A utopian law to address a social reality.
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.