Public Square & Theology 101

Should the Biblical Practice of Jubilee Apply to Everyone?

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In the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about the biblical practice of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 and specifically addressing incorrect assumptions about its meaning and application. Today, we will look at the idea that Jubilee is a universally applicable principle—that is, it applies to all people.

Jubilee Underscores God’s Promises to Israel

The reality is that 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 (Lev. 25:47). Only Israelites could own land (Lev. 25:44-46). There was no redistribution or return of land to foreigners. The reality is that Jubilee applied only to Israelites and not to aliens and sojourners (non-Israelites).

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 in recent weeks:

  • 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 render private property relative—rather, it upholds property rights by ensuring land remains in the hands of the original families who owned it.

Jubilee’s Real Meaning Doesn’t Negate the Call to Care for the Poor

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 the incorrect assumptions 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 government to redistribute wealth doesn’t entail that it cannot do so. Whether the government is the best vehicle for meeting the needs of poor people is a separate issue.

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 (Matt. 25:45).

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

Editor’s note: Read more about how scripture informs our outreach to the poor in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.

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