The book of Leviticus contains a variety of laws and regulations to guide the infant nation of Israel. Many of these laws seem strange to us in the 21st century. But they were very applicable to people in the ancient Near East. Among these regulations were the Sabbath, the Sabbath Year, and the Year of Jubilee.
The Sabbath is the seventh day of the Jewish week. It was instituted on Mt Sinai and intended as a rest day. Neither the people nor their animals were allowed to work on this day. This idea of rest on the seventh day is itself based on the seventh day of creation. On this day, God rested from his work of creation.
The Sabbath Year
The Sabbath Year is defined in Leviticus 25:1-7. For six years, Israel could plow, plant, and harvest. But the seventh year was to be different. In the seventh year, you were not to plant your fields. Neither were you supposed to harvest them. Nor could you tend or harvest your vines. The land was not to be worked at all. You could, however, pick and eat what the land produced by itself.
The Sabbath Year was really an extension of the Sabbath. It was a time to allow the land to rest. It also offered an extended opportunity for the people, their servants, and their livestock to rest. Interestingly, it was also an opportunity for the wild animals to eat from your fallow fields.
Did Israel ever observe the Sabbath Year? The Scripture is mostly silent concerning this. The only clue comes from piecing together a number of passages. First is Leviticus 26:34-35, 43. Here Israel was told that if they rebelled against God and his commands, they would be taken away from the land. And that while they were gone, the land would enjoy the sabbath years it did not have while they lived in the land. In 2 Chronicles 36:21, we read that this happened for the 70 years Israel was in Babylon, in fulfillment of what was spoken in Jeremiah 25:11-12. So, while they may have observed the Sabbath Year for a while, it would appear that it did not last long.
The Year of Jubilee
Right after the Sabbath Year was commanded, God gave instructions for the Year of Jubilee. In Leviticus 25:8-55 and Leviticus 27:16-25, God laid out how this year was to be observed. This ‘Year of Jubilee’ is keyed to the Sabbath Year observance. At the end of seven Sabbath Year cycles, or 49 years, is to be a 50th year set aside as the Year of Jubilee.
A number of things were to happen during this year. First, the land would lay fallow for a second year in a row. This might seem like it would be a hardship, but God promised them that if they did this, the land would produce such a bountiful harvest in the sixth year that they would be able to eat from the harvest for three years, giving them plenty of opportunity to plant and grow their crops following the two fallow years.
More significantly, the Year of Jubilee was a time to forgive debts. It was a time for the land to be restored to the original owners and for slaves to be freed. If you sold your farm to another person, during the Year of Jubilee, it would automatically revert to your ownership. If you sold your house out in the country, in the year of Jubilee, it would once again be yours. Or if you were poor and sold yourself into slavery, at the Year of Jubilee, you would be freed.
More Like Leasing than Selling
Of course, there is a catch to this law. The price you could obtain for your property, or self, was based on the length of time until the Year of Jubilee. Only if Jubilee has just gone by could you get full price. If it were only a year away, you would only get about 2% of the full price.
Today, we might think of this as leasing. The land was never to be permanently sold. Essentially the land was being leased to someone else for a fixed number of years. You were actually selling them the number of crops that could be harvested during that time. Or selling your own services for a fixed number of years.
Purpose of the Year of Jubilee
So what, if any, was the purpose of the Year of Jubilee? It actually served a very important and useful function in the life of a rural culture. The only real things of value that the people would have are their land, their homes, and themselves. And if they lost those, then they had nothing. And worse yet, they had no prospects of ever getting out of poverty.
The Year of Jubilee served to ensure that those who, for some reason, became poor and had to sell what they had, were not forced to remain in that state forever. Eventually, they, or their descendants, would once again regain possession of their valued property.
So the Year of Jubilee, if observed properly, would ensure that the poor did not continue to get poorer without any recourse. And, at the same time, preventing the wealth of the nation from residing in just a few hands.
Was It Ever Actually Observed
Like the Sabbath Year, I find no record in the Scripture that the Year of Jubilee was ever observed. That does not mean that it was not, however. But since the Year of Jubilee was tightly connected with the Sabbath Year, the same argument applied to the Sabbath Year also applies here.
The Year of Jubilee prevents the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few. But those who have accumulated wealth and power would naturally resist giving up that wealth and power every 49 years. As you read the Old Testament prophets, you find that one of their primary charges was that the rich were abusing the poor. The powerful would not consider the Year of Jubilee to be in their best interest. And since they were in power, they would be able to ignore this obligation.
Relevance for Today’s World
So what, if any, relevance does the Year of Jubilee have for today’s world? It seems like it would be a terrible idea to try and implement something like this in a highly mobile society with wealth largely independent of land.
I believe this practice has little direct application to us today, at least in the industrialized portions of the world. But that does not mean that we cannot learn something from it. Remember that the Year of Jubilee is meant to protect the poor. It acted as a safety net to prevent perpetual poverty and servitude.
It tells us that God cares about the poor. And that he wants us to have a country that cares about them as well. Not just providing them with handouts. But with real opportunities to escape their poverty and be productive members of society.
It is worth considering how we, as churches and as a society, can help people escape the endless cycle of welfare that many seem to be caught up in. What can we do to motivate, train, and provide opportunities for those willing to change their position in life? And maybe figure out how to convince those unwilling to change that they really need to. How can we implement the intent behind the Year of Jubilee in the U.S., or any other country, today?
This article first appeared on Christianity.com, August 6, 2019.