The Year of Jubilee

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.

Economic Strain

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.

Contemporary Applications

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.

Jesus’ Wife

You have more than likely heard about a small fragment of papyrus that suggests that Jesus had a wife. The fragment was recently dated to be authentic from somewhere between 659 and 859 CE. Some who love conspiracy are saying that this proves Jesus had a wife but the Church buried it because that would give too much power to women. I have two thoughts in response to that.

Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment

From Wikipedia

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Singing Bad Theology

Most worship music I’ve found to be ecumenically-friendly. Even when I’m out worshipping with other branches of Christianity, I don’t see too many problems with the lyrics of the songs we sing. But being trained in theology, including worship planning, I do tend to notice lyrics that don’t fit with my theological understanding.

Here are just a few examples:

Continue reading Singing Bad Theology

Slavery in the Law

Slavery was completely acceptable and even expected in the Old Testament Law. It even seems on the surface to be supported in the New Testament, too. When people tried to abolish slavery in the United States and in England (including Canada as a colony), defenders of the practice didn’t have any problem finding passages to support their view. And yet we pretty consistently today agree that slavery of any type is wrong. So along with the general look at how the vulnerable are protected in the Law, I want to specifically focus on slavery.

Ancient Near Eastern Slavery

First, let’s get a grasp of their context. Slavery in the Ancient Near East was not the same as slavery in the Southern United States, which is what we usually think of when we hear slavery. It was not the same as a lot of slavery that exists today. It definitely wasn’t good to be a slave, so don’t get me wrong there, but it isn’t quite what we jump to. It wasn’t about race where one race enslaved another, as in the British Empire and the United States, although when a nation conquered another they could enslave some of their people as spoils of war.

Human Trafficking Map

Map of modern-day human trafficking severity.

The primary reason to be enslaved was economic. If I owed somebody money, I could pay off my debt by working for them for a set amount of time. I remember growing up and going out to restaurants when my family would joke that if we couldn’t pay for the meal we’d have to do dishes to pay it off (we didn’t have a dishwasher so that meant by hand). That’s the general concept – if you don’t have money, you’d pay by labour – but for a longer period of time.

If we were to fast forward to the New Testament, this makes sense of some of the things that Jesus said. He tells one parable where a servant is forgiven his huge debt by his master but refuses to extend that same forgiveness to another servant who owed him money. They are servants because they owe money, so the forgiveness that the master showed the first servant was more than just a $0 on a debt statement – it was freedom from service. Jesus also teaches us to pray that our debts are forgiven as we forgive the debts of others. Some translations change this word from “debt” and we who are free tend to read it as an abstract concept, but in the strictest context it is asking for the removal of literal monetary debts that led to slavery.

The Texts

So what kind of things did God’s Law say in these slavery conditions?

2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he will serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he will go free without any payment. 3 If he came in single, he will leave single. If he came in married, then his wife will leave with him. 4 If his master gave him a wife and she bore him sons or daughters, the wife and her children will belong to her master. He will leave single. 5 However, if the slave clearly states, “I love my master, my wife, and my children, and I don’t want to go free,” 6 then his master will bring him before God. He will bring him to the door or the doorpost. There his master will pierce his ear with a pointed tool, and he will serve him as his slave for life.

7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free. 8 If she doesn’t please her master who chose her for himself, then her master must let her be bought back by her family. He has no right to sell her to a foreign people since he has treated her unfairly. 9 If he assigns her to his son, he must give her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he may not reduce her food, clothing, or marital rights. 11 If he doesn’t do these three things for her, she will go free without any payment, for no money. (Exodus 21:2-11 CEB)

Let’s recap from this text and others:

Male Hebrew slaves serve for 6 years maximum. You could argue that they should be called servants more than slaves, definitely not a good place to be but as family they were treated well enough to survive and be free in a few years. Maybe we could think of it more like prison than slavery.

Female slaves were more complicated. There seems to be some conflict on if or when female slaves are released. The difference is probably whether or not the master has had sex with her. If he has, he is obligated to take her as a wife and treat her as well as any other wives (in the culture, you could have as many wives as you could afford to take care of). In today’s Western culture we might read this and think that it is forcing a woman to marry her rapist, something we definitely would not condone, but we should think in contrast to other nations at the time where women were bought for sex and then discarded whenever the buyer had had enough. Yes, she is considered property, but this law guarantees that she continues to live and live a reasonably good life rather than being forced into prostitution or begging. If the master hasn’t had sex with her, she can return to her father who would still be able to find a husband for her.

Foreigners could be enslaved for a longer period of time (Lev 25:44-46), but they were also protected in some ways. There may be some conflict here as well. In the Old Testament, when they are commanded to love their neighbour (Lev 19:18), it meant fellow Israelites, but this is something that Jesus would expand (Luke 10:25-37). Only slightly less blatant than the command to love neighbours, though, is Leviticus 19:33-34:

When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (CEB)

It is not directly saying that foreign slaves would have the same protections as Hebrew slaves and there is no evidence I’m aware of that the Ancient Israelites read it that way, but if you have to treat them like one of your own citizens, it isn’t a stretch to conclude that they still had to be treated reasonably well (with no details of what that means).

Finally, sanctuary was provided to any escaped slaves (Deut 23:15):

Don’t return slaves to owners if they’ve escaped and come to you. (CEB)

Hospitality was a big deal in the Ancient Near East. This wouldn’t have meant a simple passive not turning them in while not helping them either. If somebody comes to you for help, you help them in real practical ways like food and a place to rest.

Why Not Abolish?

The obvious question is why God wouldn’t have just commanded the end of slavery entirely. This is God’s chance to set the Law on what righteous living looks like. So assuming that slavery is a bad thing, why would God settle for regulating it instead of abolishing it entirely? This goes back to the idea of the heart of the Law. As Jesus demonstrated with divorce, God sometimes sinks to our hard-hearted levels for what is realistic in our context instead of the ideal. It isn’t that God’s ideal changed, just that God works with the level that we are at. Now, we are past the age where slavery was simply assumed. There are extremely few people who would suggest that we need to take these laws literally by reimplementing (regulated) slavery. But we can look at this principle of dignity for all – regardless of income, race, gender or anything else – and work in ways that best encourage this dignity.

The Vulnerable in the Law

21 Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22 Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. 23 If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry. 24 I’ll be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.

25 If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don’t be a creditor and charge them interest. 26 If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27 His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I’ll listen, because I’m compassionate. (Exodus 22:21-24)

Continue reading The Vulnerable in the Law

Lex Talionis

In Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:18-21, and Deuteronomy 19:21, the Israelites are given this principle called the lex talionis:

23 If there is further injury, then you will give a life for a life, 24 an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, 25 a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound. (Exodus 21:23-25 CEB) Continue reading Lex Talionis

The Theology of Child Abandonment

Yeah yeah, I know, I’ve already written lots about the backlash to World Vision’s recent announcement they would hire legally-married gay Christians. I promise I’ll move on soon – or at least I’ll try to – but I wanted to hit on something else that I got thinking about. It’s this question: what theology would it take to see holding children hostage as an acceptable – even necessary – option?

Continue reading The Theology of Child Abandonment

Culture War Casualties: 10,000 Abandoned Children

World Vision

Please support World Vision or similar organisations. Millions need your help.

World Vision has released an update on the damage done by the culture wars last week: 10,000 abandoned children. That’s just in the United States branch of World Vision.

Here’s how @TheAmericnJesus put it: that’s twice as many we stopped feeding in the name of theological purity as Jesus fed with absolutely no questions asked.

Continue reading Culture War Casualties: 10,000 Abandoned Children

Commandments 5-10

The final six commandments are much more obvious in their social justice purpose than the first four:

12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 Do not kill.

14 Do not commit adultery.

15 Do not steal.

16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:12-17 CEB)

Continue reading Commandments 5-10

Commandment 4: the Sabbath

We typically think of the Sabbath as a religious rule rather than a social one. Along with church tradition, of course, we have some biblical reason to think this way for sure:

8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 CEB)

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