The Year of Jubilee

Leviticus 25 Commentary

The second law of thermodynamics, in oversimplified layman’s terms, is that everything tends toward chaos. All things fall into disorder. It seems to be a spiritual and moral law as well. At least this is the case after sin infects God’s good creation. One of the most visible areas of this sin-generated chaos is our economic relationships with each other. The powerful want more power. The rich are never rich enough. And the poor are often trapped in crippling poverty from which they cannot simply extract themselves by hard work, innovation, or ingenuity. This was just as much the case in ancient agrarian Israel as it is in modern Western society. The rich get seem to get richer, the poor seem to get poorer, the middle class seems to shrink. Income disparity increases, with animosity between the haves and have-nots increasing concurrently

But the Lord intends Israel’s polity to be radically different. Israel’s economics are to reflect a number of spiritual realities. First, that the Land of Promise has but one owner, and that is the Lord himself (v. 23). Secondly, the people of Israel are one community, not merely a collection of competing individuals. Thus they are not to oppress each other and take advantage of each other economically, e.g. by charging interest that could send a fellow Israelite into a spiral of debt after a couple of bad seasons (vv. 36-37). Third, the Israelites ought not to be slaves of anyone, but only servants of God, and therefore the land (which in those days equals economic power) must not be used as a means of oppressing one’s fellow Israelite or driving them into destitution or slavery. The Lord liberated his people from Egypt; they may not sell each other back into slavery (a major theme in vv. 39-55). In addition, the land appears almost as a living entity, requiring regular Sabbath rest, just like individuals (and also the animals over which human beings have dominion). Giving the land a rest had an important agricultural function. Farmland was watered through irrigation, which left a residue of sodium, calcium and alkaline substances. The fallow year reduced the levels of these minerals in the soil. But more important than crop science is the spiritual factor. The people of Israel must not be driven only by getting the most out of every acre, every season, and increasing their farming operation into an agricultural empire. Ultimately, they must rely on the Lord to provide, just as the children of Israel were only allowed to collect manna six days a week and trust that the sixth day’s harvest would not spoil (Ex. 16). Finally, rest for the land, and the restoration of the livelihoods of its inhabitants, points to the redemption of God’s creation, and a new heaven and a new earth.

The term jubilee comes from the Hebrew word Yabal, meaning the trumpet that was sounded at the beginning of the Jubilee year. It’s also the basis of our English word jubilation. The sounding of trumpet heralded a time of joy and celebration. Or at least it would an exuberant time for those who had fallen on hard times, those who had lost out in the contest of the marketplace, and the vicissitudes of farming. The sound of the trumpet was the announcement of salvation for those subsistence farmers who had not been able to recover from that record drought a few years back. Or that near-apocalyptic hail storm the year before. Or that one time when the locusts made the sky black and that reminded everyone of the plagues of Egypt.

But would the resonating horn be a welcome sound to all? What about those who had been just a bit more responsible, more frugal, more hard-working? Those who had made a decent living for themselves and their families? The ones who had managed to merge together unfarmable little parcels of land into one productive field, from which many people derived their daily bread? This sudden loss of everything they had worked for over several decades: was it fair? Economic prosperity, they reminded themselves, as a sign of God’s blessing, and they could cite the Torah at length to back that up.

The Sabbath and Jubilee years would have been an amazing social equalizer…if they had ever been implemented. Sadly, it does not appear that the Israelites practiced this law, since scripture itself reports that only after the people of Israel were deported from the land in the Exile did the land receive its Sabbath rests (2 Chron. 36:21). Only Nehemiah’s proclamation of a release comes close (Neh. 5, in which newly released exiles returned to the land, only to quickly become disenfranchised and indebted to fellow Judeans). The Jubilee and Sabbath years were probably considered economically “unrealistic,” but the Lord intentionally challenges our distorted, broken “reality.” He challenges his people to believe in the unrealistic, and to work for the impossible. He does that just as much in the Law of Moses as he does in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The consequence of not observing these laws is severe. If Israel becomes like all the other nations, and allows the rich to run roughshod over the poor, Israel will be disenfranchised from the land. The consequences of forcing the land to work without rest, to enslave the land so to speak, and so to keep the vulnerable members of Israel’s community in economic bondage, would be that the Lord would lay waste to the land, level Israel’s cities, and drive them back into bondage to a foreign power (Lev. 26:32-34). This is precisely what happened in the Exile, and only then did the land finally enjoy its Sabbath rests (II Chron. 36:21).

One imagines that the prophets faced stiff resistance from the wealthy when they preached against their greed. “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land! (Isaiah 5:8; cf. Micah 2:1-2). Jesus focused on the themes of Jubilee in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus cites Isaiah 61). Jesus claimed that he embodied the Jubilee. His appearance represents release for prisoners, empowerment for the disenfranchised, an end to oppression, healing for the people. But that kind of talk is revolutionary and threatening. The people were enraged, and tried to kill him.

So the message of Jubilee is hard to accept for those of us who have learned to believe that life is all about hard work and pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps. Jubilee is liberating not only for the poor, but also for the rich. For the latter to realize this it would take a near miracle. Nothing, however, is impossible with God (Luke 18:25-27). But while preaching on jubilee and economics is necessarily political, it does not have to be partisan, nor should it be. The marketplace can become oppressive, but government bureaucracy can also impede human flourishing. A wise preacher will be discerning in unveiling the varied idolatries that bewitch persons of every political persuasion. For salvation comes neither from the market nor the government, but from the Lord.

Liberation, freedom from crippling debt, release from the oppression of the powerful—these are the themes of Jubilee, which point us to a vision of the new creation. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for this vision and act toward it.” The problems of poverty and injustice are systemic and overwhelming. But that is no reason to give up in despair. Jesus Christ came to announce deliverance for the captives, and every human being, rich or poor, is a captive in some sense. And thus for every human being, his message is liberating good news.

Illustration Idea

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the resistance to practicing the sabbatical and jubilee years, which parallels our own anxious acquisitiveness, our idolatry of work, our obsession with success and control:

Because there is hardly a human being alive who can sit and watch a field, a yard, or even a flower bed “go to waste” for a year. That is what we say about the things that have been removed from our control, by the way. We say they are “going to waste,” as if their worth depended on our involvement with them. And not only their worth but also our own. In our world, there is not much payoff for sitting back and letting things go. A field full of weeds will not earn you any respect. If you want to succeed in this life (whatever your “field” of endeavor), you must spray, you must plow, you must fertilize, you must plant. You must never turn your back. Each year’s harvest must be bigger than the last. That is what land and people are for. (Home By Another Way, 133).


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