Israel’s Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 are some of my favorite in the Torah. By contemporary capitalist standards, they are just plain ridiculous. In in any context, not least a fragile ancient near eastern economy, their call for radical and sacrificial generosity toward the poor is challenging. If the foundational principle of God’s ownership is taken seriously, the legislation makes sense, but obedience is still costly. If Western Christians would live out the implications of these biblical truths, the world would stand in shocked awe and amazement; our stewardship would bear witness to the Lord who proclaimed liberty, and millions would be released from crushing poverty.
The foundational principles of Jubilee
Two truths form the basis of Jubilee commands. God explains it like this:
The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me (Leviticus 25:23 NLT).
The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves (Leviticus 25:42 NLT).
From these statements, we conclude:
- God owns everything, including the Israelites and their land. Therefore, land and people are not personal property; neither can be bought and sold.
- The Israelites are redeemed servants and dependent residents in God’s land. Therefore, all they think they have is really God’s; their security comes from him, and their service belongs to him.
These principles are the basis of all Israelite economics, especially the Jubilee. In the Year of Jubilee, both land and people are “released.”
Set this year apart as holy, a time to proclaim freedom [or “release”] throughout the land for all who live there. It will be a jubilee year for you, when each of you may return to the land that belonged to your ancestors and return to your own clan (Leviticus 25:10 NLT).
Every fiftieth year, those in debt slavery were to be released and those forced to sell property were to regain title to any family land so they could return and start fresh. For the debtor, this is a great deal (some might say too great, an undeserved “free lunch”). For the creditor or landowner (or for anyone chasing anything like the American Dream of personal prosperity), it’s a significant asset loss. Why would god command something so financially foolish (for the rich)? Because he has different values.
Reasons for the Jubilee
- It keeps families together
- It keeps family land in the family
- It prevents a perpetually rich upper class who can keep the poor poor.
When families fell into poverty they were often forced to sell their land (Lev 25:25-28), take on debt (25:35-38), or sell themselves into bonded service (25:39-43; 47-55) in order to survive. The Jubilee provided an opportunity, every generation, for struggling families to get back on their feet. It was not a free ride, but a chance to regain freedom and family land so they could support themselves.
In this way, the Jubilee aimed to prevent the rise of a wealthy elite class who maintained power over the poor and kept them in a perpetual and inescapable cycle of poverty. Even if difficult circumstances or financial foolishness left someone poor, their children would have a chance to start over.
The Jubilee, then, is about liberty and return, release and restoration. “Liberty from the burden of debt and the bondage it may have entailed; return both to the ancestral property if it had been mortgaged to a creditor and to the family, which may have been split up through debt servitude.”
How the Jubilee worked
If God owns everything, it follows that:
- You don’t sell land; you sell the produce of the land (25:14-17).
- You don’t sell slaves; you sell their labor (25:50-52).
Therefore, the price of “land” and “slaves” changes based on the number of years you will profit from them (how long you will reap harvests or benefit from a person’s labor).
More harvests/years of service Fewer harvests/years of service
- - > Time Line - - > Year of Jubilee
Land and slaves are worth more Land and slaves are worth less
- Every fiftieth year, debts are cancelled and everyone gets fresh start on their family land!
Did it ever happen?
The Bible doesn’t tell us. If it did, it was probably on a small scale and early in Israel’s history. The Jubilee assumes that families technically own their land. But when kings began to reign, they took much of the land and made people slaves or tenant farmers. Royal lands were neither redeemed nor returned to families. Despite this, the prophet Isaiah hoped for a day when Jubilee ideals would become reality.
Isaiah’s Vision of Jubilee
Isaiah envisions a time when the redeemed people of God will return to their own land singing songs of everlasting joy (35:9-10). This is Jubilee on a grand scale, release from the bondage for the whole nation!
Isaiah also declares that the Servant, whom God chooses to save his people, will bring justice, be gentle with the weak, and release captives (debtors?) who waste away in dark dungeons. This Servant will proclaim good news to the poor, comfort the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty (same word as “release” in Lev 25:10) for captives and freedom for prisoners (Isa 61:1-2; cf. 42:1-7; 58:6-7).
Jesus and Jubilee
When Jesus begins his ministry, he declares himself to be God’s anointed Servant and makes Isaiah 61 his Messianic Mission Statement (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus enlarges the meaning of the Jubilee; he fills it with spiritual significance but does not eliminate the social and economic aspects. In fact, he calls the poor blessed (Luke 6:20; Matt 5:3), releases people from physical and spiritual bondage (Luke 4:31-44; 5:12-26), and tells his disciples to lend freely (Luke 6:34-36) and forgive (relational and financial?) debts just as God forgives them (Luke 11:4; Matt 6:12; 18:21-35). All this is “good news to the poor” (Luke 7:18-22)!
If Jesus’ physical and spiritual liberation began the Jubilee that Isaiah hoped for, his followers continued that same liberating mission. They did not preach only about future blessing in heaven. Like Jesus, they made the reign of heaven real on earth. They shared all they had so that “there were no needy people among them” (Acts 4:34; cf. 2:42-47; Dt 15:4, 11)! In the community of Jesus, Jubilee had begun.
Applying Jubilee Principles
Few of us own slaves or have ancestral lands like those in Israel. And our economic system is different from both ancient Israel and first century Palestine. So how do we follow Jesus in proclaiming release to captives and the year of the Lord’s favor in the twenty-first century? Here are five suggestions:
- First, we should recognize that even though slavery is history in America and personal property rights are well protected here, such is not the case in most of the world. Gross injustices, such as debt slavery and land seizure, still happen in the developing world, and they trap families in cycles of inescapable poverty – inescapable unless, of course, someone comes to their rescue (see ijm.org).
- Our Christian ministry and missionary work should be as holistic as that of Jesus and his disciples. In other words, our evangelism should not be limited to sharing a message, although that message is crucial. It should also meet practical needs of the poor and secure justice for the oppressed. The kingdom has come, and is coming to earth now! The gospel is good news for life in this world: it propels us to meet practical needs in the present.
- God wants all people to have access to resources instead of all wealth being stockpiled by the rich (Luke 12:13-21). Stockpiling only leads to oppression and destruction of the powerless. Distribution of resources does not mean a handout for the poor, but a release from bondage and restoration of opportunity.
- God cares about families. The Jubilee kept families together and gave them the dignity and opportunity to prosper by their own efforts and to avoid the social ills that come from debt.
- It’s a spiritual issue. What did/would it take to make the Jubilee work? Recognition of God’s ownership. Reliance on his provision. Obedience to his will. Economic obedience grows out of faith that he will provide, as he promises, to those who submit to him. It also grows out of gratitude for God’s redemption and forgiveness (that’s why Jubilee was announced on the Day of Atonement – Lev 25:9). Our experience of extravagant redemption should lead us extravagant grace and generosity toward others (Matt 18:21-35).
What do you think of Israel's Jubilee laws? How might you personally to proclaim liberty?
 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 294.