From very early times, property rights of landowners or landholders (Heb., beʽa·limʹ, literally, owners) have been recognized. Abraham bargained with Ephron the Hittite for a burial place for his wife Sarah, finally buying a field for a stated sum, the transaction being legalized before the townspeople. (Ge 23:1-20) During a famine in Egypt, Joseph bought land for Pharaoh from Egyptian landowners, in exchange for food. (Ge 47:20-26) God’s faithful servant Job, living in the land of Uz, possessed inheritable property, doubtless including land, that he gave to his sons and daughters. (Job 1:4; 42:15) However, Jehovah is the Supreme Landowner, and his dealings demonstrate that humans are accountable to him for the way they use his property.—Ps 24:1; 50:10-12.
In Israel. When Jehovah brought Israel into Canaan he exercised his right as Lord and Owner of the whole earth to dispossess the Canaanites, who were, in effect, squatters on the land. (Jos 3:11; 1Co 10:26) The period of God’s tolerating their holding the land had run out. Although more than 450 years previously God had promised the land to Abraham’s seed, he had told Abraham: “The error of the Amorites [a term sometimes used for all the Canaanite tribes] has not yet come to completion.” (Ge 15:7, 8, 12-16) Therefore, as the Christian martyr Stephen told the Jews, God “did not give [Abraham] any inheritable possession in it, no, not a footbreadth; but he promised to give it to him as a possession, and after him to his seed, while as yet he had no child.”—Ac 7:5.
Israel was not to fight wars of aggression, continuing to expand its territory by taking the property of surrounding nations. Jehovah warned Israel that they must respect the property rights of certain nations to whom he had assigned land. These nations were Edom, Moab, and Ammon, related to the Israelites through Esau (Edom) and Lot (Moab and Ammon).—De 2:4, 5, 9, 19.
Promised Land held in trust. Even the people Israel, to whom God had given the land for them to enjoy as landowners, were told by Jehovah that they were not actually owners of it but only held it in trust. He said concerning the sale of a family land estate: “So the land should not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine. For you are alien residents and settlers from my standpoint.” (Le 25:23) God had ousted the Canaanites from the land for their disgusting practices. He warned he would also take away all title from Israel and drive them out of the land if they followed such practices, and when they later did, they were sent into exile. (Le 18:24-30; 25:18, 19; 26:27-33; Jer 52:27) After 70 years of desolation of their land, from 607 to 537 B.C.E., God mercifully reestablished them, but this time under Gentile domination. Eventually, in 70 C.E., the Romans completely destroyed Jerusalem and scattered its people.
Within the nation, tribes were assigned sections of the land or cities inside the boundaries of other tribes. Priests and Levites had cities with pasture grounds. (Jos 15-21) In turn, within the tribes families were allotted inheritances. These divisions became smaller as families subdivided their own allotments because of increase in numbers. This resulted in thorough cultivation and use of the land. Inheritances were not allowed to circulate from one tribe to another. To prevent this, women who inherited land (because there were no living brothers) had to marry within the tribe to hold their inheritance.—Nu 36:1-12.
If a man died without having a son, his brother (or, if no brothers, his nearest of kin) could marry his widow to bring forth offspring from her. The man marrying the widow could also repurchase the dead man’s inheritance, if it had been sold. (Ru 4:9, 10, 13-17) The woman’s firstborn would take the name, not of his actual father, but of the widow’s first husband, thus possessing the land inheritance and keeping the man’s name alive over his inheritance in Israel.—De 25:5, 6.
The Jubilee year. God had said to Israel: “No one should come to be poor among you.” (De 15:4, 5) The Jubilee year, as long as observed, prevented the nation from sinking into a situation where only two classes existed, the very rich and the very poor. On every 50th year (counted from the time of Israel’s entering Canaan), every man returned to his inheritance, and any land he had sold was to be restored to him. Because of this law, the price of land decreased every year as the Jubilee approached. Actually, the buyer, in a sense, only leased the land, the price depending on the number of crops until the Jubilee year. (Le 25:13-16, 28) Even a buyer of another’s inheritance could not necessarily hold it until the Jubilee. If the original owner acquired enough money, he could repurchase the land. Also, any repurchaser (close relative) could repurchase it for the original owner.—Le 25:24-27.
A man could not be forced to sell his property. Neither did the principle of eminent domain apply in Israel. This was illustrated in the refusal of Naboth to sell a field of his inheritance to King Ahab.—1Ki 21:1-4, 17-19; compare Eze 46:18.
The Levites. As a protection to the Levites, their fields could not be sold; this was because Levites had no individual land inheritance—they had been given only houses in the Levite cities and the pasture grounds surrounding them. If a Levite sold his house in a Levite city, the right of repurchase continued for him, and in the Jubilee, at the latest, it was returned to him.—Le 25:32-34.
As the productive land yielded fruitage, the Great Proprietor of all the land was not to be left out of the picture. By means of the tithing arrangement, a tenth of the produce was to be used to support the Levites in their important functions related to Jehovah’s worship, thus spiritually benefiting all Israel.—Nu 18:21-24; De 14:22-29.
The sanctuary. The sanctuary of Jehovah could also become a landholder by reason of fields “sanctified” to Jehovah; that is, the produce of these fields went to the sanctuary for a period of time designated by the owner or possessor. (Le 27:16-19) If a field that was “sanctified” by the owner was not repurchased, but was sold to another man, that field would become the permanent possession of the sanctuary at the time of the Jubilee. (Le 27:20, 21) Also, fields “devoted” to the sanctuary by their owners remained the permanent possession of the sanctuary.—Le 27:28.
In the Christian Congregation. The Bible makes it clear that individual property rights were recognized in the Christian congregation. When the congregation was established, on Pentecost day, 33 C.E., many Jews and proselytes of the Jewish religion from other lands had gathered at Jerusalem to observe the festival. A large number of these were present to hear Peter’s discourse and began to be believers in Christ. (Ac 2:1, 5, 9-11, 41, 42, 47) They remained to learn more. So the Christians voluntarily sold possessions and distributed the proceeds to help these visiting ones and others who were needy. They had “all things in common.” (Ac 2:44-46) This was not socialism or communism, but a voluntary sharing for the purpose of aiding persons interested in the good news and in furthering the spread of it.
Later, for similar reasons, and partly because of persecution of the Christians by Jerusalem’s rulers, this practice continued, under the spirit and undeserved kindness of God. Fields were sold and the proceeds brought to the apostles, who administered the assistance program. (Ac 4:31-37) But each Christian’s property was his own and his rights were inviolable; he was under no compulsion to put property into a common pool. It was counted as a privilege to do so, not a duty. It was right motive that dominated and moved these generous Christians.
In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, however, a hypocritical show was made in order to get plaudits and honor of men. They conspired together to sell a field and to give only part of the proceeds to the apostles, with the claim that they were generously giving up all the possession. Peter, by direction of holy spirit, discerned what they were doing. He did not say, ‘Why did you not give us all the money you received for the field?’ as if they were under obligation to do so. Rather, he said: “Ananias, why has Satan emboldened you to play false to the holy spirit and to hold back secretly some of the price of the field? As long as it remained with you did it not remain yours, and after it was sold did it not continue in your control? Why was it that you purposed such a deed as this in your heart? You have played false, not to men, but to God.”—Ac 5:1-4.
About three hours later, when Sapphira came in, not knowing what had happened, she made the same claim, and Peter replied: “Why was it agreed upon between you two to make a test of the spirit of Jehovah?” (Ac 5:7-9) Their sin was in lying to Jehovah, making a mockery of him and his congregation, as if God’s spirit were not upon it. (Ga 6:7) It was not that they were compelled to part with their property in some sort of communal arrangement.
Jehovah’s Ownership Must Be Recognized. Since Jehovah is the Owner of all the land, the landowner on earth must respect his possession and use it properly. Otherwise it will become a ruin and he will eventually suffer complete loss of it. (Pr 24:30-34) Even nations must recognize this fact. (Isa 24:1-6; Jer 23:10) Eventually those who ignore this principle will themselves be ruined.—Re 11:18.
Recognition of God’s real ownership will also prevent one from trying to gain possession of land in a greedy or wrongful way. (Pr 20:21; 23:10, 11) When Israel departed from God’s law, there were men against whom God expressed condemnation, saying: “Woe to the ones joining house to house, and those who annex field to field until there is no more room and you men have been made to dwell all by yourselves in the midst of the land!”—Isa 5:8; Mic 2:1-4.
On the other hand, Jesus said: “Happy are the mild-tempered ones, since they will inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:5; Ps 37:9, 22, 29) He taught his followers to pray to God: “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Mt 6:10) Under the Kingdom sovereignty of the Great Landowner himself, those holding land in trust for him in faithfulness are to experience the full joy of ownership in complete security. God stated his viewpoint of proper conditions as regards land ownership when he gave restoration prophecies through the mouths of Isaiah and Micah. These indicate what situation he will bring about when his ‘will takes place on earth.’ He said of his people: “They will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. They will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating.” “And they will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble.”—Isa 65:21, 22; Mic 4:4; see PEOPLE OF THE LAND (EARTH).