Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to his family property... Leviticus 25:10
We’re all familiar with the word “jubilee”. It means a celebration of an anniversary, especially a fiftieth anniversary. But do you know where it comes from?
Well, here it is, tucked away in Leviticus 25. It is probably derived from the Hebrew word yobel (or jobel), meaning a ram’s horn or trumpet, because this very special year was introduced by a trumpet blast, blown throughout Israel in the seventh month.
God seems to like sevens. Every seventh day was a sabbath, a day of rest. Every seventh year was a “sabbath year”, when the ground lay fallow and also enjoyed a rest. And every seven-times-seventh year (that’s every forty-ninth year, if your arithmetic’s a bit rusty) introduced this specially special year, the year of jubilee.
So... what actually happened during the jubilee year?
The straight answer, I’m afraid, would seem to be: not a lot, actually!
There is no record of the year of jubilee ever being observed throughout Israel’s history. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t - perhaps it was, but just didn’t get mentioned. (For what’s it’s worth, neither is there any record of the annual Day of Atonement being observed.)
Whatever... the rules laid down in Leviticus 25 stand as a kind of ideal - you might even say that as Christians we are awaiting the jubilee-to-end-all-jubilees when Jesus returns.
In essence, this year was intended as a national wiping clean of the slate - or, if you like, the pressing of a re-set button.
Two great events were envisaged: first, all land would be returned to its original, ancestral owners; second, all slaves would be set free and given the means to start a new life.
Put as simply as that (there was, of course, more detail) it’s clear that the year of jubilee marked a radical social revolution (perhaps that’s why it never actually happened, if that is indeed the case!).
The crude illustration that comes to my mind is those occasions when you take a deep breath and set about clearing out a load of junk that has accumulated over the years. Oh the bliss! the sense of cleansing! the feel of making a new start!
The effect of the jubilee legislation would have been twofold.
First, it would be impossible for any person or family to become, if you’ll pardon the expression, filthy rich.
Wealth in ancient Israel was measured not so much in money in the bank (after all, there were no such things as banks) as in land possessed. If you had a lot of money, certainly you could buy land. But you knew, when you did so, that it would only be yours until the next jubilee year; as we would say today, you had it on lease-hold rather than free-hold.
Putting it another way, in every generation there would be a levelling out of prosperity, and an opportunity for those who had fallen foul of the system to get going again.
Second, it would be impossible for any person or family to be perpetual slaves.
Slavery within Israel generally arose because somebody whose life had taken a down-turn was forced to sell themselves to a richer person in order to survive. They too would have the opportunity to get their life up and running again.
Sounds radical? Yes, because to our modern, and especially western eyes, it is radical! Think what this would mean, for example, to those born into the Dalit class (“Untouchables”) in India, and who are thus condemned to a life of humiliation and servitude... Or to parents who are forced to leave home for months or years at a time in order to find work to support their families, thus losing contact with growing children... Slavery, sadly, is still a shocking reality in our modern world.
Well, it’s not going to happen, is it? So why bother with these ancient laws?
The answer is that, if nothing else, it gives us an insight into the mind of God, and the kind of society he regards as just and healthy. (He isn’t only concerned about the salvation of individual souls!)
The prophet Micah looked for a day when “every man would sit under his own vine and under his own fig-tree” (Micah 4:4). Beautiful! Isn’t that a jubilee vision? The Psalmist tells us that, ultimately, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Isn’t that too? The prophet Isaiah rails against those who “add house to house and join field to field, till no space is left” (Isaiah 5:8). And that?
Jesus told the story of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), and warned of how hard (all right, hard, not impossible!) it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:23). Isn’t that a jubilee sentiment? Indeed, when he teaches us to pray that God’s kingdom may come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), isn’t that a Jubilee sentiment? I could go on...
Ultimately, it’s about fairness and justice for all. God cares about these things. Shouldn’t we too?
Father in heaven, as I look at the cruelties and injustices of the world we have created, help me to see it through your loving and compassionate eyes, and to do whatever is in my power to put it right. Amen.
The Jubilee Centre is a Christian charity that aims to bring a biblical bearing to social and economic issues. Why not look them up at www.jubilee-centre.org?