Jubilee, Poverty and the Land

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. Leviticus 25:10

I want to illustrate the importance of narrative context to the interpretation of scripture by looking briefly at the institution of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-55. Jubilee is often held up as a divine mandate for redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of the concept of private property and an indication that an ever-growing gap between rich and poor is evil. In Jubilee, it is said, God is showing us how those concerned for the poor live.

In reality, the situation is more complex than that. The author’s primary focus is not simply “concern for the poor” or, more radically, a universal prescription for economic life in the world.

Let me make this clear from the outset: God’s people ought to care for those in need. Isn’t “love your neighbor as yourself” sufficient for us to know that? If not, there are countless Biblical texts that make our duty to the poor clear. The Jubilee texts under consideration command the Israelites not to treat those in need harshly and not to take advantage of their weakness by profiting from their misfortune. But in the context of the Biblical narrative, is the Jubilee primarily a universal prescription about personal charity or economic structures?

What is Jubilee? And what did it mean in the narrative context in which we find it in the Bible?

Here’s the bottom-line up-front: it’s about God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would possess the land.

Leviticus 25:8-55 prescribes that Israel observe Jubilee every 50 years (or at the end of seven 7-year cycles). “Jubilee” is a rather literal transliteration of a Hebrew word that refers to the rams’ horn (ybl) that was sounded to announce the event. During Jubilee, land that had been sold because the owners had fallen into property was returned to the family of its original owners. Those who had sold themselves into bond service were released to return their ancestral lands.

Jubilee is all about land. And land is an essential part of the divine promise that is central to the Biblical narrative.

God’s Promise of the Land and Its Fulfillment

When God called Abram, he said “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). After Abram arrived in the land of promise, God made a covenant with him, promising him that he would posses it.

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to live you this land to take possession of it.” (Genesis 15:7)

Of course Abraham and his descendants did not possess the land. They sojourned on it, and then his posterity went down to Egypt where they were slaves. God called Moses to deliver his people, saying:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a land that is both good and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the region of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. (Exodus 3:7-8)

The narrative continues through the plagues, Passover and the Exodus, through the covenant at Sinai, the giving of the law and the wandering in the desert. Then God said to Moses:

Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans. To a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one. Whatever falls to them by lot will be theirs. Distribute it according to your ancestral tribes. Number 33:53-54

That’s the plan that God gave Moses before the conquest. The conquered land would be divided by tribes, clans and family groups according to lot. They cast lots, not because it was a fair way to distribute the land, but because that was the means of seeing which piece of land God was giving to each family grouping.

The book of Joshua, then, is the story of the actual conquest. It begins and ends with the land.

After Moses the LORD’s servant died, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant: “Moses my servant is dead. Get ready! Cross the Jordan River! Lead these people into the land which I am ready to hand over to them. I am handing over to you every place you set foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the wilderness in the south to Lebanon in the north. It will extend all the way to the great River Euphrates in the east (including all of Syria) and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. (Joshua 1:1-4)

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the part of the field that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem, for one hundred pieces of money. So it became the inheritance of the tribe of Joseph. Eleazar son of Aaron died, and they buried him in Gibeah in the hill country of Ephraim, where his son Phinehas had been assigned land. (Joshua 24:32-33)

In the last verses of Joshua, the narrative ties back in with the story of the patriarchs. Josephs’ bones are buried where the tribe that bears his name receives its inheritance. The story of Joshua is not only the story of wars of conquest, it is the story of the tribes, clans and families of Israel receiving specific plots of land on which to dwell. There are as many bequests of land as there are battles.

When Israel settled in the land God gave them, each family could look at the piece of land on which they lived and toiled as the bequest of God just for them, the fulfillment of an age-old promise to their patriarchal ancestors. It matters not whether this picture of Israel’s history is accurate in all its details, or whether it is an idealized memory of the past. The narrative itself reflects Israel’s self-understanding.

In a tribal and agricultural society like that of ancient Israel, land and family were intimately connected. Society was organized around various echelons of family relationships from the tribe on down. One didn’t live in a neighborhood of strangers; people lived in communities built around kinship ties. The people on the next plot of land were members of one’s extended family. Social and geographic mobility were extremely limited. Whatever happened in life, one always went home to one’s family and one’s land. Family and land were inseparably tied together. The Biblical narrative puts those relationships into the framework of divine promise and fulfillment.

The Law and God’s Gift of the Land

The fact that God had given the people the land and set the boundaries of each particular inheritance made respecting those boundaries very important. Proverbs advises against changing those boundaries. Deuteronomy legislates against it.

Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess. Deuteronomy 19:14

Deuteronomy’s legislation is explicitly based on the fact that God gave the land.

Moses had all the people call down curses on themselves should they not respect the boundaries set by God.

‘Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:17)

Extraordinarily few Old Testament texts describing the period after Moses mention anything about buying or selling land. David bought a threshing floor (2 Samuel 24:21-24) on which he offered sacrifices (and which would later become the site of the temple). Jeremiah bough a field at Anathoth (Jeremiah 32) and Boaz bought Naomi’s land (Ruth 4). These last two sales both involved those with the right of redemption. That is, they were sales to keep the property in the family.

I think even levirate marriage should probably be seen as an extraordinary measure to keep the land in the hands of the family to whom God had given it. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 requires marrying your childless relative’s widow to bear children for him. The redemption of Naomi’s land (that is, the land of Elimelech, Kilion and Mahlon) and the obligation to marry Ruth (to produce progeny for Mahlon) seem to be two sides of the same coin in Ruth 4:9-10.

Jubilee: Keeping People on the Land God Gave Them

So where in this narrative framework does the law of Jubilee fit?

In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property. Leviticus 25:13

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land. Leviticus 25:23-24

If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Leviticus 25:39-41

It’s all about the land. Israel’s possession of the land is the telos of God’s promise to Abraham. In the Christian theology, it would be considered a penultimate telos and a prolepsis of the New Creation to be inherited by the saints. Within the Old Testament narrative, it is simply the fulfillment of God’s word to the patriarchs. It is the point of the story.

Following the conquest of Canaan, much of the Old Testament narrative tries to answer the question, “If God fulfilled his promises, why are we having so much trouble hanging on to what God gave us?” The answer one most frequently finds in the narrative is this: rebellion and unfaithfulness.

Jubilee anticipates one threat to Israel’s ability to hold on to what God had given them. If economic circumstances somehow undid God’s work in giving and allocating the land to his people, things needed to be put back the way God had effected them.

Jubilee was a means of restoring the land ownership to the state in which God allocated it.

  • If someone sold land for whatever reason, it would revert to the original, God-ordained family at Jubilee. The fair price was based on anticipated economic productiveness of the land in the years remaining before the Jubilee arrived (Leviticus 25:14-27, Leviticus 25:28).
  • If someone became so poor that they needed to sell their land, the preferred buyer was an extended family member (Leviticus 25:25).
  • If someone sold land due to poverty, and then found the resources to buy it back, he could redeem the land based on its productive value in the years remaining before Jubilee (Leviticus 25:26-27).

Interestingly, property within walled cities did not revert to its original owner at Jubilee (Leviticus 25:29-30). The seller had the right of redemption for only one year. (Is this why David could buy the threshing floor in Jerusalem?). Property in un-walled cities was treated like that in open country (Leviticus 25:31).

All of this fits with the proposition that the primary intent of Jubilee was to return the ownership of the land to condition in which God had delivered it to the people.

Leviticus continues with a discussion of the poor.

  • The first thing to do for the poor was to provide for their needs. The custom of hospitality required you to provide food, drink and shelter for the traveler. God expected the Israelites to do no less for their countrymen. If you loaned money or food to someone because of their dire situation, you were not to profit from them by charging them interest. (Leviticus 25:35-37) All of this helped poor Israelites remain on their family’s appointed land.
  • But, if someone was so poor that they sold themselves into servitude or slavery, that situation was treated very much like the case of land sales. Israelites working for Israelites were not to be considered slaves, but hired men. Even then, the servant would be released at Jubilee “that he may return to the property of his forefathers” (Leviticus 25:41). Those who sold themselves in slavery to aliens retained the right of redemption, with the cost of redemption varying with the years remaining before Jubilee.

Finally, as was the case with the shorter Sabbatical year cycle, the land was to remain fallow. Observing a Sabbath rest for the land was not [in the text] an environmental or agricultural “best practice,” but a recognition of God’s sovereignty over the land and its people.

The Jubilee law (and the similar law of the Sabbatical year), were given [in the narrative] before conquest of Canaan, but it was only to take effect after Israel took possession of the land. “When you come into the land which I shall give you,” the LORD begins (Leviticus 25:2). Jubilee was not, then, a general economic or charitable principle, but a way of restoring and maintaining God’s gift of land for those to whom God had given it.

‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (Leviticus 25:38)

‘You shall thus observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land. (Leviticus 25:18)

The Problem with Jubilee Economics

Seeing Jubilee as a universal economic model is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that our social and economic systems are vastly different than those of pre-exilic Israel and Judah.

In its own context, Jubilee was about the absolute and inviolable right of the descendants of Jacob to live on the land God had given them. Would progressive Christians want to make that claim today in the context of the current middle-east conflict?

Just before God told Moses to take possession of the land and apportion it to individual families by lot, God said:

“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. (Numbers 33:51-53)

The people of Israel only possessed the land of Canaan in the first place by means of military conquest. God ordered Israel to invade the territory and drive out its inhabitants. Again, this is an aspect of Israel’s possession of the land that many progressive Christians would want to disown.

Neither would they be comfortable with Jubilee’s provision that Israelites could keep aliens as slaves in perpetuity. There was no Jubilee freedom for foreigners.

Many of those who want to sound the Jubilee horn today do so because they want to eliminate economic inequality and the injustices that come with private ownership of property. Did Jubilee actually accomplish either? The actual financial requirements of Jubilee – based on the productive value of the land or bond-service for the remaining years – looks more like a market-place transaction than redistribution of wealth.

Jubilee’s only requirement was that people return to their ancestral lands. If two families could each live on their own land, one with modest means and one with great wealth, there is nothing in Jubilee that would change that. As Jesus’ later parables pointed out, “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop” (Luke 12:16). Not all land produces the same. When the ram’s horn sounded, some people returned to better land than others. In the Jubilee framework, there’s nothing you could do about that. It’s the land that God gave you. Deal with it.

Finally, then, the economic model envisioned by Jubilee is inherently un-free when it comes to making decisions about one’s future. Slaves and servants were not released into a future of wide-open possibilities; they were released to return to the family and its land. I know that many people criticize modern western Christianity for being too individualistic. Is there anyone, however, who would defend the concept of requiring people by law to live on the same piece of family property forever, engaged in the same family business for the rest of their lives? Jubilee is built on returning things to a standard, fixed frame of reference; it has no interest in broadening people’s opportunities or moving life forward. That probably worked great 3000 years ago. I wouldn’t want to live that way today.

Jubilee as the Word of God

If the value of Jubilee isn’t its public economic lessons, where can we hear the word of God here? Jubilee only works as the word of God in its own narrative context.

God’s promise to Abraham and its fulfillment is a theme that runs through the overarching narrative. In the framework of Genesis to II Kings, the telos of God’s gracious activity comes in his gift of land to the descendants of Jacob who left Egypt.

Christians view the telos of God’s saving activity somewhat differently. As a Christian, I see this as a constituent of the Christian narrative structure. In a previous post on the rule of faith, I said:

The narrative structure of creation – fall – redemption beginning with Abraham and moving through the patriarchs and Moses into the age of kings, prophets, priests and sages – culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – issuing in the birth of the church and the gift of the Spirit – ending in the resurrection of the just and the moral and physical transformation of all creation – this is the framework in which I interpret scripture.

Jubilee was a way of living in relationship to God’s telos, and it is in that vein that it most appropriately speaks to the church today. The contexts are different, though, and the differences are significant.

God accomplished what he promised when Joshua led the people into Canaan and took possession of it for the people of Israel. In this fallen age, however, events and circumstances tended to move Israel away from the telos God created for it. Jubilee was one of the laws designed to maintain or restore the end-state God intended.

Jubilee is a foreshadowing of the day when God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness and God’s people will live in the world that God intended from the foundation of the world. For that brief moment when the ram’s horn sounded, the land was put back the way God ordered it.

And then, in the nature of this age, things would start to fall apart once more until Jubilee rolled around again. And so, in its own way, Jubilee reminds us of the incompleteness of Moses’ and Joshua’s work; it leaves us longing for more. It makes us hope for a day when we won’t have to keep fixing the things that are broken in this world to get back to the life God intended for us.

Like the ancient Israelites, Christians believe we will “inherit the land” (Matthew 5:5). Our hope, however, is for an “inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away” (1 Peter 1:4). When the final consummation of God’s saving activity finally arrives, we won’t have to keep setting it right.

And finally, God required Israel to order its life in such a way so as to hold onto the homeland that God had given it. As we wait for the day that in which we will inherit the land – the new heavens and the new earth – we are already in possession of many of God’s wonderful gifts. Let us order our lives so as to hold on to the gifts God has given, and when our lives move away from God’s will, let us do whatever is necessary to return to our spiritual home.