General Conference Background Document #9  

YEAR OF JUBILEE - The Anchor Bible (II)

E.Ethical Development

1. In the OT. We have seen that the jubilee had two major thrusts: release/liberty and return/restoration. Both of these lent themselves readily to the process of transfer from the strictly economic provision of the jubilee itself to a wider metaphoric application. There are allusive echoes of the jubilee particularly in later Isaiah. The mission of the Servant of Yahweh in Deutero-Isaiah has strong elements of the restorative plan of God for his people, aimed specifically at the weak and oppressed (Isa 42:1-7). Isaiah 58 is an attack on cultic observance without social justice and calls for liberation of the oppressed (v 6), specifically focusing on one's own kinship obligations (v 7). Most clearly of all, Isaiah 61 uses jubilee images to portray the one anointed as the herald of Yahweh to "evangelize" the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives-using the word de·roÆr which is the explicitly jubilary word for release-and to announce the year of Yahweh's favor, almost certainly an allusion to a jubilee year. The ideas of redemption and return are combined in the future vision of Isaiah 35 and put alongside a transformation of nature itself. Thus in the OT the jubilee attracted an eschatological imagery while maintaining an ethical application in the present. Therefore it could be used to portray God's final intervention for messianic redemption and restoration; but it could also support ethical challenge for justice to the oppressed in contemporary history.

2. In the NT. Jesus announced the inbreaking of the eschatological reign of God. He claimed that the hopes of restoration and messianic reversal were being fulfilled in his own ministry. The "Nazareth manifesto"(Luke 4:16-30) is the clearest, programmatic statement of this and quotes directly from Isaiah 61, which is strongly influenced by jubilee concepts. Scholars are agreed that Jesus made use of jubilary imagery, though there is division over ex-actly what he meant by it. Some have argued that Jesus called for a literal enactment of the levitical jubilee (Trocmé 1961; Yoder 1972). Others, noting that Jesus used the prophetic texts and not the levitical law, argue that he was merely using jubilary language as a way of showing the kind of response required by the arrival of the kingdom of God, without intending an actual national jubilee. Sloan (1977) notes that Jesus' use of apheµsis carries both the sense of spiritual forgiveness of sin and also literal and financial remission of actual debts. Thus, the original background of economic de·roÆr has been preserved in Jesus' challenge concerning ethical response to the kingdom of God. Ringe (1985) traces the interweaving of major jubilee images into various parts of the gospel narratives and the teaching of Jesus (e.g., the beatitudes, the response to John the Baptist [Matt 11:2-6], the parable of the banquet [Luke 14:12-24], various episodes of forgiveness, teaching on debts [Matt 18:21-35], etc.). The evidence is broad and conforms to the pattern already set in the OT-namely, the jubilee as a model or image for the kingdom of God embodies both eschatological affirmation and ethical demand. Likewise in Acts the jubilary concept of eschatological restoration is found in the otherwise unique idea of apokatastasis. It occurs in Acts 1:6 and 3:21, related to God's final restoration of Israel and all things. Significantly, the early Church responded to this hope at the level of economic mutual help-thus fulfilling the sabbatical hopes of Deuteronomy 15 (Acts 4:34 is virtually a quotation of Deut 15:4).

3. Contemporary Application. Without envisaging any literal enactment of its provi-sions, the jubilee still remains a powerful model in formulating Christian biblical ethics. Its primary assumptions and objectives can be distilled and used as a guide and critique for our own ethical agenda in the modern world.

a. Economically. The jubilee existed to protect a form of land tenure that was based on an equitable and widespread distribution of the land and to prevent the accumulation of own-ership in the hands of a wealthy few. This echoes the creation principle that the whole earth is given by God to all humanity, who act as co-stewards of its resources. There is a parallel be-tween the affirmation of Lev 25:23, in respect of Israel, that "the land is mine," and the af-firmation of Psalm 24, in respect of humanity as a whole, that "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it." The moral principles of the jubilee are there-fore universalizable on the basis of the moral consistency of God. What he required of Israel reflects what in principle he desires for humanity-namely broadly equitable distribution of the resources of the earth, especially land, and a curb on the tendency to accumulation with its inevitable oppression and alienation. The jubilee thus stands as a critique not only of massive private accumulation of land and related wealth, but also of large-scale forms of collectivism or nationalization which destroy any meaningful sense of personal or family ownership.

b. Socially. The jubilee embodied a practical concern for the family unit. In Israel's case this meant the extended family, the "father's house," which was a sizable group of related nu-clear families descended in the male line from a living progenitor, including up to three or four generations. This was the smallest unit in Israel's kinship structure; and it was the focus of identity, status, responsibility, and security for the individual Israelite. It was this that the jubilee aimed to protect and periodically to restore if necessary. Notably, it did so, not by merely "moral" means-i.e., appealing for greater family cohesion or admonishing parents and children-but by legislating for specific structural mechanisms to regulate the economic effects of debt. Family morality was meaningless if families were being split up and dispossessed by economic forces that rendered them powerless (Neh 5:1-5). The jubilee aimed to restore social dignity and participation to families through maintaining or restoring their economic viability. The economic collapse of a family in one generation was not to condemn all future generations to the bondage of perpetual indebtedness. Such principles and objectives are certainly not irrelevant to welfare legislation or indeed any legislation with socioeconomic implications.

c. Theologically. The jubilee was based upon several central affirmations of Israel's faith, and the importance of these should not be overlooked when assessing its relevance to Christian ethic and mission. Like the rest of the sabbatical provisions, the jubilee proclaimed the sovereignty of God over time and nature; and obedience to it would require submission to that sovereignty; hence the year is dubbed "holy," "a Sabbath to Yahweh", to be observed out of the "fear of Yahweh." Furthermore, observing the fallow year dimension would also require faith in God's providence as the one who could command blessing in the natural order. Additional motivation for the law is provided by repeated appeals to the knowledge of God's historical act of redemption, the Exodus and all it had meant for Israel. And to this historical dimension was added the cultic and "present" experience of forgiveness in the fact that the ju-bilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement. To know yourself forgiven by God was to is-sue in practical remission of debts and bondages for fellow Israelites. And, as we have seen, the inbuilt future hope of the literal jubilee blended with an eschatological hope of God's final restoration of humanity and nature to his original purpose. To apply the jubilee model, then, requires that people face the sovereignty of God, trust his providence, know his redemptive action, experience his atonement, practice his justice, and hope in his promise. The wholeness of the model embraces the Church's evangelistic mission, its personal and social ethics, and its future hope.