Public Square & Theology 101

Is the Biblical Practice of Jubilee What We Think It Is?

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How does Jubilee relate to justice? What does it mean for Christians and our call to serve the poor and oppressed?

I’ve read several books by evangelical authors concerned with wealth, poverty, and social justice. Nearly every one of these books mentions the concept of Jubilee. The assumptions made about this biblical practice, found in Leviticus 25, are that it involves forgiveness of debt and redistribution of land.

Jubilee was even offered as a solution to the 2008 economic recession. Forbes asked,

Could a debt jubilee help kick-start the economy?

Reuters profiled economists who were seriously considering Jubilee as a tool for ending the recession, and the Huffington Post linked the practice to the demands of Occupy Wall Street.

In an age of crushing federal and consumer debt, a practice that forgives financial burdens is naturally becoming quite popular!

Indeed, some have been arguing for some time that Jubilee places structural demands on how economies should operate. In 1990, Ron Sider wrote, in Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger, that,

…at the heart of God’s call for Jubilee is a divine demand for socioeconomic structures that provide all people with the means to produce wealth and thus earn their own way.

But are our assumptions about Jubilee correct? Given its prominence in national affairs, I think this practice deserves a closer look. If an argument is going to be made for the forgiveness of debt, it is better to do so on biblical grounds rather than on any assumptions, myths, or half-truths we might hold.

What is the context for the scriptural practice of Jubilee?

In Leviticus 25:4-5, the Lord commands the Israelites to practice a Sabbath year:

But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.  Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.

During the sabbatical years, the Israelites rested from their labor and allowed the land to rest. This sabbatical year occurred every seven years. Jubilee, another commanded practice, was to be celebrated at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years—the fiftieth year.

While there is some evidence that sabbatical years were observed, it seems that, according to 2 Chronicles 36: 20-22, it only happened sporadically. This text says that the number of years for the Israelite captivity in Babylon corresponds to the number of sabbatical years that were unobserved.

If sabbatical years were infrequently observed, then there is a question as to how often—if ever—Jubilee was observed. Whether Jubilee was observed or not, it was God’s law for his people and needs to be taken seriously by all who believe in biblical authority. Even if God’s people were disobedient to these laws, they can still teach us valuable principles.

When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, God distributed land to the twelve tribes (Josh. 13:7, 23:4). The purpose of the Jubilee law was to keep the land in the hands of the tribes and families he had given land to in the first place.

It is with this context in mind that I will examine Leviticus 25 to find what a deeper look at scripture reveals about the meaning of Jubilee. Starting next week I’ll be examining five major assumptions about this practice. I hope you’ll join me in this quest for truth!

Editor’s note: This post was adapted from Dr. Lindsley’s chapter in IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty

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