The Jubilee is an economic concept which fits a medium-sized population in the land. In other words, it is unclear how this set of Torah laws would work as the number of Israelites would have increased into the millions and eventually tens or hundreds of millions.
The idea of Jubilee is that the land belongs to God who assigns agricultural parcels to clans within Israel. Land my not be sold, but only leased based on the number of years remaining until the next Jubilee. In the Jubilee year (every 50th year) all land returns and all Israelites return “to their holdings.”
This is one of many ideas in Torah which does not seem to be a timeless principle, but a law bound in history, fitting the Iron Age culture well. The laws of Jubilee were not practiced in biblical times or afterward. So the world never go to see what would happen if this idealistic economic system had been practiced.
But what endures in the Jubilee laws, what matters even today far beyond the smaller populations and agriculturally based economies of the Iron Age world, is simple. Jubilee is about something God alone can give to humanity. All our centuries of technology and evolving methods for raising food have not resulted in a perfect distribution. The prophets decried social injustice and called for a system in which everyone had the ability to sustain themselves. They pointed to a future time when God would cause the world to exist in a perfect economic balance, where every person would sit under their own vine and fig tree.
While waiting for God to fix the world’s economy, Torah reveals a law within Israel that speaks ethically beyond the borders of Israel. Governments have a responsibility to provide systems which allow all people access to meet their basic needs. There is not a specific prescription for an economic or governmental system here, just a call for equal treatment under the law (though admittedly this was limited in the days of Torah), a concern to allow the poor a means to redeem their situation, and a responsibility for those who have their needs met to look out for the needs of others.
Sabbath years when the land rests (1-7), Jubilee years (8-12), return to clan estates (13).
The law of Sabbath years (every seventh year in the land) says literally that “the land will observe a Sabbath rest as a Sabbath to Adonai” (וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה veshavtah ha’aretz shabbat l’Adonai). The land is personified, as if it can be like a person or animal, engaged in resting. Perhaps the reason for putting the land as the active subject of the sentence has to do with the emphasis of the author of this section (referred to as H, an unknown priest in the latter half of Hezekiah’s reign) on the holiness of the entire land due to God’s Presence within it.
Sowing, pruning, and harvesting are allowed in six year cycles, but must cease every seventh year. The strongest word for abstaining from work is used: the land must observe a Shabbat Shabbatōn (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, a Sabbath of complete rest). In Leviticus 23, only the weekly Sabbath and Yom Kippur were called Shabbat Shabbatōn.
It is difficult to understand how vs. 5 (“you shall not harvest”) can be consistent with vss. 6-7 (“you may eat”). The most likely meaning (so Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) is that the owner may harvest an amount sufficient for his household with its slaves and workers and immigrant workers living on the land. But he may not use any for offerings at the sanctuary or to store beyond the year or sell.
Unlike the laws in Exodus 21, the Sabbath year law here does not mention a release of slaves. Milgrom discusses this at length. The reader must decide when reading Torah whether to view the laws as if they were all given in the days of Moses and form one system of law (which the text implies by continually attributing the laws to Moses) or if there are changes within the Torah representing laws given at different times. On a number of matters (must Israel have only one sanctuary or are multiple ones permitted, what must be tithed and to whom are tithes paid, can animals be slaughtered anywhere in the land for food or only at an altar, what are the rules for Israelite slaves) Torah gives laws that are difficult to reconcile.
Milgrom argues that the release of the Israelite slave (who sold himself due to debts owed) is not mentioned in Leviticus 25 because these laws assume that debt slavery has been abolished. The laws which will fill out the rest of this chapter replace the earlier law of debt servitude.
As for the concept of Jubilee, the idea of it is ancient and it may have been first proposed in the time of H (the latter half of Hezekiah’s reign) when wealthy landowners began acquiring the land of small farmers on a large scale. Prophets such as Isaiah complain about the social injustice of it (see especially Isaiah 5:8, “those who attach house to house and field to field, till there is no room for anyone but you to live in the land!”). The heart of the Jubilee concept is that land holdings belong to God who has assigned them permanently to clans within tribes (see Numbers 26 for an ancient list of lands and the clan system). Land cannot be sold, but only leased until the next Jubilee year. The Torah gives a system of land redemption redemption rules taking into account the possibility of a downward cycle of poverty (25:25-28 35-38, 39-43).
When land is lost through transactions, debt, deaths without heirs, and so on, the ideal is that it will in some way be kept in the name of the clan and restored when the clan has heirs to claim it. This is called redemption (and is the issue in the book of Ruth with Naomi having her land redeemed and kept in the clan through Boaz). The ideal process of land redemption is a picture of dwelling in the land in messianic days, which is why in Ezekiel 47-48 the tribes all have a messianic land inheritance.
Can God legislate what we do with our money and how we conduct our business? Leviticus 25:14 says, “you shall not cheat your fellow” (אַל־תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו ‘al-tonu ish et-achav, literally “a man shall not cheat his brother”).
The Jubilee principle in Torah is that land belongs to God, is assigned to clans forever within the people of Israel, and no land may truly be sold but only leased until the next Jubilee year. However, Torah considers the possibility of someone “cheating” a fellow Israelite. How could this happen if everyone in Israel understands the Jubilee system?
The answer would seem to be that wealthy and powerful people might claim not to be bound by the Jubilee. They might assert their own power over God’s ethical requirement. We find a similar disregard for ethical requirements in a modern proverb, “It’s not personal; just business.” But as all business affects persons, so all business should be conducted as ethically as possible.
Return of estates to clans and families.
This is an economic system of family-based agriculture which prevents a growing class of elite landowners. Israel’s early economy was based on small landholdings and in time the monarchy created a system of land owned by the nobility. See, for example, David seizing Meribaal’s land (2 Sam 16:4; 19:30) and Ahab seizing Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kgs 21).
Samuel the prophet warned that monarchy would lead to a change in the economy (1 Sam 8:10-17). The Jubilee system, if followed, would result in an economy of equally distributed opportunity and provision. Although we have no evidence the Jubilee laws were observed and although there are contradictions and problems which cannot be sorted out, the intent of the laws is clear: the Holy One envisions a world of agricultural abundance and provision for all. Israel was commanded to practically work out a system that made the economic ideal a reality.
“They will sit, every man, under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,” said the eighth century prophet Micah (4:4). In the book of Micah, this promises comes right after a famous section, echoed in Isaiah 2:1-4, about a future time when the temple mount will become the place of pilgrimage for the nations (“many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the house of Adonai’”). The prophecy is looking forward to an ideal future of rest and plentifulness.
“Vine” and “fig tree” are common images for an ideal life in the ancient world. To be able to sit peacefully on one’s own land and enjoy the wine and fruit is something to yearn for. So many of the elements of death and sin in the world step in and ruin this simple dream. Competition, greed, war, the desire to dominate, to possess what belongs to others, to acquire endlessly and have ascendancy. People ruin each other’s dreams.
God has an ideal. The good things in this life can be enjoyed without all the competition and threat to one’s basic livelihood. The covenant people Israel are the example and the land of Israel is the testing ground. Can a people maintain and close relationship with God, attaining in our present inadequate state of knowledge to total harmony with the divine realm? For God to remain in the midst of a people, that people must preserve an environment that will not offend and drive God away.
The laws of the Sabbath year and Jubilee are examples of agricultural idealism. They are based on the supernatural. God will send extra crops in the sixth year to help Israel weather the gap. God will provide security and abundance to keep the clans of Israel forever settled on their land. But it only works long term if the people of the covenant can keep the covenant.
Given that God is all-knowing, the inevitability of Israel’s failure has to have been expected. What do we as human beings learn about ourselves from the failure of a people to live up to a supernatural promise? The lessons of the Torah covenant show us why we cannot make heaven on earth and reveal to us that something beyond ourselves will be needed if humanity is to achieve a potential we can envision but not accomplish.
Blessing of abundance and security in the land throughout he covenant (25:19), plentifulness as a reward for resting the land (20-22), the main principle of Jubilee and land-redemption (23-24).
The land of Israel is a bridge between Syria and Egypt, a small strip of semi-desert land which can become lush with crops in years of good rain. The covenant with God is largely based on rainfall. In years of good rain, Israel’s economy would thrive and the blessings of a good crop extend far beyond just having ample food. Added to the promise of rain, God gave the people supernatural protection from enemies through his Presence in the land, provided they observed the stipulations of his covenant. All of this is succinctly explained in 25:19 and will be elaborated on in 26:3-13.
But the specific question comes up in 25:20-22, what will the people eat if they obey the law of Sabbath years? Since law required them not to sow a crop in seventh years, they would have the interval from the harvest time in the sixth year until the harvest of the eighth with no new crop to use as food supply. The promise here is for a supernatural abundance in sixth years. Though the text does not state this directly, it is similar to the extra manna Israel would gather on Friday mornings in Exodus, to carry them through Saturday and until Sunday morning.
The laws of Jubilee and land redemption are coming up next, and yet another restriction on the use of land is introduced. Just as Israelites may not plant in seventh years, so land must not be sold. It can only be rented out (selling only the usufruct, which is the right to grow crops on land that belongs to someone else). The right of reclaim must be preserved, meaning the ability of the clans to whom God assigned the land to reclaim their territory each Jubilee year. Thus, if a farmer was having difficulty and decided to “sell” land in the fortieth year, he could only sell the usufruct for ten years and the price should be calculated based on the time remaining till Jubilee.
Through the normal process of farm debt (described below in the “Overview” in three stages of decline) it is easily possible for wealthy landowners to gobble up the land of their neighbors. Small farmers eventually are displaced and become workers. This process is virtually inevitable.
But the law of Jubilee prevents this. Since the land reverts to its clans each fiftieth year, small farming will never disappear.
But what about population growth? How will a tiny land (Israel) be able to remain clan-based as those clans expand through normal population growth over time. What started as thousands of Israelites will eventually become millions and tens of millions. Torah does not address this reality. We see that Torah is bound to its time (the Iron Age) and does not provide all of the answers. But rather it creates in us a desire for the ideal, to dream of a way to make opportunity for every person and envision a world living in messianic peace and harmony.
Stage 1 of destitution — land sold.
Milgrom (Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) describes three stages of a downward cycle for a farmer in times of agricultural failure. In stage 1, the farmer must sell part of his land to a creditor, but the value of his crops repays the loan. If he has a good crop, he may get his land back in a season or two. The creditor normally earns interest in the crop (much like creditors today earn interest on money), but in Torah interest is forbidden. But if things do not go well, the farmer may find himself in stage 2: needing a loan to obtain the seed for another year’s planting. The farmer is now much more extended into debt. His crops still belong to him and can repay the loan. But if all of that fails, he enters stage 3: the crops no longer belong to him and he becomes a hireling of the creditor. Now he can only repay his loan through the wages his creditor pays him to work the land.
Do not treat your destitute neighbor badly, do not take advantage. So says Torah about the farmer who has leased out his land and then, still unable to raise a crop, takes out a loan to get seed for a new planting. He has become like an immigrant (sojourner, alien, גֵּר ger). He is a landless agricultural worker now, paying back loans with a share of the crop from his leased out fields.
Do not charge him interest. Give him food if you see he needs it. Do this, God says, because I brought you out of Egypt and gave you the land of Canaan.
God’s goodness to us is motive for our goodness to others. What we have is provided by the bounty of the earth, given to us by God and his good creation. When we see others in need, to give to them is to imitate God. This is the very holiness the author of this section of Torah has been upholding throughout the last half of the book of Leviticus. “You shall be holy,” which is to say you must be benevolent and redemptive toward others, “for I, Adonai your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
A house in a city (29-30), a house on farmable land (31), Levitical houses and land (32-34), stage 2 – lost land (35-38).
A house in a walled city is not part of the Jubilee system, but it is redeemable (can be purchased back by its owner) for a year. Houses in unwalled towns are just like agricultural fields, subject the the fifty year Jubilee system.
The Levites and their levitical towns are another matter. Interestingly, the Torah has not yet spoken about the concept of Levitical cities, but will in Numbers 35. Levites do not possess a territory of land (Numbers 18:23; 26:62), but they do inherit residences in these Levitical cities along with pasture land outside the walls. Levite houses are part of the Jubilee system even though they are in walled cities. The pasturage fields surrounding Levitical cities are under even stricter rules and cannot be leased out at all.
Milgrom (Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) notes that city dwelling was not part of the original condition of Israelites, but a phenomenon that developed later. He takes vss. 29-30 as evidence that the Jubilee laws are real and early parts of the Torah, not sections added after the exile to idealize the past. Thus, the Jubilee laws fit well the situation of pre-exilic Israel, being concerned mostly with farm land and not city dwellings.
The topic of people having to sell their land progresses in vss. 35-38, turning to the issue of a second stage in the downward cycle of impoverishment. The farmer in this scenario already sold part or all of his land (actually leased it until the Jubilee) but the crops still belonged to him. Now he has been unable to raise seed for a new crop and must take another loan (Milgrom). He will pay back the loan with a share of his crops. He has come under the authority of the creditor and his means have faltered. He becomes like an immigrant in the land, a landless agricultural worker.
The creditor who gets use of the land must provide work and sustenance, even interest-free loans, to the defaulter, and his land will revert at the Jubilee. The result of this system is that no class of elite landowners can gain large holdings of land permanently and poor Israelite families can regain their lands eventually.
The Israelite farmer in this section has reached a third level of the downward cycle. First he had to lease out his land, owing a share of the crops to the redeemer who purchased the lease. Then, unable to raise a successful crop, he has borrowed seed and now owes even more of his crop. Finally, in stage three, the farmer has to sell all of his crop and needs his redeemer to pay him a wage. He now is now a debt slave until the Jubilee.
But he may not be treated as a slave. He is to be regarded as a worker earning his wages. No Israelite shall enslave his fellow Israelite, since God set Israel free from slavery in Egypt.
But wait, an earlier part of the Torah (Exodus 21) had regulations for treating an Israelite slave. Now Leviticus 25 says no Israelite may be treated as a slave. Which is it?
The rabbis, who were compelled to accept Torah as one piece of legislation all coming from the same time period (that of Moses) had to find a way to harmonize Leviticus 25 and Exodus 21. The presupposition that Torah should be taken at face value as being the law from Moses’ time prevented the rabbis from interpreting Leviticus 25 as a change in the Torah.
But once the reader is open to the idea that Torah is a developing corpus of laws covering hundreds of years, everything changes. Leviticus 25 is something new, which Milgrom (Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale) sees coming from the latter half of Hezekiah’s reign. Whereas previously Israelites could become debt slaves, the new laws in the holiness section of Leviticus do away with slavery (for Israelites, but sadly not yet for foreigners).
Stage 3 of destitution – an Israelite must sell himself to his fellow and be enslaved (39-46).
Vs. 40 seems to contradict the laws of Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 about slaves going free in the Sabbatical year. A number of harmonizations have been proposed. The rabbis say these are two different categories of slaves: Exodus 21 is about those sold by the court for theft and Leviticus 25 is about debt slaves. Others suggest the “Hebrew” in Exodus 21 is not an Israelite, but a word describing a landless person. Still others suggest “Hebrew” means a landless Israelite and Leviticus 25 is about a landowner who is an Israelite (see the discussion in Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, 2251-7, Anchor-Yale).
Milgrom thinks the Jubilee laws were added later than Exodus 21 and improve on the earlier slave laws. In his interpretation, the Jubilee laws do not permit Israelites to be treated as slaves at all. Rather, they are to be treated as hirelings, and to be free of obligation in the Jubilee year when their debt is paid.
Leviticus 25 does permit foreign slaves and it is difficult to understand how the Torah could allow something so unethical. Many have suggested that God allowed a common practice to continue due to hardness of heart but that in the humanitarian laws the Israelites would see for themselves that slavery should be abolished.
LEVITICUS 25:47 – 26:2
Would we rather be called God’s child than his slave? Other metaphors used for the relationship between God and Israel include “firstborn” and “priesthood.” Each of these metaphors stands for some specific aspect of a reciprocal relationship between human beings and God.
An Israelite is a “firstborn” in the sense that all human beings are God’s children, but Israel has a unique place among the peoples of the world in relation to God. Similarly an Israelite is a “priest” while all the other people of the world are God’s “laypeople.” That is, the Torah customs given to Israel mark them out among the people of the world as bearers of divine truth, those who dwell nearest to the divine presence, and those who practice the physical acts of worship given directly by God. Other peoples of the world will be brought closer to God by learning from the priestly people, Israel.
But the two metaphors that seemingly stand in greatest contrast are “child” and “slave.” A child is born to a parent, is connected with them by an unbreakable bond or origin and kinship. A slave is purchased and obligated to work for a master whose property they have become.
Which is God? Is he the source of our coming into existence, the parent who gave us life, or is he a being who owns us as property by right of his wealth and power?
In Israel’s case, the metaphor of “slave owner” fits God specifically because he in a sense purchased the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Exodus. In one sense God set Israel free, but in another he took them as his own nation of slaves, obligating them to a different kind of עֲבֹדָה avōdah (work, worship). But the metaphor of slavery could also apply to the relationship of other people of the world to God. God owns all the land and all creatures he has made.
There is a positive side to the image of God as slave owner. That is, no one else may own us. If someone else does assert their power to claim us as property, we know in a higher sense they are false masters and we truly belong to God. “He shall go free in the year of Jubilee,” God said of the Israelite sold as a slave to an immigrant in the land, “for the people of Israel are slaves to me” (Leviticus 25:55-56).
Stage 4 – he must sell himself to a Gentile (47-55), restatement of essential Torah teachings for national blessing (26:1-2).
Vss. 47-55, which are about an Israelite who must sell himself as a slave to an immigrant in the land, parallel vss. 15-28, which are about land which is sold due to economic crisis (Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, Anchor-Yale). Milgrom lists numerous verbal parallels showing that the author did this quite deliberately. The theology behind both sections is that God owns the land of Israel as well as the Israelites. Thus they may only be leased out to others, not owned by them.
The Israelites are God’s slaves. Many translations reflect a reluctance to accept the metaphor, translating עֲבָדִים avadim as “servants” instead. But first, there can be no doubt that the slavery referred to included owning a person as property (see, for example, vs. 46, אֲחֻזָּה property).
How can God call the people of Israel his slaves, his property, his chattel? The metaphor is not so far off from other expressions of the relationship between God and the people. Israel is God’s children, his firstborn, his priesthood. These metaphors reveal different facets of the covenant relationship. A slave has been purchased and must serve his or her owner. Furthermore, since the Israelites are God’s slaves they cannot belong permanently to another Israelite. God set them free from Egypt and they can never become anyone else’s permanent possession. Thus, if in the downward cycle of poverty an Israelite finds himself or herself purchased by a foreigner, according to God’s law he or she can be redeemed for money.
Following this ultimate conclusion of the Jubilee laws, the Torah moves into something new in chapter 26: blessings and curses associated with God’s covenant. Vss. 1-2 are a restatement of the essence of Israel’s Torah obligation, which is contained in three things: worship of God alone, without images, keeping the Sabbaths, and revering the sanctuary. The Masoretes (early medieval Jewish scribes) included vss. 1-2 with the previous section because they lack with the customary division (“and Adonai spoke to Moses”). In spite of this decision of the scribes, in a literary sense, 26:1-2 belongs to the next chapter.