Theology of Land

Land as inheritance
Excerpt from Joshua and the Promised Land, copyright © Roy H. May, Jr.

Yahweh commands Joshua to divide the land as an “inheritance” for Israel. Repeatedly in Joshua 13-19, the land given to the tribes is called “inheritance.” This is another clue for the Book of Joshua and the biblical theme of the land. Land is never just dirt. It is inheritance. Land carries social and spiritual meaning that goes beyond agricultural potential. For traditional farmers, land bonds them to family and God. This bonding imposes limitations and obligations regarding its use and distribution.

Inheritance is a theologically rich concept that guided Israel’s relationship to the land. The basic idea is that the land is Yahweh’s land. “The earth is the Lord’s,” the psalmist could sing (Ps. 24:1). “The land is mine,” says Yahweh (Lev. 25:23). Throughout Joshua 13-19, land is first and foremost an inheritance given to Israel by Yahweh. Land is Yahweh’s gift to be passed on from generation to generation.

The idea that God owns the land had not only theological significance but also real sociological meaning– land in ancient Israel was not conceived of as private property. It was a trust or “loan” administered by Israel on behalf of Yahweh. Land was the inheritance of the tribe. The tribe apportioned the land according to families. The plot or “portion” each family received was their participation in the tribal inheritance. Each family enjoyed lasting rights to use the land, but never as a commodity that could be bought and sold for private gain. Their portion was family property. They managed it on behalf of the entire tribe.

But this sociological significance was never separable from theological or spiritual meaning. For the ancient Hebrew, land as inheritance meant Yahweh’s presence and faithful fulfillment of God’s promise. Land was viewed as the historical manifestation of the covenant Yahweh had made with Israel’s ancestors. Land was the sign of salvation. Thus, in Psalms 16:5-6 and 142:5, “portion” is equated with total assurance of God’s presence, as we sing in the old hymn, “Thou my everlasting portion, More than friend or life to me…” (#407, The United Methodist Hymnal). For ancient Israel, that’s what land as inheritance meant.

So it was with ancient Israel. The Israelites couldn’t do with the land as they might choose. Land as inheritance required that it be used only in ways faithful to Yahweh. This meant social justice. Thus, the Old Testament laws relating to social justice are, to a great extent, laws about the land. The Deuteronomic* laws mentioned in the previous chapter say much about land use. The ancient traditions of Sabbath and Jubilee (Ex. 23: 10-11; Lev. 25; Deut. 15:1-18) are especially direct. These date from the origins of Israel.1 They required that crop land lie fallow during certain intervals. This sustained its capacity to grow crops. Family land that had been lost was to be returned to its original owners (Lev. 25). These laws also required that debts be pardoned (Deut. 15: 1-3) and that Hebrew slaves and bonded servants be set free. The law that part of the harvest be left for the poor (Deut. 24:19-22) is another example of social legislation regulating land use. Managing the land and social justice were united in ancient Israel. This unity is based on the idea of land as Yahweh’s inheritance.

1. Art Davidson, Endangered People (San Francisco:Sierra Club Books, 1993),p.38

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