At this present moment, according to my employee statement, I have exactly enough money saved in my retirement account to go four months without working. After that, I’ve got nothing. It’s all gone in less than half a year. So, you can imagine, I’m not particularly convinced that I could take off every seventh year for the rest of my life.
However, when you take a look in Leviticus 25, that is precisely the command of God for the people of Israel. They are to work for six years, then let the fields, cattle, and vines have a year off. Alongside this, of course, there would be a substantial amount of rest for the people, their servants, and those unfortunate to have been slaves in Israel at the time.
The people were not even to go out and glean what grew wild that year—it was to sit, be food for the cattle and wild animals. That was it: no agricultural work was to be done. (Now, keep in mind, the original economic pattern for Israel was agriculture-focused. Everybody farmed or supported farming. If someone was a support-worker, like a blacksmith, they would still be off this year: no implements to sharpen or tools to make. Generally speaking, though, there was not quite the specialization of economy in that culture. Yet.)
This was a command from God to be obeyed. What would they do with the year off? Well, Deuteronomy 31 informs us that the Sabbath years were when the whole Law was to be read to the people during the Feast of Booths (note: not the same as the Bones TV Marathon). It was intended to be a time of rest and reflection, of faith and fulfillment.
Then, every Sabbath of Sabbaths, the next year was the Year of Jubilee. What happened then? At the blast of a trumpet on the Day of Atonement, slaves were set free, debts were cancelled (the two were very related), and land reverted to its clan ownership. It was a “reset” button for the economy.
And that was a good thing.
1. Because slavery is bad, and this prevented a permanent development of slave-based economics in Israel. Slavery develops for power and convenience, but this kept slave-holding from entrenching in Israel. Imagine for a moment what would have been different in America if the US Constitution had established a system like this. 20 years prior to the Civil War, all the slaves would have been freed, and at that point, maybe some sense would have kicked in and slavery would have just been ended. Without a war.
2. Because debts accrue, oftentimes with a small bad decision, and become something monstrous. By 50 years, it’s time to release children and grandchildren from the cumulative effect of heritage mistakes.
2a. Because debts accrue and lenders become able to live without working, and the moral value of work is not to be denied. Too often the moral/ethical collapse of families and societies can be traced to too many people not having to work. Run the history, but you’ll see it in Rome, Athens, Sparta, and others.
3. Because the land was truly Yahweh’s, not Israel’s, and He told them what to do with it. The Year of Jubilee was a reminder that God’s grace was to all and not just to those whose parents had done well. This was not to negate the need for work—but it allowed for restoration if things went wrong. It also allowed for that most important of doctrinal concepts: grace. A new start.
The rest of the chapter addresses how to run the economy in light of the Jubilee years. Sell the land based on crop years remaining, treat slaves as temporary slaves, and plan to set them free—and don’t let anyone, even foreigners dwelling in the land, overlook that law.
Because it’s God’s land, and God’s people, and there is to be no nonsense about mistreating either.
How does this apply today?
We might do well to remember that it’s God’s land, God’s people by right of Creation, and some are also God’s people by right of redemption, and there is to be no nonsense about mistreating or misusing any of the above. Except, of course, we cannot seem to come to an agreement that this is actually true.
Which is to our shame and disaster. Consider this simple promise in Leviticus 25:18-22 that God will provide more than enough if His Law is followed. Not that bad times do not hit, but the bad does not hold on if we cling to Him. I commend that line of thinking to you.
Today’s Nerd Note: I lack the resources at hand to properly cite for you the history of agriculture and the introduction of leaving fields fallow and how that leads into crop rotation, which is necessary for longevity in location-attached farming. The basic idea is this: a farmer is wise to not always plant all the land. The nutrients leach out of the soil into the crops (no real fertilizers, remember?) and the soil is less productive. Letting a portion go unplanted allows it to rest, then plowing whatever grew back into it helps provide nutrients. That the Sabbath and Jubilee Years allowed domestic and wild animals to roam through normal agriculture lands to munch also helped (manure, anyone?) replenish the soil.
Now, there is evidence of various forms of using fallow fields in the Roman Empire and other evidences from Asia, but what’s in the middle of these? Israel, a culture that pre-dated the countries I can find mentioned. Eventually, fallow-fielding leads to crop rotation, where one plants rice this year and soybeans next year to replenish and use different fertilizers, but still there are times when the land just needs to rest.
Interesting, though, how Israel might just have been ahead of their time in agriculture development. Well, had they obeyed, that is.