The Question of Right of Ownership
Jephthah on behalf of Israel demanded that the Ammonites should peacefully vacate the land they now possess, because they had dispossessed Israel who was immediately in possession before them. But the Kings of Ammon and of Moab responded by saying, “O No!” We were first in possession and you dispossessed us by fighting against us and seizing our lands by force. So how did Jephthah reply? That we asked you to let us pass and you refused; so the LORD our God delivered the land to us. Now is this a good enough reason to declare to whom the land belonged? There may be some legal issues to determine first. It is said that possession is nine tenths of the law; and the person in possession on the face of it may have a better title than he one seeking to dispossess. However it is also a principle of land law that the possession had to be nec vi nec clam nec precario, that is to say not taken by force, not by paying a fee, example a tenant, and not by stealth; and finally if we say each had an equitable title to the land, a maxim of Equity holds that where the equities are equal the first in time is the stronger. So if we go back to the first part of Jephthah’s response, it would seem that, a) the Ammonites and Moabites were first in time and b), the Israelites took the land by force in the first place; so based on the law of equity their claim to the lands would fail. But the second part of Jephthah’s answer puts the whole set of issues in a different light. According to him it was God Who gave Israel the land, and to whom did the land belong in the first place? The answer is clearly God. God was the Landlord, and as such He had the right to dispossess the unruly tenants, the nations, and give title to His people, the Israelites.