Monday, March 12, 2007

Leviticus 25

Leviticus 25: The Sabbath Year, and the Year of Jubilee


If you’re not familiar with the terms “Sabbath Year” and “Year of Jubilee,” read on, and be prepared to be surprised. When I first read the book of Leviticus, these rules really surprised me.
  • The Sabbath Year
    • When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, every seventh year was to be a “year of rest” for the land. That is, for six years they would cultivate and tend the land as usual, growing and reaping their crops, but on the seventh year, they were not to sow their fields, or prune their vineyards.
    • At first, I was confused about two seemingly contradictory commands:
      Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten. (verses 5–7)
      First it says “[d]o not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines,” but then it says that they would be allowed to eat whatever grew on its own. The confusion came from the words “reap” and “harvest”—those words have to do with proper farming, and the extraction of the food from the fields. They were allowed to eat food from the fields, meaning that they could go in and take what was needed, but they weren’t allowed to go in and clean it out.
There are a few things that occur to me, when reading the rules about the Sabbath Year. First, this would be another way of reminding the Israelites that they were dependent on God, for their food. They may have known how to grow and reap crops, but all of their skill, know-how, and technology, meant nothing aside from God’s will. If He didn’t want them to have food, the ground would not yield, and if He did, it would. (The better that we, as humans, get at any particular activity, farming included, the less we tend to rely on God, and the more we tend to rely on ourselves. We love self-reliance, in 21st Century North America, but it is sinful in God’s eyes.)

Second, this would also be good for the land itself. Any food which grew from the land on its own, and wasn’t eaten by the Israelites, would end up back in the ground, nourishing it for future years. I don’t know much about farming, but I know that there is a school of farming in which this is practised; a farmer may have four fields, and only ever tend three of them. Every year, the farmer would rotate.

Third, I don’t believe there is a record, in the Old Testament, of the Israelites ever celebrating the Sabbath Year. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it didn’t happen, but I’m thinking that it probably didn’t.
  • The Year of Jubilee
    • Every seventh Sabbath Year—that is, every 49 years—was to be the Year of Jubilee. This was a special Sabbath Year, in which all property belonging to the Israelites was to return to its original owners.
      • That sentence might need some explaining: When the Israelites make it to the Promised Land, in a future book, God is going to divide up the land between the twelve tribes of Israel. The land was to be the property of that tribe, from that point forward, for all future generations. If someone ever sold his land, to someone from another tribe, in the Year of Jubilee, it was to be returned to the tribe it originally belonged to.
    • What this means, in reality, is that no Israelite ever sold his land; he was only really selling the number of crops, that a buyer could reap, before the Year of Jubilee, when the land would be returned to its original owner.
      If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God. (verses 14–17)
Again, this command absolutely floors me. But, again, there is no record of the Year of Jubilee ever actually being observed by the Israelites.

Before continuing on, God stops to explain His reasoning for the Sabbath Year, and the Year of Jubilee:

Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.

The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

(verses 18–24)

The rest of the chapter has some additional rules, about the redemption of property, and Israelites who fell into hard times, and couldn’t support themselves.
  • If an Israelite became poor, and had to sell some of his property, his nearest relative was to “redeem” the property for him—that is, buy it back, for him.
    • If the person had nobody to redeem it for him, but managed to acquire enough money himself, he was to buy it back from the person to whom he sold it—again, based on the number of years left until the Year of Jubilee.
    • And, of course, if there was no close relative to redeem the land, and the man never acquired enough money to redeem it himself, it was still be returned at the Year of Jubilee.
  • Houses within walled cities were treated differently than other land; they were not to be returned, at the Year of Jubilee.
    • If an Israelite sold such a house, within a walled city, he was to retain the right to redeem it for a year; after that, the house was to belong permanently to the buyer.
  • Levites’ land was also treated differently:
    • If a Levite sold a house within a walled city, he was to retain the right to redeem it right up until the Year of Jubilee.
    • If the Year of Jubilee came, and the house hadn’t been redeemed, it was to be returned to the Levite who had sold it—in this case, the Year of Jubilee was to apply to houses in walled cities.
    • Land belonging to Levites outside of walled cities was never to be sold, period. It was to be their “permanent possession” (verse 34).
I’m not sure why houses within walled cities were treated differently from other land, in respect to the Year of Jubilee. I realize that land that produced crops was different, I’m just not sure why houses within cities weren’t returned.
  • If an Israelite became poor, and was unable to support himself, the other Israelites were to help him.
    • If anyone lent him anything, they were not to charge him interest, or sell him food at a profit.
  • If such a person sold himself to a fellow Israelite, he was not to be treated as a slave, but as a hired worker.
    • Also, at the Year of Jubilee, the person was to go free. At which time he would be able to return to the property which was formerly his, since it would also be returned at the Year of Jubilee. Verses 42–43 give some reasoning for this:
      Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
  • Although they were not to take fellow Israelites as slaves, they were allowed to take slaves from people in other nations. They were allowed to treat such slaves as property—even with the ability to will the slaves to their children.
  • If a non-Israelite—a “temporary resident” or an “alien” (verse 47)—bought a poor Israelite as a slave, that Israelite was to retain the right of redemption. He could be redeemed by a relative, or, if he prospered, redeem himself.
    • As with other property, the price of his redemption was to be calculated based on the amount of time left until the Year of Jubilee.
    • Even though the poor Israelite was owned by a non-Israelite, the Israelites were to make sure that his owner did not “rule over him ruthlessly” (verse 53).
    • If the man was not redeemed, he was still to go free at the Year of Jubilee, “…for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (verse 55).
Technically, these rules make sense to me, although I still get uncomfortable reading about slavery in the Old Testament.


It was weird to write about all of the laws and regulations concerning the Year of Jubilee, since I’m pretty sure that one never happened. It would really suck if an Israelite ever sold his land, calculating the price for the sale based on an upcoming Year of Jubilee, only to have the Year of Jubilee never happen—he wouldn’t get his land back, and he would have sold for less than what the land was really worth.

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