God Says Don’t Even Think About Taking Someone’s Property
The Jewish concept of property began with God creating man in his image. The Torah records, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
Christians have waxed eloquent about the meanings of “in our image” and “in our likeness” for centuries, often limited only by their creativity. However, in accordance with sound principles of hermeneutics, we must look into how the phrases were used at the time they were written in order to determine what Moses meant by them. Ancient people in Egypt and Mesopotamia referred to their idols as the image of the god they represented. The image carved from wood and overlaid with gold or silver wasn’t the god; the god lived in the idol and used it as a portal into the material world. Apparently, without the idol the god was homeless and powerless in the material realm and even with an idol the god’s power was limited to a small radius around the idol, which explains why everyone had to have one in their home.
Kings were also called the image of god. They meant by the terms “image” and “likeness” that the god had appointed the monarch to his office and he acted on behalf of the god and with his consent. “No matter a monarch’s boasts to the contrary, his hierarchical position in ancient society was penultimate: it was the sovereign’s task to testify to, and carry out, the word and intention of The Ultimate (the Divine Realm).” As long as the king followed the divine plan, he acted with the full authority and rights of the divine.
Of course, kings would delegate tasks to subordinates with the full authority of the king as long as they carried out the king’s plans. Those subordinates were often referred to as the image of the king.
What must be stressed in all of this, is that the “image” is to be understood as a legal and political concept. It expressed the reality of a very specific arrangement: an “image” was thought of — and described in terms of responsibility — as “obedient servanthood.” In the Ancient Near East, this ideal was exemplified by the title, arad kitti, “the faithful servant.”
Judaism anchors property rights to the principles of God having created mankind in his image and having given him dominion over the earth and all other creatures. Only through property can man actualize his role as the image of God. “…the right to private property in Judaism is nearly absolute and can be restricted only in the most extreme circumstances.”
The Torah holds individual property rights in such high regard that it forbade Israelis from even thinking about taking the property of others in the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor,” (Exodus 20:17) which is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:21 as “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” All of these are negative commands, which if converted to positive statements would say something like, “Respect the private property of others. I have made it sacred.”
With its very limited government and property rights, the people of Israel enjoyed more freedom than any other nation in history. But they gave away that freedom against God’s wishes. They demanded a king like the nations around them. God warned them a king would oppress them as the kings of all the nations around them did:
These will be the rights of the king who is to reign over you. He will take your sons and assign them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front of his chariot. He will use them as leaders of a thousand and leaders of fifty; he will make them plough his ploughland and harvest his harvest and make his weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will also take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, of you vineyards and olive groves and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and vineyards to provide for his eunuchs and his officials. He will take the best of your manservants and maidservants, of your cattle and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out on account of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but on that day God will not answer you. (I Samuel 8:11-18)
God predicted in the Torah that the people would demand a king one day so he specified what kind of king he would accept and it was one with very limited powers. His provision for a king feels like that of divorce; as Jesus said, God made room for it because of the hardness of their hearts. But no king followed completely God’s design for a righteous monarch. Instead, the people got what they asked for – a king like the pagan nations around them. The people thought they were wiser than God but the oppression God warned about crushed them.
If what we know about economics today was true for the past then the Israelis under the judges would have been far wealthier than those under the kings. By some accounts government of Israel established by God thrived for over four centuries with limited interruptions. God never designed another one. Whatever Christians might say in the debate about the role of government, they should begin with the only one God ever created. It was a libertarian’s dream.
 Scott N. Morschauser, “Created in the Image of God: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Imago Dei,” Theology Matters, Vol 3 No 6 • Nov/Dec 1997, 2.
 Judaism, Law and the Free Market , Kindle Edition, Chapter 3 “Social Welfare in Talmudic Law”, “The Biblical Roots of Private Property,” paragraph 1.
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