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Jubilee's Roots:
Was the Biblical Jubilee Ever Really Practiced?

by Ross and Gloria Kinsler

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% 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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