When you enter the land – the land shall observe a Sabbath. The land, before the people, is given rest and care, a sort of proxy for God. The land may voluntarily yield in a sabbatical, but must be given rest. This is not the productivity and dominion and exploitation of our tradition.
If sabbatical is beyond our imagining, except for the most privileged of academics, funded from surplus rather than risking shortfall, how much more alien is Jubilee? Count off seven weeks of years, 7X7, or 49 years, and then in the 50th year, the land lies fallow – for a second year in a row, since year 49 is a sabbatical – and all ownership of land reverts back to the original clan and tribe, despite the rising and falling fortunes of the previous 49 years, including forgiveness of debts secured against land, and all Hebrew slaves get their freedom.
The land is God’s and can’t be sold in perpetuity. It is held in trust from God, and should be redeemed and redistributed periodically lest the rich simply get richer and the poor simply become poorer. This is a ‘secret decoder ring’ that makes sense of much of the preceding couple of dozen chapters.
What if we did not live in a world of mortgages? What if homes were not commodities, but discounted in anticipation of a redistributive Jubilee always coming closer? We know how to price bonds issued in one economy and resold before maturity in a later boom or bust. Pension funds put poor pensioners in the position of owners demanding profits from businesses – is there a limit?
Was it ever the case that each clan had equal territory in Israel and Judah, or that Jubilee was ever practiced in history? It’s doubtful, any more than that the Queen ever took back all her land and then granted it out in land titles in England or Canada. It’s a morally normative statement, and a ‘what if’ challenge, in the face of statistically normal patterns of mal-distribution of wealth. (Revisit our reading of Joshua and Judges, ‘Settlers and Anarchists’, this Easter season)
In recent years, the worldwide ecumenical church spoke of Jubilee to mobilize a powerful campaign about international debt. The churches pointed out that many African states could not even meet the interest payments on their national debts, and needed a fresh start in the international community. Like Israel, humanity has been given just the one globe, due for a reset Jubilee.
In our context, land claims challenge our claims of perpetuity in Crown grants to real property. Sovereignty of a province or a nation, of states in relation to international order or of transnational traders, comes close. Our community of faith, having prospered materially but not in population in the past 50 years might be gracious in considering this sort of redistribution.
Who are the other tribes? Which of our clans have sold themselves into servitude, and should be redeemed? This is the original core meaning of redemption, and of release, those periodic adjustments of ‘us and ours’.
The 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.
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.