|1. The Jubilee in the Old Testament|
1.1 The name "Jubilee"
The name "Jubilee" derives its etymological meaning from the curved horn of the ram (Jobhel) which is sounded to announce the beginning of the holy year, that is the 10th day of the month of Tishri, on the day of 'Kippur'. This is the day of the public expiation of all the sins of the jewish people. It was a type of testimony to the conversion after receiving God's pardon. Whoever received the remission of sins from God was obliged, at least, to forgive the sins of his/her fellow believers. Otherwise the repentence was not true. The Jubilee Year put to the test such a capacity in conversion. "Jobhel" also meant "remission" because it implied the content of the Jubilee Year.
In the latin christian writers, the term "Jubilee" was derived from the verb "jubilare" because it indicated the feast, the joy of remission, the pardon of a liberty recovered.
1.2 The Sabbatical Year
On the historical level, the jubilee seems to be derived from the Sabbatical
Year, which imposes a rest on the land every seven years; and to leave the
fruits of the land to the poor and strangers, as it is written:
"Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. What grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your undressed vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you; for your cattle also and for the beasts that are in your land all its yield shall be for food. (Lev. 25:2-7 )
The Land is from God and the Israelites are only guests and tenants. God insists that the Land be not exploited to such an extent that nothing would be left for the future generations. No one has the right to ravage nature. It has to be respected even in time of replenishing its energies. This is the first and only ecological legislation from ancient history.
Humanity is at the service of God, thus God created for humanity space to work and to rest for its own good and for the family. Furthermore there is the weekly rest which is expedient from the point of view of physical and spiritual well-being. God wanted the weekly rest so that humanity could recover its freedom from the slavery to material goods (not thinking only of earning and buying up goods); and also that there be a possibility of dedicating oneself with more free time to the family and religion. In a word, the sabbatical year reminded the Israelite to enter more vigorously into a period of recollection and communion with God who created for humanity space and time. No one could say, as we do today, that he had no time for himself, for the family, for prayer. Time was made for humanity, not humanity for time. Work was made for humanity, not humanity for work.
Many ancient texts such as Ez 23:10-11 (21:1-6) and Deut 15:1-18 regarding the sabbatical year. Hence it preceded the Jubilee Year in existence and probably influenced it. The most explicit text regarding the Jubilee Year us fund only in the "Law of Holiness" in Leviticus 25:8-55.
1.3 The Year of the Jubilee
"And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. According to the number of years after the jubilee, you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years for crops he shall sell to you. If the years are many you shall increase the price, and if the years are few you shall diminish the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you. You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God."
1.4 Redemption of properties
"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess, you shall grant a redemption of the land. If your brother becomes poor, and sells part of his property, then his next of kin shall come and redeem what his brother has sold. If a man has no one to redeem it, and then himself becomes prosperous and finds sufficient means to redeem it, let him reckon the years since he sold it and pay back the overpayment to the man to whom he sold it; and he shall return to his property. But if he has not sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what he sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his property. If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a whole year after its sale; for a full year he shall have the right of redemption. If it is not redeemed within a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be made sure in perpetuity to him who bought it, throughout his generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But the houses of the villages which have no wall around them shall be reckoned with the fields of the country; they may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. Nevertheless the cities of the Levites, the houses in the cities of their possession, the Levites may redeem at any time. And if one of the Levites does not exercise his right of redemption, then the house that was sold in a city of their possession shall be released in the jubilee; for the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. But the fields of common land belonging to their cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession."
1.5 Redemption of persons
"And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee; then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God. As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness. If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you, or to a member of the stranger's family, then after he is sold he may be redeemed; one of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle, or his cousin may redeem him, or a near kinsman belonging to his family may redeem him; or if he grows rich he may redeem himself. He shall reckon with him who bought him from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his release shall be according to the number of years; the time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired servant. If there are still many years, according to them he shall refund out of the price paid for him the price for his redemption. If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall make a reckoning with him; according to the years of service due from him he shall refund the money for his redemption. As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him; he shall not rule with harshness over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he shall be released in the year of jubilee, he and his children with him. For to me the people of Israel are servants, they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."
The Jubilee (v10) was a decision to return to the origins, when everyone in Israel had his own property and hence his freedom and equality in dignity. It was a reaction against tenureship and poverty. It was a period of social reform which allowed for an economic equilibrium, whereby everyone enjoyed at least the minimal economic independence and liberty.
The basis for this is the concept that the land was from God and he had given it to each and every member of his people to their best advantage (v23-24). Hence none could appropriate the land as personal or hereditary property definitively. For this reason, all buying and selling of land was a temporary transfer and nothing definite. In fact the price of a land was estimated on the basis of counting the years from the Jubilee. The land is valued more if it had more years to enjoy harvesting (v13-16).
There were two possibilities of redeeming the Land or houses: the first is when the Jubilee year ends, and the redemption is made by a close relative in such a way that the property remained always within the family; the other is by the seller himself whenever he had the future possibility of doing so (v25-28).
Anyhow in the Jubilee year, the redemption was automatic and free.
The right to redeem applied also to houses, but with a difference. If the house was inside the walls of a city, it may be redeemed only within the first year of its sale, then it remains the property of the buyer for ever. For houses situated in the countryside or villages, and hence considered part of the Land, the law of redemption in the Jubilee year applies. The owner may re-possess the house automatically and freely (v29-31).
The only exception regards the Levites who hold in perpetuity the right to redeem whichever house or property, because they were bound by well-determined locations, ie the Levitical cities (v32-34).
To this is also linked the help in providing for a member who was impoverished and lived in misery. All were obliged to help him and not leave him suffering from hunger. Above all one could not lend him money with interest, nor make him live under conditions or slavery (v35-38).
Persons sold as slaves in order to repay debts had to recover their freedom gratuitously and automatically. An Israelite could not suffer slavery because he was redeemed by God from egyptian slavery. He could only lend his services without being treated as a slave, but as a labourer or tenant while still having his dignity as a human respected.
True slaves were only the gentiles acquired and sold in the pagan world. These remained the perpetual property of the family, and were treated as slaves in the social sense of the word (v44-46).
1.7 The Meaning of the Jubilee Year
Below are the concepts and merits which justify the institution of the Jubilee
1.7.1 The Dignity of a Free Man
This dignity is founded on the creative act of God who made all humanity in his image and likeness, and had given to all equal rights and duties. None had the right to take advantage and enslave anyone, much less to humiliate him as a slave by taking away from him the necessities of life (Gen 1:26-31; 2:15).
Another basis is the liberation from egyptian slavery and the gift of the Land. Israel had suffered slavery and oppression, but the Lord heard her cries. He came down to free them and bring them into a vast and beautiful land. The Land of Freedom (Ez 3:7-12). The Israelites were a redeemed people who would no longer suffer slavery for ever. The Feast of the Passover was the historical remembrance of this definitive redemption to freedom. The only worthy service of Israel was to render to God the cult and the obedience to his Law. Rather than humiliate them, this service exalted them and raised them as participants of divine dignity. The weekly institution which recalls this event was the Sabbath, when the Israelite is freed from work, felt free from every human subjection, equal with all other men, without an overlord, presenting oneself with dignity before God as his child. In venerating God, humanity exalts itself.
1.7.2 All are equal before God
The gift of the Land was made on the basis of equal distribution to the needy of the families on the part of Joshua (Jos 13-21). All had to be made equal; no one should be in need or poor. This is the answer to the promises made to the Patriarchs through an oath made by God (Gen 12-50). The Land was the hereditary gift from God to his people, an inalienable inheritence. None could secure it for oneself through "connections". It is the sole property of God and it serves a strict social function apart from the individual aspect.
The Prophets condemned self-gain and tenureship, which was necessarily linked to the monarchy as the most cruel form of injustice. But the monarchy was nevertheless strongly desired by the people despite the warnings of Samuel (1Sam 8:10-22). Perhaps it was then that the Jubilee year effectively died out.
The Jubilee year was created to restore this original equilibrium of property as willed by God. Everyone had to feel as brothers with a strong sense of mutual reciprocity.
To this sense of equality was linked also the respect for the Land in a sound ecology. One should not exploit the Land indiscriminately such that it becomes irreparably impoverished to the detriment of everyone. From this came the institution of the Sabbatical Year which demanded a rest for the Land.
The jewish Jubilee year did not seem to be completely realised because, especially with the monarchy and the exploitation of land made by the demands of the Court, it was impossible to apply. Nevertheless the last time which we see an attempt in applying it was after the return from the Exile in the time of Nehemiah (Neh 5:1-11).
Yet again the medieval rabbinic schools tried to revive the origin of the Jubilee from the time of Abraham when he freed his prisoners and Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem from the hands of the Canaanite invaders (Gen 14:1-24). The rabbis attributed a spiritual meaning to the Jubilee, seeing it as a year of penitence, repentence for God's forgiveness. The principle rabbis were Rashi (Rabbi Solomon 1040-1105), Abrabanel (Abraham ibn Ezra 1092-1167) and Moses Maimonides (1136-1204).
The Book of Jubilees (a work c.110 AD) divided the history of Israel in periods of 50 years; conceived as moments of renewing God's Covenant with all the generations (a generation amounted to 50 years). It placed an emphasis on interior conversion and said that "Jubilees will pass until Israel is purified from all the sin of fornication and defilement and uncleanness, and sin and error. And they will dwell in confidence in all the land. And then it will not have any Satan or any evil. And the land will be purified from that time and forever" (50,5).
For Philo of Alexandria, the number "50" was the most holiest and the most substantial of all numbers because it indicated liberation and total freedom, the return to the pristine state.
These jewish reflections prepared the fertile ground for the christian Jubilee.
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Created / Updated Friday, December 24, 1999 at 16:55:18 by John Abela ofm
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