The Right of Ownership

23 “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. 24 And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.

25 “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his brother has sold. 26 If a man has no one to redeem it and then himself becomes prosperous and finds sufficient means to redeem it, 27 let him calculate the years since he sold it and pay back the balance to the man to whom he sold it, and then return to his property. 28 But if he does not have sufficient means to recover it, then what he sold shall remain in the hand of the buyer until the year of jubilee. In the jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his property.

29 “If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption. 30 If it is not redeemed within a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong in perpetuity to the buyer, throughout his generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. 31 But the houses of the villages that have no wall around them shall be classified with the fields of the land. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. 32 As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites may redeem at any time the houses in the cities they possess. 33 And if one of the Levites exercises his right of redemption, then the house that was sold in a city they possess shall be released in the jubilee. For the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. 34 But the fields of pastureland belonging to their cities may not be sold, for that is their possession forever.” Leviticus 25:23-34 ESV

As God continues to expand His regulations concerning the Year of Jubilee, He addresses the issue of land ownership. Keep in mind that this information reached the ears of the Israelites long before they ever entered the land of Canaan or took actual possession of it. They were still encamped at the base of Mount Sinai and had a long journey ahead of them. Currently living in tents, they could only speculate about the full impact these regulations would have on their lives. For four centuries, the Israelites had been living on land that belonged to the Egyptians. While they had prospered during their time in Egypt and grown in number, they never owned any property. In fact, during much of their time in Egypt, they had been forced to serve as slaves.

Now, as they stood in their temporary tent city, they must have been excited and a bit confused as they listened to the words of God delivered to them by Moses. The thought of owning their own property would have been music to their ears. But God’s discussions about the Year of Jubilee when property rights reverted back to the original owner must have been difficult to comprehend. But God attempts to assuage all their confusion by informing them that “the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:23 ESV). He wanted them to know that their inheritance of the land of Canaan was going to be less about ownership than about stewardship. The whole concept of an inheritance conveys the idea that God was graciously giving His chosen people the right to live in and care for the land that was rightfully His to give. It was His possession. That meant it did not belong to the Canaanites either. They were little more than squatters, having claimed the land as their own without ever consulting the One to whom it belonged.

Yet God was going to remedy the situation by evicting the illegal tenants and replacing them with His chosen people. But when the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob arrived in the land and took up residence in its cities, villages, and towns, they were to understand that the land remained God’s possession.

“The land belongs to God! The people of God did not own the land – or anything else for that matter. They were given the use of the land by God’s goodness and mercy. And so on the basis of this, no land could be sold forever (ṣmṯṯ in25:23 means “beyond reclaim’). With the sale of property they had to grant its redemption. This means that sellers always had the right to buy the property back whenever they were able to do so.” – Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus

While God remained the rightful owner of all the land in Canaan, He was going to allow the Israelites to treat the land as their own. During the 49 years the preceded each of the Jubilee years, the Israelites were able to transfer the rights to their allotted land. But He reminded them that they were “strangers and sojourners” (Leviticus 25:23 ESV). In other words, each of them was to understand that they were literal guests of the One to whom the land belonged.

God knew that the people would end up using the land for their own benefit. Some would attempt to profit from the sale of the land given to them by God. Others would prove to be poor stewards of their God-given resources and end up in poverty, and forced to sell their land to pay off debt. So, God wanted them to understand that, in His eyes, the land never really changed ownership because it all belonged to Him. That’s why God told them, “in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:24 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “With every purchase of land you must grant the seller the right to buy it back.

God knew His people well. He understood that life was going to happen and that the Israelites would make poor decisions. Greed would prompt some to sell that which God had given them to steward. Consumerism and coveteousness would cause others to live beyond their means, resulting in debt and poverty. The psalmist reminds us that God gave the land to the people of Israel so that He might bless and enrich them.

Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
    and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase. – Psalm 85:11-12 ESV

Yet, the Israelites would end up treating the land as a commodity. Later in the book of Leviticus, God will assure His people that the land of Canaan will more than provide for all their needs.

“I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land.” – Leviticus 26:4-5 NLT

The land wasn’t just a gift to be sold and bartered at will. It was God’s means of providing for the needs of His people. But God didn’t want His people to treat that gift with contempt by using it for dishonorable or purely selfish purposes. If a man found himself in a position where he was forced to liquidate his property to pay off debt, God provided a way for him to redeem what he had lost.

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell some family land, then a close relative should buy it back for him. If there is no close relative to buy the land, but the person who sold it gets enough money to buy it back, he then has the right to redeem it from the one who bought it. – Leviticus 25:25-27 NLT

If this plan failed, God provided the Year of Jubilee as a way of redeeming the land and restoring it back to the one who had lost it. The one interesting exemption to all of this involved a house that lay in a walled city. Because the house did not include farmable land, it could only be redeemed within the first year after its sale. After that, it was a permanent possession of the new owner. The real focus of this passage is on arable land that was suitable for farming and capable of producing crops. The farmland of Canaan was intended to meet the needs of the people. It was to be considered communal land, with the edges of the fields reserved for the poor and needy of the community (Leviticus 23:22). When an Israelite sold his land, he was potentially jeopardizing the well-being of the entire community. God had intended the land to provide for the needs of all, not just its designated landowner.

In the case of the tribe of Levi, they were given their own exemption concerning houses owned in walled cities. As part of their designation as God’s priestly caste, they received the possession of homes located within cities belonging to the other tribes. In other words, they were given no land as their inheritance.

“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel.…They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. – Deuteronomy 18:1, 2 NLT

In time, God would command the Israelites to set aside 48 cities within their allotted lands to serve as housing for the Levites.

“Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites from their property certain towns to live in, along with the surrounding pasturelands. These towns will be for the Levites to live in, and the surrounding lands will provide pasture for their cattle, flocks, and other livestock. – Numbers 35:2-3 NLT

And God provided the Levites with an exemption for these homes within walled cities. Unlike all the rest of the Israelites, the Levites would be given the right to repurchase any home they had sold – at any time.

“The Levites always have the right to buy back a house they have sold within the towns allotted to them. And any property that is sold by the Levites—all houses within the Levitical towns—must be returned in the Year of Jubilee. After all, the houses in the towns reserved for the Levites are the only property they own in all Israel. – Leviticus 25:32-33 NLT

God would care for the needs of His priests. He would ensure that they had a place to live and access to the farmland that surrounded these cities. God had given them no inheritance in the land, but He had provided for all their needs, even designating an area around each of the 48 cities to serve as pastureland for their flocks and farmland to raise crops.

“The pastureland assigned to the Levites around these towns will extend 1,500 feet from the town walls in every direction.” – Numbers 35:4 NLT

The land was to be God’s gift to His people – ALL of His people. It was to be viewed as a source of provision, not a means of profit. It was to be treated with dignity and honor because it actually belonged to God. The people of Israel were never to forget that they were guests in this land. They had been graciously invited to share in the bounty and blessings of God’s possession and were never to forget that the land belonged to God, not them.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.
    The world and all its people belong to him. – Psalm 24:1 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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