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Leviticus 25 – The Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee

Summary

In Leviticus 25, the Lord commands the Israelites to observe a Sabbath for the land and to observe the Year of Jubilee, a time of liberation.

Analysis

The priestly writers place a special emphasis on the Sabbath, beginning in Genesis 2:2-3, and continuing through Exodus into the book of Leviticus. In the list of "appointed festivals" and "holy convocations" in chapter 23, the weekly Sabbath takes first place. The Israelites are to work for six days, but the seventh day is to be "a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation" (23:3; see also 26:2). In chapter 25, even the land is granted a Sabbath rest. Every seventh year, the land is to lie fallow. No sowing of fields or pruning of vineyards is allowed in this Sabbath year. Echoing the commandment in chapter 23, it is to be "a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD" (25:4). The Israelites, their servants, their livestock, and even the wild animals are allowed to eat what the land produces of itself in that Sabbath year, as well as what they have stored from the sixth year, and the promise is that there will be enough food for all (see 25:20-22).

The text goes on to speak of what could be called a Sabbath of Sabbaths. The Year of Jubilee is set by counting off "seven Sabbaths of years," or seven times seven years. The fiftieth year, then, is to be the Year of Jubilee (25:8-10). It is proclaimed with the blowing of the ram's horn on the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month.

The Year of Jubilee is a time of Sabbath rest, a time of homecoming, and a time of liberation. The land is to lie fallow, as it does in the Sabbath year. Each Israelite is to return to his ancestral land and to his clan. Debts are to be forgiven, Israelite slaves are to be set free, and land is to be returned to its proper owners. In other words, if a person falls on hard times and is forced to sell his land or himself to pay off debts, the sale is not permanent. Both land and people are set free in the Year of Jubilee.

This vision of liberation is based on two primary theological claims. The land belongs not to the one who buys it, but to the Lord: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants" (25:23). Likewise, Israelites may not be anyone's slaves, "For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt" (25:42; see also 25:55). Both the land and the people belong to the Lord, and both are released in the Year of Jubilee from any illegitimate claim on them.

Leviticus 25 also provides for "redemption" of land and people between Jubilee years. If land or people are sold to pay off debts, the nearest relative of the debtor is to "redeem" the land or person by buying them back. The purchase price is to be computed according to the years until the Jubilee. That is, the buyer, either the original buyer or the redeemer, is purchasing harvests, not the land itself. The buyer is paying for people's labor, not for the people themselves (25:15-16, 23-34, 47-55). If there is no one to redeem the land or people, both are released in the Jubilee.

This remarkable vision of the Jubilee--a vision of economic justice and liberation--has inspired people for thousands of years. Most recently, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the year 2000 as the Year of Jubilee, and "Jubilee" has become the name of a movement of religious communities and others who are calling for the forgiveness of crippling third-world debt. That same Jubilee vision was expressed thousands of years ago in Isaiah 61:1-2: "The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God." It is significant, of course, that Jesus announces the fulfillment of this Jubilee vision in his own life and ministry (Luke 4:16-21). Restoration of that which is lost, liberation of land and people, forgiveness of debts, homecoming, and Sabbath rest--such is the extraordinary vision of Jubilee.

Leviticus 25

The Sabbatical Year

25The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2Speak 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. 3For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4but 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. 5You 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. 6You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound labourers who live with you; 7for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.

The Year of Jubilee

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. 9Then 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. 10And 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. 11That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. 12For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.

13 In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. 14When you make a sale to your neighbour or buy from your neighbour, you shall not cheat one another. 15When you buy from your neighbour, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop-years. 16If 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. 17You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.

18 You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. 19The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely. 20Should you ask, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ 21I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. 22When 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. 23The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. 24Throughout 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. 26If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, 27the 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. 28But 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.

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 for one year. 30If 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. 31But 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. 32As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites shall for ever have the right of redemption of the houses in the cities belonging to them. 33Such 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. 34But the open land around their cities may not be sold; for that is their possession for all time.

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. 36Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. 37You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. 38I 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. 40They shall remain with you as hired or bound labourers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41Then 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. 42For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold. 43You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God. 44As 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. 45You 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. 46You 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.

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, 48after they have sold themselves they shall have the right of redemption; one of their brothers may redeem them, 49or 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. 50They 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 labourer. 51If many years remain, they shall pay for their redemption in proportion to the purchase price; 52and if few years remain until the jubilee year, they shall compute thus: according to the years involved they shall make payment for their redemption. 53As a labourer hired by the year they shall be under the alien’s authority, who shall not, however, rule with harshness over them in your sight. 54And if they have not been redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children with them shall go free in the jubilee year. 55For 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.

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10 February 2011

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