8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-13 CEB)
The practice of the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year are far from the only laws designed around equal economics. There are laws against charging interest on loans (Lev 25:36). There are laws against taking collateral on loans (Exod 22:25-27). There are laws against moving boundary markers between your property and your neighbour’s to expand your property (Deut 19:14; 27:17). There are laws making sure anyone can buy back their land at any time if they come up with the money (Lev 25:24-28). The Jubilee and Sabbath years are, however, among the most radical and so I want to give it a bit more focus here than others.
How the System Worked
For some background, we have to remember that wealth at this time is largely determined by real estate. They didn’t have savings accounts or investments in corporations. The idea of having money for the sake of having money is a very recent one. They did have a coin system, but wealth was still measured in what practical things you bought with those coins: cattle, wives, slaves, and especially land. Land also then became the main way for people to gain an advantage at the expense of others.
Many of the other laws would limit these attempts at exploitation, but it would still happen to some degree. Jubilee was essentially a giant reset button, wiping out trading of property that had been built up. It was not strictly speaking an elimination of debt. Those buying the land knew that they had to return it and they paid less accordingly. This mean that those who shrewdly took advantage of those in economic trouble were not particularly punished; they were just limited in how far they could go with this wealth-accumulation strategy.
It is true of course that some would get into debt through their own fault an we might be tempted to say that it isn’t really fair to “let them off the hook so easily.” I actually think it’s very fair. They still were forced to sell their land to make ends meet and in many cases they essentially sold themselves into slavery as well. The fact that they were limitations on how poor they were allowed to become for how long doesn’t mean that it would be anywhere near an easy experience for them. Besides, many others were the victims of injustice, not in poverty through any fault of their own. These people in debt would have to experience significant consequences – up until the next Jubilee – but there was still a guarantee that they would have a second chance. This is another great window into the heart of God: she may not suddenly and miraculously remove all of the consequences when we fall short and get ourselves in trouble or even when others hurt us, but there is always an opportunity for restoration.
There are a some details that we aren’t sure about. For one that is mostly academic, it is debatable whether it was the 50th year or whether it was the 49th, merged with the 7th of the 7 Sabbath years. The former would mean two straight years of not harvesting which could cause significant strain on the average person surviving on their agricultural output, if God did not provide in any miraculous way that is, but that does seem to be a more literal reading of the text. The latter would make more “common sense” but really having everyone take off an entire year every 7th isn’t exactly common sensical either. It doesn’t particularly matter in terms of what principles we can draw from it, though.
The Ideal and the Real
For another that does have some more interesting implications, we don’t know if or how often this was ever actually practised. Most today would probably look at this as a great idea in theory but too crazy to put into practice. The same is probably true of the Ancient Israelites. It may have been put into effect occasionally but there is no evidence that it was a consistent practice as commanded.
Previously I discussed how Jesus shows that the Law stooped to the hardened hearts of Israel. Perhaps this law didn’t stoop far enough and it gives us a prime demonstration of the gap between the ideal and the real. Of course we always want to strive after the ideal, but sometimes our context simply is not ready for it, so we settle for something more subversive, pushing in the right direction. That principle is really all through Scripture: the Law, the prophets, the Gospels, and maybe most strongly of all in the writings of Paul.
We could debate what if anything we should take from this law today. We are not a land-based economy, although we have no shortage of debt in various forms. Of course there is no government initiative to try to do the same as this law suggested. That would fly very much in opposition to our capitalist framework and I can’t even blame them for not attempting something so radical.
That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to live out the heart of Jubilee. We can find ways to level the playing field economically; some churches even go so far as to share all their money in common just like the early church did in Acts. We can find ways to limit the ways in which the rich exploit the poor around us, widening the gap when we as Christians should be seeking to reduce it. As usual, I’ll leave it open for you to figure out, ideally within your community, what that looks like in your context. Feel free to comment with ideas here.