This is one of the most amazing pieces of legislation that you find in the Old Testament, at least to those people who have been taught that an unlimited and unhindered accumulation of wealth is the ultimate good. In the Year of Jubilee, all land holdings in Israel reverted to the original owners. This was one of the earliest—and perhaps the first—processes and laws for land reform in the history of the world, and certainly one of the most unique.
There have been many schemes of utopianism sought to bring prosperity to everybody through a redistribution of wealth by various means. One obvious form of this is communism. Communism denies the right of private ownership, and everything is in the hands of the state. Thus, the state has the responsibility of owning everything and seeing that everyone is well cared for. But we have discovered that after seventy years of experimenting with communism that it doesn’t work very well.
You also have socialism, which is philosophically quite different from communism. Socialism doesn’t deny all ownership, but there is an attitude that government should provide for everybody in the name of egalitarianism.
Another idea, going even further down the scale, is that of the simple lifestyle. This idea, which we sometimes talk about in Christian circles, is quite popular, and it is a good idea. The idea would be that we live simply in order to have more money to give to other people. This is quite different from the other examples that I mentioned because living simply is a voluntary decision.
Leviticus 25 is a little hard to follow, and people have misused this principle for supporting their preconceived ideas. We can come to this chapter and draw out all sorts of things that support what we think would be a just way of handling an economy. That’s not the way to do things. Therefore, we have to look at the Jubilee carefully, and go through the chapter section by section, following the flow to see what it actually says.
Leviticus 25 is the only chapter in the whole Bible that deals with the Jubilee. It was announced by the sounding of the trumpets on the Day of Atonement, which came halfway through the year, in the Jubilee year (see Leviticus 25:8-9). All the trumpets sounded throughout the land on that day as a proclamation of freedom.
It is significant that this unique chapter dealing with the Jubilee begins with seven verses that did not have to do with Jubilee, but with the sabbatical year. The Sabbath is the seventh day, and so the sabbatical year is the seventh year. Laws for the sabbatical year explained that the land has to lie fallow during that year. In other words, you’re not to plant and harvest. Now of course there would be some plants that would spring up because the seeds would be in the field from the previous year. This was primarily a provision for the poor, who were free to go into the fields in the sabbath year and help themselves. But the principle was to allow the land to lay fallow, which was good land management, even though there is no indication in the text that the Hebrew people in that day understood the scientific principles of land conservation. Deuteronomy 15 is another chapter that mentions the sabbatical year, adding that in this year all debts were to be canceled (v. 2) and slaves were to be set free (v. 12).
Jubilee, the special year that came twice a century, also had these elements that the sabbatical year had. But it had this additional, unique feature: in that year all of the land that had passed from hand to hand in the course of the decades had to revert to the families who had owned it originally. So the families remained established in that way.
Just as the seventh day of the week was the day of regular Sabbath rest, and the seventh year was to be a Sabbath year, so also the Jubilee year was to be a Sabbath of Sabbaths. This is the way it’s introduced: “Count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years, so that the seven Sabbaths of years amount to a period of 49 years” (v. 8). Because the next verse says “Then have the trumpet sound,” people have assumed, with some justification, that therefore the Jubilee year is the fiftieth year.
Now that may be. And the chapter does mention the word “fiftieth” twice in the chapter. But that may not have been the case for this reason: the Jubilee year was the year in which the land was to lie fallow, just as it was also to lie in the Sabbath year. If you had a Jubilee year, the fiftieth year, falling immediately after the Sabbath year, you would have two years in which the land has to lie fallow. It’s hard to imagine in an agricultural economy that people could survive that way. It’s true that in regard to the Sabbath year God promised to send such an abundance in the sixth year that they’d have enough to eat in the seventh year, and then have enough left over for planting in the eighth year, living on it until the harvest came in the ninth year. But that is not said for a special Jubilee year, which would be two Sabbath years coming one after the other. This has led some to suggest—and I think probably rightly—that the Jubilee sabbath was actually the same thing as the seventh of the sabbath years. So you had seven sabbath years, totaling forty-nine years, and the last of those Sabbath years was also a Jubilee year in which the reversion of the land occurred.
The Israelites often numbered in an inclusive way. The first sabbath year is the first year. And then when you count off seven sabbath years after that, the final sabbath year is the fiftieth. You count the first sabbath and the last sabbath. There is an extrabiblical book called The Book of Jubilees that gives a history of Israel dating everything in terms of the sabbatical years and the Jubilee years. In this book, the period between Jubilees is forty-nine years, not fifty years. Now the main reason for emphasizing that, in addition to clarifying what might be involved here, is to show that in a very special way this Jubilee year is linked to the sabbath year. The principles carry over, and are broader and more important than the Jubilee year itself.