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The Ethics of Jubilee in Leviticus 25

By Helen Paynter.


Jubilee is a theme which runs richly through the Old and New Testaments, culminating, particularly famously, in Jesus’ pronouncement in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4.16-21). The commandments for the Jubilee and Sabbath years are set out most fully in Leviticus 25, a passage rich in theological meaning. This paper will explore some of the ethical implications of the Jubilee command as set out in that chapter.[1] In the following issue of Ministry Today, these ethical implications will be brought to bear upon the current refugee crisis.

First, we will briefly recapitulate the themes of Leviticus 25. The chapter begins (vv.1-7) with the instruction for observation of the Sabbath year. When the people of Israel arrived in the land of Canaan, they were to allow the land to lie fallow every seventh year. This is expressed in terms of the land itself receiving Sabbath (vv.4,5).

From verse 8 onwards, the ordinances for the Jubilee year are set out. After seven cycles of seven years had lapsed, on the Day of Atonement, the shofar (the ram’s horn) was to be sounded (v.9), proclaiming the Jubilee year. This proclamation resulted in several, related, consequences. First, every man was to return to his own patrimony (v.10). If that inheritance had been sold in the meantime, and not redeemed, the commencement of Jubilee was the point at which the land would be returned to him (v.28). If he, or his family, had been forced by poverty to sell themselves as bonded slaves, the commencement of Jubilee was the point at which they would be freed again (vv.40-41). Finally, in the Jubilee year, like the Sabbath year, the land was to lie fallow (vv.11-12).

The second half of the chapter (vv.23-55) deals in detail with the treatment of those who fall into poverty. It outlines the provision for them at each stage of the downward spiral of deprivation: if they are forced to sell their land (v.25, with special rules for land inside a walled city, v.29ff); if they are unable to sustain themselves (v.35); if they are obliged to sell themselves into slavery to an Israelite (v.39); and finally if they have to sell themselves into slavery to a resident alien (v.47).[2]

We will now consider the chapter in more detail, in order to draw out some of its ethical implications.

A Unique Cyclicity

Unlike other ancient near-eastern cultures, the biblical Jubilee year was to be celebrated on a cyclical basis. By contrast, in Mesopotamia, the king could – and did, from time to time – order the freeing of slaves or the cancellation of debts.[3] However, these commands occurred entirely at his whim and caprice. Uniquely within the cultures of the day, the joyful events of Jubilee were intended to enter the warp and weft of Israel’s society. They were to seep into the consciousness of the people and become part of their story – a joyful duty and a sacred celebration.

This cyclicity is based around the importance of going home. Once in every generation, as a climax to the cycle of seven Sabbath years, every family would to return to their own ancestral land. This land was so important that it might not be disposed of in perpetuity; Naboth’s refusal to sell his vineyard (1 Kings 21.3) is predicated upon exactly this condition. The purpose of most of the other stipulations in Leviticus 25 is for interim provision for the needy in the meantime.

Who were the intended beneficiaries of Jubilee? Clearly, it was for the indebted, and for those who had involuntarily bonded themselves to escape starvation. However, a close reading of the text invites us to draw a broader conclusion than this.

It is well understood in Old Testament scholarship that a seven-fold cycle in the Hebrew Bible is likely to be pointing back to the creation narrative, where God is described as creating the earth in six days and resting on the seventh. Moreover, when something happens on the eighth day, or the eighth year, we are meant to understand that this is new creation symbolism. The seven days are over, so the eighth is, as it were, Day One again.[4]

This pattern is clearly visible in the cyclicity of the Jubilee year. Thus we find Israel working the fields according to the creation mandate for six years, and then resting, with God, on the seventh. After seven cycles of seven years is the Jubilee year. In other words, the Jubilee year is (7x7)+1, new creation par excellence. This imagery gives us a framework to imagine what the fiftieth year would have meant for the poor in the land. It would be as if someone had pressed a ‘reboot’ button.

However, this new creation image has broader ramifications yet. The semi-centennial celebration proclaimed a sort of freedom, not just for the slave and the debtor, but also for the wealthy. For those bound up in the cycle of acquisition, Jubilee represented an opportunity to be freed of the burden of excess. As they, too, returned to their ancestral land, there was the possibility for them to be re-orientated to their primary needs. Jubilee provided a regular rhythm to discard surplus, and it was a new creation event for more than just the destitute. Clearly this may have implications for us as the people of God today; we recall Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler (Matthew 19.16-22) – for this young man, his wealth had become a snare and was something he needed saving from.

So much for some of the general ethics we derive from the passage. Now we will consider the contexts which the passage provides for the year of Jubilee: practical, liturgical and textual.

Because of YHWH’s prior blessing

First, we note the practical context of the Jubilee. The text clearly demonstrates that observance of Sabbath year and Jubilee are made possible by God’s generous provision:

And if you say ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year if we do not sow and we do not gather our crop?’ I will command my blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will produce a crop for three years (vv.20-21).

This notion is of course similar to the instructions concerning manna in Exodus (16.11-30), where no one was permitted to gather manna for more than the needs of the day, except on the sixth day when two days’ worth were to be gathered. The Jubilee act is predicated upon God’s generous prior provision.

Second, we note the liturgical context of the start of the Jubilee year:

You shall cause a shofar blast to be heard … on the Day of Atonement you shall cause a shofar to be heard in all your land. And you shall declare a holy year, the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim release in the land to all who live in it. It shall be a Jubilee to you, and each man shall return to his property, and you shall return, each man, to his clan (v.9).

Of all the days in the year which could have heralded the Jubilee, its setting in the liturgical calendar of ancient Israel was at Yom Kippur, the day when the High Priest entered the most holy Place to make atonement for the sins of the nation. When he had done so, and the nation had been forgiven by the gracious provision of God for the fiftieth consecutive time, the year of Jubilee would begin. The forgiven people would forgo their slaves and tear up their notes of credit.

Third, we note the textual context of the command. The theme of redemption from Egypt is referenced at the beginning, middle and end of the passage.

The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘When you come to the land which I am giving you, the land shall rest, a Sabbath to the LORD’’ (vv. 1-2).

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God (v.38).

For the sons of Israel are slaves to me. They are my slaves, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God (v.55).

These three verses provide a textual framework for all the commands of chapter 25. The provision for the poor and the act of Jubilee are expressed within the setting of God’s mighty action for his people in bringing them out of Egypt and into their land.

So these three elements – the practical element of God’s prior provision, the liturgical context of God’s prior forgiveness, and the textual setting of God’s prior act of salvation – combine to form a strong theological rationale for Jubilee: the people are called to a deed of extraordinary generosity because they have been generously treated by their God.

Ontology and praxis

The redemption from Egypt is foundational to the establishment of the covenant made between God and the people at Sinai, recounted between approximately Exodus 19 and 24. Of particular note, the language of Exodus 6.7 (“I will take you as my people, and I will be your God”) is expanded in Exodus 19.5-6 (“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”). This covenant language echoes throughout Leviticus 25:

No man shall oppress his fellow-citizen, but you shall fear your God, for I am the LORD your God (v.17).

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (v.38).

You shall not rule over him with violence, but you shall fear your God (v.43).

I am the LORD your God (v.55).

Thus the people of Israel are reminded five times in this chapter that they are the people of God. The call to live in a particular way derives its theological rationale from this very central predicate. This is rather different from the popular notion of Israel being governed by a hefty set of divine prohibitions. While, clearly, law is the dominant motif of the book of Leviticus, a careful reading of many of these texts, especially chapter 25, suggests that there is something more subtle afoot than simply ‘Do it because I say so’.[5]

Virtue ethics

In ethical terms, this is akin to virtue ethics. First proposed by Aristotle within the pre-Christian worldview, it was later adopted and adapted by Thomas Aquinas, and has been further developed within the Christian worldview by a number of modern scholars including Stanley Hauerwas.

The other two main ethical models are deontic and consequentialist ethics. Deontic, or rule-based ethics, of whom Immanuel Kant is one of the chief proponents, seeks to make decisions based upon a set of rules, whether divinely ordained or – in Kant’s system – derived from the categorical imperative. By contrast, in consequentialism, the focus is upon the result of the action. One version of this is utilitarianism: ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’.

Like consequentialist ethics, virtue ethics is concerned with a telos, or end goal. However, in contrast to consequentialism, the telos is not pleasure, well-being, or total human happiness, but is the virtuous state. In Christian terms, this might be framed as a ‘pull’ towards the normative humanity lived by Jesus. Like the deontic rule-based system, virtue ethics makes decisions according to a code. However, this is not obligation-based, but is virtue-based. In other words, decisions are made according to what is deemed to be the most virtuous path.

One of the key elements of virtue ethics as set out by Aristotle is that it is determined by role or function – the virtue of a soldier is different from the virtue of a statesman.[6] In Christian virtue ethics, this idea might be re-stated in terms of our doing deriving from our being.[7]

This idea of praxis deriving from ontology is also foundational to the teachings of the apostle Paul, in what have become known as his ‘indicative–imperative’ sayings. These are the passages where he exhorts his readers to live up to their redeemed being. For example:

If we live by the Spirit, let us conform to the Spirit (Galatians 5.25)

Be working out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2.12-13).

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body(1 Corinthians 6.19-20).

And from the disputed epistles:

Live worthy of the calling with which you were called (Ephesians 4.1).

As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience… (Colossians 3.12).

Within the Pauline corpus, the imperative of how to live emerges from the indicative of who we now are. Simply put, Paul urges us not live by rules, but to live as God’s children.

In a similar way, the ethical call of Leviticus 25 is continually rooted in the historical event of what God has done for the people of Israel, and in their status as God’s covenant people. In other words, the imperative of how they should act is derived from the indicative of who they are.

There is one further feature of the virtue ethics emerging from Leviticus 25, which is also common to the Pauline ethic. This is that such an ethical system is worked out in community, not simply by the individual. In both the Old and New Testament contexts, the imperatives are expressed in plural verb forms; the indicatives are addressed to the community (you are the redeemed people of God), and so are the imperatives. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

Christian ethics can never be a minimalist ethic for everyone, but must presuppose a sanctified people wanting to live more faithful to God’s story. The fact that Christian ethics begins and ends with a story requires a corresponding community existing across time. The story of God as told through the experience of Israel and the church cannot be abstracted from those communities engaged in the telling and the hearing.[8]


The Jubilee provision of Leviticus 25 contains important principles which continue to resonate today. We have noted that its (7x7)+1 pattern carries strong overtones of new creation, and that this effectively provides a fresh start for poor and rich alike. The command is grounded theologically in God’s generous acts of provision, salvation and forgiveness. It is also predicated upon the covenant promise: I will be your God and you will be my people. Thus the praxis of Israel is fashioned out of their ontology as the people of God. In the following issue of Ministry Today, I will explore how these Jubilee ethics might help us to shape a theologically rich approach to the refugee crisis.

[1] It is important to note that it is by no means certain that biblical Jubilee was ever actually enacted (cf. discussion in Wright, C (2004) Old Testament Ethics for the People of God Leicester: IVP (p.205)). By comparison, we note the total neglect of the Passover festival for generations (2 Kings 23.21-23). The focus of this paper is on the Jubilee ordinance, not on its practice.

[2] Cf. the rabbinic midrash, as quoted in Milgrom, J (2000) Leviticus XXIII-XXVII (Anchor Bible). New York: Doubleday. (p.2150).

[3] Hartley, J (2002) Leviticus (Word Biblical Commentary) Dallas: Nelson (p. 429).

[4] In Leviticus 12, for example, a boy-child is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. At this point his mother becomes ritually clean – restored to society, and her son becomes a son of the covenant – he enters the covenant community. So here, the ‘eight day’ language – or the seven-plus-one, if you like – is symbolising a new beginning – a new creation. See Gentry, P J and Wellum, S J (2012)  Kingdom through Covenant: A biblical-theological Understanding of the Covenants Crossway:Wheaton (p.274).

[5] Mary Douglas’s major contribution to scholarship on Leviticus is helpful in this regard. She argues that its style is ‘correlative’ (working through analogies rather than rational, ordered logic) and shows ‘restricted speech’ (found where a community has a shared set of identifications and expectations). She suggests that the relatively few imperatives in Leviticus (35/10,000 words, compared to most other books of the Old Testament, which have three to four times as many) indicate a world where ‘nothing can be justified… except in terms of the proper position in the spatial/temporal order whose rightness is the only justification for anything’. Douglas, M (1999) Leviticus as Literature Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.39, emphasis mine. See also the discussion on law and grace in Wright (2004), p.29.

[6] Hauerwas, S (1986) ‘Virtue’ in J Macquarrie & J Childress (eds) A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics London: SCM (pp.648-50).

[7] Gunton, C (2000) ‘The Church as a School of Virtue? Human formation in Trinitarian framework’ in M T Nation & S Wells (eds) Faithfulness and Fortitude: In conversation with the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. Edinburgh: T&T Clark(p.212).

Kotva, J (1996) The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics. Washington: Georgetown University Press (p.30).

[8] Hauerwas, S (1983) The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. London: SCM Press (p.97)

Helen Paynter

Baptist Minister, Old Testament scholar, and Acting Co-ordinator of the Community Learning Programme at Bristol Baptist College.

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You are reading The Ethics of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 by Helen Paynter, part of Issue 66 of Ministry Today, published in March 2016.

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