The Year of Jubilee Leviticus 25:1-55


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Leviticus 25:1-55

Tonight’s reading, as you can see, is a lengthy one, some 55 verses. I’ll try to keep my comments to a minimum, though there are certain features of the laws contained in this chapter that require some explanation. Obviously, here too, as so often before in Leviticus, the legislation anticipates Israel’s life in the Promised Land.

I’m not entirely sure why, but the final three chapters of the book are arranged in an obvious chiasm. “Redemption” is a major theme in both chapters 25 and 27, indeed the word “redeem” occurs ten times in chapter 25 and 12 times in chapter 27. “Jubilee” is also a major theme and appears in Leviticus only in these two chapters, fourteen times in chapter 25 and six times in chapter 27. In between, in chapter 26, is a lengthy exhortation to covenant obedience. [Sklar, 297]

Much of what follows is based on the presupposition that both the ownership of land and family stability were essential to Israel’s welfare. The family is the foundation of society everywhere in the Bible and, in an agricultural society, land ownership was essential to long term economic health. But both family stability and land ownership were put at risk by debt. The great interest of these laws is that expressed in v. 41: that a man who had by debt been separated from his family and had lost his land, could and would recover them both.

Finally, take note of the importance of the Sabbath principle: not only the weekly Sabbath, but the so-called sabbatical year and the 50-year Sabbath. This rhythm of work and rest God built into the very fabric of life, the life of the earth, human life, and his people’s lives.

Text Comment

v.1       Note that this material, and that in the final three chapters, was delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai, not at the Tent of Meeting, where most of the content of Leviticus was revealed (cf. 1:1).

v.3       There were two prunings of the vines each year, both essential to the grape harvest. One in the winter when the shoots that had not produced grapes the previous year were cut off and a second in June or July when the new blossoms had already appeared. That second pruning is precisely described in Isaiah 18:4-10. [Levine, 170]

v.7       In other words, every seventh year the land got a rest, the farmer got a rest – though he could do other work that was not related to sowing and reaping – his workers got a rest and his animals got a rest. By this means God cared for his entire creation. The extent to which it was understood that this was healthy for the land, a device after all not dissimilar to modern practice of letting land lie fallow for a year or rotating crops, is unclear, but in actual fact it was good for the land and there is some evidence that the ancients knew that. [Levine, 272]

If the idea of the vacation has a biblical origin, it is here. The only way a farmer can take a vacation is if he is freed for a time from the agricultural cycle. Obviously the land and the seasons will not wait for him to return from Hawaii! Israel could trust the Lord to provide enough in the previous years to suffice in the seventh and whatever grew naturally in the field they could eat. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.” This point will be made explicitly in vv. 20-22.

v.10     “Jubilee” is a Hebrew word that comes from the word for the horn of an animal, the horn from which a trumpet was made. In all likelihood, the term was used for this year because a horn was blown to announce its coming or arrival.

v.12     You have noticed the multiples of seven. Every seventh year was one sort of year of rest, usually referred to as a “sabbatical year”; every fiftieth year – after seven seven-year periods – was a sort of super-sabbatical year. That year began on the Day of Atonement, itself a day of Sabbath rest and falling in the seventh month. It was also the day on which Israel was cleansed from her sins, making an appropriate beginning for a most sacred year. In any case, it appears, though this is not said in so many words, that they were to observe both the seventh year in the cycle, that is the 49th year, the ordinary sabbatical year, and then on top of that they were to observe the following year as a sabbatical year, the super-sabbatical year, the fiftieth year of Jubilee. In such a case, it would require two years of no sowing or reaping. This would happen ordinarily but once in any Israelite adult’s lifetime.

A man could eat what his own land produced of itself, but so could others. He could not regard that produce as strictly his own. [Levine, 172]

v.17     It is very clear what was intended with this law. No Israelite’s land could be sold permanently out of the clan or family. It always had to be returned to its original and rightful owners. All a buyer was buying was the use of the land for as many years as remained before the Year of Jubilee. Indeed, what was actually being purchased was what we would today call a lease, not the land itself. [Levine, 169] What the law provided for was a fresh start [Sklar, 301]. There are similar provisions in other ancient near eastern law codes, but they were not regularly situated in the calendar. They happened when a new king was enthroned or when he decided to proclaim such a release, usually in a time of crisis when he needed the support of the population. [Levine, 171-172]

Twice in these verses they are commanded not to wrong one another, or take advantage of one another, chiefly, no doubt, the buyer taking advantage of a desperate seller. “What the market will bear” was not the only principle to be applied to these transactions. The Lord will know what was done and will judge accordingly! In matters not easily enforced, the threat of divine judgment is a powerful motivation for doing what is right! [Levine, 173]

v.22     Grain can be stored for years without losing its nutritional value, as Joseph and the Egyptians understood!

After a short introduction in vv. 23 and 24, the remainder of the chapter explains how redemption worked, first for land that was sold to pay debts then for people who had to sell themselves into slavery to pay debt. Four situations are described, all of which are introduced by the phrase, “If your brother becomes poor…” (vv. 23, 35, 39, 47).

v.23     Here is the fundamental principle: the land cannot be sold because it belonged to the Lord! The Israelites were, in that way, tenant farmers. They could sublet the land, but they couldn’t sell it; it wasn’t theirs to sell.

v.28     In other words, if the man had the resources, either those of a relative or his own, he was always able to buy back the land at any time. What is more, he was required to buy it back. He couldn’t use the money for something else! [Levine, 175] The one who bought the land, or leased it, was then required to sell it, to return the land to its original owner. If that man had the means to buy it back; he could not refuse to sell at any time during the length of the lease. In any case, it always reverted to its original ownership in the 50th year. In other words, if no one else redeemed the land, the Lord would!

There were in those days as there are today, of course, a lot of ways to become poor. Crop failure, mistreatment by an oppressive neighbor, one’s own indigence, ill-health, and bad investments were a fact of life then as now. All could lead to foreclosure and the loss of one’s land. In ancient agricultural societies virtually all indebtedness was associated with the land. Often a farmer borrowed to plant in the expectation that he could repay once his harvest was in. It did not always work out that way. [Levine, 169, 178]

v.34     In other words, property in towns and cities was not subject to these provisions, but rural property, property closely tied to the land, was. But the Levites did not have land of their own, they only had towns; so in their case there was a perpetual right of redemption. Anyone buying a house from a Levite had to calculate the price with this proviso in view: it could be bought back from him by its original owner at any time and would revert to him in any case in the 50th year. The pasture-lands around the Levitical towns did not belong to individual Levites, they belonged to the Levites together, so they could not be sold even temporarily.

v.38     In this case the man had sold all his property and still had not discharged his debts. He thus depended on charity for his life. Creditors had to help the man, allowing him to work to discharge his debts and make it possible for him eventually to succeed doing so. No one, in other words, could be made “to owe his soul to the company store.” This kind of injustice has a long history and is still with us today, in which people with means take advantage of people without them and keep them in a state of perpetual servitude. This could not be done in Israel.

v.39     To sell oneself, to become an indentured servant as a means to repay debt, was the last resort of the desperate. This man had no relatives who could help him. He had no means by which to buy himself out of his debts. The buyers of such people were here required to treat them kindly and justly and, of course, to release them entirely from any obligations at the Year of Jubilee, if they had not already been able to redeem themselves. This law did not apply to slaves who were not Israelites.

v.42     Israelites could not become someone else’s servant in perpetuity because they were already the servants of the Lord.

v.43     “Ruthlessly” is the way the Egyptians were said to have treated the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. Israelites could not treat foreign slaves ruthlessly either, as we read elsewhere. Israelite masters were required by God’s law to treat their slaves justly and could be punished for failing to do so; were required to grant them rest on the Sabbath day, and even to treat them with compassion (Deut. 15:12-15; 16:11-12). [Levine, 179; Sklar, 308] After all, they had personal experience of slavery to cruel masters!

All of this tempers the reaction of the modern reader to the entire idea of slavery as a custom in Israel. In such cases as these, the term “slavery,” as it is ordinarily understood in modern usage, does not accurately describe the person’s true condition, which was carefully guarded by the law, which could be ended as soon as the means of redemption were at hand, was a vehicle by which the debtor could extricate himself from his debt, and was always temporary. Absent disobedience to the law, the situation of this man was hardly different from that of many employees in a modern cash economy such as ours.

v.55     In other words, even if the man who buys the services of an Israelite debtor is a foreigner and not an Israelite, the laws of redemption and jubilee still apply. No one else could permanently own an Israelite, because they were the Lord’s people. The Lord might rent them to someone else, but they never stopped being his.

The provision of the Sabbath Year provided the people of God with hope. However bad things became, the pain was always temporary. A new day was coming! [Ross, 450] In that way the law of jubilee also served a still higher purpose. The Sabbath Day every week was to be and is to be still today a foretaste of heaven. That point is made in a variety of way in the Old Testament and again in Hebrews 4. And so the seven year Sabbath and so the Jubilee Sabbath.

“The prophets speak of a day when all will be made right, a day when ‘everyone will sit under [his] own vine and under [his] own fig-tree (Mic. 4:42; cf. Zech. 3:10). The Year of Jubilee was to be a foretaste of that great day. All the Israelites would return to their own land, surrounded by their own families, having no debts, enjoying a year of Sabbath rest, looking forward to years of safety and prosperity in a land flowing with milk and honey, and living in soul-satisfying fellowship with their covenant Lord, the one they acknowledged as sovereign over the land and themselves. In short, the Year of Jubilee looks backward to Eden and forwards to heaven.” [Sklar, 311]

There is something fundamental about these laws of sabbatical years and jubilee, in that they reflect something basic about life in the kingdom of God. Christians are themselves to live a life of fresh starts, new beginnings, as we look forward to the greatest of all possible new beginnings! Indeed, whether we are speaking of each and every day – “the mercies of the Lord are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness” – or of periods of our lives – “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” – we are taught from the beginning of the Bible to the end that there will be in our experience as the people of God hard times and times of happy renewal, times of trial and times of trial’s end, times of grueling work and times of rest.

This, by the way I think, is why the Psalms – so many of which are either prayers uttered in times of difficulty and trial or prayers of thanksgiving for the dawning of a new day – are as general as they are. They must be useful to all God’s people in the thousand and one situations in which we find ourselves in life. The laws of jubilee primarily have to do with the trial and affliction of debt, but there are a great many other troubles that weigh us down in life. If the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” were only useful for those whose loved ones had died in the sinking of a ship in the North Atlantic, few would sing it because few could enter into its message. So the circumstances of the ship disaster are left out of the hymn, the woe is generalized as it is in the Psalms so that it becomes useful to everyone. It is not difficult for any Christian to know how “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” might precisely and beautifully apply to his or her circumstances. This idea of suffering, but only for a time, is found everywhere we look in Holy Scripture. The laws of jubilee enshrined that theological reality – that God would come to the aid of his people – in one particular set of circumstances. It was a predictable set of circumstances; it must have happened not infrequently; but no doubt there were many people who benefitted from the hope of a new morning, enshrined in these laws, who never lost their land or their freedom because of debt.

That, of course, raises the obvious question: “how often did Israel actually observe these laws? In fact there is precious little evidence that these laws of jubilee were faithfully observed. There is some evidence that in times of spiritual reformation these laws would have been observed, as, for example, in the days of King Hezekiah of Judah. In 2 Kings 19:29, for example, we find a statement that may derive from what we find here in vv. 20-22. But we read in 2 Chronicles 36:21 that the people of God were eventually exiled to Babylon so that the land could finally enjoy its Sabbaths, seventy years of rest. That rather obviously suggests that the people had not given the land its Sabbaths, which is to say, had not been observing the sabbatical year or the year of jubilee. And clearly at the end of Israel and Judah’s history, before the Assyrians and the Babylonians brought an end to them as independent kingdoms, there was a class of wealthy landowners, people who had accumulated large amounts of Israelite land, the very circumstance the laws of Leviticus 25 were intended to prevent.

After the exile, we read in Nehemiah 10:31 that the Jews agreed to observe the sabbatical year and there is some evidence in 1 Maccabees and Josephus that the sabbatical year was observed in the period between Nehemiah and the time of Jesus. But we don’t really know how faithfully it was observed. [Ross, 454]

But apart from all of that, we may also consider this legislation for the principles it enshrined and instilled in the hearts of faithful men and women. There are quite a number of these, are there not?

  • There is first the principle of equity. It would be a mistake to attempt to make Leviticus 25 a manifesto of some modern economic system. It is not socialism, for example, because fundamental to this whole system is private property, the personal ownership of land and other property. But it is not modern capitalism either because other principles apply besides those of market forces. People may speak of the invisible hand of the market, but the invisible hand of God is much more important to God’s people. And God does not allow his people to take the advantage over others that the market might otherwise permit them to do. What is more, the law of jubilee absolutely destroys the possibility of hoarding capital. After all, so much of Israel’s wealth was in the land and the land had to be returned; it could never be permanently transferred.

The principle of Leviticus 25 is this: “A holy nation treats its members justly and humanely and does not tolerate widespread poverty or disenfranchisement.” [Levine, xvi] That is not capitalism. A market economy might be organized according to that principle, but capitalism per se says nothing about how people are to be treated. But how people are treated is uppermost in the interest of the Lord! What market forces will bear was not an adequate measure of a transaction to be entered into between two Israelites. “You shall not wrong one another” and “You shall not rule over him ruthlessly” are likewise to be principles of Israel’s economic life. Most capitalist titans have been pretty ruthless and have cared little about how their accumulation of wealth might have been harmful to other human beings. But God would not have his people conduct their affairs with such indifference to the welfare and happiness of others. Sinners saved by grace, sinners released from their own bondage by God’s merciful intervention, have to live by a different set of principles!

In any case, the Lord would not tolerate any of his people being ruined for good. And when that finally happened in Israel and Judah, his judgment fell on those kingdoms with terrible severity. That eventuality, capital being accumulated in the hands of a few wealthy people acting to the detriment of the poor is otherwise so likely that it has come to pass in every society in the history of the world. But it could not come to pass in Israel if the law of God was obeyed. [Wenham, 317]

I think this is a principle that resonates with most all people, not just Christians. There is a principle of fair play, a principle that prevents the powerful to accrue benefits to themselves at the expense of the weak that must be almost universally held. Otherwise politicians at all points of the spectrum would not at least give lip service to it. I do not say that they live by this code; only that, at some level, they realize that they ought to.

  • Second, there is here and very obviously, an expectation that debts will be repaid. We find this everywhere in the Bible. For a Christian the assumption of debt is to be undertaken very cautiously precisely because our debts must be repaid. Surely it is worth our careful note that God did not require, as he might have, debts simply to be forgiven in the laws of jubilee. He required them to be repaid! He required repayment even if that meant that one of his people had to sell himself into bondage so that he might repay the debt by his work. What is more, let this sink in: the land reverted to its original owner every fifty years. Not tomorrow, not next week, not even next year or next decade. The redemption without full payment of what was due only occurred each half-century! I have been the pastor of this church for thirty-seven years. I am still thirteen years short of fifty years. Fifty years is a long time.

In the modern context we tend to notice the law of jubilee because it strikes us as particularly compassionate legislation. And so it is. But fundamental to the entire legal system of jubilee was the requirement that debts must be repaid! Surely in our world of bankruptcy laws, it ought to be the case – it isn’t but it ought to be – that lenders would ask first if the one seeking the loan is a Christian. The bank would want to know that because it could count on Christians repaying their debts. It is what Christians do. I’ve been dealing with a lot of paperwork from a lender because I am co-signing a note for one of my children. It is amazing how many papers you have to sign, how many obligations you have to indicate that you are willing to undertake, but I haven’t seen anywhere in all of those papers from the Bank of America a question that asks me to sign my name to the promise that I am a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ, an assurance the bank would require so as to assure itself that its loan would be repaid come wind, come weather. Wouldn’t it be grand if the bank required just that one paper because it had learned through long experience that Christians always repay their debts. No paper like that in all the paperwork I’ve been signing the last few days, sad to say.

Again, this is a principle a lot of non-Christians realize is fundamental to just dealings, to human flourishing, and to the stability of society. We will find out in a few months whether and to what extent life will change for the Greeks because they incurred debts they cannot repay, debts any reasonable person should have seen long before they would be unable to repay. But why worry about Greece. Every European country, every South American country, most Asian countries are in precisely the same fix for precisely the same reason. They incurred debts that have made them slaves to fortune. But, then, why should we worry about Europe, South America and Asia, when we as a people have incurred 18 trillion dollars of debt and are adding 2 billion dollars of debt to that total every day. We have borrowed and are borrowing unheard of sums of money simply to pay our living expenses. Does anyone in the United States of America really think we are going to repay that debt without immense social and political dislocation? We’re borrowing money we’re never going to repay. We are blithely continuing to borrow even though our debt has gotten so large as to be beyond anyone’s ability to fathom. In the Bible debts must be repaid. Most people realize this, however foolishly they may conveniently forget the principle when it serves their personal interest.

  • Third, there is enshrined in this law as in so many of Israel’s laws and, indeed, the laws of Holy Scripture from beginning to end, the place of the family as the foundation of human society and of human welfare.

What is obvious in Leviticus 25 is that basic to all of these economic transactions is the importance of securing the long-term welfare of Israel’s families. It was not only that the land had to be returned; it had to be returned to the family that owned it. The Lord was, in other words, taking steps to ensure that one man’s misfortune or foolishness did not cause long-term instability or harm to his family. Why? Because the family, more than any other institution, was essential to the personal welfare and happiness of the people of God.

 

Again, there is nothing here that non-Christians have not seen the truth and wisdom of through the ages. You know, a great many of our laws in the United States used to be reflections of this same insight and understanding. All kinds of laws protected the interests of the family. For example, it was difficult to get a divorce in years past, not because the state didn’t care if people were happy in their marriages, but because the state understood it was much more important to individuals and to society that families be preserved and protected. Home ownership was encouraged by various laws and tax rules because it was thought helpful to family stability if families could live in their own homes. Much of this legal system is being dismantled in our time and precisely because, as a people, we no longer have the same convictions about the importance of the family as the foundation of a just and prosperous society. We have become far more a society of individuals rather than a society of families. We’ll see how that turns out! Early indications are not promising.

But there are as well principles embedded in this legislation that only the people of God will appreciate or be willing to incorporate in their way of life. It is a confirmation of much teaching of the Word of God, how instinctive it is to the human heart because we have all been made in the image of God. We all think about justice the same way – at least when it pertains to us! –, at many points, and particularly at fundamental points we share an ethical system, and so on. But there comes a parting of the ways and there are fundamental convictions bearing on our behavior that Christians do not share with unbelievers, at least not in any meaningful way.

And chief among those enshrined in the law of jubilee is that of divine judgment. Why, after all, do you suppose that the law of jubilee was so widely disobeyed and ignored in Israel? We hear nothing of it in the Book of Judges, or, for that matter in Samuel. We don’t hear of its being obeyed in Kings, except perhaps that one hint that Hezekiah, the reforming king, turned Israel back to the practice during his reforming administration. Surely the reason is obvious!

Why should a man surrender what he bought and paid for simply because a certain year has arrived? Why should a person’s investment be undone by some arcane requirement that the land be returned to its original owner? Why should I suffer for having bailed out a man who got himself into debt by his own mismanagement or misfortune? Or, considering how we always like to justify our own positions as high-minded, why should a society encourage irresponsibility by indemnifying debtors against perpetual loss?

Well, how’s this for a reason: the Almighty will punish you if you don’t, you pipsqueak! The only reason given here for observing these regulations that, in some respects, favor the debtor over the lender, is: “You shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.” And the reasons why this entire set of laws was published are such things as: 1) “the land is mine,” says the Lord in v. 23; and 2) “for they are my servants,” say the Lord in v. 42. Obviously these considerations change everything. And if you had ever been there to see what Jerusalem looked like after the Babylonians had burned it and then tore it down so that not one stone was left standing on another, you would realize finally how significant it was to God that Israel had not given the land its Sabbaths.

And in a thousand other ways it changes the calculation of human life and our behavior to recognize that God does not judge our conduct according to our own calculations of profit and loss. He judges our conduct according to his laws, his own conception of what is just and right, and according to the commitments he has made and published in his Word.

It happens almost every day. Some notable person dies and an article about his life appears in the newspaper or an online newsfeed. He was famous for this; she received this award or that; he invented this or she sang that famous song; he played in these films or she played in those; he won the Nobel Prize for this or that; he served in this political office or that, and so on. It is invariably worldly success that makes a person worthy of note. A hero of mine died in earlier this month. Stan Freberg, the television personality of the 1950s and 60s, often called the father of the funny commercial, was the comedian whose parody of early American history was listened to so often in the Rayburn family when I was growing up that we all knew it by heart and would inject “Frebergisms” into our conversation at the drop of a hat. We knew, when others didn’t, that Columbus didn’t sail to America to discover a new route to the Indies; his dream was to open the first Italian restaurant in the new world. We knew when others didn’t that we eat Turkey at Thanksgiving because of a ghastly mistake made at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, when the Turkey was put in the oven by mistake. Everyone was looking forward to roast eagle with all the trimmings, but they had to settle for Turkey. Because it looked kind of scrawny the cook stuffed some old bread it in to make it look fatter.

Freberg was the son of a Baptist minister and though active in television during the 50s and 60s, the golden age of cigarette smoking, wouldn’t accept advertising revenue from a cigarette company. He poked fun at all manner of American foibles and anticipated some others that hadn’t even been anticipated that the time, such as political-correctness. He sang a very funny version of “Old Man River” changed in line after line to satisfy the censors. “Old Man River, he must know somepin, but he don’t say nothin,” ended up: “Elderly man river, he must know something, but he doesn’t say anything,” and so on. It is that sort of thing that you read about when a person of some celebrity dies. That is what we tend to remember, in what way a person may have touched our lives or, in the case of Stan Freberg, in what way he made us laugh.

Like a host of other celebrities and people of note month by month, Stan Freberg is now gone. And he’ll be followed by others and still others more in the weeks and the months to come. And now what? The fact that he was a successful advertising man or a humorist whose radio shows and records were listened to by millions, or the fact that he was an influential politician or she a popular singer, what will that mean now? Precious little, I suspect. But how he treated others, whether she revered God, whether he ordered his life according to the Word of God and the will of God, that will matter immensely. That will tell a tale of a person’s life. It will be the measure of that life so far as the next world is concerned.

If there is a greatest of all lessons in Leviticus 25, it is surely this! “You shall not wrong one another.” Why? “You shall fear your God.”