Bible lesson from Oklahoma: The housing warning from 2,700 years ago
Oh, hey. I'm not really here, but on another week of furlough. Before I left, I pulled another one of my favorite columns out of the archives.
This one isn't from all that long ago, 2014, although that does seem like several lifetimes. I was wrapping up seminary, and I wrote a column about real estate in the Bible, because I had just finished a research paper on real estate and the Bible, from the Book of Micah.
Guess what I had to work on this week?
Another paper on real estate and the Bible, this time from the Book of Ruth, for another class at the same divinity school, Phillips Seminary in Tulsa, with the same professor, Dr. Lisa Davison.
Lo, I am a glutton for academic punishment and yea, and verily, I am studying biblical Hebrew in my spare (ha ha) time. My task is to translate Ruth 4:1-12, and research and write 15 to 20 pages of critical interpretation.
Coincidence? God thing? The Lord only knows.
Speaking of: Lord, help me. It. Is. So. Hard. But hey, if I survive, maybe I'll get another column out of it.
In the meantime, here, from May 3, 2014. In the newspaper, it was headlined: "The housing warning from 2,700 years ago." Online, it was: "Bible lesson from Oklahoma: Woe to those who covet houses and take them."
It gets real in the Book of Micah, the prophet. Considering the topic of my intense study of Micah 2:1-5 — the last paper for my last class in my last semester of five years of seminary, glory, hallelujah — I can't resist mentioning it here. Micah 2:1-5 is about real estate.
1. Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning's light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. 2. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.
3. Therefore, the LORD says: “I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves. You will no longer walk proudly, for it will be a time of calamity. 4. “In that day people will ridicule you; they will taunt you with this mournful song: 'We are utterly ruined; my people's possession is divided up. He takes it from me! He assigns our fields to traitors.' ”
5. Therefore you will have no one in the assembly of the Lord to divide the land by lot.
Micah was denouncing Israel and its capital, Samaria, and Judah, and its capital, Jerusalem, in the last part of the eighth century, BCE. Both kingdoms were under threat from outside, as the Assyrian Empire, to the north, was gobbling up territory.
But Micah condemned both for being rotten on the inside. Government officials, the powerful wealthy, even other prophets were turning a blind eye to unethical market conditions, a bought judiciary and feckless religion.
Micah declares God's judgment: The small cadre of wrongdoers will be stripped of their own inheritance and will be mocked by the poorer majority they previously abused.
Ethics aside, changes in land use can be explained using political science, economics and international relations. Israel, under King Jeroboam II, and Judah, under King Uzziah, both enjoyed political stability and economic growth in the early eighth century, BCE. Both kingdoms expanded their territory by colonization and their influence by accumulating wealth and power. (See D.N. Premnath's “Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis,” by Chalice Press, 2003).
While the kingdoms grew in power and wealth, within each the rich grew richer and the middle classes and poor grew poorer; smallholders were forced from subsistence farming into specialization, forced to collateralize land to get production loans, and eventually were foreclosed on when crop failures or accumulated interest made it impossible to make loan payments.
Large estate holders got more land. Foreclosures sailed through courts controlled or unduly influenced by the wealthy and powerful. Smallholders became sharecroppers. Sharecroppers lost even their tenancies and their houses. It was a grinding process, first making its victims poor, then destitute and landless and homeless.
It should be noted that those being ruined did have houses and land to lose. It was not the rich versus the poor. It was a matter of degrees — and a squeeze on what we could consider the middle class.
For Micah, it was a theological crisis. More than property was at stake, although that was huge: the land was the embodiment of the covenant with God — the Promised Land. The majority was losing its God-given liberty.
It was “The Grapes of Wrath” set in ancient Israel.
It's relatively recent U.S. history, in the Dust Bowl, stock market crash and Great Depression, and, more recently, the 1980s farm crisis. American covenants were broken. Were there prophets?
It's not-that-old news. Another stock market crash, the housing crisis and Great Recession — and another covenant broken for millions: the “American dream of home ownership.”
Where were the prophets? Would they have made any difference? Neither Israel nor Judah listened to Micah. I doubt anything here would've been different if he'd showed up on Wall Street or Capitol Hill.
Email Real Estate Editor Richard Mize at firstname.lastname@example.org.