The Year of Jubilee, from The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation by Charles Foster, published in 1879

Leviticus 25 begins with God explaining to Moses that, in addition to Jews observing a weekly Sabbath day, they should also observe a Sabbath year every seven years. During the Sabbath year, they are to let the land completely rest and do no planting or tilling of any kind – no growing of grains, and no tending of vines for grapes. They can eat or give to the livestock anything that does grow, and God says they’ll be fine.

Then God explains a new holy year: the Year of Jubilee. After seven Sabbath years – 49 years – the 50th year is a Year of Jubilee, which shall also be treated as a Sabbath year with no planting. God says He’ll make sure in the year before that Sabbath year that enough is harvested to last the Israelites through three full years (the Sabbath year + the Year of Jubilee + the following year, because nothing has been planted in the previous two years).

The Year of Jubilee is focused on land, property and property rights. In a Year of Jubilee, all landed property is to revert to its original owner and slaves are to be set free. If families bought other pieces of land and moved there – they are to return to their original properties. God explicitly states that, from here on out, when buying and selling land the Israelites are to keep the Years of Jubilee in mind, so that, for example, if one were going to buy a piece of land but a Year of Jubilee was only two years away, he shouldn’t pay so much for it because everyone knows he’ll have to give it up and move back to his original land with his original tribe.

It sounds odd to us capitalists, but it makes perfect sense to God, because the land never belongs to the Israelites anyway – it all belongs to God and He just lets them live on it. In Leviticus 25:23: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” It’s like in the later Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

The buying and selling of slaves now is also affected with similar rules to those involving landed properties: if you buy a slave with many years before Jubilee, it’ll cost more because you can keep them longer. If you buy a slave the year before Jubilee, you’ll probably get him or her cheap because they’ll be freed soon.

Fun Facts! Catholics adopted the idea of Jubilee as a special year of the remission of sins and universal pardon in 1300, when Pope Boniface VIII declared a holy year to be celebrated with pilgrimages. (By the way, this is my favorite painting of him. Imagine that you’re amazingly powerful and yet the artist makes you look like this. He must have been extremely grouchy. Dante would place him in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy.) Following that first Jubilee, they would then be held every 25 or 50 years (depending on the pope), and every now and then an Extraordinary Jubilee would be proclaimed.

Did You Know? The Catholic Church declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy for 2015-2016. Pope Francis announced that Catholics were to pray with a particular focus on mercy, and special doors in basilicas and churches around the world were ‘opened.’ By passing through them, Catholics could earn indulgences if they had also fulfilled the conditions of praying for mercy around the world, confession, detachment from sin, and communion. Special priests were made available to every diocese to forgive sins that usually required highly qualified tribunals. I totally missed it, but I guess I’m not Catholic so I wouldn’t have been able to check it out anyway.

Tangential Stuff: the idea of Jubilee was extremely powerful to slaves in the southern United States pre- and during the Civil War. As Jubilee = sudden and unilateral freedom. There are a great many Jubilee songs (spirituals) that have survived, as they were one of the few ways that slaves could openly express their personal desires. The date that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – January 1, 1863 – is still celebrated as a Day of Jubilee for African-Americans

In Leviticus 26, God explains in no uncertain terms what it means to be disobedient to Him and His requirements. Those who are obedient will have good harvests, peace and success in battle (to enforce that peace). Their needs would be met. For those who are disobedient, well, it’s really bad stuff. From Leviticus 26:16: “I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.” And if you’re still disobedient, after all that, it’s not over. God has several layers of punishments for those who continue to disobey. In Leviticus 26:38-39: “You will perish among the nations; the land of your enemies will devour you. Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their ancestors’ sins they will waste away.” It’s scary stuff, but we learn later in the Old Testament that even this isn’t enough of a warning for us humans (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Despite all these punishments, God is still willing to give a little hope to the hapless Israelites. If they do all these things but then confess their sins, God says He’ll remember his covenants with Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, and He won’t reject them completely. Good news for them – and us.

Finally, the last chapter of Leviticus – YAY! God explains that if anyone vows to dedicate a person to Him and needs to pay the equivalent value, there are ways to set the values. There are amounts of shekels for men and women to be dedicated at various ages. If they wish to dedicate an animal as an offering, He reminds us again to make sure they’re clean and without defect, and that a priest must evaluate it to determine its value. If someone wants to dedicate part of their land, the value should be set according to what it harvests and how much – but they also have to remember the Year of Jubilee rules and in those years the land returns to its original owner and so on. It’s an odd last chapter – it’s as if God finished up all his rules and then remembered this one and tacked it on at the end.

And that’s Leviticus. Next up is Numbers, where the Israelites will count themselves (hence the ‘Numbers’) and then get ready to take control of Canaan, the land God has promised for them. How do you think they’ll do? Do you think they’ll follow all of God’s requirements and everything will go smoothly? Stay tuned to find out – although, with what we know of the Israelites so far, I wouldn’t bet a whole lot on that.

2 thoughts on “Leviticus 25 – 27: The Sabbath Year, The Year of Jubilee, and the Terrible Cost of Disobedience

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