The ‘Year of Jubilee’ first came to my attention through Ron Sider’s book ‘Rich Christians in an age of hunger’, published in 1978. It’s a challenging concept that, more recently, helped galvanise support for the Jubilee 2000 ‘Drop the debt’ campaign in persuading governments to reduce the debt burden on developing countries. In Leviticus 25 the Year of Jubilee is introduced along with a strong focus on redemption.
We need to understand the Year of Jubilee and redemption in the context of both God’s promise to give the Israelites ‘the land’ (v1) and His ongoing ownership of the land, ‘the land is mine’ (v23). The strong statements of v23-24, with the repeated use of the word ‘must’, stand out in this chapter:
“‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”
So while God has ‘given’ the land to the people, He reminds them that they are foreigners and strangers (aliens and tenants).
The Year of Jubilee was intended to be every 50th year, after seven series of seven years, each with their 7th year being a Sabbath year (vv8-12). ‘Everyone’ was to return to their family and to their property in the Jubilee year (vv. 10, 13). It was to be a special year, consecrated, holy, when liberty would be proclaimed throughout the land to everyone (v10). Effectively the 50th year was also a Sabbath year with no crops to be planted, the ‘volunteers’, i.e. ‘what grows of itself’, not to be eaten, but only what ‘naturally’ grew in the fields. Two Sabbath years in a row would be a tough interruption to the usual pattern of production, marketing and trading. (The challenge of one Sabbath year has already been explored in an earlier blog.)
The Year of Jubilee was not just to be some far-off occasion, it was to govern life in all the years between. Land was to be bought and sold on the basis of the number of years since the previous Year of Jubilee and until the next Year of Jubilee (vv. 15-16). The value of the land was related to the number of harvests the buyer would get from it before the next Year of Jubilee, being more expensive when there were more years to run. So essentially buying and selling land wasn’t about owning the land – it continued to belong to God – but about the land’s potential to produce.
Redemption is also a radical concept. The reality of changes in people’s circumstances so that they had to sell their ‘property’ was acknowledged. This was not to be a permanent loss. Redemption by either a relative, or by the owner themselves if their circumstances changed again, was possible. But if this didn’t happen then the property was to be returned in the next Year of Jubilee. This only makes sense when we remember that the land, and the cities too, were given to the people by God and that all property ultimately belonged, and belongs, to Him.
The principles and practices of redemption and the Year of Jubilee were also extended to houses and people. It seems that property which had potential to produce was to be ‘owned’ in a different way from ‘property’ that had no productive potential. Thus when houses in a walled city were sold and not ‘redeemed’ within a year, they belonged permanently to the purchaser (vv. 29-30). However houses in villages without walls were to be thought of as open country and therefore could not be sold permanently (v31). Maybe this was because village houses were connected to farmland with its productive potential. Redemption of fellow Israelites is also discussed and this was to be based on the number of years left to the Year of Jubilee, i.e. the length of time remaining for them to work for their ‘owner’ (vv. 50-52). Interestingly, however, while redemption was authorised when someone sold himself to a resident foreigner on the basis of the number of years to the Year of Jubilee, what occurred when they had sold themselves to a fellow Israelite is not discussed.
The Year of Jubilee was about justice, about ensuring that people who became poor and had to sell their land, their property and/or themselves, were restored and given an opportunity to start over. Those who, for whatever reason, acquired land and/or people, seem to lose out according to our modern sensibility and this seems unfair. But maybe the Year of Jubilee was about allowing personal abilities to be expressed. It may also have been about how not having access to assets need not/should not develop into permanent social disadvantage. As generations come and go each had a fresh opportunity to make the most of their ‘talents’.
We don’t know if the Year of Jubilee was ever put into practice. Ezekiel refers to the ‘year of freedom’ when land gifted by ‘the prince’ to a servant is returned (Ezekiel 46: 17). Ezekiel also refers to the principle that the people should not be separated from their property by the prince (Ezekiel 46: 18). Despite it not being fully implemented, the Year of Jubilee challenges us to consider our dependence on ‘the land’ for our basic needs and the processes within human society leading to disparity between the rich and the poor. It is probable that those who were rich, and therefore powerful, resisted handing back their acquired assets to those who, they would argue, weren’t able to use them as productively, etc. Not surprisingly our ‘fallen nature’ continues to be expressed in economic injustice in our world today.
But maybe there’s more for us to learn from this chapter? Given that the land and people are to be valued for their potential, we need to think more broadly about how the Year of Jubilee might be relevant in our day. Human rights, human trafficking and slavery of all kinds are rightly being addressed and this chapter, despite its limitations, provides strong arguments for working for an end to human trafficking and slavery.
The ‘land’ was a key resource when God gave it to the people of Israel. The land had the potential to provide food which could not only be eaten by farmers but also be traded, so contributing to the development of trading and marketing. But the ‘land’ also yields many other resources. Indeed the progress of civilisation has involved acquiring and exploiting ‘materials’ that are found in, or more often, under the land, and by extension the ‘seas’ too. Everything we have and use has its origin in the land and seas of our planet. Sadly we have paid scant regard to the finiteness of the earth’s resources. We are only beginning to think ‘long term’, i.e. sustainably, about how we use the earth’s resources. Essentially, this is what Leviticus 25 did and does. As God’s redeemed people, we should be willing, and even yearn, to understand that our planet as a gift from our God and to take responsibility for how we use what He has provided – for the good of ALL humankind and not just those who have the abilities and skills to exploit it.
Leviticus 25 was integral to the Israelites’ developing understanding of who they were, who their God was, is and will be, and how they were to relate to everyone and everything around them. In our reading of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we need to learn again that the Gospel is not just about us and our salvation, it’s about the Kingdom of Heaven, and about us fulfilling the role God gave us at the creation. In Genesis 2, where the abundance of the Garden of Eden is described, Adam and Eve were to ‘work’ the garden and ‘take care of it’. So it’s not just about what we get out of the land, it’s about the well-being of the land itself. In discussing redemption of their fellow countrymen at the end of Leviticus 25 (vv. 47-54), God states that the Israelites ‘belong’ to Him as ‘servants’ (v. 55). Jesus is not just our Saviour and Friend, He’s our Lord, and maybe we need to explore more fully how being managers of His world affects how we use and abuse the planet He has ‘given’ us.