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Jubilee’s Theological-Historical Context

The following is taken from unpublished workbooks by our friends Ross and Gloria Kinsler whose book The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life was an inspiration in JEM’s early days. This is a bit academic in nature but a sound introduction to the leading concerns within Jewish-Christian roots of the jubilee model.

Covenant vs. Empire

It is widely recognized that covenant receives its definitive voicing in Deuteronomy, the covenant tradition par excellence. Deuteronomy offers covenant as a radical and systematic alternative to the politics of autonomy, the economics of exploitation, and the theology of self-indulgence. The model of social reality offered in Deuteronomy is that this community—in all its socioeconomic, political, and military aspects—is relational, with members taking responsibility for their neighbors. This notion of social reality touches every phase of social interaction and every exercise of social power. The pervasive discipline to which Deuteronomy summons Israel is precisely to give up autonomy for the sake of committed, neighborly relatedness.

In his essay, “ Always in the Shadow of the Empire” (Texts that Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices, Fortress, 2000, pp. 73-87), Walter Brueggemann explains how the prophets and the deuteronomist called Israel to a covenantal way of life in sharp contrast to Assyrian domination. This “quintessential, normative theological­-ethical accent of Israel’ s faith” was economical, liturgical, and political.

Economically, the practice of neighborliness is in “the year of release” (Deut. 15:1­ 18). This command seeks to prevent the emergence of a permanent underclass by providing that regularly and frequently the poor shall have their debts canceled and be equipped for reentry into the economy in a viable way. It is impossible to overstate the radicalness and subversive threat of this provision that undermines any conventional economic practice, and that intends to make Israel a peculiar community in the world.

Liturgically, the teaching of Deuteronomy accents the Passover as an affirmation that Israel’ s life shall be intentionally situated in the memory of the exodus.

Politically, Deuteronomy acknowledges royal power and severely curbs its drive for autonomous control. The law envisions Torah-based power, for the king is enjoined to study “ this torah” day and night. Negatively, moreover, the king is to shun the easy temptations of commoditization by refusing accumulation of silver, gold, wives, horses, or chariots.

Isaiah and Micah present a similar challenge at the same period of history. “ All are agreed that in every sphere of its life, Judah must be a community of intentional resistance, refusing to let dominant, imperial definitions confiscate the life of Judah. The community is enjoined to great vigilance, lest it lose its raison d’ etre, which is as a Yahwistic, alternative mode of life in a world of acquisitive, exploitative power (compare Deut. 8:1-20).”

from Jubilee Workbook #3 (unpublished), “Biblical Faith” section

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Sabbath Rest

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. (Ex. 20:8-11)

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5:12-15)

In his critical study, Sabbath and Jubilee (Chalice Press, 2000), Richard Lowery writes (106): “The Sabbath law occupies a pivotal position in both versions of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), standing at the crux of theology and ethics. The verses before the Sabbath law address Israel’ s relationship with God, and the laws that follow regulate social relationships within and between households.   Sabbath grounds all those relationships in the identity of God as creator of the world and liberator of Israel.” The seventh day is to be kept holy by rest to protect and restore the life of all the household, from sons and daughters to male and female slaves, all the animals, and resident aliens. This mandate is so serious that its violation could, according to Ex. 35:2-3, merit the death penalty.      

Tragically, Israel itself reduced the Sabbath mandate to ritualistic legalism to be used not for the poor, not for justice, but the contrary.

Here this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” (Am. 8:4-6)

Lowery summarizes his exposition of “ Sabbath and Household Hospitality”: “Sabbath justice begins in the household in just relationships between male and female, old and young, subordinates and ‘bosses.’   Sabbath rest is, above all, relief for the household’ s most vulnerable members. The household ethic at the root of Sabbath is the foundation of a broader social-economic ethic expressed in prophetic condemnations of the royal political economy, such as those found in Amos. This prophetic critique makes clear that Sabbath has a distinctively economic dimension. It is a matter of justice, not simply a pious holiday. In fact, the failure to attend to the needs of the vulnerable negates the value of ‘technical’ observances of Sabbath-day rest. Sabbath without justice is blasphemy.” (121)

from Jubilee Workbook #4 (unpublished), “Biblical Faith” section

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Land as Gift, Temptation, Task, and Threat

We will make use of Walter Brueggemann’ s incisive Old Testament studies, this time his book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. Brueggemann states at the outset, “Land is a central, if not the central theme of Biblical faith.” (1977:3) In Chapter 4 he reviews the basic theological meanings of the land as expounded in Deuteronomy. After liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, and 40 years of wilderness wanderings, Israel stands at the River Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. This is one of the most critical moments in the entire history of salvation. How are the people of God to understand and fulfill their vocation in this new land?

For Israel the land is, first, a gift of Yahweh. The God who delivered them from Egypt, by grace, gave them the Promised Land, also by grace.

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.   You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. (Deut 8:7-10)

Israel could be assured even into the future insofar as they continued to recognize and trust in the Lord as their liberator and giver of the land, insofar as they continued to hear and obey the Word of the Lord, insofar as they continued to live that alternative social possibility required by their liberation from slavery. “The gifted land is covenanted land. It is not only nourishing space. It is also covenanted place. The Jordan is entry not into safe space but into a context of covenant.” (Ibid. 52)

For Israel the land is also temptation. It can be seductive. For the land may give the people a sense of security so that they no longer remember their identity as people of Yahweh, delivered from slavery in Egypt, covenanted with the Lord who delivered them. Thus Moses warns them as they are poised to cross the Jordan and occupy their new land:

Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today. If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deut 7:11-13)

On entering the Promised Land Israel would be tempted to forget Yahweh and Yahweh’ s ways.   They might even adopt the very practices that had enslaved them in Egypt.   And they might look for other gods that would approve of these practices. “Remembering Yahweh is not simply an act of religious devotion. Remembering Yahweh is for Israel the source of the qualities of humanness and humaneness which are its distinctive heritage.” (Ibid. 55) The possibility remains that Israel might lose the land if they forget and abandon their covenant, their history, their foundation.

For Israel the land is, thirdly, responsibility. It is precisely at the entrance to the Promised Land—likewise at the time of King Josiah’ s Reform and at the time of the return from exile—that they must review the Law given to them at Sinai, for it is in the Law that they can find the necessary guidance for their life. The keeping of the Law is not simply to please the Lord or even to ensure continuing blessing and prosperity but rather to maintain their roots and identity as liberated slaves, so that all might enjoy fullness of life. Central to this responsibility are the Sabbath Day (Deut 5:12-15) and the Sabbath Year (Deut 15:1-18), which provide for rest, forgiveness of debts, concern for the poor, and freedom of slaves. In these two texts the theological foundation is the memory that they were once slaves in Egypt.  

Finally, for Israel the land is threat. Given the new security of possessing their own land, Israel might forget her real identity as a liberated people gifted with this land and fail to trust in Yahweh. Granted the possibility of organizing their society to gain power and wealth, they might abandon their covenant with Yahweh and its Sabbath obligations toward debtors, the poor, and slaves. This new power and wealth might even lead them to adopt other gods more in keeping with their aberrant life in the land and also in keeping with their pagan neighbors. Thus the people of Israel might lose their faith, their identity, their social experiment, and the land, which normally would mean that they would lose their very lives and existence as a people.

from Jubilee Workbook #5 (unpublished), “Biblical Faith” section

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Was the Biblical Jubilee Ever Really Practiced?

In his article, “ The Economic Roots of the Jubilee” (Bible Review, February 1999), Michael Hudson explains why laws such as the Sabbath and Jubilee mandates were not only possible but necessary in ancient Mesopotamia.

According to biblical law, every 50 years a Jubilee year is to be proclaimed—debts are to be canceled, and property is to be returned to its original owner. How such a year could avoid causing economic disruption and chaos, however, has been hard for scholars to understand.   Many have regarded the Jubilee law as nothing more than a utopian ideal, more an expression of social idealism than a practical policy. But viewed in its broadest ancient Near Eastern context, the Jubilee turns out not to be so utopian or impractical after all, given the economic structures of ancient societies.

The principal Jubilee text, Leviticus 25, is usually dated in the sixth century BCE in the Holiness Code, though it is projected backward to Moses at Sinai. Similar “clean slate” decrees “were widely known in the ancient world,” going back to the rulers of Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt. Hammurabi proclaimed clean slates at least four times, beginning in the year of his accession to the throne of Babylon in 1792 BCE, and six of his successors also proclaimed clean slates. The Rosetta Stone “is actually a clean slate proclamation,” recording debt cancellation by Ptolemy V of Egypt in 196 BCE.

Clearly it was for economic stability and in their own interest that rulers made clean slate proclamations canceling debts, freeing slaves, and returning peasants to their lands.

  • They restored family members to their pre-debt status. Bond servants were released.
  • They restored the crop rights of indebted cultivators who had forfeited or sold their usufruct rights under economic duress.
  • The aim was to cancel agrarian debts that led to the forfeiture of family members and lands. This restored the basic means of self-support for the population at large.

Ownership was limited to the usufruct or produce of the land. Most debts were not from loans but rather fees owed to the ruler, who could then cancel them to insure popular support, especially in time of war. Families who lost access to the land not only fell into debt servitude but lost their potential for military service. Creditors normally charged 20 percent interest, which often led to land accumulation for the wealthy few and marginalization for the many poor.

In sum, these royal edicts did not cause problems, they solved them—by restoring the presumably normal pre-debt state of affairs. They preserved wide-spread self-sufficiency on the land for its customary holders. They sustained a free and economically independent fighting force. They rendered forfeiture or sale of land and family members only temporary, recognizing that irreversible transfers would have allowed absentee landlords to evolve into a permanent wealthy aristocracy. In effect, they secured the land’ s rent for the palace rather than letting it pass into the hands of creditors.

The Sabbath and Jubilee mandates, on the other hand, were holy, divine mandates with set time frames with the intention of eliminating extreme wealth and poverty among all the people of Yahweh, i.e. to insure access to the means of abundant life for all. There is little evidence of full compliance to these mandates, and by the time of Jesus leaders of the Sanhedrin had devised a way to circumvent them legally, which makes Jesus’ proclamation of “The Year of the Lord’ s favor” (Luke 4: 18-19) all the more remarkable.

—from Jubilee Workbook #3 (unpublished), “Responsible Discipleship” section


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Power & Wealth in First Century Palestine

William R. Herzog, in his book, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Westminster John Knox, 2000), provides an understanding of the structures and mechanisms of power and wealth in First Century Palestine that is essential for our comprehension of Jesus’ ministry and message. All too often the Gospels are read simply in terms of a very limited view of the religious conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. We can now see that Jesus was concerned about the wellbeing of his people in terms of fundamental political, social, and economic realities.

The Palestine of Jesus’ day could be described as an advanced agrarian society dominated by a traditional aristocratic empire (Rome) in whose image the Herods and Temple high priests had molded themselves. Wealth is based on land and the control of land. Typically composed of no more than 1 to 2 percent of the population, the ruling class controlled the vast majority of the resources of their society. (P. 90) Wealth meant the control of the land, and control of the land entailed control of its usufruct, the ability to extract from peasants the so-called surplus produced by their labor. The surplus included everything except the barest subsistence that was left for the peasant laborers and their villages. (P. 91)

Herzog then explains how the Jewish religious institutions conformed to these realities at the expense of their own people, as was normal in ancient times.

Temples reflected the interests of the rulers and articulated their ideologies. Their two most important functions were to legitimate a particular regime and to mystify its exploitation by re-presenting it in the form of obligation to God or the gods. The role of legitimating a particular regime was especially important because agrarian rulers often came to power by violent means…. They were faced with the problem of legitimating their rule and converting their victory from a rule by might (raw power) to a rule by right (law). But the ruler needed more than that Rulers needed the legitimation that only religion could provide, the confirmation that they ruled by the mandate of heaven or the will of the gods or the election of Yahweh. This was the special role played by priests and temples. (P. 113)

Consider now the implications of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee and the Saducees and priests in Jerusalem, who were guardians of a domination system that separated the religious or spiritual from the political and economic dimensions of life.

—from Jubilee Workbook #1 (unpublished), “Biblical Faith” section

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Jesus and the Domination System

In his book, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, William Herzog explains the domination system that was the context for Jesus’ ministry. Roman rule in Palestine was primarily a system for the extraction of tributes, in which the ruler obtained 25% of total income, the tiny ruling class (1 or 2 percent of the population) absorbed another 40 percent, and the peasant majority, who actually produced most of the wealth from the land, was left almost destitute. Elites then as now constructed reality

to justify their right to power, wealth, and privilege while using it simultaneously to explain the subsistence of the masses to mystify the ways in which they extracted their wealth from the so-called surplus of the peasants and rural poor who produced it and then accumulated it for the purpose of status display and conspicuous consumption. Insofar as peasants and other exploited groups accepted this thematic universe and internalized its judgments, they were participating in their own oppression. (P. 28)

In his parables, according to Herzog, Jesus was not primarily concerned with piety or theology. Rather he told those stories to expose the system of exploitation and break the cycle of exploitation and poverty. The parables reveal

the workings of exploitation in the world of their hearers. The focus of the parables was not on a vision of the glory of the reign of God, but on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class… as part of the liberation praxis of Jesus’ ministry. (P. 3)

Herzog makes a devastating critique of the way in which some preaching and teaching in our churches has distorted our understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

If Jesus had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American church, a master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans as part of their rural pacification program. That was exactly the kind of religion the Romans wanted peasants to have. The one thing about Jesus that can be known with certainty is that he was executed as an enemy of the state and the Temple on the charge of subversion. (P. 27)

—from Jubilee Workbook #1 (unpublished), “Biblical Faith” section

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