The Point: God has given us responsibility over His creation.
The Sabbath Year: Leviticus 25:1-7.
 The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying,  "Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD.  For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits,  but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.  The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you,  and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food. [ESV]
[1-7] “The Sabbath Year. The chapter begins with a discussion of the Sabbath year rather than the Jubilee year. Every seventh year the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord . The normal activities of sowing, pruning, tending and reaping were to be set aside for a year and people were to live on whatever the uncultivated fields yielded during that time. There were to be no loopholes: strict observance of this Sabbath was required by all who lived in Israel. An Israelite householder could not get round it by arranging for others to till the land on his behalf. The Sabbath year effectively meant that it would be two years before a proper harvest could be reaped again. The harvest of the sixth year would have to sustain them not only then but during the seventh and eighth years as well. That was an awful lot to ask of it. How would they cope? Would the food supply be sufficient, or run out? Did it not make more sense to exploit the earth’s resources rather than wasting them for a year? Why risk relying on God when human effort could solve the problem? The Sabbath year served a number of purposes, as becomes clear later in the chapter. It prevented Israel from raping the land and turning it into an arid dustbowl. It allowed the land to replenish itself naturally. It also provided the people with a year of rest and space to accomplish other things. But it served deeper purposes as well. The land belonged to God, and it was His right to determine its use as He chose . He rested on the seventh day of creation and longs for His earth to enjoy the same privilege. Since the people belonged to God no less than the land, He promises that He would care for them. The question was whether they would show that they trusted Him by obeying this apparently nonsensical command. Would they take Him at His word? Two issues arise from this law for Christians today. First, as God’s people we should care for the environment. Our own lifestyles should reflect our belief that this is God’s earth, that Jesus Christ is Lord over it [Col. 1:15-17] and that therefore we should do all within our power to use its resources wisely, not for short-term, selfish gain but in such a way that they can be renewed healthily for the benefit of those who follow us. Secondly, the law challenges us, as it did Israel, to question where our real trust lies. Does our security genuinely rest in the ability of the living God to provide for us in the future, or does it lie in the pension schemes, the insurance policies and the bricks and mortar we accumulate? How would we fare if the Lord said to us that we were to take a sabbatical year, not once in a lifetime but as a regular spiritual discipline to free us from our dependence on things?” [Tidball, pp. 293-294]
[8-55] “The Jubilee Year. [8-13] The initial announcement. After seven Sabbath years a special year was to be observed. The Jubilee fell every fifty years and extended the fallow of the forty-ninth year for a further period. It started with the blowing of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement to proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants . The year began on the day of fresh beginnings, when the whole nation had just received forgiveness for their sin. The entire year was to be characterized by the twin ideas of liberty and return. Freedom from labor and freedom from debt were to go hand in hand with restoring broken family ties and repossessing lost family property. The hope of returning to one’s roots at the Jubilee would sustain many who had fallen on hard times. [14-22] The initial implications. Two implications are immediately explored. The first is the implication of the year for property rights and values. Verses 14-19 explain that the price to be paid for any property between Jubilees depends on how distant the next Jubilee is. The further away it is, the higher the price to be paid. The nearer it is, the lower the price to be paid. This is because in the Jubilee all property that has changed hands since the last one is returned to its original owners. Purchasing property was like purchasing a lease, rather than a freehold, and therefore its value was calculated on a descending scale according to how near the redemption date was. With this system in place there was no room for property speculation. The system was not a matter of political convenience but the inevitable outworking of a number of key spiritual principles. All property was ultimately owned by God  and no one could ever treat it as their possession. In reality, people only ever occupied it by God’s gracious permission for a period, be that period long or short. Then there was the principle of community solidarity. The command you shall not wrong one another occurs twice in this short paragraph [14,17]. Neighbors who had fallen on hard times and had to sell their land in order to survive were not to be exploited by others. Debt could easily undermine the social foundations of Israel and their respect for one another as equals. These regulations were designed to ensure that this did not happen. A third spiritual principle lay in the respect felt for the family and the clan. Family land was passed from generation to generation and was held almost as a ‘divine right’. At the Jubilee, property was returned to those who had disposed of it, so that the family and clan structure of Israel could be sustained intact. All this leads to the fourth great principle lying behind these regulations. They are designed to prevent the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, who thus get poorer. Jubilee sets a limit on greed. The second implication addressed is the question, already referred to, of how people were to sustain themselves without engaging in agricultural activity during the Jubilee. The normal cycle of Sabbath years meant that there would be no humanly produced harvest every seventh year, and the harvest of the previous year would have to stretch to two. When a Jubilee year was added to the end of the seventh Sabbath year, the previous harvest would have to cover three years. Verses 18-22 recognize the fears this would provoke. But God promises to send them crops sufficient for their needs . The bumper crops of that year would last them through until they could reap the harvest again in the ninth year. Here was, as mentioned above, a test of how far Israel would trust her covenant God. [23-24] The theological foundation. The theological foundation on which all these provisions were built was explained earlier in the chapter. God owned all the land but let His people lease it under certain conditions. It was never to be used as a pawn in the game of economic one-upmanship. This legislation endorses the legitimacy of the private ownership of property, especially when it is invested in the family. Although there is a recognition that some land is in common ownership, this is the exception rather than the norm. [25-55] Steps to Jubilee. The Jubilee was a method of last resort for releasing those who had fallen into financial trouble. Debt was seen as a major evil, both debilitating and dehumanizing for those who suffered it. Everything had to be done to overcome it as soon as possible. So none need wait for the fiftieth year if they could extricate themselves in the meantime. But Jubilee meant that at least once in a lifetime freedom could be acquired, even if all other means of achieving it had failed. The remaining verses of chapter 25 set out the steps that might be taken before the Jubilee year dawned. But woven into these instructions is a consideration of three special cases, namely that of a house in a walled city [29-31], that of the Levites [32-34], and that of non-native slaves [44-46]. We shall explore the main path first and return to the bypaths afterwards. The main path is marked by the phrase If your brother becomes poor [25,35,39,47]. The path begins gently, outlining the steps that can be taken in the case of a minor debt that can easily be redeemed, and then climbs with increasing difficulty until it reaches its high point with the words and if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee . (1) Step 1 [25-28]. If for any reason Israelites fell into debt, their first recourse was to sell part of his property . If the property was sold on the open market then ideally it would be bought by his nearest redeemer (relative) as soon as possible, on the basis that land should be kept within the family if at all feasible. If that proved impossible, and the debtors’ own fortunes improved so that they were in a position to redeem it themselves, they were entitled to do so at any stage. There was, however, to be no haggling over the price. The value of the property was to be fixed by the number of years that still remained before the Jubilee. If all else failed, it would return to them then. (2) Step 2 [35-38]. If the situation got worse and the selling of property did not resolve it, then it was the obligation of the nearest relative to support a debtor by hiring him as a laborer and by loaning money to pay off the debt, interest-free. On no account should a relative exploit his kinsman’s misfortune for profit. (3) Step 3 [39-46]. In extreme situations poor people might even sell himself to a relative . But if they did so, the relatives who hired them had to understand that there were several conditions attached. They were to treat their fellow family members not as slaves but as hired laborers, the implication of which was not so much that they should be paid as that they should be treated with respect. They could not be sold on to other owners. They were not to be treated ruthlessly. And the arrangement lasted only until the Jubilee, when the whole of the poor man’s family was to be restored to freedom. The redeemer could not claim ownership of any children born while a poor father was in his service. These instructions emphasize again the strong ties of kinship and remind the one who came to the rescue not to exploit his brother’s vulnerability. The rescuer was to fear … God . Remembering that God sees all would encourage people to resist the temptations of power and make them realize that they would never get away with abusing their role. The main thrust of these verses is underlined by the contrasting treatment of slaves from among the nations that are around you . They could be purchased and treated like other property, and could be passed on as an inheritance to their children. But an Israelite was never to enslave an Israelite. To do so would make nonsense of the covenant that made them all equally servants of God . (4) Step 4 [47-54]. In the event that a poor Israelite sold himself, not to a family member, but to a rich stranger, the poor person never forfeited his right of redemption . Two routes to freedom might be followed. First, a close relative, not necessarily a brother, would be encouraged to buy the rich man out , or secondly, if the slave’s own circumstances changed, he could redeem himself . Again the tariff that set the redemption price was calculated according to the period remaining before the next Jubilee and was not a matter for negotiation. (5) Step 5 [54-55]. If all else failed, the year of jubilee would herald liberation. In fact, the Jubilee provision was wider even than this. It not only restored property that was in the hands of aliens or temporary residents, but restored all property to its original owners, even if it was still in the clan and had been redeemed by close relatives. The Jubilee was the override factor that, when it came, leapfrogged over all other solutions to poverty.” [Tidball, pp. 294-296]
“More than Theory. The idea of Jubilee is probably the most radical social and economic idea in all the Bible. Its effect was to rule out speculation and prevent economic exploitation. It enshrined in law the cessation of land abuse, the cancellation of debts, the restitution of land to its original owners, the repair of the family, and the termination of slavery. Its proclamation of liberty and its policies of justice have, like the exodus, fired the imaginations and inspired the hopes of many subsequent movements of liberation. But was it ever put into practice in Israel? There is an absolute silence in the later books of the Bible regarding the theory and practice of the jubilee. At most there is a hint of it in Isaiah 37:30, but there is no clear statement that it was practiced in Israel. The continuing application. Whether Israel ever put the legislation into practice or not, the principles enshrined in the Jubilee have continuing significance for many aspects of our Christian lives. (1) Jubilee calls us to promote social justice. The Jubilee makes it unmistakably clear that God champions the cause of the poor and the destitute. He not only sympathizes with their plight but provides Israel with a practical way of rescuing them from it. He requires His people to show compassion to all, however poor, and never to take advantage of those who are financially vulnerable. He is opposed to a brother’s reducing another brother to slavery. He forbids the ruthless management of slaves and employees. He refuses to countenance indifference to the needs of a family member. He sets His face against the concentration of property in the hands of a few. He sets a limit on the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. He oversees all business transactions, and watches to see if they show evidence that He is feared, or whether property tycoons think of themselves as unaccountable to anyone beyond themselves. He counters the belief that debts can never be forgiven. He contests the selfish exploitation of both land and people. (2) Jubilee calls us to practice authentic worship. Leviticus 25 is a political document and serves as a manifesto of social and economic policies. But it is also an intensely spiritual document. God’s fingerprints are all over it. He speaks , He cares [17,36,43], He provides , He owns , He rules  and He gives hope [54-55]. Three times the Israelites are warned to fear Him [17,36,43] by submitting to His will with respect and reverence. God was to be worshipped in the financial sector as well as in the sanctuary. Unless mercy was shown in one’s business life, all the sacrifices offered in the tabernacle or the temple would prove futile. God is to be honored in every area of life. (3) Jubilee calls us to pursue merciful living in our personal spirituality. The heart of this perspective on personal spirituality lies in the call to exercise mercy in our dealings with one another. To do so will prove profoundly countercultural, for our society is based on people receiving what they deserve and gaining what they have worked for. Astonishingly, there is no discussion in Leviticus 25 about the causes of poverty. Perhaps some who fell into debt deserved to do so because of laziness, folly or incompetence. Perhaps for others the misfortune was no fault of their own. But no distinction is made between them, no inquiry into the cause is conducted. Whether the poor were deserving or underserving, the Jubilee was for them, and their family and fellow citizens were called upon to exercise mercy, to release, to forgive. In an equally astonishing way Jesus spoke of God as being kind to the ungrateful and the evil, on the basis of which He instructed His disciples to be merciful, even as your Father is merciful [Luke 6:35-36]. (4) Jubilee calls us to possess unwavering hope. The prospect of Jubilee kept hope alive when debtors may have been tempted to despair. Jubilee became a metaphor for future hope, for the dawning of a day of the Lord’s favor, when the blind would see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dumb speak [Isaiah 35:5]. It serves us still as an image of a future salvation when the restoration of all creation will take place. Its forward thrust encourages us to look ahead rather than to look around at the experiences that cause us discouragement and doubt, and to persevere in hope [Rom. 5:3-5]. (5) Jesus is Jubilee. Several of these threads come together in Jesus. His ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ [Luke 4:16-21], in which He claimed that He had come to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2, put Him firmly in the center of the trajectory that began in the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 25. Isaiah 61 reverberates with the images of Jubilee. The anointed one would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, which meant that good news would be brought to the poor, the broken-hearted would be comforted, and those held in prison would be set free. Jesus says that with His arrival that day had come. Throughout His ministry He gave evidence to justify His claim. People were set free from a multitude of diseases, disabilities, demons, defilements, debts and sins. Mercy and forgiveness flowed freely and justice was at work for the benefit of the poor. He did not inaugurate a national restructuring of economic life. He inaugurated a greater Jubilee in which people of all nations were (and are) set free from the stronger forces that enslaved them and the deeper debts that they owed. The Jubilee is a model of God’s relationship with His world. In it the sovereign God takes an initiative to deal with the realities of an unjust and sin-riddled society. He shows a special compassion to the weak and vulnerable members of the community. He calls His people to obey His word and have faith in His providence. He also calls them to reproduce His mercy and justice in their dealings with one another. He gives us the opportunity for new beginnings in the present, while drawing out from us a hope in the future. In summary, Jubilee speaks about: (1) our relation to the environment: the need for rest and renewal; (2) our mission in the world: the need for liberty and justice; (3) our worship in the church: the need for authenticity and charity; (4) our relations in the family: the need for compassion and support; (5) our growth in the Spirit: the need for mercy and forgiveness; (6) our faith in the Savior: the need to trust Jesus; and (7) our hope in the future: the need to look forward to His coming again.” [Tidball, pp. 296-304]
Questions for Discussion:
1. What two issues arise from the law of the Sabbath Year that can be applied to Christians today?
2. What were the key spiritual principles of the Jubilee Year?
3. What lessons can we learn from the law of the Jubilee Year? What implications can we draw from the Jubilee Year to apply to our lives today?
The Message of Leviticus, Derek Tidball, Inter Varsity.
The Book of Leviticus, Gordon Wenham, Eerdmans.
Leviticus, Robert Vasholz, Mentor.