Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
ECONOMIC LIFE

1. Landed property

IN Egypt all the land belonged to the Pharaoh or the temples, and the Israelites were astonished at this land system which was so different from their own ( Gn 47: 20-26). In Mesopotamia, though, the king and the sanctuaries owned large estates, but the oldest texts show that communities, families and individuals already had certain lands, which the king could acquire only by purchase from the owners. With these and other lands of his estates, the king used to found fiefs. A fief is a grant of immovable property, made to an individual in return for the obligation to render personal services. This feudal system was very widespread in the Near East. The Code of Hammurabi and the Hittite Code devote several articles to it and it is frequently alluded to in the Nuzu and Ugarit documents. These texts span the second millennium B.C. At first the fief appears as an inalienable charge, to which personal services are attached. Gradually it took on the character of heritable property, of which a man might freely dispose, and the feudal services attached to it became attached to the property, not to any person or persons.

This development of the fief was already far advanced when Israel first appeared as a people. It was even later that this people became a centralized state, and apparently they never experienced a feudal regime. Those rare texts where some have tried to see an allusion to fiefs are capable of another interpretation. For example, 1 S 8: 14 predicts that the king will seize fields and vineyards and give them to his officers; according to 1 S 22: 7, this was already happening in Saul's time, but these lands were given as gifts rather than fiefs, for there is no mention of any service attached to them. When Saul promises to exempt the family of the man who slays the Philistine champion ( 1 S 17: 25), the reference is to exemption from taxes or forced labour rather than enfranchisement from the service of a fief. Only once is there an unmistakable reference to feudal services: David received the town of Siqlag from the Philistine prince of Gath on condition that he ensured the policing of the desert and followed his suzerain to war ( 1 S 27: 6, 10; 28: 1); it was a military fief, but we are on Philistine territory.

Nevertheless, the feudal idea was found in Israel, though transferred on to the theological plane. As Yahweh is the only true king of Israel ( Jg 8: 23;

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