The Happy Threat of Jubilee

A Reprieve From the Strange and Offensive

Our journey through Leviticus for many has been a tour of the strange and offensive. We had laws about what to eat and what not to eat, menstruating women, skin disorders, and a God that kills two sons of Aaron for serving strange fire. In chapter 25 however, we find commands that many find at first glance find welcome.

Sabbath For the Land

The chapter begins with Sabbath for the land. Just as Israel was supposed to observe a day without work every 7 days, the land itself would be given one year in seven where it would not be worked or plowed or cut. The people could live off what the land naturally produced in that year but there would be no plowing or planting.

Most modern readers of the book once again, as we’ve done with laws of clean and unclean jump to strategies for healthy land management. Leaving soil for a fallow year is not uncommon as is crop rotation. Farmers even before the development of chemical fertilizer knew to plan some bean varieties that would refresh the nitrogen content of the soil for the sake of future crops. We’ve seen, however, that Leviticus should not be read as some pre-scientific guide to folk health and prosperity. The lessons of Leviticus are symbolic with respect to the relationship between God, the earth and the people.

Rest for the land in the Sabbath year, just like rest for the worker on the Sabbath day, was intended to create in the community a deep reliance upon God’s provision for them rather than their provision for themselves. It would also adjust their relationship with the land. The land did not belong to them but to God and the land, while it was their servant beneath them in rank, was also a fellow servant before God. The land was not to be abused just like their family members were not to be abused or be seen as tools for the powerful to oppress.

Freedom for the Owned

Chapter 25 is just getting warmed up with the Sabbath year. It declares that every 7th Sabbath year they were to celebrate a Jubilee year. In that year not only were the people to, for a second year in a row not cultivate the land, but all those who had lost their land, fell into debt and even into debt slavery were to be released from their debts and sent back to their ancestral land. This year of Jubilee offered families who had descended into debt a clean slate to begin again.

The structure of the passage reveals the intent of the law as this rabbinic passage illuminates.

R. Samuel the son of Gedaliah said: There is no unit in the Torah whose opening subject is not followed by its substantiation. How does it [chap. 25] begin? “The Lord spoke to Moses … the land shall rest …” (vv. 1–7*). It is followed by the subject of the Jubilee, “You shall count for yourself seven weeks of years …” (vv. 8–13*). If he has not observed the sabbaticals and Jubilees, he will ultimately sell his moveables, “when you sell [i.e., lease] your property …” (vv. 14–23*). If he repents [i.e., changes his ways], fine; if not, he will ultimately sell his land, “When your brother [Israelite] becomes impoverished and has to sell part of his holding …” (vv. 25–28*). If he repents, fine; if not, he will ultimately sell his house, “If a man sells a dwelling house …” (vv. 29–34*). If he repents, fine; if not, he will ultimately go begging, “If your brother, being (further) impoverished, falls under your authority …” (vv. 35–38*). If he repents, fine; if not, he will ultimately sell himself to you, “If your brother, being (further) impoverished under your authority, is sold to you …” (vv. 39–46*). If he repents, fine; if not, he will ultimately sell himself to the gentile, “If the resident alien under your authority has prospered, and your brother, being (further) impoverished, comes under his authority and is sold to the resident alien …” (vv. 47–55*), not only he himself but (ultimately) all of Israel.5

Milgrom, J. (2004). A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: a book of ritual and ethics (pp. 298–299). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

The year of Jubilee is to insure a number of religious and economic things for Israel

  • The LORD owns the land and all that it in it. We use it beneath his generosity.
  • We are to be compassionate and generous with each other
  • People are responsible for their own situations, for better or for worse
  • These ideas are held in tension to give people a chance to try again when they have failed.

Poverty and Social Unrest

The path to poverty was easy to see.

By c2400 bc it already appears to have been common practice on the part of local officials, or wealthy merchants, to advance loans to peasants who were in financial trouble on collateral and begin to appropriate their possessions if they were unable to pay. It usually started with grain, sheep, goats, and furniture, then moved on to fields and houses, or, alternately or ultimately, family members. Servants, if any, went quickly, followed by children, wives , and in some extreme occasions, even the borrower himself. These would be reduced to debt-peons: not quite slaves, but very close to that, forced into perpetual service in the lender’s household— or, sometimes, in the Temples or Palaces themselves.

In theory, of course, any of them could be redeemed whenever the borrower repaid the money, but for obvious reasons, the more a peasant’s resources were stripped away from him, the harder that became. The effects were such that they often threatened to rip society apart. If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; families would be broken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization.

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 1273-1282). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

The dilemma was not unknown to Israel’s neighbors. Some of the neighbors would enact debt amnesty to re-balance the situation.

Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian and later Babylonian kings periodically announced general amnesties: “clean slates,” as economic historian Michael Hudson refers to them. Such decrees would typically declare all outstanding consumer debt null and void (commercial debts were not affected), return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons to return to their families. Before long, it became more or less a regular habit for kings to make such a declaration on first assuming power, and many were forced to repeat it periodically over the course of their reigns.

In Sumeria, these were called “declarations of freedom”— and it is significant that the Sumerian word amargi, the first recorded word for “freedom” in any known human language, literally means “return to mother”— since this is what freed debt-peons were finally allowed to do.

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 1286-1289). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 1282-1286). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Debt amnesty was not only a necessary element of society out of concerns for justice, it was also seen as a necessary element to maintain social stability.

For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors— of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity , popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records— tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.”

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 177-183). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Where’s My Jubilee?

While implementation of the Sabbath year is well attested in Scripture there is little or no evidence that the year of Jubilee was ever enacted.

This might come as a shock to us. In our cultural conversation Leviticus comes thundering to us as hardcore, hard-line, comply or be damned God given law. Learning that laws regarding ceremonial cleanliness were enforced, capital punishment for crimes we don’t see as important was probably enforced, and even the fire of God consuming Aaron’s sons gives us the impression that this stuff is terribly serious. Moses after the debacle of the golden calf together with the tribe of Levi straps on swords and they kill 3000 (Exodus 32:28). What does it mean if this one law, the most generous, the most gracious was not implemented? Why didn’t God rain down fire and brimstone on year 51 when they skipped it?

Jubilee, Kings, Money and Debt

In preparation for this sermon I’ve been reading David Graeber’s fascinating book Debt: The First 5,000 Years which explores the relationships between religion, government, money and debt. The book has been an eye opener. There are a number of competing theories both about the origin of money and what money is, but one of the more compelling theories is that money is essentially a measuring tool to manage debt or obligation. The unique thing that money is capable of doing is measuring an obligation and making it transferable between disinterested parties.

Let’s imagine that you and I are neighbors and my ox came up lame this morning just when I needed to plant. We are on good terms so you loaned me your ox so I could sow my field. At some point the assumption is that I will return the favor. This debt that I owe you, however, is very difficult to transfer. Imagine a stranger walks into town and says “I’m looking to collect on your debt to your neighbor of using his ox for a day.” I would ask “who are you again? I know my neighbor but I don’t know you.”

What this little story illustrates is that we are all embedded in a relational fabric of interconnections. We are most connected to the threads nearest to ourselves and we have layers of relational and property debts and obligations to each other that we fairly seamlessly manage. What money affords is the ability to manage debts and obligations beyond our face to face relationships. One way of understanding money is that it is a counter to measure and track obligation and responsibility. That is why a dollar isn’t anything but a dollar and in the past money was shells, feathers, stones or lines on a stick.

One of the key stages in the development of money was the rise of governments. Most of us are familiar with the fact that in nearly every case cash money is paper or coinage with the image of a monarch, president or national hero. Why? One theory of the development of money is that it is created by taxation. Money is what the government issues, the government lends to the people to use as this debt counter and the thing that the government accepts as payment for its taxes.

There is a famous scene in the New Testament where the religious authorities set a trap to discredit Jesus. Because of the ties between pagan governments and pagan money the Jews set up money changers so that the temple tax could be paid with coins NOT bearing the image of Caesar. The face of a ruler on a coin was one of the chief means in the ancient world by which a ruler would establish his authority over a land.

The religious authorities asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government. Jesus calls for a coin and asks whose face is on it. His answer is famous. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

The Divine Power of Money

For those of us living far removed from the kind of subsistence agricultural economy that has been common throughout human history, and common to most of the people receiving the Levitical law, money itself is a very vital tool. We literally eat or don’t eat based on whether or not we have money. That was not the case for many people. Money for most of those people was not as connected with basic subsistence, having something to eat or a place to sleep, as it was with the affairs of politics and government.

When the ancients thought about money, friendly swaps were hardly the first thing that came to mind. True, some might have thought about their tab at the local ale-house, or, if they were a merchant or administrator, of storehouses, account books, exotic imported delights. For most, though, what was likely to come to mind was the selling of slaves and ransoming of prisoners , corrupt tax-farmers and the depredations of conquering armies , mortgages and interest, theft and extortion, revenge and punishment, and, above all, the tension between the need for money to create families, to acquire a bride so as to have children , and use of that same money to destroy families— to create debts that lead to the same wife and children being taken away. “Some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them.” One can only imagine what those words meant, emotionally , to a father in a patriarchal society in which a man’s ability to protect the honor of his family was everything. Yet this is what money meant to the majority of people for most of human history: the terrifying prospect of one’s sons and daughters being carried off to the homes of repulsive strangers to clean their pots and provide the occasional sexual services, to be subject to every conceivable form of violence and abuse, possibly for years, conceivably forever, as their parents waited, helpless, avoiding eye contact with their neighbors, who knew exactly what was happening to those they were supposed to have been able to protect.

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 1661-1668). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

Reading this sheds new light on one of Jesus’ most famous sayings.

Matthew 6:24 (NIV)

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

No King, No Jubilee

One of the strangest facts about the book of Leviticus is that for all of the legislation and instruction regarding Israel’s future, the most glaring omission is the presence of a king. This is clear to anyone studying similar documents of Israel’s neighbors.

The first major difference is monarchy. The role of king is completely missing in biblical rituals. The peoples in the surrounding regions were all kingdoms, some large, some small; sacral kingship with cosmological theories about the king’s body figured in various forms, with rites for royal inaugurations and funerals. This is not to be brushed aside as unimportant. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are histories of the kings of Israel and Judah; but the kingship has left no trace in the religion. It is true that Deuteronomy gives some superficial advice to kings (not to maintain extravagant harems and stables, and to keep the faith, Deut 17: i4-2o); but there is nothing in the cult about the role of the king, alive or dead, and not a word about kings in Leviticus.

Mary Douglas. Leviticus As Literature (Kindle Locations 160-163). Kindle Edition.

Could it be that the year of Jubilee was never enacted because there was no king to enforce it? And when years later a king came on the scene such a law of general debt amnesty might seem unthinkable for that king’s own interest and the interests of the nobility of whom he likely feared? We can see that Jubilee type practices were applied in surrounding kingdoms, and perhaps might have been similarly applied in Israel but perhaps they were done selectively when a king thought it might bring stability their reign or increase their political standing while they were attempting to create a sense of legitimacy. What makes the Israelite law of Jubilee so unusual in the Ancient Near East was that it was supposed to be enacted impersonally, without respect to persons or politics. Before the year of Jubilee all, kings or peons would be equal.

The prophets bore witness to the results of ignoring Jubilee.

In Isaiah 5:1-7 Isaiah tells a parable which is an origins story to the people of God and the world. Israel was to be a vineyard that produced wine. Israel was to be a people who fulfilled God’s culture making command at creation to produce glory. Israel became like all the other nations. God looked for justice but found bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries from the oppressed. In the very next verse the LORD declares a woe.

Isaiah 5:8 (NIV)

8 Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.

What had happened in Israel was in fact the opposite of Jubilee. The story of king Ahab and queen Jezebel in 2 Kings 21 taking the vineyard of Naboth is indicative of the power of kings bent towards their own interests.

Jesus Announces the Year of Jubilee

Jesus, in his famous sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4 announces the year of Jubilee and declares himself to be at its center.

Luke 4:16–21 (NIV)

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Nazareth crowd famously initially welcomes Jesus, but the welcome will very quickly fade and in a few moments the crowd turns into a mob and they will want to kill him. Scholars continue to try to speculate from the text why the crowd turns. What is deniable is that they do turn.

Why We Don’t Want the Year of Jubilee

Jubilee begins as the one piece of Leviticus we imagine we can easily celebrate, as long as it doesn’t go too far.

If you are holding a mortgage, or balances on your credit card Jubilee sounds like a wonderful idea, unless perhaps you also hold a 401k account that has within it securities and stocks whose value is directly tied to the debts of others. You might ask what bank would issue you a mortgage if we were only 4 years away from the Year of Jubilee? The answer is “none”.

All of us have the capacity to instantly measure up any situation and immediately calculate whether or not some change in the status quo is to our advantage or our dis-advantage. According to Frederick Nietzsche this permeates all of life.

The feeling of personal obligation, he observes, has its origin in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship there is, in the relationship between seller and buyer, creditor and debtor. Here for the first time one person moved up against another person, here an individual measured himself against another individual. We have found no civilization still at such a low level that something of this relationship is not already perceptible. To set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalencies, to exchange things— that preoccupied man’s very first thinking to such a degree that in a certain sense it’s what thinking itself is.

Perhaps our word “man” (manas) continues to express directly something of this feeling of the self: the human being describes himself as a being which assesses values, which values and measures, as the “inherently calculating animal.”

Graeber, David (2011-07-12). Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Kindle Locations 1476-1478). Melville House. Kindle Edition.

It is obvious who looks forward to the year of Jubilee, those in debt.

I sometimes ask people how passionate they are about world poverty. We don’t want to appear heartless about it. I ask how they would feel if God sent an accountant angel to redistribute wealth in the world equally. Many of us sizing ourselves up against the Gates and Zuckerbergs imagine we’d see a bump in our net worth. This might be true if we looked only at North America, but what if God did this to the world? Almost anyone reading this blog would likely take a sizable hit.

The great protest against Jubilee was likely that it isn’t fair. Why should debtors get off free? How we feel about Jubilee depends on what side of the line we imagine ourselves.

Who Gets Jesus

God in Leviticus kills Aaron’s sons. Moses and the Levites kill 3,000 who engage in revelry in the Golden Calf incident. When we get into Numbers God will kill more, in fact an entire generation will die in the desert. Where is his wrath when it comes to Jubilee?

Jesus is God’s response to Israel’s, and the world’s failure to fulfill of Jubilee. If Jesus brought judgment for Jubilee failure, what would we have learned? The ironic judgment for jubilee failure is grace itself, and its offense.

Who then was attracted to Jesus?

The poor obviously, but not just the poor economically.

It has always been the case that those in need flock to Jesus. Some stay with him only as long as he’s meeting an immediate need. They miss out in a way worse than those who hate him claiming that this Jubilee bringer is unfair. The truly blessed recognize their perpetual need and open themselves up to his bringing amnesty and freedom.

If Jesus really is God then Jesus comes as a fount always overflowing. Jesus comes to give and to bless extravagantly. He gives amnesty, cancels debts, forgives sins.

Those who protest Jubilee say “I’m sure it’s fun to forgive debts with other people’s money!”

Those who make this protest forget again the Sabbath teaching. It is ALL God’s stuff, we are only managers.

The great equalizer of Israel is in fact the Exodus narrative that gets repeated over and over again throughout the Bible.

Leviticus 25:54–55 (NIV)

54 “ ‘Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

The blanket assertion is that our differences are relativized by the larger story our our debt to God. Jesus plays this card again and again. The parable of the unforgiving servant. The Lord’s prayer “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”


What must you have to come to Jesus? All you need is need. It only makes sense to come to Jesus if you believe that Jubilee benefits you.


What Jesus does in his crucifixion brings Jubilee in the strangest way. Why should God, the universal creditor pay the debt we owe to him? There is nothing that obliges him to do so? All we have to bring to him is our need and this he sees and fulfills.

The only obstacle we have is our own pride and the imagination that we can get ourselves out of debt. We are fooled by our relative status among others. We imagine we are “good enough” or have enough moral capital in the bank. Then we decide that Jesus is not needed, we can stand before God on our own.


The two options then look starkly different.

If you imagine that there is no debt that you owe to God. What debt might you imagine you owe to the world?

So many classical systems of social morality are in fact premised on the myth of primordian debt. To declare ourselves free of obligation is to border on relational psychopathy. If I am a measuring creature and I always measure myself as morally or relationally wealthy and I measure all others in my debt I will manage my relationships accordingly. I will see myself the victims of injustice when others fail to give me what I imagine I deserve. My sense of entitlement will rise and my obligation to others diminish.

If, however, I see myself as being in debt to my God and my neighbor, AND I see myself has being released from this debt, as being the happy recipient of Jubilee, then the riches offered to me by Christ can flow through me to others.

  • Then I can be free to love those who “owe” me because my greater debt was paid
  • Then I can be generous even to the self-imagined entitled because I too was a victim of the delusion they are suffering from

Understanding my debt, seeing the generosity paid by Jesus’ jubilee, the king of Israel that finally brings it, in fact makes me happy, wealthy, generous and wise.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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