The Year of Liberty

A utopian law to address a social reality.

Shofar_for_the_Sabbath_from_the_Matson_Collection,_ca._1934-39_(LOC)

The year of jubilee got its name from the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, at the beginning of the year.

Among all the provisions the Torah prescribes for organizing Israelite life, one of the most curious is the provision regulating the year of jubilee (sometimes translated as the year of liberty). The provisions are found in Leviticus 25 and 27.

The provisions specify that the Israelites are to let their agricultural land lie fallow every seventh year. This cycle is to be repeated seven times. After completing 49 years the Israelites are to proclaim a year of jubilee. From the biblical text it is not quite clear whether the 49th year is the year of jubilee, or the 50th year. Scholars disagree.

Regardless of the precise dating, some important things are to happen in the year of liberty. They include:

  • The agricultural land is to remain fallow once again. If the year of jubilee falls in the 50th year, then the land lies fallow for two years in a row.
  • If an Israelite has sold some of his ancestral land to another Israelite, the buyer is to restore ownership of that land to the original seller or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his house in his village to another Israelite or lost his house in payment of a debt, the buyer or the creditor is to return the house to the original owner or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his own person or a member of his family to another Israelite into indentured service, the man or his family member is to be released from that service in the year of jubilee and restored to full freedom.
  • The price a buyer pays for a piece of land or for the service of an indentured servant is calculated on the number of years yet remaining until the next year of jubilee. If some land is sold, for example, while there are yet 44 years to go before the next jubilee, then the price for the land will be higher than the price for a piece of land that is sold 12 years before the next jubilee.

A common economic problem

This legislation was designed to deal with a common economic problem. Due to the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life or to careless planning and management, people can fall into financial distress. To deal with that distress, they borrow funds to get by. But sometimes they get trapped in their debt and cannot break free again.

As a result, lands and property can begin to accumulate into the hands of a small, wealthy elite, while the poor get poorer as they lose more and more of the assets they possess. The poor find themselves in financial or service bondage to the rich. As this situation advances, a greater and greater disparity can begin to open up between society’s rich and its poor.

The provisions for the year of jubilee seek to address this disparity. They seek to restore some sense of economic fairness within the society. Those who have acquired greater property at the expense of those who have been financially distressed are forced to redistribute some of their wealth with the disadvantaged. Those bearing the burdens of service have their burdens lifted so that they can return to being free members of society.

The provisions are predicated upon the belief that God is the ultimate owner of the land (Leviticus 25:23). Israelites do not own their land. They possess it as a gift from God. They are called to be tenant/stewards of the land on God’s behalf.

Furthermore, the Israelites are to remember always that God freed them from their bondage to the Egyptians (Leviticus 25:38, 42). They are not to engage then in the same behavior, binding their brothers in bondage, as the Egyptians did them. They are not to recreate Egypt in the land of Israel.*

The prophetic context for a utopian law

No one knows for sure whether this legislation was ever implemented in ancient Israelite practice. Many scholars consider it a utopian law, an economic ideal that no one put into real effect.

If that is the case, then why did the ancient scholars who compiled the Torah include such a utopian law within its provisions? I wonder if the provisions for the year of jubilee are not a testimony that some sensitive souls in ancient Israel recognized the de-stabilizing power of vast disparities in wealth and income in a society. When great gaps open up between the rich and the poor, tensions are created that can undermine the stability and security of a society, just as underground rivers can erode the rock and create the vacuums into which sink holes collapse.

The Old Testament prophets had an acute sensitivity to the economic injustice involved in the rich living in great luxury at the expense of the poor. (One thinks immediately of the prophet Amos and his denunciations of the soft elite of Samaria.) I think their message can be summarized in the succinct phrase: Where there is no economic justice, there is no peace.

Whether the legislation for the year of jubilee preceded the prophets or emerged from the message of the prophets, the Old Testament shows an amazing sensitivity to the economic foundations of social stability.

I think that modern believers need to remain sensitive to that same Old Testament sensitivity. The ancient insights can be far more relevant to our own society than many Christians may be willing to admit. We see all around us in the world today the ways in which economic injustice fuels social and political instability as well as great migrations of people. This instability is exacerbated by a libertarian attitude towards capitalism, an attitude that unregulated markets should supremely rule the economy.

We need to ask whether there is not a wisdom built into the Torah’s regulations for the year of jubilee. It may be a wisdom that we need to pay heed to.


* The Leviticus legislation may not be perfect by our standards today. Israelites can own chattel slaves if the slaves come not from among their fellow Israelites, but from foreign peoples. The sense of the moral evil of slavery per se has not yet dawned within the biblical consciousness.

 

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Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

Easter Bible

I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

Prophets and Power

The complex role of prophets in the halls of power.

Eugène_Siberdt_-_The_Prophet_Nathan_rebukes_King_David

The prophet Nathan rebukes King David, by the 19th century Belgian artist Eugène Sieberdt.

Last November, in my posting “Thus Saith the Lord,” I wrote about the story of Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Micaiah was a prophet attached to the court of King Ahab. He was out of royal favor because his prophecies never favored the king’s desires and policies. In fact, he predicted the king’s death in battle. His story, however, gives us an insight into how the Hebrew prophets understood their role.

Prophets were common in the royal courts of the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. Micaiah is not, in fact, the most prominent court prophet that we encounter in the pages of the Old Testament. That honor belongs to Nathan, prophet to the great King David. His story reveals the complex challenges and temptations that come when religious officials align themselves with the halls of power.

The Prophet Endorsing Power

 We meet Nathan at several different points in David’s career. Our first encounter comes in 2 Samuel 7. David has solidified his power. He resides in his new capital, Jerusalem, where he builds himself a palace. Like many royal builders of other eras, he wants to honor the divine power that put him into power. He proposes to build a temple for God.

Nathan, his court prophet, endorses the idea. He tells the king, Go, do what is in your heart. The Lord is with you. (2 Samuel 7:3) It was the kind of divine endorsement of a royal action that court prophets would have routinely been expected to give. It must have seemed a no-brainer. What god would not be flattered by a temple built in his honor.

Nathan, however, has remained spiritually sensitive enough that he can still hear an alternate word from God when it comes to him in a dream. God does not want David to build the temple. That task will fall to his successor.

Nathan delivers that message to David, a message that David was not likely wanting to hear. But David’s disappointment is assuaged by the divine promise Nathan also delivers to David. His family line will rule Israel forever: …your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Samuel 7:16).

It is an extravagant promise coming out of the mouth of God’s spokesman. David is overwhelmed and immediately breaks into praise for God. It is also the first expression of that line of thought in the Hebrew Bible that emerges eventually into the belief in a Messiah, a belief with enormous consequences for both Judaism and Christianity.

Here we have a court prophet performing a duty that every monarch in the ancient world would have gladly welcomed. But it is a duty that needs to be performed with modesty. For Nathan learns in the process that what he thinks accords with God’s will may not represent God’s will at all.

The Prophet Challenging Power

 The next time we encounter Nathan (2 Samuel 12) he performs a duty that no king would have welcomed nor most likely even tolerated. But it was a duty that a court prophet had to perform if he was to be true to his calling as a spokesman for God.

David abuses his powers as king. He uses his position to seduce and commit adultery with Bathsheba. He then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up his sin. It is not the first time that a government official has taken advantage of his power to gratify his own sexual lusts.

God summons Nathan, however, to confront David with his sin. He does so by first telling David a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s only lamb to feed a guest. David is outraged by the injustice. At this point, Nathan directly confronts David: You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7)

I find it amazing that Nathan had the courage to directly name his abuse of power to the king directly. It was a courageous thing to do. Nathan was fortunate that David had some sense of conscience and did not order Nathan’s execution on the spot. Instead David admits his sin in remorse.

In this case the court prophet had to speak truth to power. It was probably not a common service that court prophets did. Micaiah also did and it won him banishment for court. But it is a necessary task if power is to be kept accountable.

The Prophet Complicit with Power

The last time we encounter Nathan in the historical record we learn of his participation in the plot to place Solomon on the throne after David’s death (1Kings 1-2). As David lies dying, his son Adonijah tries to pre-empt the succession by getting himself crowned king in advance.

Nathan is the one who comes and informs David of what Adonijah is trying to do. David, however, has other plans. He wants Solomon, son of Bathsheba and Adonijah’s half-brother, to succeed him. He summons the queen, Zadok the high priest, Benaiah commander of the king’s troops along with Nathan, to set in motion a kind of counter coup d’état to ensure the succession of Solomon.

It works. Solomon is acclaimed king and Adonijah loses his life. Nathan has played a critical role in this intrigue from the very start.

This story shows how a court prophet could not remain above or separate from the intrigues that go on in any royal court. Life in the court presented its temptations. And in my viewpoint Nathan succumbed in this case.

The Prophet as Morality Tale

The story of Nathan, it seems to me, is more than an interesting incident in the history of the Davidic monarchy. It is a morality tale about the challenges and temptations religious leaders face when they choose to become aligned with political power.

• Such religious leaders can be seduced into providing religious endorsement of what the political power wants to do, regardless of whether that represents the will of the Lord or not. If they are to maintain their spiritual integrity, they must take care to cultivate constantly their spiritual sensitivity to the God they serve.

• Such religious leaders can provide a necessary function in speaking truth to power if they have the courage to do so. It runs a risk, of course, but it is a needed function if we are to keep political power honest.

• And finally the alignment with political power can work its subtle corrupting influences on such leaders that they become entangled in the intrigues that swirl around such power. Religious leaders are not immune from that lesson from history that Lord Acton summarized in his aphorism: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If religion is to have any impact on the wider society, its leaders cannot remain divorced from power. That is the great mistake, in my opinion, of all those who interpret the American tradition of separation of church and state as meaning that churches and their leaders should stay strictly out of politics. Christianity is not a faith just for individuals. It has immense consequences for all of our communal life, and religious leaders have a duty to speak of those.

Yet when churches and their leaders venture into the political realm–necessarily though it may be–they also run the risk of being co-opted and corrupted by their engagement. They should walk the halls of power with fear and trembling, knowing the great perils they face. That is the continuing relevance of the story of Nathan, court prophet.

 

Jesus, Human Being

In a boyhood story we glimpse something of Jesus’ humanity.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Finding_of_the_Saviour_in_the_Temple

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman Hunt, 1860.

The story of Jesus in the New Testament gospels has one big omission. It tells us almost nothing about those 30 years between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his Galilean ministry.

That omission has always troubled Christians, even in the early church. To remedy it, an anonymous Christian writer in the 2nd century wrote the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It provides both charming and alarming stories about Jesus as a growing boy learning with some difficulty how to control his miraculous powers. The Infancy Gospel of James from the same era tries to satisfy our curiosity about the early life of the Virgin Mary.

The canonical gospels in the New Testament remain silent about those obscure 30 years… with one exception. Luke tells a story about a pilgrimage visit Jesus and his parents make to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). It gives us one fleeting, but revealing glimpse into the early development of Jesus.

The Jesus we meet in it comes across to me as a very normal, though precocious adolescent. Like every adolescent, he is beginning to assert his own independence from his parents. It may be too extreme to label it rebellion, but Jesus certainly shows some indifference to his parents’ feelings by his decision to remain behind in Jerusalem without informing them.

When his parents finally find him in the temple (after a three-day search), I think we can assume they were quite annoyed at their son. We can speculate that there were likely some harsh words said. Raising Jesus may have had its trials, as raising any child does.

Like most adolescents, too, Jesus seems to be exploring his own identity. He already manifests some awareness of a special relationship with God. He refers to God as his Father. He may not fully understand yet what his identity is and means. That’s why he is in the temple engaged in inquiry with the religious scholars.

Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus was not lecturing the scholars. He was no know-it-all kid. Instead he is asking questions and listening to the scholars’ answers. I take special note of that detail. He does not have all the answers. He is seeking possibly to understand this special relationship with God that he is already experiencing. What does it mean? What does it require of him?

There is at the same time in the story a sense of Jesus as a precocious teen-ager. Luke tells us that the scholars are astonished at his questions and answers. He must have been manifesting a depth of thought and insight that struck them as highly unusual for a young person of his age.

A Real Human Boy

What strikes me about this story in Luke is the sense of Jesus as a real human being, a real human boy. He certainly may be spiritually precocious for his age. Yet he is still acting like a normal adolescent. He is not some superboy astonishing people with his powers (as is the boy described in the infancy gospels). Instead he is experiencing the typical developmental challenges that go along with his age.

The orthodox confession of the Christian church is that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human in an indivisible union. That is the official doctrine. But I am not sure we always realize the implications of what we are confessing.

If Jesus is fully human, as we confess, then Jesus experiences the same limitations that we do as human beings. He has a body with its demands. The baby who lies in the manger of Bethlehem is a real baby who needs his mother’s milk and messes in his diapers. He would at times have been a fussy baby. As an adolescent, he would have experienced all the confusing developments in his body as puberty set in.

I think confessing Jesus as truly human means Jesus, too, had to meet the many challenges of growing up. That meant not only learning how to walk and talk, but how to outgrow the instinctual egocentrism that goes with being a toddler.

He had to learn Hebrew like the other boys in the synagogue. He had to learn how to use the tools in his father’s carpenter shop. And learning meant making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

In Luke’s story we see Jesus as a normal adolescent passing through some of the normal challenges of growing up to be himself and to own his own calling. He does not have the gift of omniscience. No human being does. So he must ask questions and learn from his elders.

Saying all this does not mean I deny his divinity. I say what I say, however, because I am more and more convinced that when we overemphasize Jesus’ divinity, we end up disbelieving in his humanity. When we do that, Jesus becomes a demi-god walking on earth, not one of us. And if he is not one of us, then he cannot be an example for us to emulate. Nor can he save us, for he has not truly lived out the life of faithfulness within the same limitations and weaknesses of human nature that the rest of us do.