Over the last few days, the UK has been commemorating the Queen’s diamond jubilee, leading to street parties, concerts and furious tweets from republicans. But amid all the celebrations and protests, there’s another angle on the concept of jubilee that I haven’t seen mentioned. It’s worth a look.
In Leviticus 25, Israel is commanded to observe a ‘Year of Sabbath’ every seven years, during which the land should remain fallow; in addition to the agricultural benefits of this, it’s also part of a narrative chronology – the rhythms of life in Israel all pointed to the importance of remembering God and his fundamental involvement in the world, to the extent that even fields and soil got their day of rest.
But the policy didn’t stop there. Every seventh Year of Sabbath was a jubilee year, and this was a massive deal. See, every fifty years, land that had been sold was to be returned to its original owners. Debts were to be forgiven. Indentured servants were to be released. In effect, the chains of poverty were to be broken.
(It’s interesting that this was to take place on the Day of Atonement, which was the day on which sacrifices were offered for the sins of the nation. There’s a concept here of sin-as-debt, and jubilee as an act of grace. Which ties in nicely with ideas of how Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection work on a theological level.)
The idea of jubilee is rooted in the idea of God as provider – fields can be left fallow because God will provide food, and property can be returned to its original owners because, ultimately, God owns the land, not the people, and he gets to allocate it.
(And if you think I’m getting into how that works with the situation in the Middle East today, then you’re crazy.)
There’s a powerful idea here of how people who find themselves poverty-stricken should be helped and supported, not exploited – there was even a prohibition on charging interest, which could push those needing a loan into poverty. The poor are to be helped, not treated as an easily exploitable form of labour or income, and poverty should always be a nasty but temporary situation, not an ongoing cycle.
It’s interesting how all this isn’t mentioned nearly as much as some of Leviticus’s other laws, like those against homosexuality, when the concept of jubilee has so much to say about how our culture treats money and the poor – it’s ironic that staffing the Queen’s jubilee celebrations gave rise to this news story. Leviticus 25 is still relevant.
(PS. And yet there’s an elephant in the room – alongside these laws, which are fundamentally anti-poverty, lies laws making provision for slavery. I don’t know what to do with that, but it’s a tension that anyone reading Leviticus has to face. Depending on which side of the belief fence you fall, there are easy ways to get around this (dismiss the individual laws or dismiss the whole Bible), but I’m not sure either approach is all that conclusive. And I take some comfort in that the New Testament puts slave trading on the same level as murder, but I’d be lying if I said that this makes the questions go away…)