Property in Persons: Re-reading Scriptural Economics

Robert Gibbs
University of Toronto

Lev 25:35 If your brother grows poor and his hand falters with you, you shall support him, as though he is a resident alien, so that he shall live with you.

36 Do not take interest and profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live with you.

37 You shall not give him money for interest nor shall you give him your food for profit.

38 I, YHWH, am your God, and I brought you out of the land of Egypt to give to you the land of Canaan to be your God.

39 And if your brother grows poor with you and sells himself to you, do not work him in the work of a worker.

40 As a hired hand and as a resident alien he shall be with you; until the year of the jubilee he shall serve with you.

41 And then he will go away from being with you; he and his children with him. He will return to his family; he will return to the holding of his fathers.

42 Because they are my servants, the ones that I brought forth from the land of Egypt. They shall not be sold for sale as slaves.

43 You shall not have dominion over him with harshness, but you shall fear your God ( Lev 25 ).

This piece of Biblical law is remarkable for its vision of justice and its intervention against a likely familiar kind of social oppression. I am not a Biblical scholar and cannot hope to engage in the rigorous historical and philological work that characterizes their work. I will, for the time being, ignore the inter-texts, the other texts in the Torah that prohibit taking interest and deal with the question of slavery within the community. I am a philosopher. My reading will focus on the ethics of the way that work and property relate to each other in this text, and particularly the repetitive insistence on a theological reality—one not removed from the question of work at all. While I am interested in the economics and the historical questions about economics, I will engage in a specifically philosophical interpretation: one that considers responsibility and temporality. Near the end of the paper I will briefly look to Weber, Marx, and Hermann Cohen to consider the heritage of this particular legal practice. Part of what matters most here is this question of how to read a legal text, and I offer a specific approach, one that we may wish to discuss further as a group.

Let me begin with a bit of simple lexical work, in order to construct a plain-reading of this text. There seem to be two general groups of people: brothers and resident aliens . Brothers are associated in the language of families, fathers, or clans and they each have their own holdings. Like most texts in the Torah, this is a text with exclusive gender, where the actors are all men and the kinship groupings are named for males as well. The brother here is not limited to my own blood family, but extends to anyone who is in the group—ethnic or perhaps even religious, or some other social grouping. The ger toshav, resident alien appears to be not members of the group but people who live amongst the family. (In the following verses, it turns out that they can be bought and sold.) So the first thing we see is that brothers has a limited extension, but does go beyond ouruseasthe nuclear and even the extended family. The notion of prohibiting slavery and interest is, therefore, constructed with an other outside, who lives amongst us.

There is a clear prohibition on interest in two forms here (taking a bite, or an origination fee, and securing profit). With money, the implication is that one might lend and hold some in reserve; with food (grain), one would stipulate a return exceeding what was lent. These are prohibited in relation to the brother (the main group—if you like, the Israelites). The problem is that someone who is broke is the one who has to borrow, and if you charge interest in either form, that person is likely to stay locked in poverty and in need. This is not at first glance an economy with investment capital, but one where subsistence on the land is the key question.

Moreover, in this first context the loan is required to support him. There is a responsibility to not let him fall into irremediable poverty. The prohibition has to do with not taking advantage of his need—and this is because he is a brother, someone who should live with you. Responsibility is an expression of social solidarity, but it does not involve a gift; rather a loan. There is no implication that you are not entitled to your holding, only that you must help your fellow back on his feet.

This prohibition is then followed by a more dire situation, where a person needs not just goods, but has sold himself. And at this point we are facing a lexical overdetermination. The root for work, Ayin, bet, dalet, is linked to labour, service, and also slavery. One is a serf or servant of another; one works for another—it is a social relation, and it does not seem to be opposed to autonomous independence. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and are now slaves of God (42). The verse that most plays on this is (39): the injunction not to work him with the worker’s work, which is also enslave him with the slavery of a slave or the servitude of a serf. This one word carries varying nuances in different contexts—the key is for whom one is working/enslaved/serving. And the conditions of labour relate to the form of the relation of working for another. Hence there is a class of hired hands, people who work for a wage, even if in a continual state. Slavery seems to be a working without wage. Another contrast is that a slave is a possession; they are sold (42). But it is unclear whether the hired hand is also not sold (39), but not sold as a slave.

Here, in the excerpt of my choice, is a requirement of support and two different prohibitions: 1) taking interest from a poor brother, and 2) enslaving your brother. One of the clear claims is that the indentured or hired hand relation is one with a fixed limit (less than 50 years), and that it ends with a going forth for the brother, a going back to his familial holding. This redistribution to the ancestral holdings is the characteristic of the Jubilee year, and it reflects the core view of Justice in Leviticus: each man on his own familial holding. Ironically to us, this vision of distributive justice is actually better grasped as simply a mode of corrective justice—giving back to each their own, and not making new assignments of goods. Moreover, it has that strongly individuated notion of property and of economics. Going forth from the house of slavery (my master as my brother) is just enough.

Before we can interrogate better the relation of these two prohibitions, we must also note that each is punctuated and motivated by a theological claim. It is the same historical claim: that God brought the Israelites (the addressees of this law) out of Egypt. In the first case (38), we have the clear purpose: to give this land to you. Hence, the issue of interest focuses on the holdings of land. Landed property is the goal of the exodus, and a constitutive part of the relation to God. But in the second (42) we have a stronger claim. By bringing forth, God has established property rights in the people—they belong to God. They are not to be sold as slaves (although they may be as indentured servants) because who would have the right to sell such a person? Only God. God has purchased the people through the redemptive act (as in redeeming a pledge), but that means that a brother cannot buy another—or at least cannot sell another. [1]

A genuine possibility here is that everyone is someone’s servant. If I work, I work for another. When I work on my own holding and don’t borrow money or grain, I still have this holding because God brought me out of Egypt to work this land, and I still serve God. If I lose my holding, and must borrow or even sell myself, then no brother can regard me as his property (a saleable good, a thing), because even if he now has my work, I am indentured or hired—and God still has right to me. The notion that I could become the property of my brother, working like a slave, is a violation of the prior claim of God. This has a significant twist, however, because the core of my service to God is living on my holding and not depending on my brothers. Working, as it were, for myself. So the vision of justice is one in which a person is not simply autonomous, but has a kind of economic independence grounded in a radical dependence on a transcendent God. Not quite transcendental, because there are duties to this God, agricultural and economic ones, and not just private devotion. Theologically viewed, work is for each to serve God, and to do it without the use of another as a tool for that service.

One might, however, have to insert into this claim the correction of the landless Levites, and the priests, who live off the labour of the people on their individual holdings. Just how that subordination and free-loading ruling class structure fits into the image of justice articulated here is less clear. This text does not interpret the specific physical labour of these non-landed clans; although they clearly are not allowed to enslave the other Israelites, nor do the people serve the priests, but rather each serves God, if differently. But while the central image is of each on their own holding, there is this complexity of those without holdings.

Perhaps more significant is that the texts points to a responsibility not merely not to take advantage of the brother, but indeed, to aid him. If the ideal of justice is each on his own holding, the responsibility to help each other marks a kind of solidarity. Not what one might call a social or communal vision—but, rather, one of supporting him in his poverty, taking him in, and also of not letting one’s brother languish in slavery. In verse 25, a responsibility is articulated to redeem land of your brother if he has fallen into debt. The Torah text is edited to include the different interpretations of the limitations on slavery and taking interest, and we are isolating only one voice here, one that is more centred on the land and less centred on liberating the slave. But that voice is one which emphasizes the need for each to serve God on his own holding.

But I also wish to see the plot of the these two pieces: from not taking interest to not holding the impoverished as slave, but only a hired worker or indentured servant [and look at Kiddushin 20a for the narrative of R. Josebar Hanina]. The first kind of narrative we might tell is that of someone whose crops fail, and so must borrow grain for seed. He has little to offer as security, as collateral. His word is thus only secured by his own body. He proffers himself as a security against his loan. His neighbour lends him grain to grow crops on his own land—something like a mortgage. In Act I we see the poor man living like a labourer on his own land, trying to work his way to regain the divine lease (what looks to us like ownership). Then, Act II, through chance or fault, his crops fail again. Now the loan comes due, cash is demanded, and he must forfeit his freedom, his body. Now he is moved off his land, which is appropriated altogether and he is bound to another and that other’s land. Our text comes to interrupt this narrative, twice. If interest is permitted, then no one could ever escape the situation of Act I—whatever he gains from his crops, he will still need to borrow again. Interest keeps him poor and dependent on the other.

But the intervention in Act II puts a limit on the terms of alienating oneself. Because the brother belongs to God, he cannot be forced to become a slave, a saleable property. To treat him like a wage-labourer, with a fixed term of indentured service is to recognize that like the land, the worker belongs to God. The limitation on having property in persons is that the person belongs to God, not to either himself or to another. Thus wage-labour (which I will use as a short-hand for that other kind of relation) is like rental of a person, or the right to usufruct, and the wage expresses that the property remains God’s, remains inalienable. Even the man cannot sell himself in the strongest sense. In Act II, the person does lose his independence and his own labour, but not his future. Indeed, one could actually argue that the core of slavery and being sold as property is that there is no future for the slave.

One who will go forth has a future redemption. The thing has no future, except its use. The question that we seem to insist on is whether the future of the man on his holding is his own or is it ultimately bound to God, and so that he is never his own. If we take that second option, we are then reading this insistence on wage-labour as a different kind of servitude, one where there is a future relation to God, a redemption from servitude to men.

Another aside is required here, because in verses preceding our drama, are the requirements for redeeming the land, and letting it lay fallow in the seventh year. Indeed, the text proclaims in God’s voice:

You shall not sell the land with final sale, because the land is Mine; because you are resident aliens with me. In all the land of your holdings, you must give redemption to the land. (25: 23-24)

Land is also redeemable, and cannot be sold. Neither land (as indicated vaguely also in our Act I), nor brothers (Act II) are saleable, because God’s ownership secures the ultimate right of property. Here again we are facing the question of the future—God’s ownership seems to express a temporality and in its own way a temporariness of human relations. To have a future is not to be autonomous, but it is also not to have your future foreclosed. The promise of going out fixes a limit on belonging to another, on being stuck working for another. The warrant for the going out of the Jubilee is the going out from Egypt—a motion that redeems in the key sense of holding open the future for us. Responsibility is thus a series of requirements and prohibitions that hold open your brother’s future. Theology enters here as a more radical and inalienable mode of the future—but ethics is enacted in a series of legal requirements that institute justice by setting limits to the capturing of the other’s future.

Let me pause for a moment to discuss the method of this reading of the text in terms of the future. If we contrasted the reading I have proposed with the work of Marx and of Weber, we would see (I hope) that I have learned a great deal from both Weber’s Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilization [2] , and Marx’s Kapital. Weber’s interest is to generate a typology of different kinds of society structured around their economies. Weber distinguishes a set of types, including one he called the aristocratic city state, and its central economic structure was debt-slavery (p.71). He notices that there is no evidence of communal ownership (135) and takes note of the provisions we have been exploring. While he can pause and notice that the Sabbath cannot be reduced to a socio-economically motivated enactment, his vision is an attempt to situate Israel and its text into an economic context.

Similarly, we can easily construe Marx’s reading, given his reading of pre-capitalistic economy. His concerns are also about debt-slavery, but he can draw the line through this ancient economy forward to wage-slavery in the capitalist economy. [3] Marx is interested in how wages can be linked through indentured service back to debt-slavery, for his goal is a critique of economy. Too rigorous a historian, part of his goal is to show us that the change in economic systems obscures the more fundamental relation of oppression. The appearance of a fair wage for fair work, and of individual autonomous contracting workers, belies the alienation of their labour power, indeed, most of all, of their time.

If we add, then, one more voice, that of Hermann Cohen, a Jewish philosopher, we find him challenging our reading and advancing his own ethical socialism and demand for social justice at just the point where the text hovers:

Also in money traffic the equality of law is extended to the stranger, at least in principle:

“If your brother grows poor and his hand falters with you, you shall support him, as though he is a resident alien, so thathe shall live with you.

Do not take interest and profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live with you” (Lev 25, 35ff).

In the following verses there is again a reference to the exodus from Egypt. But here the most remarkable thing happens: the stranger-sojourner too is called brother; and it is commanded that his life be preserved. Almost more important than the prohibition of taking interest from the stranger is this recognition of him as brother. [4]

The context and the question for Cohen is how to expand the familial grouping (brother) step-wise to universality. The step-wise is through neighbours, through a ‘you,’ for whom I am responsible. But Cohen fights against one of the currents in Jewish tradition by emphasizing that the neighbour need not be a Jew, not limited to an identity group. While we would read this as a concession about the poor brother, that he becomes indentured but not enslaved, Cohen pushes the other way: if servitude on his own land is like a resident alien, then being a resident alien is also like a brother. What stops the fall of the brother into slavery also raises the resident alien out of it. And that elevation of the resident alien is a decisive transformation of justice in society.

Indeed, if we pause for a moment, we can see that this elevation points to a motion that is contrary to the Marxist history—preventing the brother from losing his land and himself yields greater protection to everyone living in the society. Capitalist wage slavery might not be the only descendant of this crisis with debt-slavery. For Cohen, there is clearly an ethical socialist frame-work possible, where labor is not alienated, but where profit is shared, and each belongs to each other, grounded in a universal morality. Thus we can view this same text as an ur-text for the development either of social solidarity and an ethical socialism [Cohen] or a proto-form of the lurking slavery within a capitalist wage system [Marx].

So in this conflict where are we? In the midst of a text that opens up yet another dimension, as well as the options that are already developed. Let me suggest that we cannot reach a decisive evaluation of this text for the history of economic justice. But we can find some philosophical clues into the injustice that is slavery and taking interest. The most important clue is the notion of the future. Wages are in themselves a payment for our time. But slavery also involves compensation for our time (housing, food, clothing). Our initial notion of freedom mistakes the gap between slavery and paid labor—and both seem distinct from working for oneself. This text represents all work as a relation to an other, and indeed, points to a limitation on how we can be assigned to work for other human beings. God enters in here to un-ground our freedom, to show that we belong neither to other people nor even to ourselves—and that our land, too, belongs to others.

The decisive question is the interruption of our work—the promise that the present arrangement is not permanent.To regain a future after the Jubilee is to have a claim to the future that no cleverness of my brother and no foolishness of my own can disrupt. But to read this text this way is to opt for a specific ethical and philosophical way of reading. Not so much formal as concrete and metaphysical, but not simply ahistorical.

And if there is one more issue to raise here, it of course points to other texts. For in the first instance, within Torah there are other texts about slavery and interest, texts which provide other theologies and other ethical readings of the questions at issue. But here we are in a room where each of these three traditions meet. The negotiation of economic justice through a series of legal institutions, institutions that transform our experience of time, is not simply shared across the traditions. Nor is the vision of economic justice identical. But in translating this text into an ethics of time and responsibility for each other, we join others in this room. Perhaps our traditions are also only holdings, not truly our own, but only relations with the others we join here, and ultimately each has a holding only on lease from God. Would that be a good image of the economy of scriptural reasoning?


[1] (This reminds one, of course, of the story of Joseph and his brothers. They sold him, as a slave!)

[2] Max Weber, The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations, trans. by R. I Frank, London: Verso, 1998 (1909).

[3] Karl Marx, Capital, III, ed by Frederick Engels, New York: International Publishers, 1984 (1894). See Chapter 36.

[4] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, trans. by Simon Kaplan, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995 (1918), 125-126 (translation altered).

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