When we think of the economic vision of the Old Testament, if we think of it at all, we jump to just how crazy it is.
If you are unfamiliar with it, the Israelite Law, which they believed was given to them by God, covered all aspects of life, from what to wear, to what to eat, to what to do with money. In that book that you have probably heard of, but never read, Leviticus, there exists an economic theory so radical and so random that if modern people encounter it at all, they just shake their heads and say, “How strange primitive people are!”
To understand the Law, you have to go back to the beginning. The God of Israel, who the Israelites insisted is the only God, rested on the seventh day of his creating. In the Biblical view of the universe, work is the time that happens around rest.
The Law clearly stated, repeatedly, that the Israelites were to embody an image of their God by copying his rest and one day a week were to set down their tools and enjoy the creation.
In Leviticus 25, this concept of Sabbath rest becomes the basis for an entire economics. The Israelites have been enslaved for four hundred years by the Pharaohs. God is bringing them into a land where they will find rest from their toil. The slaves who were worked to death will become a nation that never works without first resting. The Sabbath after all, is the first day of the week. They rest, then they work. You don’t earn your rest. It is the way of things.
Leviticus 25 takes the idea and systematically extends it in every direction. Just as the human rests every seven days, the land is to rest every seven years. Just as the land rests, the culture rests too. On the seventh Sabbath year, every fifty years, all work is to cease. In what must be the most revolutionary economic idea any culture has yet envisaged, verse 10 announces:
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you!
The Jubilee year is a reset button on all the accumulation and consumption that has occurred in the previous generations. Whatever land that has been bought must be returned to the ones who owned it at the last Jubilee. Whatever debts that have been built up must be erased. All of them. Whoever works for you to pay off a debt is to be released upon Jubilee. You are to return to your ancestral land and for the year live with your extended family, neither planting nor reaping and certainly not warring because the nation rests on the Sabbath of Sabbath-years, enjoys God’s good creation and the liberty that has been secured for Israel.
The Levitical Law, that subject of scorn and ridicule today, from people who choose not to read it nevermind consider it, is in fact a masterpiece of revolutionary thinking. How do you prevent a nation of freed slaves from being slavers? Leviticus is the answer. It is a densely woven mandate for creating a culture that will be impervious to the enslaving ways of the world.
Thus, the Jubilee chapter isn’t some random collection of Bronze Age thoughts. It is an invitation to live out the call that made Israel a nation – the people set free by YHWH, set free to be free.
Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God. …
I, God, will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. …
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. …
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. …
Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. …
The Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
In our sophisticated modern world we run lotteries so that people who are functionally innumerate can dream that their lives will be transformed by the provision of fate. But then we consider Leviticus 25 and decide it is lunacy to imagine that a people could trust their lives on the provision of YHWH.
In the 21st Century we not only ignore the prohibition against interest, we establish it as the cornerstone of our society. We charge people money for the use of money, clouding the reality with talk of opportunity cost, efficiency and lost profitability, while declaring imaginary the economic system of the Jubilee which insists that humanity is a family.
We bet on stocks in a market we don’t understand issued for companies we don’t understand who make products we don’t understand and that sell them in ways we don’t understand. We then let other people bet against those stocks with products nobody understands and that don’t really exist. We trust this system to make our time-clocks tick and our pay cheques cash. Meanwhile, we laugh at Leviticus because we dare not even comprehend a system so complex that actual families would be seen as more permanent than fictive financial arrangements.
Jubilee is an economic system built around three principles. First, everything is owned by God. Therefore, human ownership is always temporary. Secondly, humans are natively prone to exploit and destroy other humans and so we need to build societies that make the accumulation of power difficult. Thirdly, an individual human’s flourishing cannot be understood independent of the other humans, animals, soil and time that they live in. Everything is connected.
You can’t convert our current arrangement to a Jubilee arrangement. No one is proposing that. All historical evidence suggests that Israel itself never lived up to its calling. But when Jesus shows up in his home-town synagogue in Nazareth, he uses the Hebrew Scriptures to declare that in him, God’s Jubilee has come.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
I was asked recently what Leviticus 25 has to say about our contemporary economic system. In terms of practical steps towards reform, Jubilee offers little insight. It seems to me that it says reform is not where Christians ought to base their hopes. Jubilee was never meant to be enacted by the nations of the world. It was the calling of קהל יִשְׂרָאֵל the assembly of YHWH, which in Greek becomes ekklesia tou Theou, which in English means the called-out ones of God.
Jubilee doesn’t show us how the EU should reform banking. It doesn’t offer us a theory for how the IMF should intervene in crises. It does describe how the church should conduct its affairs. Jubilee is the soil in which we declare there is one God who is God, that His Creation is good and that His creatures are made to be free.
How do we start doing that? That’s the conversation we are meant to be having.
Your Correspondent, One time he laughed at a blind guy eating spaghetti!