Land is of monumental importance in the Scripture. God chose to make man from the earth, so we have an innate relationship with the land. It is literally in our bones! He placed him not just anywhere, but on a special plot of land to take care of it and when he rebelled his banishment from that spot was part of God’s redemptive chastisement. God later blessed Israel by giving them the promised land of Canaan. It too was a token of their relationship with Him and when they forsook Him, the land was taken away. So land is more than dirt—it is an important symbol of relationship with God.
The NT builds upon this truth as the meek will inherit the earth. Paul speaks of Abraham being heir not just to a piece of land along the Mediterranean, but of the world (Romans 4:15). And in 8:18ff he speaks of creation and man being liberated from their bondage. Not only was man made from the earth, but the earth was cursed because of man’s sin (Genesis 3:17), so they connect at several points (our bodies return to the earth when we die would be another).
When the land was distributed to Israel, each tribe received a portion relative to their population. That land was then further divided into plots and given to all males over 20 years of age. Laws were set up within this structure to ensure that no tribe lost or gained land from another (see the case of Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27 & 36 where God says, “No inheritance may pass from tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits” – 36:9). This had the effect of every family in every tribe (save the Levites), always sharing in the promised land of God.
This meant that land and family were intimately connected. You were identified with your land and your land was identified with you. Your family was on it for generation after generation so that to lose your land would be to lose your identity. To be landless would mean you were a wanderer like Cain or the people of Babel. That was not a good thing. To have land was to be at home with God.
Land was the most important economic asset a family possessed. God’s concern for everyone meant that things were structured so that no one would ever be without land or at least income from their land if they chose to lease it out. But we must be careful not to oversimplify this arrangement or read into it our social ideals.
There was no provision for non-Israelites to own land. Furthermore, this system didn’t prevent people from getting rich or becoming poor and it wasn’t intended to. Hard work and industriousness were rewarded and laziness led to poverty (Proverbs 10:4 and elsewhere). Generational wealth could be accumulated by leasing and working land owned by others, buying property in a city (which wasn’t subject to tribal ownership) and through various other means. A spirit of generosity was meant to accompany their work ethic (Proverbs 22:9 and elsewhere) so that those in need would be taken care of.
There was never any redistribution of land or wealth in Israel—land owned by a family couldn’t be sold, it could only be leased, so it was always remained the property of the family. What there was through the permanent possession of the land and a bond-servant arrangement, was a better safety net then under other structures.
It should be obvious that there is no perfect economic system. No system will rise above the people who constitute it. Good people will bless an inferior system and bad people will be a curse to a good one.