God is the only Landlord

My Neighbour's Landmark

from Frederick Verinder, My Neighbour's Landmark; short studies in Bible land laws. London, Land and Liberty Press, 1950 (first published 1911).

"Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour's landmark. And the people shall answer and say, Amen."


It is natural enough that Moses and the Prophets should have a good deal to say, and for us to hear, on the Land Question. For, so long as man remains a land animal, the Lawgiver and the Social Reformer cannot avoid the ever-pressing question of the relation of man to the land. Like some other ancient peoples (and some modern "savages"), the Hebrews saw clearly truths about the Land Question which have become obscured to most of us by the complexities of our modern industrial system. It is, of course, obvious that the details of the land laws which Moses promulgated, and to which the Prophets appealed, cannot apply to a nation so differently circumstanced as our own. In considering the details, we must constantly bear in mind the circumstances of the time and place, and the history and condition of the people. . . But the principles which underlay those "precepts" and fundamental and immutable, because the relation of man to the land on which he lives and works is always and essentially the same. The earth is still what one of the Aprocryphal writers called it, "the mother of all things." Land is still, as it was in the time of Moses, the home and workshop of the human race, the reservoir from which human labour draws all the raw materials wherewith to satisfy its needs. "Land is perpetual man." "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever" . . .

It is, therefore, to the underlying principles if the Hebrew social philosophy, rather than to the details of Mosaic legislation, that this little work is designed to call attention . . . Ancient as these principles are, the most characteristic of modern problems -- problems of poverty amid increasing wealth, of housing, of unemployment -- are compelling the attention of social reformers, more and more, to them. For, what we call the Land Question remains essentially the same under ever-changing forms of social organization. When "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground," He so formed him that he could live only upon and from the land whence he came. It is true, now as always (as Sir William Petty long ago put it in an arresting sentence quoted by Karl Marx in Capital), that "Land is the mother and Labour is the father of all wealth." Many centuries earlier, the writer of one of the Hebrew "wisdom books" had, as we have already seen, proclaimed the same truth.


The general principles upon which the Hebrew Land Laws were based are absolutely fatal to the idea of private property in land. It would be too little to say that land monopoly was treated with great severity by the Law: the Law was expressly designed to make it impossible, for the Lawgiver knew that there can be no social justice in a State while what Herbert Spencer call "the equal right to the use of the earth" is denied to its members.

The keynote is struck in the very first sentence of the Pentateuch. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and is frequently repeated elsewhere. "The sea is His, and He made it; and His hands formed the dry land." "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods." "The world is Mine, and the fulness thereof." "Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool . . . for all those things Mine hand made." God Almighty is, therefore, by right of creation, the only landlord . . . "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Therefore "unto the Lord thy God belongeth the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, the earth, with all that therein is." "The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's; but the earth hath He given to the children of men."

No phrase could possibly be wider in its application, or more completely destructive of the claims of a landlord class to the monopoly of God's earth, than the simple words "children of men." Is there any man, woman, or child who lives now, or who ever has lived, or who ever will live, who is not included among the "children of men?" No: Jew or Greek, native or foreigner, black or white, lord or peasant, rich or poor -- all find, in this sweeping generalization, the charter of their birthright in the soil . . .

"For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God Himself that formed the earth and made it; He hath established it, He created it not in vain, He formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else" . . .

If, therefore, God, the sole Landowner, has given the Land to "the children of men" -- i.e. to the whole human race in its widest extension through time and space -- it follows that no single generation, still less any single individual, has absolute ownership in land. It is not the right of property in land, but the right to use land -- limited by the equal right of everyone else, now and forever, to use land -- that God has given to man. No man can claim land as "his very own," "to do as he likes with," e.g. to sell. "The land shall not be sold forever; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me," said the Lord. . . [and] "the profit of the earth is for all."


According to the Hebrew theory of land-holding, as we have seen, God was the only absolute Owner of land, while all God's children had equal rights in the use of it. . . The method by which these principles were carried into practice was, of course, largely determined by the special circumstances and needs of an Eastern people, settling in a fertile land . . . The method, too, was strongly influenced by two great Hebrew conceptions: that of the family as the unit of the Nation; and that of the Nation itself as a larger family -- the children of Abraham -- closely bound together by a common descent and a common religion. "The land which the Lord thy God hath given thee" was not a mere facon de parler to the Hebrew; he conceived of his nation or race, "Israel," as a collectivity, almost as a personality. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called My son out of Egypt." God had given the fertile land of Canaan to the whole Hebrew nation as a common heritage, in which every family of the commonwealth had equal rights. . . The natural and easy way for giving effect to those equal rights, under the circumstances of their time and place, was by an equal division of the land itself among all the families of Israel. . .

The boundaries of the family allotments were carefully marked, and the sanctity of these "landmarks" -- the outward and visible signs of the equal right to the use of the earth -- was protected by the public and solemn denunciation of a curse against him who should dishonestly tamper with them. The whole nation was convened in solemn assembly on Mounts Gerizim and Ebal. To adopt the language of the modern newspaper, the Levites proposed to this mass meeting a series of resolutions, to which the people gave their unanimous assent. Those resolutions classed the removal of the landmark -- the infringement of the equal right of access to land -- with those social sins which bring a curse upon the Nation; with the sins which break up families, which reduce men to the level of the brute, with idolatry, adultery, and incest; with the perversion of justice, and treacherous murder, and the crime of the hired assassin. For to the Hebrew, the landmark was a sacred symbol. But it was not the symbol of private "property" in land. . .


The equal division of the land gave to every family in the Commonwealth of Israel direct access to the soil. . . So far, then, as the first settlers in the Land of Canaan were concerned, they all had a fair start. Wage slavery and undeserved poverty were unknown. The legislator was able to contemplate the possibility of an ideal state of society "when there shall be no poor among you; for the Lord shall greatly bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it"; but "only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all these commandments which I command thee this day." So long as the Law was kept, no Hebrew need toil for sweated wages for a brother Hebrew. Bu his own labour, under the Law which secured to him the equal right to the use of the earth, he could produce all that he needed, without being beholden to or controlled by anyone else. Under such a Law, the worker's wages consisted of the whole of his product. He was not compelled to share what he produced either with a landlord or with an exploiter of labour. "Whoso keepeth the fig tree shall eat the fruit thereof." "They shall build houses and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat; for as the days of a tree are the days of My people, and Mine elect shall enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labout in vain, nor bring forth for trouble." "The husbandman that laboureth must be the first to partake of the fruits." "Who planteth a vineyard and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? . . . For it is written in the Law of Moses, 'Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn'" . . .

[But] there was a good deal of human nature about the descendants of the crafty Jacob. They were subject to at least their share of human weaknesses and imperfections, and were, moreover, liable, like other folk, to accident and misfortune. It was necessary that the Law should take this into account, and provide, not only for a fair start in the first instance, but also for a continuance of fair conditions. Each succeeding generation had the same equal right to the use of the earth. So abhorrent to the Mosaic conception of justice was a landless proletariat, that special provision was made to secure, once in each generation, a restoration of the original right of equal access to the natural opportunities of labour. Hence the institution of the Year of Jubilee. . .

Once in every generation the Hebrew people were called to a National rejoicing . . . because the reign of social justice was being reestablished; because the erstwhile disinherited was once more a free man and a citizen . . . Proclaim the Year of Liberty

For once in every fifty years -- which we may take roughly to represent a generation of Hebrew life -- the original equal division of the land was restored. Whatever inequalities might have crept in, through the foolishness or improvidence of some, or through the selfishness or injustice of others, were redressed when, in the fiftieth year, "on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement," the trumpet of the Jubilee sounded throughout all the land and proclaimed the national festival of Land and Liberty. "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee to you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family" . . . When the Jubilee proclamation again sounded from the sacred ram's horns, the land came back to his family, all contracts of sale to the contrary notwithstanding, and his children enjoyed the same advantage of a "fair start" as their father had before them.

It is plain that, under such a Law, the growth of a wealthy landlord class with large estates on the one hand, and of a landless pauper class on the other, were rendered impossible. Although there might be, and naturally would be, inequalities arising from various degrees of industry, there would be no such extremes of poverty and riches as we are familiar with . . . The prayer of Agur, the son of Jakeh, perhaps represents the ideal of such a society, "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me, lest I be full and deny Thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain" . . . "As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool." For "better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice" . . .

The Law clearly recognises the fact that slavery, in one form or another, is caused by the denial of equal rights in land. So long as the Hebrew retained his foothold upon the land, he enjoyed freedom and had within his hand the opportunity of winning a comfortable subsistence by honest toil. No landlord could rack-rent for permission to till the ground, or confiscate the results of his industry by raising the rent on his improvements. Economically and politically, he was a free man. But if, in the course of time, he lost to another man his share in the land -- through misfortune, or laziness, or vice on his own part; or through the cunning or violence of his fellows -- he must either become a tramp, or hire himself for wages to a brother-Israelite. To the man who gained by such a transaction it meant the beginning of monopoly: to the man who lost and to his family, a descent into social slavery. Wage slavery is the daughter of landlordism.

And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: but as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the Year of Jubilee, and then he shall depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. For they are My servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shall fear thy God.

Even foreign settlers among the Hebrews were subject to the law of Jubilee, so far as their Hebrew slaves were concerned. If a rich foreigner bought a Hebrew as his slave, he must treat him as "a yearly hired servant," and must set him free in the Year of Jubilee, if he had not, in the meantime, been able to redeem himself, or been redeemed by a kinsman.

So, once in every generation did the Law "proclaim liberty to the captives" in "the acceptable Year of the Lord." Well does one of the prophets call it 'the Year of Liberty."


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Frederick Verinder (1858-1948) was a co-founder with Stewart Headlam of the Guild of Saint Matthew. Like Headlam, he was a supporter of Henry George's scheme for the taxation of land values, a cause to which he remained devoted for all his ninety years. His little book "My Neighbour's Landmark" was frequently cited by early Anglo-Catholic Socialists, especially his conviction that "the most modern aspirations breathe in oldest Scriptures," that "the earth is the Lord's," and that "any occupier who claims more than the ancient Jubilee gave is a bold interloper."

For the views of a contemporary Anglican "Georgist" see Archer Torrey's Biblical Economics. Fr. Torrey is founder of Jesus Abbey in Taebaek, Korea. -- Ted M.

"Then you are to sound the trumpet throughout your land on the tenth day of the seventh month as the day of equalization . . . And you are to sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim a free year to in the land to all that dwell therein; for it is your year of jubilee; then everyone among you is to come back to his property and to his family. That is the jubilee year, when every man is to regain what belongs to him." Let him who has ears, hear. . . The voice of the spirit is the trumpet that will sound again and again and again, as long as men are together. Injustice will always seek to perpetuate itself; and always as long as men are truly alive, revolt against it will break out. Revolt as constitution; transformation and revolution as a rule established once and for all . . . that was the great and sacred heart of the Mosaic social order. -- Gustav Landauer

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