfare against the wealthy. We reap what we sow.
Therefore, in defense of biblical property rights, let us note that these economic rights belong to all citizens and are not the limitation of the wealthy. Indeed, the property rights of business owners would be limited with regards to their employees by the human rights of those humans (see Leviticus 25:39-55), who at worst would be classified as “hired servants” with their civil rights intact. Similar limitations govern the prohibition on charging interest to the poor–the right of dignity and economic survival of the poor trump the right of the wealthy lenders (or companies) to profit off of the poverty and need of the poor. Likewise, the limitation of the Jubilee year and land Sabbaths on the ability of people to economically exploit land meant that the health of the land and of its people (by preserving a broad base of property ownership within the general population and therefore limiting economic stratification, and by preventing the wearing out of land through crop monoculture) trumped the economic well-being of a would-be plantation or hacienda owning aristocracy.
Indeed, the property rights granted by the Bible in Leviticus 25 suggest that a specific society that is strongly egalitarian and heavily concerned with social justice but with a limited central government and strong church, community, as well as family safety nets is envisioned by the Bible. The biblical concern with just weights and measures (see Leviticus 19:36), with paying the wages of workers speedily (see Leviticus 19:13), and with neither favoring the poor or the wealthy in judgment (Leviticus 19:15) were designed to avoid any kind of class warfare of theft of property, whether it belonged to the poor or the wealthy. But property and profit were not primary–neither was the power of government for that matter–but obedience to God and a concern for the well-being of one’s brethren and fellow citizens trumped one’s own self-interest. And it is precisely this concern for obedience to God and the concern for the well-being of others that is at the very center of the Christian ethic as well. This ought not to be a surprise, since it was at the center of the ethic of biblical law, that limits both the practices of businesses and governments to ensure the well-being of all, not the exploitation of one body of citizens for the selfish benefit of another body of citizens.
Therefore, knowing the judgment on the house of Ahab because of their theft of the property of just Naboth, let us not become like the wicked Jezebel ourselves in greedily coveting and stealing the property of others. Whether that theft is in profiting off of the poverty of others by cheating them through interest, through low wages, or through corrupt legal maneuvers, or whether that theft comes in cities stealing the property of the poor to increase their own tax bases and then having that theft covered with the fig leaves of corrupt courts, or whether that theft is through the government confiscation of the property of private citizens, it will be judged most harshly by God. Let us not be counted among the thieves, wherever we happen to be among the society, knowing that thieves will not enter the Kingdom of God, but will have their bodies given to the dogs of the land and the birds of the (see 1 Kings 21:24). We would be wise to avoid that fate.