Economics 101 & Theology 101

Jubilee and Justice

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Ed. Note: This post was adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.

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 Jubilee. The assumptions made about this Biblical practice, found in Leviticus 25, are that it involves forgiveness of debt and redistribution of land.

Recently, Jubilee is being offered as a solution to our current economic crisis. Forbes asked,

Could a debt jubilee help kick-start the economy?

Reuters profiled economists who are 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 any assumptions, myths, or half-truths we might hold.

What is the context for the Scriptural practice of Jubilee?

In Leviticus 25:4, 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 II 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 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 (Joshua 13:7, 23:4). The purpose of the Jubilee law was to keep the land in the hands of the tribes and families to which 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. Next week I’ll be examining five major assumptions about this practice. I hope you’ll join me in this quest for truth!

What do you think? What does Jubilee mean for Christians today? How should it impact our approach to poverty and justice? Leave your comments here.

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  • Among the first thoughts that occur to me regarding Jubilee:
    1. The importance of the role of tribes within the Jubilee laws is important. Jubilee serves as a constitutional construct that protects the decentralization of power among the tribes. Though kings may rise up from within particular tribes to play a leadership role over the nation of Israel, kings were constrained in allotting parcels of land as rewards, unlike divine right monarchists of Europe. It is as though God built in many layers of constraints on kings in advance, even though he expressed a preference against there being a human king at all. Note that the constraint is primarily on power, not on markets. But it is possible that one tribe might have financial success such that it could buy up land from other tribes, eventually swallowing them up, though through voluntary transactions. Why should this be a problem? No reason, except perhaps to preserve the distribution of power.
    2. The laws regarding Jubilee were known in advance. At least fifty years in advance.
    The net present discounted value of a property which must be returned fifty years from now is equal to the value of that property today divided by one plus the interest rate raised to the power of fifty. A million dollars fifty years from now is worth less than ten thousand dollars today at an interest rate of ten percent. Knowing in advance that property would have to be returned, people would calculate accordingly.
    Those who were operating under the assumption of jubilee approaching might stand to gain a huge windfall if they could somehow effect the suspension of Jubilee!
    The failure to keep Jubilee then was an enormous injustice because it arbitrarily changed the reasonable calculations of many to the benefit of the few.
    3. Jubilee goes hand in hand with the prohibition of usury to fellow Israelites in need. Together they serve as constitutional constraints encouraging solidarity and care for one another, under threat of ostracism. In a market as thick as today’s global market solidarity is too difficult to sustain under mutually self-interested motives. Ostracism is not an effective disciplinary mechanism. This is a real problem within the church, where people just move their membership when things get hard. But Jubilee and prohibitions of usury serve to make matters worse under conditions like ours, not better.
    4. What we should learn most is that constitutional constraints on power are essential. Jubilee was a simple and robust mechanism for the Israelites as a relatively closed and thin-market economy. And even then the lust for power and the desire to manipulate the law gave way easily to idolatry and arbitrary creation of laws. We need to find new simple rules (to quote Richard Epstein) which are robust to today’s market which can constrain power from influencing the market. The concept of employing Jubilee today fails to appreciate how much scope for abuse of power such a market intervention would create.

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