LEVITICUS 25: JUBILEE!
I am the preacher for a church that began nearly fifty years ago. For the majority of those years the church was in debt in the millions. Bank loans, unfulfilled pledges, and big ideas built one of the largest church auditoriums in the country at the time. Years passed and debt became an enemy of the church growing, not a friend. The decision was made to get out of debt. It would take another book this size to tell the amazing story properly.
My only point is this. We said we would give God glory if we got out of debt, to forever say it was not our efforts but God helping us get “out of Egypt,” go through the Red Sea of Debt. To God be the glory, because we were redeemed from debt and now live free as a church from debilitating debt.
Our church lived the whole idea of Jubilee in an amazing way. One of the most unique ideas in history came from the world of Leviticus: to forgive debts and return land to its owner every 50 years—the year of Jubilee. After nearly fifty years as a church, we are free.
Among the many themes in the world of Leviticus, Jubilee is one many indebted people could use!
The Lord again spoke to Moses and told him to pass this message on to the Israelites: when you enter the land I am giving you, the land itself must rest in the seventh year. So they were to leave the farm land fallow in that year, meaning they would not plant any crops in that season. The seventh year was not the only concern—the eighth year was, when no yield from the crops would come.
God knew they might ask, “What will we do in the seventh year if we do not plant and harvest our crops?” Miraculously, however, God would provide a bumper crop in the sixth year that would last three years, until the harvest of the ninth year comes in (25:18-22).
The year of Jubilee was marked off by seven Sabbatical cycles plus one year. So every fiftieth year, on the day of Atonement in that year, a special time of Jubilee would be celebrated in the land.
This is one of the most interesting ideas for those of us who were raised in a capitalistic society and cut our teeth on ownership as a Christian-approved value that is encouraged. Frankly, we’re amazed that anything like this can happen. How can land just be handed back to the ancestral owners?
Consider that an individual may only experience two or possibly three Jubilees. While individuals may not have experienced Jubilee many times in their lives, it’s really not a ritual that’s about individuals. Instead, it’s a communal event that recognizes that land does not belong to humans.
This is the salient point of the year of Jubilee: land belongs to God. So the celebration called for families, individuals to return to their tribal land (twelve tribes of Judah) and acknowledge that it was God who gave them the land, who gives all land, and no man can possess it permanently—it is, instead, at all times on loan from God.
Case in point of God’s ownership and Israel’s use of the land is the content of the sale of land to one another. If an Israelite bought or sold crops, what he was really buying, says Leviticus 25:16, is not land. The land is God’s. No, he was buying a number of crops until the Jubilee. If you are buying land, you might think of it this way: You are investing in the right to receive a certain number of crops or years until Jubilee from a specific plot of land God has given your people.
An important point connected with the sale of the number of crops—land deals—is this exhortation: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 25:17). This exhortation develops the second principle that is built on the foundation of the first related to property—land is God’s.
This second principle is this: don’t cheat one another or kick people when they are down.
DO NOT CHEAT ONE ANOTHER
What does not cheating one another look like in Israelite life?
Four examples are given, the first in Leviticus 25:25-28: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property. But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.”
The second example given in Leviticus 25:35 exhorts Israel to treat the poor as one who is an alien among them who is in need, and they were not to extract any interest on this care for them: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God” (NIV).
A third example is given relates to the poor who have absolutely nothing of value, except themselves and out of desperation sell themselves as a slave. Immediately the idea is contradicted as implausible with each other. It is dismissed as a disgrace to hold a neighbor or fellow Israelite as a slave but rather could be viewed and treated as a hired worker. Leviticus 25:39-43 describes what this looks like: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.”
Anything about slavery is difficult for us to discuss, because we abhor it altogether in the twenty-first century. Israel, however, was urged to treat slaves with justice and goodness, and slaves would typically be from neighboring nations (25:44).
Finally, a fourth example is given of reversal of fortunes, if an Israelite loses everything and sells himself or family members to an alien living among them who has become rich. Essentially, the alien must also abide by the Year of Jubilee and allow the Israelite and family members to be free in that year. The Israelite retains the right to be redeemed by his countryman after he has sold himself (25:47). He may also redeem himself if he prospers, and the price is the number of years from the time he sold himself until the next Jubilee. At the end of this section the second major concern of this chapter—proper treatment of one another—is repeated: “you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly (25:53).
Concluding Leviticus 25 is a third major concern for Israel related to property. The first is that all land is God’s. The second is that they do not cheat one another and not treat one another ruthlessly in property dealings. The third and concluding concern is that Israel remember always that they are God’s servants in the land. No alien is to permanently possess them. They are God’s possession and servants. The year of Jubilee, then, is to enforce this concern of God’s to preserve His for-all-time people. The exodus is invoked again as the overriding grace that compels them, not as forced unwilling servants but as grateful, humble servants who know how God saved them from slavery itself in Egypt. “They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (25:55).
A second Michael Card song is a great illustration of this section on the Jubilee. Card’s interpretation is that Jubilee is an allegory for Christ’s wiping away our overwhelming, unpayable debt. Look up online or on your music service, “Jubilee” by Michael Card.
Lord, you provided for a time for the slaves to be set free, for debts to all be canceled, so Your chosen ones could see. Your deep desire is for forgiveness, you long to see our liberty. And your yearning is embodied in the year of Jubilee! At your appointed time, your deep desire became a man. In the voice of Jesus the Messiah we hear the Jubilee trumpet sound that tells us we are free. And your yearning is embodied, Lord, in Jesus Christ! Jesus is the Jubilee! Debts forgiven! Slaves set free. Jesus is our Jubilee!” (Adapted from Michael Card, “Jubilee!”)
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.