5 Myths about Jubilee

Found in Leviticus 25, the biblical practice of Jubilee is becoming ever more prominent in discussions about justice, poverty, and debt relief. Many evangelical authors mention Jubilee as a biblical example of debt forgiveness and redistribution of land. It has also gained popular attention in the news media.

Jubilee has been offered by several sources as a solution to our current economic crisis. At Forbes, Erik Kain asked, “Could a debt jubilee help kickstart the economy?” Reuters profiled economists who are seriously considering Jubilee as a tool for ending the recession, and the Huffington Post linked the practice to the demands of Occupy Wall Street. In an age of crushing federal and consumer debt, a practice that forgives financial burdens is naturally becoming quite popular.

But what is the context for the scriptural practice of Jubilee? When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, God distributed land to the 12 tribes (Joshua 13:7, 23:4). The purpose of the Jubilee law was to keep the land in the hands of the tribes and families to which he had given land in the first place.

In Leviticus 25:8-10, a ram’s horn is to be blown on the day of atonement of the 50th year (or the 49th), and each family is to return to their property. Verses 15-16 details how this process should work:

You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. 16 If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you.

Today, many myths persist about this ancient practice. We’ll deal with five of the major ones.

Myth 1: Jubilee means a forgiveness of debt.

It is clear in the Old Testament text and to many commentators that in Leviticus 25, Jubilee does not involve forgiveness of debt, at least in the way we normally use the term. There is no debt forgiven because it has already been paid. Let me explain. If Israelite family members have a debt they can ask the person farming their land for a lump sum payment priced according to the number of years before the Jubilee. The price would be determined by the projected amount of crops to be yielded prior to the Jubilee. To put it in modern terms, if you had a debt of $250,000, there are five years prior to the Jubilee, and each crop is worth $50,000, then the “buyer” would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land, and at the time of Jubilee you would receive your land back because the debt had been paid off.

So the “buyer” does not really own the land but leases it. The debt is paid off by the land (crops). We don’t know exactly how the price was determined for each year of crops, given the uncertainty due to bad weather or other factors that could lead to a poor or lost crop. Perhaps the price took into account that some years would be more profitable than others.

At the time of Jubilee you would of course rejoice that your debt had been paid and your land returned to your full use, but you would not thank the leaser for “forgiving” your debt. The Jubilee declaration might be analogous to a “mortgage burning party.” You would celebrate with friends that this significant debt was paid. The debt is not “forgiven” or “cancelled” because it is paid.

Numerous commentators endorse this understanding. For instance, Derek Tidball says, “Purchasing the land was like purchasing a lease.” [1] And R. K. Harrison says, “Only the produce of the land could thus properly be bought or sold.” [2]

Myth 2: Jubilee involves a redistribution of wealth (land).

I’ve heard it said that Jubilee is the paramount example of a mandatory, legal (government) redistribution of wealth. So the argument goes: God required by law that land be redistributed every 50 years.

However, if Jubilee did not involve debt forgiveness, and instead celebrated a debt paid off, then there is no redistribution of wealth. There is no redistribution because the land never left the ownership of the original family to whom God gave the land.

Jubilee keeps land and wealth in the same place they started. Wealth and land are not redistributed to a different family. They are returned to the same one according to God’s original distribution.

Myth 3: Jubilee shows the relative nature of private property.

This myth purports that since God owns the land, there are no absolute rights to private property. If there are no absolute rights to private property—land or wealth—this provides warrant for the government to take private property and redistribute it.

Actually, Jubilee honors property rights by giving land back to its original owners. God owns the land, but has given the Promised Land to the tribes and families of Israel with the condition that private property cannot be sold, squandered, or given away permanently. The property rights remain with the tribe or family that was given the land in the first place.

Jubilee underlines the value and importance of private property for the tribes of Israel. The family is not permanently deprived of their land. Rather, private property rights in Israel were established permanently and enforced by the practice of Jubilee.

Myth 4: Jubilee leads to income equality.

Some argue that the periodic “redistribution” of land at Jubilee kept the rich from gaining more wealth, and the poor from descending deeper into poverty. But there is nothing in the passage that necessarily prevents income inequality.

Jubilee certainly did stop any one person or small group of people from buying up most or all of the land, those “who add field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8). What Jubilee did not do was prevent some people from becoming wealthier than others. They could buy houses in towns that were then permanent possessions (Leviticus 25:30). If they made a profit during their lease, they could lease even more land during the next 50 years.

The primary intent of the law is not economic equality. Rather, God wanted to prevent the Israelites from losing their ability to enjoy the Promised Land. He promised his people freedom from slavery, and a land flowing with “milk and honey,” where they could prosper and enjoy life, using their creativity to farm the land and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The purpose of Jubilee was not income equality, but rather that no Israelites would permanently lose the enjoyment of sitting under “his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:4).

Myth 5: Jubilee is a universally applicable principle.

Actually, Jubilee applied only to Israelites. This is another significant point almost entirely omitted from the normal narrative about Jubilee.

Non-Israelites might have been able to lease land or hire indentured servants. They could not permanently own land (Leviticus 25:47). Only Israelites could own land (Leviticus 25:44-46). There was no redistribution or return of land to foreigners. The poorest people of the land—widows, orphans, and aliens—were to be included in feasts, but they did not have property rights outside the walled cities.

Jubilee and the State

This redemptive-historical approach to understanding Jubilee has the advantage of avoiding the debates about capitalism or socialism. Given the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding Jubilee, the present-day applications of this practice are not immediately clear. They are not as easy to interpret and apply as those who perpetuate these myths want to maintain. But it is clear that Jubilee cannot be used to defend redistribution of wealth by the state.

Of course, even if the Bible doesn’t require the state to redistribute wealth, the state may still do so. Whether the state is the best vehicle to meet the needs of poor people is a separate issue.

There is a case to be made that the state should provide a safety net for the poor. But state involvement does not absolve Christians of individual or corporate responsibility. Certainly Christians must be concerned about the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan because God requires us to do so. Jesus says that whoever serves one of the “least of these” serves him (Matthew 25:45).

Biblical commands are not given to the impersonal, secular state, but to Christians to care personally for those in need with our time and treasure.

* * * * *

[1] Derek Tidball, The Message of Leviticus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 296.

[2] R.K. Harrison, Leviticus (NICOT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 317.

* * * * *

For further reading on Jubilee:

Michael A. Harbin, Jubilee and Social Justice

Art Lindsley, Five Myths About Jubilee (full version)

  • Jonathan

    One more thing. Jesus is our Jubilee

  • Mark Duncan

    For the record, I don’t think that the principle of Jubilee is an appropriate way to solve the debt crisis either. Just “making it go away” does not teach us there are consequences for our choices, as painful as those consequences all. And yes, our sinful choices affect others in our country, community, and world as we are seeing.

    But I’m afraid some would use this well-written article to shut down the responsibility of caring for others, even those who have rightly earned the fruit of their sinful choices; we should quickly be reminded that Jesus in His mercy and grace, forgave our sin debt by paying it for us. The principle of graceful forgiveness is very biblical.

    We get defensive when we hear words like “wealth redistribution” and “income equality” as if we actually own those blessings that were given from the Father of Lights. Any wealth I have, or property in my possession, is not mine, but mine to use for the sake of the Kingdom. When I hold on it too tightly, I am in danger of making it an idol or losing sight of who gave it to me.

    I don’t think the government is the one to take the lead on modeling grace…isn’t that our job? Not that the government shouldn’t extend grace, just think we should be the ones crying out for it because we have been transformed by it. And also, when we model and teach grace to others, we must teach that the reason graceful forgiveness is so great is because it comes at the cost of something/someone else. It’s not a free lunch…it does cost someone, just not you. The wages of sin still equals death, but the gift of God is free to us at Christ’ expense.

    Thanks for sharing this article, it really got me thinking.

    I’d also like to hear your thoughts on a modern application of gleaning…yes I know, given to Israel, but how could these principles carry over? Is this where government steps in?

  • http://thesidos.blogspot.com/ Arthur Sido

    This is an excellent resource, thanks for posting it. I run into the “jubilee” argument a lot and it simply doesn’t apply quite as neatly into American political/economic issues as some would try to argue.

  • http://thebookofdavis.blogspot.com/ Michael Davis

    Good post.Those are all great points. have you heard of “rolling Jubilee” and what do you think about it?

  • Oscar Carmona

    Art, the issue with your article for me is that it does not contain any mention of the rights of redemption found in verse 25-28. In this case, God commanded that no person should have the right of perpetuity (in other words, no person had absolute rights to a piece of property) because it was all Gods. The rights of redemption set in verses 25-28 set up three scenarios for redemption when a person had to sell a piece of property due to lack of prosperity, one of those was that in the Jubiliee year if a person could not afford to redeem his land, it was given back. See verse 28b. The land was “released” and “return” to the first owner. In this case a “debt” was forgiven and given back.
    Granted we may not be talking about a mortgage or a foreclosure, but surely one can view this as a “debt” forgiveness especially seeing as how the buyer, in the Jubilee Year will be taking a lose, as he is obligated to return the property to the original owner.
    In other words, the rights of redemption of property (land) allowed for property to be released and returned to the original owner at no cost and at no price, but at a loss to the buyer. How is this not debt forgivness?

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  • http://www.takeacopy.com/ John Dunn

    Jesus is the grand eschatological year of Jubilee. His death and resurrection has accomplished the redemption of the entire lost cosmos for God! Jubilee, along with all the other temporary OT types and shadows have been brought to an end by being fulfilled and gloriously transcended in the person and work of Christ.

    Takeacopy dot com

  • Clayton Hall

    I do not think you have actually refuted Myth 2. Your point is true in a narrow sense that an individual’s wealth was not taken from him or her and given to the poor. I concede that this practice is the dictionary definition of redistribution but I think we need to understand Jubilee in its overall social structure. When we discuss redistribution in a capitalistic society we assume a social structure that has no family economic baseline of self-suffiecency. Therefore, when we as a society discuss methods for helping the poor especially those who suffer from generational poverty we must discuss providing new assets to these individuals. This discussion as we know falls mainly into two camps ie required transfer of assets from wealthy to poor or plans to speed up economic growth so that all experience the chance to earn money. In our system we call the first option redistribution, and Jubilee was not that but in Jewish society because God’s initial land grant and the rules surrounding Jubilee there was a third option for dealing with generational poverty, a reset. This reset does not directly transfer wealth from one individual but it does fundamentally redistribute per-capita earning potential of everyone in the society. The individual who was at the bottom now has chance to try again and if successful become wealthy. Jubilee was one of primary tools used to sustain a base-line of economic self sufficiency in Israel thus Mr. Lindsley for you to say that the concept of Jubilee has nothing to say about redistribution is ignore the overall function of the system. If a system is designed to perpetually prevent the wealthy from continually holding the primary means of economic production I think we can say that system uses a form of redistribution. Furthermore, these points also call into question your argument against Myth 4. Once again if we take your argument in narrow sense it is true. The practice of Jubilee would not and was not intended to produce income equality. The wealth were going to stay wealthy but Jubilee did move the poorest back into the position to move beyond simply the subsistence of a hired labor. Most people when they talk about income equality are not, at least in the United States, arguing for equal pay but rather decreasing the gap between the wealthiest and poorest, and Jubilee would have definitely done this in Israel. Thus the concept of Jubilee is fundamentally connected to overall income equality in a society. Finally, I have deep, deep doubts about the role government should play in alleviating poverty. I also resoundingly support your point that Christian’s as representatives of the Kingdom of Heaven have compelling obligation to first and foremost seek to alleviate the suffering of the poor through our own initiatives. However, Christian’s in the United States have the opportunity to engage the legal structures of our society through democracy and thus there is absolutely a need for us to seriously consider how Biblical commands apply to the impersonal secular state.

    • Brian Bish

      Lots of words here, but Clayton makes an excellent point.

      Jubilee gave the poor another chance at becoming productive and wealthy, and by its very nature limited the wealthy from controlling all of the means of production in an agricultural society. Myth 4 is therefore true in a narrow sense but misses the bigger picture.

  • Jon Marshall

    Well written and clear article, thanks. Myy question follows a brief comment. It seems that the prophets expand the notions of Sabbath Years and Jubilee to include not simply money but forgiveness with Isaiah 61’s announcement of the favorable year of the Lord as the ultimate expression. The Qumran community certainly read the OT in this way:

    11Q13 The Coming of Melchizedek (Wise, Abegg, Cook, 590-591)
    (…) And concerning what Scripture says, “In this year of Jubilee you shall return, everyone of you, to your property” (Lev. 25:13). And what is also written: “And this is the manner of the remission; every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because God’s remission has been proclaimed.” (Deut.15:2) The interpretation is that it applies to the Last Days and concerns the captives, just as Isaiah said: “To proclaim the Jubilee to the captives” (Isa. 61:1) (…) and whose teachers have been hidden and kept secret, even from the inheritance of Melchizedek, for (… and they are the inheritance of Melchizedek), who will return them to what is rightfully theirs. He will proclaim to them the Jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins. This word will thus come in the first week of the jubilee period that follows nine jubilee periods [possibly a reference to Daniel 9:24-27]. Then the “Day of Atonement” shall follow after the tenth jubilee period, when he shall atone for all the Sons of Light, and the people who are predestined to Melchizedek. (…) For this is the time decreed for the “Year of Melchizedek’s favor” (Isa 61:2 modified), and for his hosts, together with the holy ones of God, for a kingdom of judgment, just as it is written concerning him in the Songs of David: “A godlike being has taken his place in the council of God; in the midst of divine beings he holds judgment” (Ps 82:1)….

    In your opinion is Jesus announcing himself as the beginning of a Jubilee (as Joel Green and many other Luke commentators suggest), and, if so, what does this mean for the church’s role in helping society financially?

  • Ian

    THanks for the article. Very helpful. The Matthew 25 passage refers to helping to feed, clothe etc the family of God. It is not a call to end world poverty or even feed the worlds poor. It is acts of kindness done to the brethren. See Matthew 25:40.

  • http://www.thepedestrianchristian.blogspot.co Alex Guggenheim

    I enjoyed this immensely if not for any reason but the pleasure of observing a theology constrained and directed by a serious and rigorous hermeneutic which is increasing absent with Evangelicals.

    Good ideas are nice but a disciplined exegesis and rigorous hermeneutic does all the favor of chewing them up and spitting them out as they should be. I suppose the unpleasantness of having our ideas disqualified through this proper vetting mechanism leads people to forgo it but that is where not only theologically errant concepts arise but are followed with well intended but errant movements thus, siphoning energy and resources from rightly formed theologically/ecclesiastcally based exercises.

    Great work here.

  • Si

    Israel didn’t keep Sabbath years while in the land (2Chron 36:21, Lev 26:35), so couldn’t count off 7 Sabbath years for Jubilee so Jubilee very very probably didn’t happen either.

    As such the point in the article is a bit moot:
    “Jubilee certainly did stop any one person or small group of people from buying up most or all of the land, those “who add field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8).”
    Jubilee couldn’t stop anything if it didn’t happen!

  • mike

    Can someone re-explain myth number one, it doesn’t quite make sense to me. Is the leaser in debt to an outside entity and using the money generated from a lessee’s use of their land, based on the number of years to the jubilee, to pay off that debt to the outside entity? Or is the lessee’s debt to the leaser being ‘paid off’ for using their land?

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  • Yep

    Why do you feel the need to defend capitalism?