My Neighbour’s Landmark

Frederick Verinder:
My Neighbour’s Landmark
Short Studies in Bible Land Laws

When “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,”
He so formed him that he could live only upon and from
the land whence he came.


Many and great things have been delivered unto us by the Law and the Prophets, and by others that have followed their steps, for the which things Israel ought to be commended for learning and wisdom; and whereof not only the readers must needs become skilful themselves, but also they that desire to learn be able to profit them which are without, both by speaking and writing.”—The Prologue of the Wisdom of Jesus, the son Sirach. 

§ 1. IT is still, I believe, a popular superstition that, on the first day of Lent in each year, the Church of England invites her children to meet in their parish churches for the purpose of “cursing their neighbours.” No one who is familiar with the Commination Service will need to be reminded that this is neither an accurate nor an adequate description of the “godly discipline of the Primitive Church,” so far as it is somewhat mildly reflected in the special service appointed for the beginning of the season of spiritual spring-cleaning. The cheap and easy exercise of confessing other folk’s sins comes too naturally to the ordinary man to need a special day to be set apart for it; he does it most days without the stimulus of a solemn exhortation. 

What we are invited to do on Ash Wednesday is (not to utter a string of imprecations upon other “miserable sinners,” who are not present to hear them; but) to note, for our own warning and betterment, a number of facts. The formula is not “cursed be,” but “cursed is.” We are asked to give our solemn assent to the proposition that there are certain offences against morals that, in the very nature of things, carry with them a curse. The offences which are specified are nearly all social sins-sins, which break up the sacred family life; sins, which destroy confidence between man and man; sins, which poison the fountain of justice; sins of taking a mean advantage of one’s fellow’s; sins, which deny fundamental rights. The avowed purpose of the service which strikes the keynote of the Church’s Lenten discipline is, that, being admonished by this terrible recital, we may “flee from such vices, for which we affirm with our own mouths the curse of God to be due.” 

§ 2. Sermons and addresses on social subjects have, therefore, rightly had a notable prominence among Lenten observances for several years past. No such demonstration in favour of Social Reform has been seen in our time as would take place if, on any Ash-Wednesday, all the people in every English parish should meet, and understandingly and unfeignedly give their assent to the series of “resolutions” which their parish priests are instructed to move in the parish assembly, and for which the people are asked to “vote” by saying, not “Aye,” but “Amen.”  

In the very forefront of the catalogue of sins that bring a curse—in the same dreadful list as the “unmerciful, fornicators, and adulterers, covetous persons, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and extortioners “—stands this— 

“Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark.  
And the people shall answer and say, Amen.” 

Nothing could more clearly illustrate the social purpose of the Ash-Wednesday service. We are told that this is one of the “sentences gathered out of the seven-and-twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy.”1 Like her Lord and Master, in the parable of Social Inequality,2 the Church throws us back on the social lessons to be learnt from the history and laws of the Hebrew people. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”3 She throws us back on the teaching of the Old Testament about the Land Question. 

§ 3. It has been well said that every great reform has to pass through three stages. 

First, “it’s against the teaching of the Bible,” and no one will listen to it. Then, “it’s all very well in theory, but you can’t carry it out”; and practical politicians pooh-pooh it as visionary and Utopian. Lastly, when the impossible thing is done, “that’s exactly what we have been in favour of, all along!” and all men praise it, and take credit for it. Especially the practical politicians. 

As regards the great movement of Social Reform which, in nearly every civilised country, is working towards the abolition of private property in land, we are beginning to hope that some of us, who have taken part in it, may, after all, live to see it reach the beginning of the third stage. But although the world as a whole moves forward, some men move more slowly than others; and there are many who are still struggling against doubts which strike at the very root of the proposed reform. Is the proposed change, they ask, —a change so vast and momentous as to amount to a social revolution, —is this change in accordance with those principles by which we have learned to judge what is right and wrong in the sight of God, and between man and man? And, for a very large number of Englishmen, this still means—Is it in accordance with the teaching of the Bible? 

§ 4 Now, whether we regard the Bible as a book in a special way “inspired,” or as a collection of books in a special degree “inspiring”; whether we treat these ancient Hebrew writings as authentic history or as allegorical tradition, the answer is, in either case, interesting and important. For the traditions, history, laws and literature of the Jews are better known to most Englishmen than the traditions, history, laws and literature of their own nation. There is still, as Dr. Margoliouth points out4, a large class, “though smaller than it once was, whose sole encyclopædia, not only of theology and ethics, but also of history and archaeology, is the Bible.” For the Hebrew records, in their English version, have long been the most widely circulated English classic. It is even “sold under cost price at tenpence” by a great Society, solely devoted to its dissemination. Men who know nothing of the Laws of their own Edward the Confessor, who never heard that Edward I. was called the English Justinian, and could not even guess why he was so called, know at least something of the Laws of Moses and of the reconstructive work of Nehemiah. If we are to learn from the lessons of history at all, here is the best known and most accessible of all histories ready to our hand. Pliny’s Latifundia perdidere Italiam … et provincias5 teaches the same lesson as, e.g., Isaiah v. 8-10, but to English ears it has not the same intimate appeal to old-standing memories and treasured associations. Only a very small number of English citizens pursue their study of moral principles in the somewhat dreary atmosphere of “Ethical” Societies, or through the pages of and volumes on Moral Philosophy. But, to the vast majority of our fellow-country-men, the Hebrew Bible, clothed in the beautiful English of the Jacobean translation, still holds a position of pre-eminent authority on moral questions. 

§ 5. It is quite possible to doubt whether Moses actually wrote the whole of the five books to which his name is attached, and to be uncertain whether there were one or two or several “Isaiahs,” and yet to have the highest reverence for the ancient documents, which have brought down to us, through a thousand generations, some of the earliest traditions of mankind.  

It would be out of place in these pages to discuss either the theological or the critical questions which beset the study of the Pentateuch. The average British Bible-reader knows little, and cares less, about the dissection of the “Book of Origins” from the “Book of the Covenant,” nor has he so much as heard of the literary labours of the “Elohist” and the “Jehovist.” He takes for granted the Mosaic authorship of the “Five books,” just as he often assumes the accuracy of Bishop Ussher’s marginal dates. The modern literary criticism of the Pentateuch, pursued with unflagging zeal by a multitude of scholars during more than half a century past, has sought, by the application to words and phrases of much the same method of patient observation and generalisation as Darwin applied to the facts of Biology, to make these ancient writings give up the secret of their evolution into their present form. It is now believed that the Pentateuch, as it has been handed down to us in the Jewish canon, is a compilation, or rather the result of a series of compilations; that it contains the work of many writers who flourished under the divided monarchy, and during the Exile. These writers collected, partly from earlier writings, now lost to us, and partly from stones handed down by word of mouth, often in verse,6 the traditions, folklore, laws and customs of their race. The laws were not only recorded, but annotated, supplemented, and to some extent adapted to the varying circumstances and changing ideas of two or three eventful centuries. After the fashion of Eastern writers, these laws, in their collected form, were attributed to the great Lawgiver, Moses, exactly as even the Psalms which the exiles sang as they “wept by the waters of Babylon” were included in one volume with the “Psalms of David”; exactly as proverbs of later date were fathered upon Solomon. The documents thus compiled, though subjected to frequent editing, still largely preserve, in their combined form, their individual peculiarities of language, formula, nomenclature and standpoint.7 

§ 6. No attempt is made in this little book to distinguish between the various literary “sources” of the Hebrew Land Laws.8 The material has been drawn freely from all of them. My present purpose is simply to disentangle from the best known of the extant Hebrew writings the main lines of Hebrew thought on the Land Question. The results are, on the whole, practically independent of the conclusions of the Higher Criticism; for while there may be differences of detail between (say) the Deuteronomic and the “Priestly” legislation, there is absolutely no difference in principle. The Torah or “Law” is, therefore, here taken in the form which it assumed when completely developed and fully committed to writing. “For,” as is well said by two writers who may be thought to have pushed fearlessness of criticism almost to the point of rashness,  

“even if the religious contents of parts of the Old Testament in their original form should turn out to be somewhat less rich and varied than is agreeable to traditional ideas, yet the text in its present form, even if not in the original, has an independent right of existence, and the interpretation put upon this text by Jewish and Christian students deserves the most respectful attention. The Old Testament was surely not a dead book to the Jews of the great post-exilic age, but was full of light, and susceptible of the most varied and edifying adaptations.”9 

For “the Jewish law, if it is to be judged properly, must be judged as a whole, and not with exclusive reference to one of its parts. … In all its stages, the Mosaic law held before the eyes of Israel an ideal of duty to be observed, of laws to be obeyed, of principles to be maintained; it taught them that human nature needed to be restrained; it impressed upon them the necessity of discipline.”10 

§ 7. But, whatever may have been the process by which these writings assumed their present form, they are rightly called the Books of Moses, for the great historical figure of the Lawgiver dominates them throughout, and alone makes them intelligible. Moses nowhere claims the authorship of the Pentateuch, and he would have been the last to complain that some part of the legislation it contains should be attributed to other hands. “Enviest thou for my sake?” He said, when Joshua, jealous for his chief’s honour, asked him to rebuke some unauthorised persons who “prophesied” in the camp; “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”11 If it was through Moses that “the Lord gave the word,” it is no less true that “great was the company of those that published it.”12 

A descendant of Levi, nursed by his own Hebrew mother, though adopted by an Egyptian princess and brought up as an Egyptian,13 Moses was familiar from his earliest days both with the traditions of the people who looked back to Abraham as their ancestor, and with the culture of the proud Egyptian empire,14 under which they were being oppressed. According to Manetho, he was brought up as a priest, and was well acquainted with Greek, Chaldæan and Assyrian literature. But the ties of blood, and his faith in the God of his fathers were strong enough to make him renounce the prospect of a great career, and to throw in his lot with his enslaved kinsmen.15 In early manhood, moved by indignation at an act of oppression, he killed an Egyptian who was ill-treating a Hebrew, and was driven into exile.16 Into his peaceful and meditative life, as Jethro’s shepherd in Arabia, broke the Divine call to become the deliverer of his race.17 “The God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” is revealed to him by a Name with which his Egyptian learning must have made him already familiar.18 His Hebrew birth and his Egyptian education alike call him to, and equip him for, the task of deliverance. “Come thou, therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayst bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt.”  

Whether Moses, during the educative and constructive period of the desert wandering, laid down the “Law” in detail as we now know it, or whether he merely sketched broad outlines, within which a long succession of later legislators and teachers supplied the details, matters little. The spirit and the groundwork of the Law is clearly Mosaic. In its differences from other ancient codes, no less than in its resemblances to them,19 it witnesses to an original which can only be accounted for on the assumption that Moses lived, and delivered the Hebrews from slavery, and laid the foundation of their national law; that he was “the ultimate founder of both the national and the religious life of Israel.”20 

§ 8. It is natural enough that Moses and the Prophets should have a good deal to say, and for us to hear, on the Land Question. For, so long as man remains a land animal, the Lawgiver and the Social Reformer cannot avoid the ever-pressing question of the relation of man to land. Like some other ancient peoples (and some modern “savages”), the Hebrews saw clearly truths about the Land Question which have become obscured to most of us by the complexities of our modern industrial system. It is, of course, obvious that the details of the land laws which Moses promulgated, and to which the Prophets appealed, cannot apply to a nation so differently circumstanced as our own. In considering the details, we must constantly bear in mind the circumstances of the time and place, and the history and condition of the people. “The precepts then uttered,” said one of the early Fathers of the Church, in discussing certain provisions of the Mosaic law, “had reference to the weakness of them who were receiving the laws; since also to be worshipped with the vapour of sacrifice is very unworthy of God, just as to lisp is unworthy of a philosopher. Do not thou then require their excellency now, when their use is past; but then when the time was calling for them.”21 But the principles which underlay those “precepts” are fundamental and immutable, because the relation of man to the land on which he lives and works is always and essentially the same. The earth is still what one of the Apocryphal writers called it, “the mother of all things.”22 Land is still, as it was in the time of Moses, the home and the workshop of the human race, the reservoir from which human labour draws all the raw materials23 wherewith to satisfy its needs. “Land is perpetual man.” “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”24 The Pentateuchal tradition recognises, in what has been described as a “first attempt at organic chemistry,” as clearly as the modern scientist does, that even the materials of which the human body is composed are drawn from the land and finally return to it.25 

§ 9. It is, therefore, to the underlying principles of the Hebrew social philosophy, other than to the details of Mosaic legislation, that this little work is designed to call attention. Modern writers on the Land Question—Gerrard Winstanley the Digger, Spence of Newcastle, John Locke, William Ogilvie of Pittensea, Patrick Edward Dove, Herbert Spencer (in his earlier phase), Alfred Russel Wallace, and, above all, Henry George—have, after all, only restated, and attempted to apply to modern social needs, principles which were enunciated by Moses and enforced by many later Hebrew teachers. Some of them would have readily admitted this: would, indeed, have gloried in it. It is not without significance that one of Henry George’s most telling and popular lectures had as its subject, “Moses”. The great Hebrew liberation could hardly have found in our time a more fitting and sympathetic exposition.  

But, ancient as these principles are, the most characteristic of modern problems— problems of poverty amid increasing wealth, of housing, of unemployment—are compelling the attention of social reformers, more and more, to them. For, what we call the Land Question remains essentially the same under everchanging forms of social organisation. When “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground,” He so formed him that he could live only upon and from the land whence he came. It is true, now as always (as Sir William Petty long ago put it in an arresting sentence26), that “Land is the mother and Labour is the father of all wealth.” Many centuries earlier, the writer of one of the Hebrew “wisdom books” had, as we have already seen, proclaimed the same truth. 


  1. Deut. xxvii. 17. 
  2. 2 St. Luke xvi. 19-31. 
  3. St. Matt. v. 17. 
  4. Introduction to new edition of Whiston’s Josephus (1906), p.ix. 
  5. Plin. Nat. Hist. xviii; 7. 3: “Modum agri in primis servandum antiqui putavere, quippe ita censebant, satius esse minus serere et melius arare; qua in cententia et Vergilium fuisse video. Verumque confitentibus latifundia perdidere Italiam, iam vero et provincias. Sex domini semissem Africæ possidebant, cum interfecit eox Nero princeps.” (Cp. Verg. Georg. ii. 412; “Laudato ingentia nura, Exiguum colito.”) 
  6. e.g. the “Book of Jasher” (Josh. x. 12, 13; 2 Sam. i. 18); “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Num. xxi. 14); the “Song of Deborah” (Judg. v.), etc. etc. 
  7. For a very brief and clear account of the generally received results of the literary criticism, see the Rev. Prof. Bennett’s introduction to Genesis in the Century Bible; or Canon Ottley’s Short History of the Hebrews, Apps. I. and II. 
  8. See article by Rev. P. H. Wicksteed on “The Year of Jubilee” in Christian Reformer, August 1887. 
  9. Cheyne and Black, Postscript to Encyclopædia Biblica, vol. iv. p. xii. [1903). 
  10. Driver, on “Law in the O.T.,” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, iii. 72 b. 
  11. Num. xi. 29. 
  12. Ps. lxviii. 11. 
  13. Ex. ii. 1, 9, 10. Cp. in verse 19, “an Egyptian delivered us.” 
  14. Acts vii. 22. Cp. I Kings iv. 30; Isa. xix. 11, 12. 
  15. Heb. xi. 24-27. 
  16. Ex. ii. 11-15. 
  17. Ex. iii. 
  18. Ex. iii. 6, 14. Deutsch translates the expression Nuk-pu-Nuk in the Egyptian “Ritual of the Dead” by “I am HE who I am.”  
  19. For instance, many of the “Mosaic” provisions can be paralleled from the Code of the Babylanian king, Hammurabi [=Amraphel, Gen. xiv. 9], discovered in 1902; but “the care taken by Israelite law to protect strangers finds no parallel in Babylonia” (S. A. Cook, Laws of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi, p. 276). Israel was once a “stranger” in Egypt, and “a fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind.” 
  20. See Canon Driver, Literature of the O.T., pp. 152 ff. 
  21. St. Chrysostom on Matt. v. 36, 37; translation in Pusey’s Library of the Fathers, p. 263. 
  22. Great travail is created for every man, and an heavy yoke is upon the sons of Adam, from the day that they go out of their mother’s womb, till the day that they return to the mother of all things (Ecclus. xl. I ; and compare the notes below). 
  23. Ps. civ. 14, 15 ; Job xxviii. 1-6; Deut. viii. 9. 
  24. Eccles. i. 4. 
  25. Gen. ii. 7 [Hebr. Adamah=ground), iii. 19. cf. Ps. civ. 29, cxlvi. 4; Job xxxiv. 15; Eccles. iii. 20, xii. 7; and “For out of [the earth) came all [men) at the first, and out of her shall all others come … even so the earth also hath given her fruit, namely, man, ever since the beginning, unto Him that made her” (2 Esd. x. 10, 14); “The Lord created man of the earth, and turned him into it again” (Ecclus. xvii. 1, also xxxiii. 10, xl. 1 (quoted in an earlier note), xli. 10; Wisd. xv. 8; 1 Cor. xv. 47-49). [The Bible asserts that God formed man of the dust of the ground, whereupon the Hebr. commentators remark: “The universal Father gathered dust from all parts of the earth for the purpose, to show that man need not be confined to one particular clime, but he might claim the whole world as his country and mankind irrespective of class or creed as his family.”-S.)  
  26. Quoted Karl Marx, Das Kapital, chap. i.
To continue reading:
request pdf copy at bog @