Economics 101 & Theology 101

Jubilee Myth #5: Does Jubilee Apply to All People?

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Today marks the last myth about Jubilee we’ll be covering as part of our series on the myths of Jubilee.

Myth #5: Jubilee is a universally applicable principle – that is, it applies to all people. 

Actually, Jubilee applied only to Israelites and not to aliens and sojourners (non-Israelites). This is another significant point almost entirely omitted from the normal narrative about Jubilee.

Non-Israelites might have been able to lease land or hire indentured servants. They could not permanently own land (Leviticus 25:47). Only Israelites could own land (Leviticus 25:44-46). There was no redistribution or return of land to foreigners. The poorest people of the land – widows, orphans, and aliens – were to be included in feasts, but they did not have property rights (except to houses in walled cities).

John Schneider, author of The Good of Affluence, comments,

Writers on the subject [of Jubilee] almost universally miss the point that its original provision applied only to members of the original Israelite tribes. The poorest people of society were unaffected by it…Strange as it may seem, given the function of these texts in modern theologians’ discourse, the people whom the Jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.

John Calvin, in his commentary on Jubilee, notes the practice’s exclusive benefits for Israelites. He also mentions Jubilee’s place in God’s history of revelation:

The land of Canaan was an earnest, or symbol, or mirror of the adoption on which their salvation was founded…God was unwilling that this inestimable benefit should ever be lost; and lest this should be the case, like a provident father of a family, He laid restraint on His children, to prevent them from being too prodigal…Such, therefore, was the condition of the ancient people; yet it cannot be indiscriminately transferred to other nations who have had no common inheritance given them.

The text of Leviticus 25 debunks the myth that Jubilee was universally applied to all people. Add this conclusion to the others we’ve come to this week:

  • The practice of Jubilee did not mean a forgiveness of debt, but was a celebration of a debt paid by leasing land and crops.
  • Jubilee does not involve a redistribution of wealth.
  • Jubilee does not render private property relative – rather, it upholds property rights by ensuring land remains in the hands of the original families who owned it.
  • Income equality is not the result of Jubilee, nor its intention.

Given the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding Jubilee, the present day applications of this practice are not immediately clear. They are not as easy to interpret and apply as those who perpetuate these myths want to maintain. Jubilee certainly cannot be used to defend redistribution of wealth by the State.

Of course, just because the Bible doesn’t require the State to redistribute wealth doesn’t entail that the State can’t do so. Whether the State is the best vehicle to meet the needs of poor people is a separate issue.

Certainly Christians must be concerned about the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan because God requires us to do so. Jesus says that whoever serves one of the “least of these” serves Him (Matthew 25:45).

There is a case to be made that the State provide a safety net for the poor. But State involvement does not absolve Christians of individual or corporate responsibility. Biblical commands are not given to the impersonal, secular State, but to Christians to care personally for those in need with our time and treasure.

What do you think? What conclusions do you come to when you consider Leviticus 25 and Jubilee?

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