Jubilee sounds like an idea with great potential. However, as Yogi Berra once observed, “To say a player has potential means he hasn’t done it yet.” (Of course he also said, “I didn’t really say a lot to the things I said.”) There is no evidence that Israel ever observed the Jubilee. In fact they didn’t even observe the Sabbath years. The Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon for seventy years and the writer of 2 Chronicles tells us in 36:20-21 that the seventy years stood for each Sabbath year that had not been observed, approximately 490 years.
Nevertheless, the Jubilee instructions came from God. Employing the redemptive-movement hermeneutic (RMH) I discussed a few days ago I think there are values we can glean from the unrealized plan. As you will recall there was an X-Y-Z formula involved. (See Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic and Redemptive Movement Hermenuetic Diagram)
X stands for the particular culture context a Scripture passage was written in.
Y stands for the concrete words of Scripture and the ethic they teach in contrast to culture.
Z stands for the ultimate ethic that God intends for eternity.
X – The Israelites had just left Egypt. God had systematically exposed the sham of Egyptian gods and power. They were on their way to Canaan where God would order the destruction of the child sacrificing Baal worshipers. The Egyptians would be to the south, the Babylonians to the east and north. The Israelites would be surrounded by cultures that believed in ruthless domination. Slavery was widely practiced and human life didn’t count for much. Idol worship was central to there existence.
Y – Three times in Leviticus 25, God reminded the people that he was the one who brought them out of Egypt. God had claim over all humanity but something more was emphasized here. God points to his astonishing intervention in Egypt and makes clear that it was he who had called the nation into existence and he was the one who would rule. Israel had a special call to mission and God expected obedience.
There were economic ramifications to God’s instructions. First, and probably foremost, was that the land was God’s and the Israelites were to be stewards. The Jubilee was grounded in Sabbath observance which was based on trust in God for provision. It was also about taking time to reflect on God and worship him.
Second, was God’s provision for economic freedom. God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Slavery was to be abolished between Israelites in the new land. An Israelite could be indentured to another but only for a fixed period of time. They were not to be treated as slaves but rather as hired help. For the one who fell on hard times, the Jubilee provided the opportunity to begin anew. For the slacker or the imprudent, it meant having to once again make a go of it. Either way, perpetual servitude was abolished.
Third, was God’s expectation of stewardship. Everyone had been given their economic freedom and land to work. (The Levites had been given houses within cities.) Land could be leased out for a time but always was to revert back to the owner. It seemed that God wanted people free from economic bondage and working land he had entrusted to them. Access to land and labor, the means of production, appears to have been part of God’s vision. There was to be none of the economic bondage (between Israelites) that existed in the surrounding nations.
It has to be assumed that over time the nation would have grown beyond what the original lands would support. The Jubilee code does not explicitly anticipate this development. Would God assign more lands and hold the same code? Would the Israelites take the code and apply it to lands they took that were not part of the original tract? Would there be new decrees? We will never know.
Z – Israel was to be God’s reflection to the world of what he desired for the rest of the world. I think there are at least three issues with regard to ultimate ethics here. First, the Jubilee points to God as the ultimate source of our economic prosperity and freedom, not us. As an ultimate ethic, we are to trust in God for provision. Second, God wants each of us to be active participants in the stewardship of life, including economic life. Part of that stewardship is not being foolish lenders or borrowers. Third, our economic activity is to honor the dignity and value of our neighbors, instead of engaging in oppressive relationships toward each other.
The Jubilee story always raises the question of why God allowed the Israelites to enslave others if he did not want slavery for any of humanity. I think the question can by answered with another question. Why did God allow divorce by written certificate? Jesus said it was because of “the hardness of their hearts.” The Jubilee and the divorce laws were not the ultimate ethic. They were pointers away from the surrounding culture toward the ultimate ethic God has in mind.