Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

SJ in the OT: The Year of Jubilee

Posted by Chris on October 3, 2006


this builds on the entry dealing with the Sabbath Year, please read it first here

There is no evidence that either the Sabbath Year and especially the Year of Jubilee were ever practiced regularly, or even once, by the Israelites. A lack of evidence, along with the accusations of the prophets of the Old Testament, would suggest that it was far from the minds of those Hebrews in control in the pre-Roman Jewish society. The concept is not alien to others, however. Gospel songs call for the Jubilee and the Roman Catholic Church instituted its own involving “a period of remission from the penal consequences of sin” which included giving a “Jubilee indulgence” (source: some dictionaries). Once you understand what the Jubilee is, the idea of a “Jubilee indulgence” is a bit of an oxymoron.

A lot is going on in Leviticus 25 (and Deuteronomy 15), detailing what the Jubilee prescribed for the people of the Law. I’d recommend you read it for yourself: here’s a link! I don’t want to take up space quoting it all. The basic gist is that it was like a Super Sabbath Year. After seven Sabbaths (49 years), the 50th year was the Jubilee. It takes the social justice commands of the Sabbath to a whole ‘nother level, including things like releasing fellow Hebrew slaves and returning land to those who were given it as in inheritance when God divided up the Promised Land among the 12 tribes. These things were done without repayment, of course.

Here are some of the things that have spoken to me very strongly in this text (there is by far much more than what I’ll write):

1) The Year of Jubilee is not anti-capitalist. I am a capitalist. I believe in the positive effect of competition and acknowledge that people act out of self-interest, like any good capitalist. But I am a Keynesian capitalist, not a neo-liberal. In other words, I believe there should be government regulations in the economy, not a total free market.

Leviticus 25 assumes that people would buy and sell land (v14), worry about their businesses/fields (20-22), sell homes (29), and engage in banking/lending practices (36-37). Only a few things are prohibited, such as lending at interest to fellow Hebrews (37) and selling pastureland (34). This is not without parallel in our society (regulations on interest rates, not allowing people to sell their organs or bodies). Then, the Jubilee prescribes regulation on these things. These regulations certainly go farther than we are used to but are not completely unheard of. For example, the highly debated estate tax is a form of redistributing wealth acquired during a person’s life back into the community at large.

2) Conduct our business with a certain integrity. When any of the transactions I listed earlier were to take place, they would be done “on the basis of the number of years since [or remaining until] the Jubilee.” (15) Thus, capitalist transactions would not increasingly cause a gap between the rich and poor, as we have now. Sider writes that the Jubilee was “…an institutionalized mechanism to prevent the kind of economic divisions where a few people would possess all the capital while others had no productive resources.”

I’m not suggesting Jubilee is the solution, but it does present a standard. Do not profit off selling to people in their time of need. I do not think we have to follow this strictly and not sell food above its cost or to not charge any interest—we don’t just grow things in a field and carry them to the market now. However, I’ll argue that this seriously indicts predatory lenders. Payday loan stores, used car lots that lend to people with poor credit at high interest, mortgage lenders that have confusing pay structures that often end up in repossession. They prey on the poor. Also, jacking up the price of bread or water after a hurricane is another obvious example. That is a business practice lacking in Biblical integrity. And there are many others.

3) Redistribution is a Biblical concept. Specifically of land, homes, and businesses. The land that was given as an inheritance to an Israelite clan represented every aspect of their livelihood. They raised their kids there; worked/ran a business there; lived in a dwelling; received much of their education on their own property. Far too often today, people, and specifically poor people, either don’t even have the luxury of these thigns, and if they do, have it on someone else’s terms. I honestly believe in the need for those who have acquire large chunks of land, usually at someone else’s expense (even if it was several hundred years ago), to give or sell some of it away to those who are landless. I don’t suggest we enforce this like in Zimbabwe (google “Zimbabwe land redistribution”). There’s no magic formula of how or how much. But there is a dignity in people that demands it.

I also think it makes practical sense. The owners of decrepit city housing rarely live there themselves and have no incentive to take care of their property. The people living there have less incentive to care about their community when they have no ownership. Ownership is a prerequisite for many community improvements.

4) The larger issue of redistribution is ownership. God owns the land. In explaining the Jubilee system, God says in verse 23 that “the land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” Psalm 24:1 declares that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”

Redistribution under the Jubilee meant land going back to whom GOD gave it. Sider writes this: “It was the poor family’s right to recover their inherited land at the jubilee. Returning the land was not a charitable courtesy that the wealthy might extend if they pleased.” Today, we are still mere tenants of the land and have the same responsibility to perform our role as stewards in a way that honors God. Perkins believes that justice is “being good stewards of God’s earth and resources… our working to make these resources open and available to all of God’s creatures.”

5) The Year of Jubilee is liberation! Say this to yourself 10 times fast. It is easy to see it as a burden, not a privilege, to give up ownership of something and put it in the hands of someone else. It might be even more difficult to keep what you have but call God its rightful owner and put God in charge of your resources. But Jubilee is liberty. In Leviticus 25, it is liberty for the servants and slaves from their servitude; for the land from farming; for poorer families from renting and working others’ land. But is it not also liberty for the giver? There is a need to constantly cut the cord that so quickly forms between ourselves and our stuff, net worth, and possessions. In my very limited experience, when I am struggling with stewardship, what liberates me is not adding to my savings account, but giving from my plenty. Generosity does not have a positive correlation with financial comfort and financial freedom. If you want freedom, be generous and declare a Jubilee of some kind in your own life.


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