What is a Jubilee?
The Jubilee begins with a joyful shout, the clangour of trumpets, and sounding the ceremonial horn. It proclaims the 'Acceptable Year of the Lord', a great acclamation of 'Forgiveness'. It is the great semi-centennial festival of the Hebrews. During the year of the Jubilee the land was to be fallow, and the Israelites were only permitted to gather the spontaneous produce of the fields (Lev. 25:11, 12) showing their dependence on the Lord, and reflecting the prescription for collecting a reserve portion of manna prior to the Sabbath in the Exodus. All landed property during that year reverted to its original owner (Lev. 13–34; 27:16–24), and all who were slaves were set free (Lev. 25:39–54), and all debts were remitted.1
The Year of Jubilee is the Sabbath rest at the end of seven Sabbatical annual cycles—every 49 or 50 years (Lev 25:8). During this year, economic debts were to be forgiven, land restored to families who sold in order to repay debt, and slaves sold to repay debt were to be liberated. While clearly specified in the biblical text, there is no biblical or extrabiblical evidence that the practice of a Year of Jubilee was ever celebrated. The term is only found in the Pentateuch with most references in Lev 25–27.
Leviticus 25:1–8 specifies that every seven years, the land should be given a Sabbath year—left fallow, with the fields not sown and the vineyards not pruned. The natural fruit of the land should not be gathered and sold; but open to all to eat. To make up for the lack of harvest in the seventh year, the sixth year’s harvest will be three-fold (Lev 25:21). The Year of Jubilee was to occur either during or the year after the seventh Sabbath year (Lev 25:8–10).
Remission of Land and Housing.
When selling a field, the price was to be dependent upon the number of harvests until the next Year of Jubilee. Land was not sold permanently; the buyer was to receive the harvests from the land until the Jubilee Year (Lev 25:14–16). If an Israelite suffered economically and needed to sell his or her land, the responsibility fell to the nearest relative to redeem the land (Lev 25:25). If there were no relatives and the owner recovered financially, then he or she should pay off the remaining years on the property and resume ownership (Lev 25:26–27). If neither occurs, then the property would revert back to the original owner at the Year of Jubilee.
If the property in question was a house in a walled city, the owner had one year to redeem the house before it became the permanent possession of the new owner (Lev 25:29–30). If the house was outside a walled city or in an unwalled village, the home was considered part of an agricultural field and treated like a field (Lev 25:31). Porter argues that “walled towns, typical of Canaanite city culture, were a novelty to the Israelite farming population … So a house in such a town was considered more an individual than a family possession” (Porter, Leviticus). If the house belonged to a Levite, in a Levite city, then the property could be redeemed at any time and reverted to the owner at the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:31–33, 46).
The care for the poor and debt slaves began with a social safety net, specifying that when someone became poor, the Israelites should treat him or her like a temporary resident. He or she should not be charged interest on loans or be sold food at a high profit (Lev 25:36–7). If, despite these measures, the person must sell himself to another Israelite to pay off debts, then the following rules applied: he must not be treated like a slave, he must not be treated severely, he must be given the duties of a hired hand, and he was to be liberated at the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:39–43). If the Israelite sold himself to a non-Israelite, the Israelite’s family may redeem him, keeping the debt within the community (Lev 25:47–48). The responsibly for redemption fell first upon the closest relatives, and extended to the wider clan. The non-Israelite must adhere to Israelite custom and allow the Israelite to redeem himself according to the number of years remaining until the Jubilee if he recovered financially. He must not be treated severely and must be liberated at the Year of Jubilee (Lev 25:49–55).
Did It Ever Occur?
While the regulations for the Year of Jubilee are specific, no biblical or extrabiblical evidence confirms that the Jubilee was ever actually observed. Kinship redemption is demonstrated in Ruth 4 and Jer 32. While Isa 37:30 may hint at a Jubilee Year by discussing a double fallow year. The passage may also be the result of invasion—a Year of Jubilee enforced by Yahweh, when Israel would not enforce it themselves.
It is possible the Year of Jubilee was active before the monarchy, but fell into disuse as the Israelite economy became more complex (van der Ploeg, “Slavery in the Old Testament”; North, Sociology of the Biblical Jubilee). The economic impact of debt remission may be evidence that it was merely an idealistic invention of a late priestly school known as the Holiness Code (Westbrook, “Jubilee Laws”; Westbrook, “Social Justice”; Ginzberg, “Studies in the Economics of the Bible”). However, there is evidence from ancient Near Eastern textual references to nationwide debt remissions in civilizations upon the accession of a new ruler. There is no evidence that these periodic national years of jubilee caused economic collapse for the affected economies (Milgrom, Leviticus, 2241–45). Therefore, the question persists, unanswered, as a possibility without external evidence.
The theological justification for the Year of Jubilee is based in Yahweh’s ownership of the land (Exod 15:13, 17). This concept is highlighted in Lev 25:23 which reads, “The land must not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are aliens and sojourners with Me.” The Israelites could not permanently sell land they did not own.
A central foundation for the Israelite relationship with Yahweh was the land. While Yahweh owned the land, the land was also pledged and given to the Israelites (Milgrom, Leviticus 23–27, 2183–91; Japhet, “Ownership of Land,” 36–50). The promise of the land is ultimately realized as a divine gift at the end of the exodus wanderings (Exod 6:8). While the land was a divine gift, safety and security in the land were contingent upon maintenance of the covenantal relationship (Lev 25:18). Yahweh’s judgment upon Israel ultimately meant expulsion from the land which was warned as early as Lev 18:24–28. The Year of Jubilee was to serve as a reminder that the land is special to Yahweh and a divine gift to the Israelites. The lasting ownership remained to the family which Yahweh initially chose to share ownership.
Theological basis for the liberation from slavery is based in a similar logic to the ownership of land (Japhet, “Ownership of Land,” 36–50). Yahweh redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, ultimately making them His property (Lev 25:42, 55; 26:13, 45). Because the Israelites were now the property of Yahweh, they were not able to permanently sell one another into debt slavery. Any debt slavery required a specified term when the person returned to personal freedom, belonging solely to God.2
of the Jubilee: