Ask most people about “Jubilee” and they will say they have never heard of it. If they have heard of it, it is often because of the Jubilee 2000 organization, now known as Jubilee Research. This organization has lobbied for debt cancellation for the poorest of the lesser developed countries (LDCs). They have had the backing of a number of celebrities including Bono of U2. Last month they sponsored a big rally called Live 8. Jubilee USA Network is the American partner in these efforts.
“Jubilee” is used by the movement as biblical support to insist on “debt forgiveness” for the poorest nations on the planet. Typical of the rationale statements is this one from Jubilee USA Network:
“In the Jubilee Year as quoted in Leviticus, those enslaved because of debts are freed, lands lost because of debt are returned, and community torn by inequality is restored.”
Advocates often say that lenders have an obligation to cancel debt because of the Jubilee code. But was this what the Jubilee code truly taught? I want to be unmistakably clear about what I am addressing here. One can make a case for debt cancellation on a variety of economic and moral grounds. But is Jubilee a legitimate rationale for debt cancellation? I think the answer is largely no.
Leviticus 25 is the passage containing the Jubilee code. Every seven years the Israelites were to let their land lie fallow. Debts were suspended for the Sabbath year. Every seventh Sabbath, there was to be a “Jubilee.” (Some say this was fifty years and others say forty-nine years depending on how they calculate.) During this year, all land leases and terms of indentured servitude were to expire. Notice I did not say “debts forgiven” and “slaves freed.” Nor was there any restoration of a community “torn by inequality.” The whole point of the code was that it kept inequality (with regard to land and labor) from emerging in the first place!
Leviticus 25:14-16 NRSV
14 When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. 15 When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. 16 If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you.
If an Israelite came on hard times, then he could “sell” the land to another. Although, if we look with any scrutiny at this passage, we see that a better contemporary characterization of the transaction would be “leasing,” not “selling.” The land could be leased based on a price equal to the number of crops from the time of the transaction to the start of the next Jubilee Year. The same was true of indentured servitude. One could lease labor for a period of years from the time of the transaction until the Jubilee Year. (Leviticus 25:39-40.) The passage explicitly says that these laborers were not to be considered slaves. There was no “debt” to cancel nor were there “slaves” to set free!
Old Testament culture was largely without the concept of commercial debt financing. Economics was a zero-sum game. Debt was established because an individual needed help. The Old Testament forbids charging interest on debt because the only concept of debt was of helping needy people. The Hebrew word nashak is the word translated interest and it means “to bite, to strike with a sting (like a snake.)” Not pretty.
With the advent of Pax Romana, secure trade routes developed and debt financing began to appear among merchants. The issue of debt for personal need was still very much present but commercial debt had also become a reality. Jesus makes direct reference to this in his parable about the talents in Matthew 25:27. The Greek word interpreted interest here was tokos which at its root meant “to bear or bring forth.” It was a word with positive connotations and commercial debt with interest was not condemned in scripture.
There is nothing immoral about wealthy nations making commercial loans to poorer nations. The very term “debt forgiveness” inappropriately conjures up the image of the Lord’s Prayer. There is no forgiveness needed, just a decision about cancellation of a contract. (For an interesting article on this topic see Debt Forgiveness: Plain Speaking Please.) There is nothing immoral about commercial debt. Since the Jubilee Code doesn’t even address debt, much less debt cancellation, it can not be marshaled as an injunction to cancel debt today.
There is plenty of material in Scripture to challenge our thinking about debts owed by LDCs without using Scripture like a ventriloquist dummy for our agendas. The general theme of the Leviticus Code seems to be that God did not want the Israelites in economic bondage and wanted all the Israelites to participate in God's plans by owning their own land and labor. Jubilee could be instructive about the ulitmate purposes of lending and aid, but to suggest that there is a mandate for unconditional debt cancellation based on the Jubilee Code is nonsense.
I want to reiterate again that all of the above says nothing either way about the appropriateness of the debt cancellation the Jubilee movement is seeking. Some of the loans lenders made were irresponsible. On the other hand, debt cancellation, in some instances, will remove any leverage of control over corrupt governments and put millions of dollars in the coffers of autocratic thugs. These are just a couple of variables in a very complex mix of problems. Simplistic solutions backed by proof-texting from the Bible may make a lot of idealists feel good but it will likely leave countless millions in their suffering.