The law of Moses was a civil polity as well as a system of spiritual guidance and prophecy; that is, it was a system of rules for regulating the relations of mortals living together as a community, as well as a revelation of individual principles of action and the foreshadowing of the divine purpose with man. It will be profitable to look at it in this character before entering upon the significances concealed in its ceremonies.
It differs in many important respects from the systems upon which modem civilization is based. In some respects, the differences may appear to be in favour of modern systems, but on consideration it may be found that this feeling is due to the mere bias of habit, and that the law of Moses was more calculated to evoke the true conditions of social well-being than the current modem systems.
It certainly cannot be said that modern systems are a success. They have developed two hurtful extremes: they have, on the one hand, created exaggerated individual importance as the adjunct of congested wealth, and on the other, they have debased vast masses of mankind by disconnection from hereditary estate, and subjection to incessant toil for a bare subsistence. Between the two, the true aims of human life have been lost, and abortion of all kinds produced. Mankind, instead of living together as the common and delighted sharers of a mutually ensured benefaction, are insulated from each other by exigencies which compel them to be competitors, and reduce them to the position of a scrambling crowd of dogs, quarrelling over food thrown promiscuously among them. Under such conditions, the evil in human nature gets the hopeless upper hand. The good that many would rejoice to see is choked and extinguished in the war of conflicting interests.
The law of Moses was designed and adapted for a people living on the land in limited individual holdings, and not for masses crowded together in great cities. In this, it showed a feature of wisdom that is now being recognized. Politicians of a philanthropic turn are agitating for the settlement of the people on the land as one remedy for the threatening social maladies of the state. They find their ideas make slow headway. The land is everywhere in the hands of a caste. The ground wants clearing as it only can be cleared by power. In France, the power took a revolutionary form, and gave only a partial result because it was human.
In the land for which the law of Moses was designed, the ground was cleared by the hand of divine power co-operating with Israel. An effectual clearance was divinely ordered to be made by the extermination of the wicked inhabitants of the land. “Slay utterly old and young: leave nothing behind that breatheth.” On the land thus cleared, a new settlement was made on a basis that has never been approached by human legislation for wisdom and beneficence. We see this when we ask—what are the objects to be aimed at in the employment of the land ? The land is the source of what man requires, and it ought to be handled so that its benefits should be generally diffused among all the population, and this system of general diffusion of benefit should be protected from the encroachment of individual avarice or the exigencies of individual misfortune. Under the Gentile law, capable greed can add field to field till there is no room for the less gifted, or misfortune can shake a man out of his land and reduce him to permanent beggary. This ought not to be. The land ought to be as unmonopolizable as the air of heaven, because it was intended that all men should be served by the field. It ought not to be in the power of any man to annex vast areas which are for the common weal. It ought not to be in the power of misfortune to remove the population from the land and huddle them into pens. The difficulty is to combine this freedom with secure individual possession and liberty of traffic. The difficulty is effectually solved by the land law that God gave to Israel.
First of all, the land was to be divided among the people, to every family a possession, according to the number. “Ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance amongst your families: to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer ye shall give the less inheritance” (Num. 33:54). The division was not to be by caprice or partiality or favour. “Every man’s inheritance shall be in the place where his lot falleth.” This injunction was fully carried out when the conquest of the land had been effected. It is one of the most interesting of the transactions recorded in the division of the land, though at first the driest looking. It would be far from a dry business to those who, after 40 years’ weary wilderness life, were waiting to know the spot on which they were to settle. The description of the process occupies seven or eight whole chapters in Joshua.
The most interesting quotable passage is perhaps the following: “The whole congregation assembled together at Shiloh, and set up the tabernacle of the congregation there. And the land was subdued before them. And there remained among the children of Israel seven tribes, which had not yet received their inheritance. And Joshua said unto the children of Israel, How long are ye slack to go to possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers hath given you ? Give out from among you three men for each tribe: and I will send them, and they shall rise, and go through the land, and describe it according to the inheritance of them; and they shall come again to me… and they shall describe the land into seven parts, and bring the description hither to me, that I may cast lots for you here before the Lord our God… And the men went and passed through the land, and described it by cities into seven parts in a book, and came again to Joshua to the host at Shiloh. And Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the Lord: and there Joshua divided the land unto the children of Israel according to their divisions” (Josh. 18:1–10).
Here was a pro rata division of the land to all the people, and not to a class as in other countries— our own vaunted England included. There were no “landed gentry” in Israel, or rather, the whole nation was a nation of landed gentry. The whole people were a territorial aristocracy, as the name of Israel signified in a sense—a prince of God. They were rooted in the land.
The next feature of the land law was calculated to protect it from the disturbing effect of changing circumstances. Under ordinary conditions, a single generation suffices to remove the occupiers of land from the land they own. Misfortune overtakes a family. If they have property, the first thing they do to stem the flood is to borrow money on it to meet pressing demands. The tide not turning, they are unable to pay the interest, and the mortgagee then either enters into possession or sells the property to get his mortgage money, and the original owners lose all connection with it, and disappear in the general turgid stream of poverty that roars around.
Under the Israelitish land law, this was impossible. Each holding was an inalienable family possession. If the family got into difficulties, they could mortgage it, but not for ever; it could only remain in the hands of a stranger until the year of jubilee (every fiftieth year). The law compelled its restitution in that year without the repayment of any money whatever (Lev. 25:12–13). The result of this was most wholesome: it limited the borrowing powers of the family: the only sum they could get was the value of its occupancy during the number of years that might have to run to the year of jubilee (Lev. 25:15–16). And it put it out of their power permanently to beggar themselves: the family lands were bound to come back to them in a certain number of years. There was no injustice to the lender or buyer: the sum advanced by him would be more than recouped by the fruits of the land during the years of his occupancy: “according to the multitude of years, thou shalt increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of years thou shalt diminish the price thereof: for according to the number of the years of the fruits doth he sell unto thee” (verse 16).
Such a law prevented many evils well known to Gentile life. It stood in the way of the creation of large estates. It kept the land in its original distribution among the mass of the people—preventing the impoverishment of the community on the one hand and the amassing of immense individual fortunes on the other. It preserved a social equilibrium by nipping in the bud those fearful inequalities that are the bane of modern life. It rendered impossible the splendour and squalor—the “progress and poverty” —the depths of brutalizing poverty side by side with Parnassian heights of inflating opulence—which oppress and disgrace the civilization of this much-vaunted but most afflicted age.
As a matter of dry legal structure, the difference between the Mosaic and the modern land law might be defined as the difference between a self-extinguishing mortgage, on which no interest requires to be paid, and a mortgage which lasts for ever, and adds unpaid interest to principal in an ever-increasing burden which at last sinks it into perdition. The difference might not seem material as a matter of terms: as a matter of working out, the difference is great. Those who have any experience in such matters will know how great the difference is: it is incalculable. The one is full of blessedness, the other is full of woe. The one is the device of beneficent wisdom, the other the outcome of human avarice. The one secures the general diffusion of the goodness of God, the other allows of astute men fleecing their neighbours under the guise of legitimate legal formalities, and enables them to scramble to eminence over the prostrate bodies of the helpless.
To the general body of people in our day—specially such as have been called to the Kingdom—the subject may not appear to have any interesting or obvious bearing on human welfare. They know nothing of the possession of property beyond the tables and chairs which they use in the consumption of hard-earned daily meals, and the subject of mortgages and land laws is to them a far-off and repulsive legal affair. But the subject comes very near for all that. One of the cures for the world’s present social derangements lies in the application of a wise land-law; and no land-law now in force is wise. The only wise land-law is the law that God gave to Israel. The proposed “nationalization” of the land might be an improvement upon the present utterly bad system; but it would not come near the Mosaic, which, while conserving the economic interests of the community, fostered family life in the strongest and most ennobling form. A humble and intelligent and industrious family life is the true foundation of national well-being and efficiency.
It requires the two things supplied by the law of Moses for its best development, the worship of God and the possession and cultivation of the land. Life on the land tends to that degree of humility that is reasonable and beautiful; and with the plenty that comes from a fertile soil for which no rent has to be paid, it tends to enlarge the heart, and ward off that dwarfing and pinching of the character that results from the imperious necessities of limited city life. “Nationalization” would leave land open to traffic and exploitation as now—in a different way, but with the same unhappy results. “Familization” is the true system, with a periodic year of release and general free restitution. This system is unattainable except at the point of the sword. It is interesting, meanwhile, to be able to realize the excellence of the system as a feature of the divine law once in vogue on the earth. It was established by the sword in that case, and it will be established by the sword again.
The objection has been made that the system of inalienable family possession did not sufficiently provide for the increase of population. This objection is sufficiently met by the reflection that any land law is necessarily temporary in view of the purpose of God to limit mortal life on the earth to a definite era, and that being temporary, it would be adapted to the length of time it had to run. We have no indication of the extent of the allotments that were distributed to Israel when the land was cleared of its inhabitants. We may be quite sure they would be large enough to allow for family increase for a great while to come. It would take a long time for a family to grow too numerous for maintenance on an ample farm to which all would have to contribute their quota of labour.
There were several minor features of excellence in the Mosaic land law. Every seventh year, the land was to be left untilled: “Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard” (Lev. 25:3–4). It is when we consider the objects of this law that we can see its wisdom. Agricultural science has discovered the virtue of giving the land an occasional rest to prevent the exhaustion of its fertility; this may have been included in the objects aimed at in the Mosaic law. But the specified object opens out quite another line of consideration: “that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat” (Exod. 23:11). The land, left to “rest and lie still” during the seventh year, would bring forth “that which groweth of its own accord” (Lev. 25:5). This was to be at the service of all comers, with one condition only—that they were poor. That year, there would be no trespass laws. There would be common thoroughfare over all land, with a free welcome to whatever might be found useful. What a spectacle on earth!—the products of every estate and farm in the whole country, once in seven years at the free disposal of the poor and needy. A most wise adjunct to the jubilee law of a family inheritance: for though, in the main, that law would preserve the community from impoverishment, there would necessarily be many never-do-wells who from mismanagement would be out of their family lands: as Moses told them, “The poor will never cease out of the land”. Here, for such, would be an alleviation on which they could reckon every seven years: the spontaneous products of the whole land placed at their free disposal. Here was a” poor law” eclipsing all Gentile arrangements.
As regards the owners, how were they to fare during that seventh year ? Their needs were provided in a manner only possible in a divine system: “If ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year ? behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase: then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years” (Lev. 25:20), So that the proprietors would have laid in a stock that would place them above anxiety while all manner of visitors were prowling over their lands in search of food.
One or two other beautiful features of the land law we glance at before concluding. The Levites were not to have any inheritance in the land assigned to Israel. They were to find their maintenance in another way. They were to be supported by a fixed contribution of a tenth from the produce of all the land. Nevertheless, they were to have cities of their own, though no fields or estates in the country (Joshua 21:1–3). “All the cities of the Levites within the possession of the children of Israel were forty and eight cities with their suburbs” (verse 41). These cities were scattered through the territories of all the other tribes. The enumeration of their several localities is minutely set forth in Joshua 21. The business of the Levites rendered this distribution necessary. Their business was to keep God before the mind of the people and to instruct them in the law: “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts” (Mal. 2:7). They were intended to be a spiritualizing element in the population. The tribe of Levi was separated for this very purpose (Num. 8:14; 16:9). The character of the personal Levi and his immediate descendants appears to have been the basis of the selection. “My covenant was with him (Levi) of life and peace: and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared me, and was afraid before my name. The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and he did turn many away from iniquity” (Mal. 2:5). How excellent a feature in the national life of Israel was this—the wide scattering through all the land, of these Levitical cities as radiating centres of light and wisdom—protecting the surrounding population from the mentally benumbing effects of a merely agricultural life while not interfering with the invigorating and broadening tendency of an out-of-door and opulent occupation.
The system has been imitated and reproduced somewhat in the parochial system of Christendom: but with the lamentable result of a mere travesty. To an extent, no doubt, it has had an ameliorating effect on the rude populations of Europe. But there is a great difference between the divinely-appointed Levitical system working under suitable conditions in a country divinely arranged in all its details, and the artificial arrangements of a merely human ecclesiasticism, established with human ends in countries where the population had no divine revelation. No better social arrangement could have been contrived than an agricultural community territorially impregnated with the elements of a divine civilization. That it was a failure we know: but this was not the fault of the law, but of the people, and principally of the teachers: “Ye (priests) are departed out of the way; ye have caused many to stumble at the law; ye have corrupted the covenant of Levi, saith the Lord of Hosts.” It was against them that the denunciations of Jesus were principally directed under the name current for them in his day, Scribes and Pharisees. The reproduction of the system under Christ will be attended with very different results: “I will settle you after your old estates, and do better unto you than at your beginnings.” “I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.” “Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever.” “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”
When we extend our view beyond the settlement of the people in families on the land, on the basis of inalienable inheritance (subject to unconditional and compulsory release every fifty years), to the further laws given to bring individual life under reverence, and purity and gratitude, and to rouse up public life into recurring seasons of joyous social activity, appreciation of the law of Moses swells and bursts into enthusiastic admiration. The consideration of these laws will give profitable occupation for future chapters.