The Gospel as a Year of Jubilee
by Lois Tverberg
In Leviticus, we read an intriguing
law that God gave Israel about observing a year
'You are also to count off seven sabbaths
of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the
time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. 'You
shall then sound a ram's horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh
month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your
land. 'You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release
through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you,
and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall
return to his family. 'You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee;
you shall not sow, nor reap its aftergrowth, nor gather in from its
untrimmed vines. (Lev 25:8 - 11)
God proclaimed that every seventh
year was to be a sabbath for the land - that crops were not to be planted
but that they were to live on what God had provided before that time,
and what grew up by itself. After seven sabbath years came a year of Jubilee,
which along with being a Sabbath for the land, also was a "year of
release". This meant that all Israelites who were in bondage were
freed, and anyone who had sold his ancestral property would receive it
back, and all debts were forgiven. The word "Jubilee" comes
from the word "Yovel", a Hebrew word for the ram's horn that
was used to proclaim the year.
Another name for it was a "year of release" - with the Hebrew
word "deror" meaning release or liberty. Early Americans, who
knew their Bibles better than we do, placed this passage on the Liberty
Bell, which says "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all
the Inhabitants thereof." So our founding fathers thought this year
of Jubilee was a wonderful idea as they were establishing the United States.
What did they find so special about this concept?The Purpose of the Year of
JubileeAs part of God's covenant with
Israel, he promised to give the Israelites the land of Canaan. After the
conquest of the land, it was divided among the tribes so that each family
had its own share. In the ancient world, owning land was greatly prized
because it was a source of food, income and security. In that economy
where people depended on the crops they raised, if a family had a bad
harvest and ran out of food, they were forced to go into debt or even
sell their land. If they couldn't recover but fell further behind, they
would have to sell themselves into slavery or leave the country, like
Naomi and Elimelech in the book of Ruth. People did not borrow money and
sell land for business purposes, they did it only out of desperate economic
need. So the Jubilee was for one main purpose - to provide for the poor
who had gone into debt or lost their land, so that they would be able
to start over again. Without it, the wealthy would always do better in
bad years, and the land would tend to move into their hands while those
who had lost their land would become permanently enslaved.
Another effect of the Jubilee would be to stop the destruction of families.
If a man lost his land and sold himself and his family into slavery, or
if he moved out of the country, he would be likely to never see his family
together again. Part of the reason Naomi was distraught was because not
only had she lost her hope for future descendants, but by leaving Israel,
she also lost her family and past. When she returned, she was reunited
with her family. So the year of Jubilee was to be a year that people returned
home and families were brought together again.
Did Israel ever actually observe the year of Jubilee? The evidence suggests
that they never did. It says in 2 Chronicles that they never let the land
have its Sabbath years every seventh year, and if they never did that,
they most likely never observed the year of Jubilee either. Several of
the prophets lament the exploitation of the poor by the rich, which also
hints that they never observed a Jubilee year.
There is evidence from other Middle Eastern countries that years of release
were proclaimed in ancient times when a new king came into power. It would
be a way to ensure support from the masses when a king would declare all
debts void and set free all those in bondage to debt. It is interesting
that the prophets thought of this association of a year of Jubilee with
the coming of the Messiah. The primary image of the Messiah was that he
would be a king like David, so just as the new kings of other countries
declared a Jubilee when they came into power, the Messianic king would
as well. Isaiah says:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor. (Is 61:1-2)
is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed
by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year. Each phrase is about
the how great the "year of the Lord's favor" will be to those
who have been imprisoned or enslaved because of their debt. The king will
let them go home and start life over, to their great joy.
Jesus and the Year of Jubilee
In Luke 4, at the beginning of
his ministry, Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue
in his hometown, and he says "Today this scripture is fulfilled in
your hearing!" his audience would have heard this as an obvious
claim to be the Messiah who has now come into power. Throughout Jesus' ministry he
uses images from the year of Jubilee, but he takes the image of the poor
person set free from debt, and uses debt as a metaphor of sin. For instance,
when the sinful woman comes and washes his feet with her tears and Simon,
his host, wonders if he knows what a sinner she is, he tells the parable:
Two men owed money to a certain moneylender.
One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them
had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now
which of them will love him more?" Simon replied, "I suppose
the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged
correctly," Jesus said. (Luke 7:41-43)
The poor who are set free in
the Messianic kingdom are the poor in spirit, those who know they are
in debt to God because of their sin. So the "good news of the kingdom
of God" is that the Messianic King has come, and has declared complete
forgiveness of debt (sin) for those who will repent, and enter his kingdom.
It is good news to the poor rather than to the rich who don't see that
they need to be forgiven.
So we see in Jesus' use of the picture of the Jubilee the greatest picture
of God's grace through Christ. Those in prison are those who are under
a crushing debt they could never repay. We see in Jesus, the new king
setting prisoners free of debt that they owe because of their sin. Through
Jesus' work on the cross, those who become a part of his Kingdom receive
a forgiveness of a debt that they cannot pay themselves and they can start
over as new persons.
Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.
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