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.
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 of 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.
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.
35 If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. 36 Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. 37 You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.
39 If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. 40 They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold. 43 You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God. 44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 45 You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.
It is hard to appreciate how radical these instructions were from our distant perspective. All of the nations surrounding Israel engaged in slavery. This was the abolition of slavery among the Israelites. They could take slaves from other nations but based on laws from Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament, slaves were treated better than in surrounding nations. There is also a provision against charging interest but it is clearly in the context of someone who is in desperate need.
Leviticus 25:47-55 NRSV
47 If resident aliens among you prosper, and if any of your kin fall into difficulty with one of them and sell themselves to an alien, or to a branch of the alien's family, 48 after they have sold themselves they shall have the right of redemption; one of their brothers may redeem them, 49 or their uncle or their uncle's son may redeem them, or anyone of their family who is of their own flesh may redeem them; or if they prosper they may redeem themselves. 50 They shall compute with the purchaser the total from the year when they sold themselves to the alien until the jubilee year; the price of the sale shall be applied to the number of years: the time they were with the owner shall be rated as the time of a hired laborer. 51 If many years remain, they shall pay for their redemption in proportion to the purchase price; 52 and if few years remain until the jubilee year, they shall compute thus: according to the years involved they shall make payment for their redemption. 53 As a laborer hired by the year they shall be under the alien's authority, who shall not, however, rule with harshness over them in your sight. 54 And if they have not been redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children with them shall go free in the jubilee year. 55 For to me the people of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Yesterday I wrote that there technically was no “sale” of land in Israel. The transactions were lease agreements. The same was true for labor. No Israelite was sold into slavery. They leased their labor for a period of years running from the lease date until the next jubilee. If someone had to sell their land or labor due either to hard times or injudicious action, they would be saved by the jubilee. No one could be permanently alienated from the means of production, namely land and labor.
13 In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. 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. 17 You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God.
The land was treated as a means of production. It technically was not sold. It was leased. The maximum lease price was based on the number of crops before the next Jubilee. Sabbath years were subtracted from this total and the debtor was not required to make payments in Sabbath years (Deuteronomy 15:1-3). There was no debt forgiveness here because the lease expired at the beginning of the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee established an effective check against reckless lending or borrowing.
Leviticus 25:18-28 NRSV
18 You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. 19 The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely. 20 Should you ask, "What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop" 21 I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. 22 When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old. 23 The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. 24 Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.
25 If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. 26 If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, 27 the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. 28 But if there are not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned.
This passage shows that Jubilee was more than just an economic directive. It was an opportunity to experience God’s direct provision. It also shows that God was a big believer in an “ownership society,” or at least a “stewardship society.” Each person and family was to have an inalienable right to land and labor, the means of production.
Leviticus 25:29-34 NRSV
29 If anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the right of redemption shall be one year. 30 If it is not redeemed before a full year has elapsed, a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. 31 But houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country; they may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. 32 As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites shall forever have the right of redemption of the houses in the cities belonging to them. 33 Such property as may be redeemed from the Levites -- houses sold in a city belonging to them -- shall be released in the jubilee; because the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. 34 But the open land around their cities may not be sold; for that is their possession for all time.
It is reasonable to assume that land buyers benefited by the crops and livestock they produced while holding land they had leased. Whatever increase they experienced beyond the price they paid was not redistributed. Real estate purchased inside walled cities was not redistributed either. It was productive land and labor that was inalienable. It is interesting to note that verse 33 says the Levites’ houses were inalienable because it was “…their possession among the people of Israel.” It seems God felt it imperative that everyone have a material interest in the stewardship of creation.
The nation of Israel was formally established at Sinai by God with God as king. At that time, God instructed his people as to righteous behavior. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain many laws addressing how the people were to relate to God and how the people were to relate to each other. The image of a God who blessed his faithful people with peace and prosperity would show the world God’s intention for all humanity. In other words, shades of Eden
Despite scores of passages about economic related issues, there is no economic model presented in the Old Testament. The primary economic model appears to be “Do what God says.” Probably the most instructive passage relating to economic behavior is the Leviticus 25 instructions concerning sabbath and jubilee.
1 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the LORD. 3 Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 6 You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath -- you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; 7 for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.
To my knowledge, Sabbath observance began here. There are some who make a case for Sabbath observance back to Adam, but the consensus seems to be that it was originated at Sinai. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic display of trust in God than to see an entire society cease labor for an entire year every seven years. Such a practice would free the Israelites from anxious striving and draw their focus to God. Neighboring people could not help but take notice.
8 You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month -- on the day of atonement -- you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. 10 And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. 11 That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. 12 For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
The Jubilee was to occur on every seventh Sabbath year, or once every 49 years. The wording of the passage makes it confusing and some have said it was to be every 50 years. However, most Jewish scholars by the time of the New Testament era believed that the first year was the period between year 0 and 1, the second between year 1 and 2, and so on. Thus, the fiftieth year was between years 49 and 50. This is similar to living in the 2000s but calling it the Twenty-First Century.
The key economic principle hinted at here is that there was a type of private ownership. Each person was told to return to their own land. However, that ownership was granted by God and could not be permanently transferred to anyone else. In short, the land was ultimately God’s land and the Israelite was a steward of it. There land was to be a reminder of God's faithfulness.