The Jubilee Law: Ideal Legislation
A Just Society in the Prophets: An Eschatological Dream
Our classical prophets, such Amos and Isaiah and those who followed, naturally come to mind as agents for social change and social justice. They spoke against the rich and the upper classes who ruled society, who exploited the poor while mightily increasing their own wealth.
Although the prophets chastised the rich, they did not suggest an entirely new, egalitarian socioeconomic order for their period. Rather they imagined such an era only in the far distant future, at the “end of the days,” as we see, for example, in Isaiah 11:1-9, where justice is described as the girdle of the ruler—but not until the days when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.
A different attempt to change life and create a new and just system to diminish the gaps between the members of ancient Israelite society is found in Leviticus 25, in the Jubilee law.
What Does the Jubilee Law Mean?
Found only at the end of Leviticus, the Jubilee year transpired after seven sabbatical years, namely seven cycles of seven sabbatical fallow years:
“[A]nd you shall hallow the fiftieth year.
- You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.
- It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you shall return to his holding, and each of you shall return to his family.
That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you;
3. You shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines.” (Lev. 25:10-11).
Thus, three decrees are to be carried out in this year: release of enslaved Israelites; return of lands that had been sold to their first owners; and a sabbatical fallow year.
Three Ideas behind the Jubilee Law
Chapter 25 expresses three unique ideas :
First – the land belongs to God and God is its real owner, as written in verse 23:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי:
“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.
In other words, even though the Jubilee year may be viewed as social legislation, it is given a theological justification.
Second – The people of Israel are God’s slaves, therefore they cannot be the property of any human owner:
כִּֽי לִ֤י בְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ עֲבָדִ֔ים עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם
“For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants; they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt…” (v. 55).
Hence the Hebrew slave is conceived as a wage laborer and a resident, but not as one sold for slavery, and in any case, such impoverished individuals would be redeemed along with their children in the Jubilee year (vv. 39-42).
Likewise, all land a priori does not remain the property of the buyers beyond the 49th year. This enables those workers who had to sell their land, because of impoverishment, to get it back, and to begin a new cycle of 50 years with new and better opportunities.
Third – Implicit in the above two rules is the assumption: After the conquest of the land and after Joshua apportioned it by lot into patrimonies, each of the Israelites, except the Levites, had some land.
The Combined Picture
These three ideas design the Jubilee law as a social law that opens new options for a better life to every member of Israelite society in economic straits. This law limits the competitive race for achievement to 50 years, and demonstrates an attempt to struggle against the continuous domination and exploitation of one part of society by another. It ensures each member of Israelite society a new cycle of opportunities. Theoretically, then, it is an astonishing idea conceived to forestall the possibility that any Israelite would find himself forever without property and forever dependent.
The Jubilee Law and the Mesopotamian Edicts
The Jubilee law is typically compared to the Mesopotamian edicts of mīšarum or andurāru that we know from the 18th century B.C.E., and it is likely that the biblical terms דרור and מישרים are borrowed from Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia. But these regulations were arbitrary royal administrative edicts involving cancelation of taxes—debt moratoriums, freeing slaves, and returning fields to their owners. They were applied only under special circumstances, for example, by a new king who wanted to benefit his subjects, or as a ruler’s ad hoc economic decision.
The outstanding difference between the Mesopotamian administrative edict and the Jubilee law is that in Israel, the Jubilee functioned as God’s demand meaning a sacred cyclical law operating with no connection to human power nor to the will or decree of any human king. In Mesopotamia, by contrast, the king was responsible for activating it and its force lay in the surprise element. It functioned like a surprise amnesty, which the wealthy could not plan for and thus circumvent. We know that such Mesopotamian decrees were actually enacted, but the Bible and the Sages provide no evidence that the Jubilee year ever was. In other words, in Mesopotamia it actually happened, whereas in Lev. 25 it seems like an ideological and unrealistic law.
The Jubilee Law and Its Problems
If the 50th year follows the sabbatical commemorated in the 49th year, as implied by the beginning of Lev 25, then two consecutive sabbatical years are legislated. People then would have only begun to sow their fields in the third year—how would they have had food to survive for more than two years?
The Jubilee following the sabbatical year is a decree that the public could not follow. The legislator is conscious of the problem, therefore he writes:
וְכִ֣י תֹאמְר֔וּ מַה נֹּאכַ֖ל בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑ת הֵ֚ן לֹ֣א נִזְרָ֔ע וְלֹ֥א נֶאֱסֹ֖ף אֶת תְּבוּאָתֵֽנוּ: וְצִוִּ֤יתִי אֶת בִּרְכָתִי֙ לָכֶ֔ם בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַשִּׁשִּׁ֑ית וְעָשָׂת֙ אֶת הַתְּבוּאָ֔ה לִשְׁלֹ֖שׁ הַשָּׁנִֽים
“And should you ask, ‘what are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I’ll ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (vv. 20-21).
This solution, God’s overly beneficent blessing, suggests that even the legislator was not convinced that his law was realistic. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to image that people would control their appetite for ownership and property, and would in effect only lease land. The expectation that wealthy people would agree to return property after 49 years—and in most cases less—is a dream or an imagined utopia, ignoring the substantive problem: the relationship of the individual to his property.
The Torah Includes Ideal Laws
Why does the Torah include an unrealistic law? Is this the only one?
Another ideal, unrealistic law is the command that doomed the Canaanite nations—those who live “hereabout”—to destruction (Deut. 20:15-18 and see also 7:1-4). The law is unrealistic first and foremost because it was impossible to destroy all the Canaanites.
The legislator included this law to exterminate the Canaanites as a warning to emphasize the importance of keeping a distance from any Canaanite influence, meaning any foreign idolatrous influence. Therefore it can be defined as an ideological law, which is a law not to be carried out, but one emphasizing an ideological aim and direction.
The Jubilee Law as Ideal
The Jubilee law is unrealistic, but indicates an ideological direction: Israelite society has to be righteous, trying to control the gaps between rich and poor. The Jubilee law is, therefore, an attempt by means of ideological legislation to direct and educate society, to impose divine justice, and thus to ensure the right of all its members to live honorably, with a guaranteed minimum of economic means.
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May 8, 2015
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Prof. Yairah Amit is Professor (Emerita) of Hebrew Bible in Tel Aviv University's Department of Hebrew Bible. She is the author of The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing (1999), History and Ideology: An Introduction to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible (1999), Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative (2000), Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (2001). Her exegetical work is to be found in her Hebrew commentary to the book of Judges (in the Mikra Leyisra’el series) and in the commentary to the book of Judges in the Jewish Study Bible (JPS: 2004). Prof. Amit emphasizes critical approaches and is especially interested in aspects of story, history, ideology and editing. Her most recent publication is: In Praise of Editing in the Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays in Retrospect (2012).
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