Some Thoughts on the Year of Jubilee


by Jared L. Olar

To those who speak English, the word ``jubilee'' signifies joyful celebration (cf. the related word ``jubilation'') and is more specifically associated with fiftieth anniversaries. But what has a ``jubilee'' got to do with the number fifty? The answer to that question is found in the Bible-for ``jubilee'' is not an English word, but was borrowed from the Hebrew. After God miraculously saved the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, while they were on their way to Canaan, God gave them many special instructions about how He expected them to behave when they got to the Promised Land. These instructions were far-reaching in scope, and if put into practice would have made Israel's agrarian-based economy truly unique in the ancient world. For instance, rather than farming their land until the soil could no longer sustain crops, God told Israel to let the land rest every seven years-a sabbath for the land (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-6). The land sabbath was to be accompanied by a general relaxation of debts, to relieve the suffering of the poor every seven years (Deut. 15:1-11). Most remarkable of all, at the end of every seventh land sabbath-that is, every fiftieth year-Israel was expected to announce the Year of Jubilee, when debts were to be forgiven, slaves set free, and estates returned to families who had been forced to sell their inheritances due to poverty (Lev. 25:8-12).

The Gentile neighbors of Israel were also familiar with a concept very similar to the Jubilee. Gentile kings in those days would occasionally proclaim amnesties and release from debts. Sometimes this was done to cope with times of economic adversity, but it also seems to have been something that was expected of a new king. Now, it has long been understood that the covenant relationship between God and Israel is analogous to the covenant relationships that existed between Gentile kings and their people. In other words, God was Israel's king (I Sam. 8:4-7), and just as Gentile kings were duty-bound to come to the aid of their people in times of economic distress, so too did God arrange to provide for His People Israel. Of course, unlike Israel, Gentiles did not proclaim every fiftieth year to be a Jubilee. Rather, with Gentiles the proclamation of a year of release was dependent upon the will, or even the whimsy, of their king. (For further fascinating details, see Michael Hudson's `` `Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land'-the Economic Roots of the Jubilee,''Bible Review, Feb. 1999, pp.26-33, 44.) But Israel's king was none other than the Eternal God, whose kingdom lasts forever. That probably explains why Israel's Jubilee was set at every fifty years-as a tangible sign of God's constant care for His People, and a reminder that He would be their King forever.

As with all of Israel's laws, the land sabbath and the Jubilee were not merely economic in nature. Rather, with these agricultural and economic institutions, God intended His Chosen People to reflect and to instill in their public and social lives His own loving and merciful character. This is why the Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement and announced with trumpet blasts and soundings of shofars (Lev. 25:9). In Hebrew religious tradition, the blast of the shofar heralds God personally and decisively moving to shower His saving grace on His People (cf. Judges 7:22 and Isa. 27:12-13). The Jubilee gets its very name from the Hebrew word yobel , which refers to the shattering sounds of a trumpet blast. Seeing that the Jubilee was designed by God to bring mercy and a fresh start to Israelites who were suffering in poverty, it makes perfect sense that He commanded Israel to begin the Jubilee on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of their entire year. For the Day of Atonement is the day when Israel annually confesses its sinfulness to God, and prepares to receive His mercy and His grace for a fresh start morally and spiritually.

Sadly, ancient Israel did not usually appreciate the gift of the Jubilee. One striking and very tragic example of Israel falling short of the ideals that are taught by the Jubilee occurred early in the sixth century B.C., in the last days of the Kingdom of Judah. King Zedekiah had announced the Jubilee Year, but then he and his people decided to cancel the Jubilee, and they forced all of the freed slaves to return to their masters (Jer. 34:8-22). Because of this sin-and that was not the only time that Israel had cancelled or ignored the Jubilee and the land sabbath (vv.13-14; cf. Lev. 26:33-35)-God allowed Judah to be overthrown and carried away into captivity by the Chaldeans.

What ancient Israel did not understand, and what we today need to remember, is that the institution of the Year of Jubilee was meant not only to ensure justice in Israel for the poor and the oppressed, but also to teach His People to look to Him for a penultimate, spiritual Jubilee: not merely a release from financial bondage or the forgiveness of debts, but release from their bondage to sin, forgiveness of their transgressions, and spiritual atonement. In the 700s B.C., God underscored those truths through His miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the armies of the Assyrian king Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah-for the timing of that miracle seems to have been closely linked to the year of the land sabbath and the Jubilee Year (Isa. 37:30-31; cf. Lev. 25:18-22). Despite the terrible devastation of their land by the Assyrian army, God promised Judah that they would be able to celebrate the land sabbath and the Jubilee without fearing that a famine would break out. Just as the Jubilee was a new beginning or a second chance for the poor and the oppressed, so too did God give Judah a second chance when He saved them from Sennacherib-and He seems to have done it just prior to a Jubilee Year. In the context of Isaiah's prophecy the Jubilee is obviously far more than a means of providing economic help for the poor, because the very existence of the Chosen People was at stake. With this special divine deliverance of King Hezekiah and his people, God had identified the Jubilee not only with the economic salvation of Israelites in poverty, but also with the salvation of His entire People from the attacks of their enemies.

Not too long after those days, when Isaiah was a little older, God told His People about a Jubilee par excellence, a Jubilee which would someday be proclaimed by Israel's promised Messiah or Anointed One. In that prophecy, the Messiah says:


``The Spirit of the Eternal is upon Me because the Eternal has anointed Me. He has sent Me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of grace from the Eternal and a day of vindication by our God, to comfort all who mourn ....'' (Isa. 61:1-2)


As we see from this prophecy, like a good king Israel's Messiah would demonstrate His concern and affection for His people by proclaiming the greatest Jubilee Year ever. In this penultimate Jubilee, the Messiah would provide help for the spiritually impoverished and oppressed, giving rest to their souls (Matt. 11:28-30). The Messiah's Year of Grace would effect the complete reconciliation of God with sinful humanity, provide atonement for us, and drive away an enemy more terrifying than the most bloodthirsty Assyrian monarch imaginable.

When the Messiah finally came to deliver the Chosen People from all of their troubles, He boldly preached that He and His saving works were the Year of Jubilee that had been prophesied by Isaiah. In the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus read Isaiah's prophecy and proclaimed that it had been fulfilled for them that very day, implicitly identifying Himself as the One who was anointed with God's own Spirit (Luke 4:16-21). Israel was getting a new king, who would offer them a new covenant, so it is only to be expected that their new king, like the Gentile kings of old, would proclaim a Jubilee. Furthermore, Jesus is risen from the dead and lives forevermore. Therefore, from the point of view of the Church, ever since the days of Jesus we have been living in a Jubilee Year, a year of grace from the Eternal. This is deliverance that is better than the miracle that saved David's royal son Hezekiah. And unlike the aborted Jubilee of David's royal son Zedekiah, we need not fear that David's royal son Jesus will cancel the Jubilee. In Jesus, God's People have an inexhaustible supply of grace, to set everyone free from their bondage to sin and death.

As we have seen, ancient Israel did not often appreciate the blessings, nor understand the meaning, of the Jubilee. But since the days of Jesus the human race in general has begun to see the value of this precious gift of the Israelites. One striking example occurred in 1300 A.D., when Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed the very first Holy Year in the history of the Catholic Church, taking the biblical Jubilee Year as his model. In Catholic Jubilee Years (which since 1425 ordinarily come every twenty-five years rather than every fifty years), the Church rededicates itself to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as God gave Israel the Jubilee to provide her poor with economic relief, in Jubilee Years the Catholic Church goes out of her way to provide her members with relief from the consequences of sin. For in his infinite grace Jesus forgives our sins-but even when we are forgiven, we must normally still accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions (II Sam. 12:13-14). Yet God in His love for us wishes to remit not only our sins, but even the consequences of those sins that play out in our lives. This latter kind of remission the Catholic Church calls ``indulgence,'' from the Latin word meaning ``pardon''.

In this, the last year of the twentieth century and the final year of the second Christian millennium, the Catholic Church announced its twenty-sixth Holy Year. And this time around it is clear that many have been drawing further lessons from the biblical Jubilee, for the Catholic Church has been encouraging practical applications of Jubilee principles in everyday life, such as giving to the poor and commutation of criminal sentences. The Catholic Church has also been joined by many religious leaders, world leaders, organisations, as well as individuals ranging from the rock star Bono to the Rev. Pat Robertson, in calling on the prosperous nations of the world to grant debt relief to the poorest countries. God should be praised that the Congress of the United States has listened to their cries for justice, for ``to whom much is given, much will be required.'' Let us only pray that the leaders of the United States do not follow the example of wicked Zedekiah, lest God does as He did to ancient Judah and visit upon us a comparable punishment.

The human race has received indescribable mercy and grace from its Creator, so it has a grave duty to follow the example of God and extend mercy and relief to all. Has God showered your life with His grace? Then you need to share it with your neighbors in need. In that way you will begin to participate in the Son of David's Jubilee Year of Grace.

Issue 9


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On 29 Jan 2001, 18:00.