The Earth Is the Lord's

Land, Justice, and Injustice in Biblical Times and Our Own*

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised: August 15, 2013

"The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." These well-known lines from Ps 24 (v. 1) are echoed in Ps. 50 (v.12) and Job 41 (v.11). But the idea also occurs earlier in the Hebrew Bible. In Ex. 19 we find "all the earth is mine" (v.5). In Leviticus 25, we find the passage "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants." (Lev 25:23-24)

The Hebrew Bible contains different layers, likely written at different times, and its God speaks in a variety of voices. Genesis tells us that the Lord has assigned the Promised Land to the descendents of Abraham but later books clarify this: the Israelites will possess the land only if they follow the laws given them by the Lord through Moses.**

We will first consider some of those rules, those that indicate the land ethic that was later to shape the thinking of 19th century American writer and political economist, Henry George.

Following the domestication of animals, human communities in the ancient Near East drifted into small-scale agriculture; eventually, in the major river valleys of what is now Iraq and Egypt, the growth of the division of labor and commerce led to the emergence of the first cities. Land close to centers of commerce became increasingly valuable, with the result that influential members of the community were tempted to establish private ownership and control that they could transmit to their heirs. This, however, ran against an already old idea that the land was the possession of the entire community or, what is in practice the same thing, of its chief deity.

On the evidence of the Book of Judges and First Samuel, in the early period of their history, the Israelites did not occupy the most desirable land but existed largely as farmers who would also function as warriors when that was needed. But their society, like earlier Sumeria and Babylonia, experienced the rise of social and economic inequality.

Originally people provided members of their own households from common stores what each person needed to survive and fulfill her tasks. They also came to their neighbors' aid and exchanged services and material products in local markets. Even before metallic currency, they knew how to keep track of how much value changed hands between people and when exchanges between relative strangers became lopsided. Short-term debts were familiar long before debt became a serious problem. But accidents and history do not impact everyone equally; eventually some people could not repay their debts. This might lead to obligations of long-term service to the creditor. When debts became severe enough, households might have to turn over members as servants in the creditor's household. Alternately, the produce of a person's plot of land could be obligated to the creditor; in more extreme conditions, the debtor would become a serf working land that was nominally his while the creditor was now the de facto owner. Finally, people could be sold into slavery.

Now, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy God provides explicit instructions to address this situation. He repeatedly sets His sights against radical social inequality and injustice. The Bible asks us to believe that the Lord knew, before the Israelites entered Canaan, that they would face conditions tending to create a gap between rich and poor, free person and slave—an inequality that could split the community and make it prey to conquest by its neighbors. His commands aimed to moderate inequality in the short run and reduce it radically at intervals.

The most dramatic command against economic inequality pertains to the Jubilee, which is to occur every 50 years. It's a super-sabbath, occurring after "seven times seven years" (Lev)

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 every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property… (Lev)

Since the economic value of land to its possessor depends on how many crops he can get from it, the Lord instructs "sellers" to adjust their prices to the number of years remaining until the Jubilee.

Do not take advantage of each other, but fear thy God, for I am the Lord your God…

The land must not be sold permanently," the book says, "b/c the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession you must provide for the redemption of the land. (Lev)

The point is that land is to stay in the original kinship group so far as possible; people are allowed to redeem their land after they have "given it up" to pay debts; relatives are obligated to help each other out. In any case, whenever possible, the original families are to get their land back in the year of the Jubilee.

The Lord appears to know that people, out of economic desperation, may sell themselves as slaves to others; He commands that they not be worked as slaves but treated as temporary residents or hired workers. In the year of the Jubilee the slave and his children are to be released that they may return to their property and their clan. (Lev)

Deuteronomy provides different (but compatible) instructions that reflect the same concern.

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.… Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the Lord's time for cancelling debts has been proclaimed.… There should be no poor among you for in the land the Lord your Gd is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you only if you fully obey the Lord your Gd and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. (Deut 15)

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the landhellip; do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. (Deut 23:19-20).

Do not charge your brother [Israelite] interest, whether on money or food or anything that may [accrue] interest.…" (Deut)

Yet in time these commands were ignored by wealthier Israelites, who corrupted public officials so they would not enforce the code. We hear the prophet Isaiah uttering the following:
The Ld enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people. It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" (Isaiah 3:14-15)
The following passage, also from Isaiah, describes the result of foreclosures and expulsions of former residents from the land:
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.…Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants…. (5:8-9)
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, …to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning? To whom will you run for help? (Isaiah 10:1-3)

On the evidence of such passages, the concern of the Hebrew Bible was justice in the present world. Some of Jesus' sayings can also be interpreted as continuing this message. But institutional Christianity begins early to downplay justice. Acts 4:32-35 "reflects the shift from the Old Testament's call for periodic debt cancellation to the Christian idea of charity, that is, charity in the context of existing status quo property and debt relations." (Michael Hudson 1993)

The Book of Acts describes converts to Christianity selling their property and donating the proceeds to the community of the faithful, whose leaders (the "Apostles") assigned it to individuals in accordance with their needs. But this left unchallenged the increasing injustice of the Roman empire itself. In fact, unlike Sumerian and Babylonian rulers centuries earlier, Roman leaders after 100 B.C. neither periodically canceled debts, nor recognized doing so as a duty. As a result, class divisions grew wider and wider. Roman legions conquered and enslaved non-Roman peoples, stealing their land and wealth, but even such gross predation could not prevent an increasing gap between rich and poor in Roman society itself. The Roman empire lost its cohesion over several centuries and eventually collapsed.


I turn now to Henry George, the American journalist and political economist whose first major work, Progress and Poverty, published in 1879, was an international best seller in the late 19th and early 20th century (George 1879; 2006). Educated as a child in an Episcopal school on the east coast, George traveled widely as a young man and observed economic changes in many parts of the world, especially in the Eastern and Western parts of the United States. He was struck by what he saw taking place in his own time, that progress in science and technology, which increased total wealth, was not reducing poverty. In fact, poverty was increasing. Having learned scientific method, George wanted to figure out why.

In pursuing this question, he read the major economic thinkers of the 18th and 19th century (then called political economists). Many of them were puzzled about the same problem. Karl Marx was convinced that the major conflict in modern society was going to be between industrial capitalists, on the one hand, and workers who had nothing but their labor-power to sell, on the other. Henry George, however, saw the major split to be between the owners of land, on the one hand, and all the producers, on the other hand. For George, the producers included not only workers of all kinds but also industrial capitalists and merchants.

For George, the basic economic fact of our time was the separation of the laborer from the land. Like most other political economists he recognized three factors in the production of wealth—land, labor, and capital. For George, labor is the active source of wealth; land is the necessary precondition for production of wealth. Capital itself is a form of wealth; it refers to tools, machines and other products resulting from labor that can make labor more productive. (There are simple forms of production that require no capital.)

In modern society, the three factors of production typically attract income for their human representatives; labor attracts wages; industrial capital owners can garner what George calls interest but most people (inaccurately) call profits; owners of land, in our society, have the right to charge rent. However, the extent to which they succeed in accumulating property and wealth depends upon the laws in force, including laws governing taxation.

Landowners can extract rent from producers only because they have legally recognized "private property" rights to the land, while sheriffs and judges are ready to protect those rights. Suppose, however, the land were understood as the possession of God.*** In that case it would not be possible for individuals and their heirs to monopolize the value of the land.

In the present legal framework, wealth generated on (or from ownership of) a unit of land actually consists of three parts: what the workers earn from labor (wages); what the owner of the building and equipment (capital) on the land earns for the use of his capital (interest); and the economic (or ground) rent, which the landowner acquires just by being a landowner.

Note that what most people call rent is actually the sum of true rent, a payment for the site value of the land or its special fertility or buried resources, and an interest payment for the use of the capital equipment that sits upon it. If the equipment were absent, the landowner could still charge rent for the use of the land. The so-called landlord is often both a capitalist, to whom tenants pay interest for the use of capital equipment, and a landowner to whom tenants pay rent in the strict sense. Our usual categories do not precisely follow economic distinctions we need to make to understand what fully is going on.

Henry George realized that as population grows and the division of labor and efficiency of technology and transport increases, the wealth being produced by society increases even faster. What often happens is that the value of parcels of land close to centers of cultural activity itself increases, when schools, hospitals, and theatres, and other cultural amenities are built or upgraded. But the modern property system, so long as it includes private property in land and there is no unowned but productive land available for laborers to use, gives landowners the power to demand rents high enough to limit what other parties receive. The system limits the interest (so-called profits) of capital on the one hand and over time pushes the wages of labor to a bare subsistence level on the other hand.****

Landowners can do this partly because workers, who make up the majority of any large population, compete against each other for employment, thus driving wages down, but also because workers' opportunities for income are limited since, by this time, there is no unowned vacant but potentially productive land left to farm. (If there were such land, some nonfarm workers would turn to farming and fewer workers would seek employers, reducing the labor supply available for hire and thus driving up wages.)

This situation—private ownership of land implying rent-extraction rights, no vacant unowned productive land, many workers—produces a sick society. It not only keeps workers poor but the rents extracted from land ownership are typically used to purchase more land, and since its quantity is limited, land prices go up, which in turn increases rents. The higher the price of land, the higher the rents that will be charged for the use of the land; this makes the cost of living greater for workers and the cost of production higher for manufacturing capitalists.

The increase of both wealth and poverty precisely when population and productivity increase follows basic economic laws, which operate as long as society tolerates private property in land and the private capture of rents. It is not a result of malice or greed on the part of landowners, although people with a right to extract wealth without labor, i.e., unearned wealth, tend to develop a sense of entitlement that makes them feel superior to others.

But a democratic society, enjoying civil rights and civil liberties, might decide to tax the unearned wealth that corresponds to site value or pure rent. Here is what Lindy Davies, one of the leading defenders of George's perspective today, says about the solution:

The [solution] takes the shape of a 'fiscal reform', because it applies a definition of the relationship between the individual and the society that is consistent with both economic efficiency and moral law.

It calls for us to respect the right of labor to create and to save wealth, and to acknowledge that the value of land is created not by its 'owners,' but by the entire community. Therefore, we will abolish all taxes on income, products and sales -- and collect the full rental value of land and natural resources for public revenue.

What would happen, if we did this?...

Land in cities would be used efficiently. Cities need not become over-crowded; regulation of land use would still be in their power, as it is now. But urban blight and decay would be banished. Public transportation, like other public services, could be provided free, funded out of the value of locational advantages [that is, site value] that it created.

The unnatural pressure on farm land near cities would be eliminated, as development proceeded to 'infill.' There would no longer be an incentive to haul heads of lettuce across the continent.

Production and employment would be released from the burden of taxation that currently hobbles it. The banking system would be freed from its unhealthy dependence on land for collateral. Combining these benefits with the newly-efficient use of urban infrastructure, unemployment could be cut or even eliminated, even while inflation went down!

But the best benefits of all would be in the developing world. If the land-baron cronies and the multinationals were charged the market rental value of the land they hold, then they would let go of most of it. Access to good farmland would be restored, and the disastrous migration of peasants to ill-equipped poor cities would be reversed. The resulting vitality would bring these poor nations new sources of domestic economic strength -- no longer would they have to grovel to maintain foreign credit.

Despite the current flood of bad news on just about every conceivable topic…I am optimistic about our long-term prospects. Eventually, I believe that human society will adopt the biblical …wisdom [and the wisdom of Henry George] and organize itself as it must, to achieve justice, efficiency and sustainability.

Eventually we will have tried everything else.

That's how Clarence Darrow — one of the reform's many prominent supporters — saw things. He said this: 'The "single tax" is so simple, so fundamental, and so easy to carry into effect that I have no doubt that it will be about the last reform the world will ever get. People in this world are not often logical.' (Davies 2005)


*A talk given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY on Sunday, August 11, 2013.

** From a modern universalist perspective, the assignment of the so-called Promised Land to the Israelites, which occurs in Abraham's encounter with the Lord in Genesis, is problematic insofar as their taking of the Land, described in the book of Joshua, arguably involved something like the genocide of the previous inhabitants. The Bible suggests a justification for the Israelites' harsh treatment of the land's previous inhabitants: the sinful ways of those previous inhabitants, which provoked God's displeasure. We might suspect here a bit of special pleading on the part of the Israelites. But since the Bible states that the Israelites will securely possess the land only if they follow the laws given them by the Lord through Moses, with some effort its message can be made more universal and thus available to non-Israelites. There are hints of this process in the sayings attributed to certain later prophets.

***Or, for that matter, the possession of the people as a whole.

**** We can find passages, even in the writings of Marx, implying that the poverty of the workers, which makes them work for subsistence wages under their employers, is a result of the monopolization of the land by the landowning class. See Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, chapter I. ( [Marx cites the Gotha Program] "In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the capitalist class; the resulting dependence of the working class is the cause of misery and servitude in all forms." [His critique follows.] "This sentence, borrowed from the Rules of the International, is incorrect in this 'improved' edition. In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the landowners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital) and the capitalists. In the passage in question, the Rules of the International do not mention either one or the other class of monopolists. They speak of the 'monopolizer of the means of labor, that is, the sources of life.' The addition, 'sources of life', makes it sufficiently clear that land is included in the instruments of labor."


Works Cited or Mentioned in the Talk

Davies, Lindy, 2005. "Land and Justice." A Speech given at the Chatauqua Institution in August 2005. (

George, Henry, 2006. Progress and Poverty. Abridged edition by Bob Drake. Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. (available as an eBook) Original edition 1879. This book has often been reprinted. Mechanically scanned versions of the original are available free to users of NOOK.

Hudson, Michael, 1993. "The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations" (available at

Other Works Consulted

George, Henry, 2013. The Science of Political Economy. Abridged version by Lindy Davies. Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. Original edition 1898. Mechanically scanned versions of the original are available free to users of NOOK.

Henry George Institute, Understanding Economics. A Course in Fundamental Economics based on Progress and Poverty by Henry George. (Available from

Harrison, Fred, and Michael Hudson, eds., 1994. Philosophy for a Fair Society. London: Shepheard-Walwyn. (available as an eBook)

Harrison, Fred, 2006. Ricardo's Law. London: Shepheard-Walwyn. (available as an eBook)

Harrison, Fred, 2010. The Predator Culture. London: Shepheard-Walwyn. (available as an eBook)

____, 2012. The Traumatised Society. London: Shepheard-Walwyn. (available as an eBook)

Hudson, Michael, 2012. The Bubble and Beyond. ISLET.

Torrey, R. Archer, III, 2005. Biblical Economics. 5th edition. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.