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OLD TESTAMENT CONCEPT OF LAND OWNERSHIP
FROM A NAMIBIAN PERSPECTIVE
By Dr Martin Nelumbu
United Lutheran Theological Seminary
P. Bag 16008, Windhoek, NAMIBIA
My aim is to discuss land ownership from a biblical perspective. Besides biblical references and my own explication of them, opinions of other theologians have been also taken into consideration in this paper. The paper is based on my previous presentation titled “Land Distribution from a Biblical and Theological Perspective” which was presented at the Symposium of Theologians, organised by the Council of Churches in Namibia, held at Paulinum on 19-22 November 2001.
The people of Israel, who are described in the Bible, continued to wrestle with the land issue. Indeed, “land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith” (Brueggemann 1977:2). In Namibia land is not only a political or social problem, but it is also a theological concern. In 1996, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCIN) organised and sponsored a seminar on land. The theme of this seminar was “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you”. The seminar was held at Ongwediva in the northern part of Namibia and was attended by a total of 44 participants consisting of bishops, deans, heads of departments and institutions in the church, delegates from the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation as well as from the University of Namibia. The particular seminar issued a statement. Some of the points issued at the particular seminar will be referred to in this presentation.
What is land?
The answer to what the land is, is to be found in the Old Testament, especially in the Hebrew terms that denote the land. There are three main terms as follows:
- ERETS which in the English Revised Standard Version (RSV) is translated 1620 times as “land”, 660 times as “earth”, 107 times as “ground” and 83 times as “country”. This word “erets” is used in various forms as to denote the whole of the earth or a specific geographical area such as “the land of Ararat” (2 Kings 19:37), or “the land of the Kenites” (Genesis 15:18-19). In the latter example the term “erets” has a political connotation, referring to political boundaries and nations. When the term “erets” is used in the Bible it refers to the whole earth or to a specific country such as Namibia or a certain region such as Omusati or Khomas.
- The second term is ADAMAH, which is also rendered by “land.” In the English (RSV) “adamah” is translated 105 times “land”, 67 times “ground”, 37 times “earth”, 6 times “soil” and 2 times “country”. Adamah and erets although rendered as land in English are seldom synonymous.
“Adamah” is not a political term such as “erets”.It often designates the agricultural land that can be utilised for farming purposes, in contrast to midbar ”wilderness” or “desert” (Janzen 1992:144). As such, adamah is usually owned by a person (head of household) or group (e.g., “your/their land,” (Deut. 7:13). God’s ultimate ownership of adamah is assumed and expressed (cf. Isa. 14:2; Hos. 9:3; Josh. 22:4). Israel possesed adamah “land” by virtue of God’s gift (Deut. 7:13).
- The third term used is SADEH, which means “field”. This term is also used in different ways to indicate an open field (Num. 19:16; 2 Sam. 11:11; Ez. 29:5. 32:4; 33:27), or enclosed field (Num. 22:23,24; Prov. 24:30). The idea of “sadeh” included both uncultivated area or forest (Genesis 27:5) or cultivated area (Ruth 2:2; Job 24:6; Ps. 107:37). “Sadeh” is further used to indicate grazing area such as in Gen. 34:5; Exod. 9:21; Num. 22:4. The parts that were called “sadeh” in the Bible could be bought by individuals (Jer. 37:6, etc). However, we do not know how big these places were.
Who is the owner of the land?
From the creation story of the Bible we hear that the land was created by God, together with all other things (Gen. 1:1-2,4a). This understanding is confirmed in many Biblical passages (Job 38:4-6; Ps. 121:2; 124:8, 134:3; 146:6; Prov. 8:24-29; Isa. 45:18-19; 48:13).
The same land, which is found today in the hands of the few, the rich commercial farmers, government, and municipalities, was created by God with the purpose to serve and benefit every human being. In the first instance the land belongs to God and to no one else. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:26). God is referred to as the adon kol-haarets = “Lord/Master of the whole earth” (Josh. 3:11; Ps.97:5; Mic 4:13). It was God himself who said: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23).
God the owner of the land has entrusted his land to the people to take care of it. From the beginning of the Bible we are told that the first person Adam was put in the Garden of Eden to till it and to keep it on behalf of God (Gen. 1:28-29; 2:8, 15; 9:1-2). The Bible thus teaches us that the land is God’s gift to people. In other words, God is the sole owner of the land while human beings are God’s stewards under whose custody the land is entrusted.
The Bible also teaches us that the behaviour of people affects the land. All things will go well with the people if they obey God’s will. The nation of Israel was promised that the land would bear much fruit for them if they adhere to God’s law (Deut. 28:4-5). But disobeying God will leads to hunger and drought (Deut. 28:15-18). If human beings are keeping the land outside God’s will, they are inviting calamity to their own lives and to the lives of others. One way of disobeying the will of God is unfair distribution of land. Where people experience unfair distribution of land there always tend to be strife among them. This seems to have been the problem between Lot and Abraham of the Genesis story (cf. Gen. 13:5ff).
The biblical understanding of land with regard to ownership is similar to the African concept of land. Most Africans believe that the land does not belong to anyone but to God alone.
We can say that, land, being God’s gift to his people, is there to be shared between brothers and sisters. As such it cannot be monopolised by an individual or a number of individuals. Land belongs to the community. Beyond the communal ownership of land, both the Bible and the African tradition recognise God as the ultimate owner of land.
The value of land to a person
Humankind is a land-related being, created from the dust of the land or ground (Gen. 2:7). Therefore the Bible is calling him Adam – a Hebrew word that is closely related to the word Adamah, which means “land” or “ground”. This means a human being is related to the ground. In Genesis 3:19 and Psalm 146:4 it is said that a person will return to the ground since he is the dust of the land/ground. While the person has not yet returned to the ground, he will keep on working, “tilling the soil” for his or her own survival (Gen. 3:23). This text and many others show us that a person cannot be detached from the land/ground. Land/ground is his/her home and means of survival. It is also his/her place of rest, place of safety and enjoyment of good life (Deut. 12:9-10; 25:19 compare 3:20).
The land is the place where a nation would stay in peace and without hindrances from its enemies (1 Kings 5:4; 8:56). Without land, a person will always have a sense of being lost, displaced, homeless and rootless. Therefore, every person needs land, and when it is taken away, one is denied one’s home,bread, survival and even a place for burial.
Biblical laws and regulations about the land
The law of NAHALAH (inheritance)
The custom of inheriting the land was prevalent among the Israelites. Hebrew words denoting this custom are the verb NAHAL which means “inherit” (Exod. 32:13; Num. 26:55; Jer. 12:14) and the noun NAHALAH which means “inheritance” (Gen. 31:14; Num. 26:55; Josh.11:23). In their widest application these terms refer not only to an estate received by a child from his parents but also the land received by children of Israel as a gift from God (Hirsch & McKim 1982:824).
The reference to the land as an inheritance has its beginnings in the promise that God made to Abraham when he entered the land of Canaan. In Genesis 12:7 God said: “To your descendants, I will give this land”. This promise was passed down through Abraham’s descendants and was reaffirmed to Moses: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord” (Exod. 6:8, cf. Exod. 3:7-8; 32:13). In Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the nation of Israel many times that the land is the Lord’s and he is the one who is giving it to them (Deut. 4:21,38; 12:9; 15:4; 19:10).
With the entrance of Israel into Canaan after the death of Moses, a new focus came into view. As the nation regarded the entire land as an inheritance, so it was then distributed among the people as an inheritance (cf. Num. 32:18-19; 34:14-18; 36:2-12). Here and at other places in the Old Testament, a clear distinction is made between the possession of land and the acquisition of other personal properties. The underlining idea being that the land is God’s property, and the people hold it as a nahalah = inheritance which they received through God’s grace – not by right. Therefore, even though the Israelites had settled in the land, they continued to be called “strangers and sojourners” in the land, and the portion allotted to them could not be sold into perpetuity (Lev. 25:23-28). The terms nahal and nahalah are used many times in this sense to denote the possession of a portion of the land by a tribe or family.
Joshua, the son of Nun, was a man chosen by God to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (Josh. 1:1-2). When the people settled in the land according to God’s guidance, Joshua was commanded to divide the land proportionally among the different families (Josh. 13:7; 18:6; Num. 26:53-56; 33:54). This was done by casting lots to determine the specific piece of land to be owned by each family head. Here we see the equal distribution of land among the people who depended on land for their livelihood. The distribution of land in the Bible is in sharp contrast to what we see in Namibia today where about 10% of our population occupy 90% of the arable land while 90% of the population is expected to share 10% of the land. The Bible is against any system where only a few are gaining while the majority are loosing and ignored.
In Israel only the family of priests was not given land apart from few towns (Num. 35:1-8). The reason was that their sustenance was brought to the temple in the offering by the whole nation (Ez.44:28).
The children could inherit their father’s properties including his cultivated fields (Lev. 25:46; Prov. 13:22; Job 42:15). No inheritance was to be transferred. To prevent properties from going to other families, girls were prohibited from marring outside their father’s family (Num. 36:6-9).
The New Testament also reflects the custom of inheritance as shown in the proverbs of Jesus (Matt. 21:38; Mark 12:1-8; Luk 11:13).
Every member of the family or tribe had to guard that no inheritance was wasted in the form of selling it or otherwise. In 1 Kings 21:1-16 king Ahab was forcing Naboth to sell him his land, but Naboth pointed out that under the law of the Lord he was forbidden to alienate the heritage of his family. Naboth refused to sell his land, after which the king used his power and killed Naboth. King Ahab treated the land as a commodity and not as a heritage, which was against the Israelite laws of “nahalah”.The transgression of king Ahab of the inheritance law was later condemned by the prophet Elijah and even led Ahab’s family into a catastrophe ( 1 Kings 21:17-24).
The transgression of the “nahalah” law, acts of injustice and the discrimination of the poor, were some of the issues that angered the prophets in the Bible. The prophet Micah said: “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil upon their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it because it is in their power to do so. They covet fields and seize them; the houses, they take them away; they oppress a man and his inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2; Amos 5:11; 8:4-6; Isa. 3:13-15; 10:1-2).
In the Bible there is no one, neither a king nor a chief who had the right to take away land from anyone. “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property. He shall give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people shall be dispossessed of his property” (Ez. 46:18). Again, “Do not remove an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless; for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you” (Prov. 23:10-11).
The Year of Jubilee
The usage of the land in the history of Israel was guided by the Year of Jubilee, in other words, the Fiftieth year. The laws of the Year of Jubilee are found in Leviticus 25:8-34. According to this tradition if one was forced by poverty to sell one’s inheritance to another person, one could redeem it back to oneself or it could be redeemed back by a member of one’s family. If the person could not ransom it, the one who bought it could only have it for a limited period of time and would return it to the original owner in the Year of Jubilee. “If your brother becomes poor and sells part of his property, then his next of kin shall come and redeem what the brother has sold. If a man has no one to redeem it, and then himself becomes prosperous and finds sufficient means to redeem it, let him reckon the years since he sold it and pay back the overpayment to the man to whom he sold it; and he shall return to his property. But if he has not sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what he sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until the Year of Jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and he will return to his property” (Lev. 25:25-28).
What prevented the land to be sold for good is the belief that the land belongs to God (Lev. 25:23-24). Although it is not quite known how the custom of the Year of Jubilee was practised, it is clear, however, that its idea has been a guiding principle in land issue among the Israelites. Some biblical scholars maintain that Jesus also confirmed the custom of the Year of the Jubilee by saying, for instance, that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luk. 4:18-19; see also W.Kistner in Winkler 1994:21-22).
An advanced form of Jubilee is to be found in the New Testament. The first disciples of Jesus had no question in their minds as to how the Jubilee was to take place: they took Mat 5:17 and Mat.7:11 literally as we read in Acts 2:41ff and 4:32ff. The first passage is about Jesus saying that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them. The law that Jesus has come to fulfil also included the law of nahalah andthe Year of Jubilee practice. After all, the law and the prophets are summed up in the great commandment of love – the love towards God and the fellow human being. One cannot claim to love God or to be a steward of God without loving his/her fellow human being. How can one claim to love God while he/she is not prepared to share with him/her the land. Love for the neighbour should also be expressed in equal sharing of the land.
The second reference is about Jesus’ teaching that “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets”. If one would like to be allowed to keep his/her land he/she should also allow others to have access to land. How can one live happily with thousands of hectares of land while there are fellow citizens who do not have even a small plot where they can erect their shelters to sleep in?
The disciples of Jesus, as I have said, took the teaching of Jesus on law and prophets literally; they instituted the jubilee among themselves in the power of the promised Holy Spirit. “So those that received his [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls… and all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:41-45).
Here we have the good example of sharing the God-given resources. The land in Namibia can and should benefit all the inhabitants equally. It is not only the obligation of the government to provide land to the landless citizens, but it is also the moral responsibility of those who are in possession of land to share it with those who do not have it. We need to heed to the words of Henry George (1891), who wrote: “Being the equal creatures of the Creator, equally entitled under his providence to live their lives and satisfy their needs, men [and women] are equally entitled to the use of land, and any adjustment that denies this equal use of land is morally wrong.
Conclusion and Recommendations
In Namibia, now and then voices are heard of the landless communities and families who are demanding the land of their ancestors, which they had lost during the colonial period. This cry for land is similar to the yearning of the Hebrew children for their heritage. The model of the biblical Year of Jubilee provides a sound foundation for a fair and just distribution of land in our context. This model can help us to find solutions to the land issue in Namibia. Is it not long enough for those who have lost their ancestral lands to get them back even if they do not have means to redeem them?
Another problem facing some of our communities today is the need to enlarge and proclaim new towns and cities in the communal areas. The establishment of towns in communal areas appears to be good development. Yet, it affects the lives of the people whose livelihood depends on substance farming. This situation can also be dealt with in light of the “nahalah” law, so that better alternatives are found for people who loose their lands or fields in the process of extending towns.
At the very beginning of this presentation, I have mentioned that I would refer to the ELCIN seminar on land, held at Ongwediva in 1996. There are some points of its statement with which I would also like to conclude my contribution. The particular meeting made three categories of requests, which I still regard to be relevant. They are as follows:
Requests to the government
- The government should prevent the grazing areas in the communal lands from being fenced off by the rich, and those who have done so, should be made to remove their fences, so that the poor could also have grazing land.
- The government should encourage large-scale farmers who farm on the communal lands to buy farms on the commercial lands and thus stop suppressing the small-scale farmers.
- The government should seek for a way to expand the communal lands that are overcrowded by taking land from the commercial lands.
- The government should divide the land fairly, so that no one could own more than one farm on the commercial lands. This farm must have a limited size.
- The government should take care that no one could own more than one field on the communal lands. This field should also have a limited size.
- No farms should be sold to foreigners.
- The traditional leaders must also be decreed the right to have a say in the land issue.
Requests to the citizens
- People should try to find new methods of building houses and making fences around their fields so that desertification could be prevented.
- People should plant trees and other plants, which strengthen and preserve the soil so that it could give them materials to build their houses and wood for fuel.
Requests to all churches in Namibia
- Churches should inform people about fair distribution of land.
- Churches should teach people how to take care of the land and how to protect it from desertification.
Bakare, S. 1993. My Right to Land in the Bible and in Zimbabwe. Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Council of Churches.
George, Henry. 1981. The Condition of Labor: An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII.
Gottwald, N.K. 1985. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress.
Hirsch, F.E. and NcKim D.K. 1982. “Inherit” in Bromley, G.W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Houston, J.M. 1980. in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, aprt 3. Hodder and Stoughton: Intervarsity Press.
Janzen, W. 1992. “Land” in Freedman, D.N. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4. New York: Doubleday, pp. 143-154.
Knauf, E.A. 1992. “Earth” in Freedman, D.N. The Anchor Bible Dictionary, part 3. Hodder and Stoughton. Intervarsity press.
Namuhuya, H.D. 1996. “Traditional understanding of the land” ELCIN Studies and Reports 1, pp. 8-10.
Winkler, H. 1994. “Land from a Biblical Pesrspective” in Region & Religion. Geneva: The Lutheran World Federation.
The proceedings at this seminar were conducted in Oshiwambo and were translated into English by Dr. S V V Nambala, who also co-edited the booklet of these proceedings.
Note here that when the Bible talks about land as adamah, it means the useful land, not the wasteland such a desert where agriculture cannot be done.
The Ovambo people, for example say: Aantu oyaPamba, Munyembala okwe ya pewa kuPamba, meaning “The people belong to God and the king is given them by God.” If the people belong to God, then the land also belongs to God. Even to the king the land is given by Pamba = God. The traditional ownership of land has been dealt with in details by the late Mr. Hans Daniel Namuhuya in his article: “Traditional understanding of the land” which was presented at ELCIN seminar on the land issue in Ongwediva 9-10 July 1996. The Reverend Doctor Sebastian Bakare in his book: “My Right to Land in the Bible and in Zimbabwe,” 1993, has also expressed similar ideas (see especially pages 46-49, where he deals with the significance and importance of land among Africans in Zimbabwe).
Brueggemann, (1977:1), states: “The yearning to belong somewhere to have a home, to be in a safe place is a deep and moving pursuit.” Weli Mazamisa in his article ‘Reparation and Land” writing from a South African perspective states: “The dominant image among blacks is one of rootlessness. Yet in an African world-view there is no meaning apart from roots. This sense of belonging is a primary concern of black people and a central tenet of ubuntu-botho (of being truly human).
Israel’s social legislation was designed to protect a family’s nahalah = inheritance. (cf. Ibid 1982; 824). In case, through necessity of circumstances, a homestead was sold, the title could pass only temporarily; for in the year of Jubilee every homestead had to return again to the original owner or heir.
The farms that are in the surroundings of the communal lands, for example, can be purchased or obtained through legal ways by the government and declared part of those communal lands.