The Jubilee laws are an unavoidable feature of any discussion of “Biblical politics” or “Biblical economics.” Typically more “conservative” minded thinkers prefer to mute their force, arguing that the Jubilee was redemptive in nature and wholly bound up with the polity of ancient Israel, now fulfilled in Christ. The “progressive” or “liberal” thinker prefers to hold the Jubilee laws up as ideal standards of Christian polity, showing that charity now triumphs even over financial debt. Neither side really gives the various Jubilee laws a careful examination, however. They both assume a sort of debt forgiveness, and one side favors it and the other opposes it. But that is not really what we find in Leviticus 25.
Indeed, the rules regarding land ownership and the Jubilee are quite strange to modern readers. They do not fit within any obvious socio-economic system, and they certainly do not simply give us a biblical rationale to distribute wealth or land. In fact, a prima facie reading would argue that these laws do the reverse. They prohibit the selling of all land, and in doing so, they limit ownership and create a system that would discourage any personal and abiding connection to the land.
“The Land is Mine”
Leviticus 25:23 says, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” This is the fundamental principle which controls the surrounding restrictions on property redemption. We should keep in mind that the land in question is the Promised land, “When you come into the land which I give you…” (Lev. 25:2). There is no true ownership of this land because it is a gift from the Lord. But how do Israelites come to have their delegated ownership? This is explained in the book of Joshua: “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had said to Moses; and Joshua gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their divisions by their tribes” (Josh. 11:23). The second half of the book of Joshua explains the division of the land, according to the tribes. Special cities were also set aside, for the Levites, for Joshua, and as cities of refuge. The basic principle is thus that the land was tribal, and its original divisions were set after the conquest of Canaan. Leviticus 25 is thus anticipating this future establishment.
But with the context in mind, the Jubilee laws take on a very different character than is commonly assumed. The land cannot be sold permanently. It can only be rented for 50 year periods. This logically means that no Gentile could ever have permanent ownership of land within Israel, and it also means that as the tribes increased in population, the land itself would become smaller and smaller. If the land continued to be divided between the descendants of the tribes, then the divisions would literally become smaller and smaller. The more likely idea is that certain members of the tribes would be delegated “heads” over some of the land, with other members moving into the cities. The specifics of how this would have worked are notoriously unclear, but the basic parameters are available in the text. The relative worth of land in Israel was determined by proximity to the next Jubilee (Lev. 25:15-16). This means that our modern notion of real estate would simply not have been a major plank in the Israelite economy.
And who would want to “buy” this land any way? Even if the buyer acted immediately after the previous Jubilee, they would know that they are only renters. After 50 years, the lease would revert back to the ancestral owner. But perhaps this is the obvious point. The Jubilee Laws actually encourage a sort of renter’s economy. This is all limited to the rural aspects of Israel, of course, with “the walled city” being treated differently (Lev. 25:29-34).
Opposed to both a simple free market understanding and the welfare state, the Jubilee Laws more closely approximate a sort of Feudalism. Theologically, one could easily understand Israel’s God to be the “Lord” with Israel serving as the “vassals.” But it certainly gets more complicated (and less fashionable) when we consider certain tribal leaders within Israel serving as lords of their own, renting out their land to other, presumably Gentile, vassals. This would not be the classic European sort of feudalism with warrior and noblemen castes, but it would retain the feature of a minority of land owners and a larger semi-dependent class. An easy move for some would be to say that this is yet another example of the Old Testament appropriating the customs of its history and place, but then they would lose any claim that the Jubilee laws represented a uniquely redemptive feature of Israel’s polity. Of course, Leviticus frames the Jubilee as a uniquely Israelite feature, tied in to the sabbath cycle and the covenantal promise.
Admitting the peculiarity of the Jubilee laws on this point is actually quite important for modern Christian thinkers. It immediately limits our own claim to possess an ideal economic or political model, since all modern notions differ so dramatically. Even if we argue that the Jubilee was a unique feature with strict limitations, we are still forced to explain our own settlement in terms of its own historical contingency. Neither can claim to be the best model for all situations.
The Promised Land and Sabbath Rest
The best Christian understanding of the Jubilee is certainly one that closely follows the 4th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, noting that the Promised Land was a type of the eschatological rest which was still future. After explaining Israel’s history of rebellion, we are told:
Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said:
“So I swore in My wrath,
‘They shall not enter My rest,’”
although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.”
Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said:
“Today, if you will hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts.”
For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (Heb. 4:1-11)
An extremely rich passage, we can only make some general comments here. What is most clear is that the giving of the land to Israel did not, in fact, grant them the rest of God. Their true “Sabbath” awaited the day in which they heard the voice of God. Indeed, as Hebrews 4:14 indicates, the one who truly entered God’s rest was the one who “passed through the heavens.”
With this understanding then, we return to Leviticus 25 and see that the people of Israel were considered “strangers and sojourners” even after taking possession of the promised land (Lev. 25:23). Rather than coming into their inheritance, the Jubilee laws serve as a reminder to the people of Israel that they have not actually “arrived,” after all. Even in their own promised land and inheritance, they remain temporary residents.
This eschatological reading does give a coherent explanation for the Jubilee laws, classifying them as redemptive or “ceremonial” laws unique to the Israelite polity and its place in redemptive history. But we shouldn’t miss the fact that these laws occupy both a “ceremonial” and a “judicial” position, and, at the very least, they would have dramatically divided Israel’s urban and rural communities. These sorts of observations are certainly incomplete at present, but they do teach us something valuable about how the Old Testament and the Mosaic legal code ought to be used today. They should also teach us to exercise restraint when making value judgments about historical settlements and socio-economic policies. Most of all, these considerations need to train us to strive for greater imagination, understanding just how unfamiliar many of these matters can be.
No appeal to “Biblical economics” can ignore the Jubilee laws. But currently no appeal has made much sense of them either. If they should not serve as contemporary models in any way, then that means we must also give up any desire to recreate a biblical polity when it comes to property and principles of ownership. If they do serve as an example of important principles which can be applied in different ways according to history, then we will need to be honest about how significantly this could challenge our modern arrangement. Perhaps what they teach us, more than anything else, is that all earthly property is temporary and that we should understand all social and political settlements as limited and penultimate projects.