We’re back to statues and ordinances without a hint of narrative, I’m afraid, but at least this chapter is actually somewhat interesting.

To start with, we get a recap about the Sabbath year – or Shmita – that we saw in Exodus 23. The idea is that the same principle that applies to the week (six days of work followed by one day of rest) also applies to years (six years of normal farming followed by one year of laying all the fields fallow).

For those of you without green thumbs, the basic idea of fallowing is this: A plant draws its nutrition from the soil. Different plants have different needs, so only growing one particular type of plant in one particular plot of land leads to depletion of certain nutrients. This, in turn, leads to lower quality fruits and, in more extreme cases, the death of the plants. Nowadays, we can correct a lot of this by using fertilizers. But in the past (and many people still do this), a system called “crop rotation” was used.

The earliest form of this was called a “two-field rotation.” Farmers would divide their lands in two, and only plant in one half per year. By alternating, each portion of the field would “lie fallow” for a year, giving it a chance to replenish its nutrients. This later developed into a three-field system, and then a four-field system.

So the idea of fallowing has some pretty solid science behind it.

But the system being proposed here – in which nothing at all is planted for an entire year – is completely insane. They aren’t even allowed to gather fruit from perennial plants!

Even God seems to realize that it’s crazy to ask people not to plant anything. First, he moderates his claims a little by saying that “the sabbath of the land shall provide food for you” (v.6) – right after commanding that “what grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap” (v.5), which seems a little contradictory.

Then he tries to reassure the Hebrews by saying that they totally won’t starve during the Shmita because he’ll give them such an incredible bumper harvest in the 6th year that they’ll be fine – but, you know, only if they obey the statutes and ordinances. That’s a hell of an escape clause! Not to mention that the whole thing smacks of “if you loved me, you would do this crazy suicidal thing…”

The Jubilee

If anyone were to ask God what his favourite number is, I think I could make a fair guess at the answer.

Every seven times the seven year Shmita cycle (that would be 49 years), there’s an extra Sabbath year, called the Jubilee. To start off the festivities, a special trumpet must be blown – which is where the term Jubilee comes from (yobhel – or “ram’s horn”). Incidentally, anyone else find it strange that the new year is counted in the seventh month? How does that make any sense at all?

The Year of Jubilee by Henry Le Jeune

The Year of Jubilee by Henry Le Jeune

Anyways, the Jubilee has some pretty big social consequences. During this year:

  • All property that has been bought or loaned is to be returned (so leasing contracts can only last a maximum of 50 years).
  • Everyone is supposed to return to their family. This isn’t clarified, but I suppose it goes with the first point as a way of essentially ‘setting back the clock’ so that every family is occupying their ‘proper place’ in perpetuity – no matter what goes on in reality.
  • If you buy or sell things during the Jubilee year, you shouldn’t “wrong one another” (v.14), which seems to imply that it’s okay the other 49 years.
  • The price of crops depends on how long is left before the next Jubilee. If the next Jubilee year is still far off, the price goes up, but it goes down the closer you get. This makes some sense, since Jubilee years would be periods of mass starvation (being the second year of no agricultural activity). So if someone has successfully stockpiled a great deal of food, they could really take advantage of the situation.

The Shmita is a terrible idea based on solid agricultural practice. Before the two-field crop rotation system was invented, the Shmita may have actually been cutting-edge science. The problem is that it was codified as a religious practice, so that farmers had to keep to an old and very inefficient system long after agriculture had found better (and better better!) solutions. Ain’t that just the way?

But the Jubilee year is pure theology, and would be disastrous for a nation that actually followed it. It seems that the farmers realized this, since, as Collins points out: “There is no evidence that the Jubilee Year was ever actually observed” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.81).

Ownership of land

The next part of Leviticus 25 deals with the ownership of land. According to this chapter, land cannot be sold, only leased. The reason given in the text is that “the land is mine” (v.23). Since it belongs to God, it is not for individuals to sell.

But I think that it has more to do with the idea of communal identity. We’ve already encountered the concept of communal guilt a few times. Here, I think it’s the idea that Patriarch Bob isn’t the true owner of his family’s land, since he shares ownership with both Patriarch Bob Sr. and Patriarch Bob Jr. Therefore, if he sells the land, he’s essentially stealing it from his sons, his sons’ sons, and on down the line.

If someone sells his property anyway, he or any member of his family must “come and redeem” (v.25) it soon as possible. If neither he nor anyone in his family pays to redeem it before the next Jubilee year, it reverts back to him automatically. Which is a pretty bum deal for whoever bought the land!

At some point, someone realized that while these rules might work out okay in a rural village setting, enforcing eternal ownership in an urban area would be extremely stifling. So a special clause is added for property located “in a walled city” (v.29), in which case the rights of redemption last only for a year and the Jubilee return does not apply.

Another exception is made for the Levites who, as you will remember, are the guys writing Leviticus. Their rights of redemption never expire, no matter where they live. That being said, “the fields of common land belonging to their [Levite] cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession” (v.34). In other words, their land that is used by the whole community must remain in use for the whole community, which sounds a bit like Socialism to me.

I find the use of the word “possession” in this chapter rather interesting. This section of the chapter starts off with God talking about how he, and only he, owns all the land. But the rest is a discussion of who gets to own what land and the conditions under which they can (or not) sell it. I’d be curious to know if the original Hebrew made a distinction between true ownership and god-given stewardship.

Ownership of people

This next section begins with a discussion of what to do if a “brother” falls on hard times. In other parts of the text, the word “neighbour” is used when referring to a fellow Hebrew, so I initially assumed that “brother” either refers to a literal brother or, at least, to someone with a close kinship. But then there’s a line about how, after a certain period of time, “he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family” (v.41), which suggests that the word is being used in the same way that “neighbour” is used elsewhere.

Anyways, that’s a bit of an aside. Onward with the content!

So if your  “brother” is destitute, you must take him in. You must help him without charging interest and without profiting from him (well, strictly speaking, you just can’t profit from feeding him).

If your “brother” is so poor that he “sells himself to you” (v.39), he must be considered a servant rather than a slave, and his term as a bond-servant can only last until the next Jubilee.

If an Israelite sells himself to a non-Hebrew, his family can redeem him (or he can redeem himself). As with land, if he is not redeemed by the Jubilee, he must then be set free. There’s no mention of this applying only if they live within Israel or even during a time when Hebrews are the ones getting to make the laws in Israel. Imposing such an ownership law on people who may not recognize your authority to do so seems rather silly.

So that’s all well and good. Debt-slavery isn’t exactly my preferred economic plan, but I suppose it’s better than starvation. Unfortunately, there’s a big but.

See, this only applies to fellow Hebrews.

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them (v.44-46).

I checked the Enduring Word commentaries to see if they had any excuses to make for this passage, but all they were able to come up with is that “they had to be treated humanely.” Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Answered (a site devoted to explaining away SAB‘s criticisms) has a better go of it, arguing that this passage is merely the regulation of the slave trade, and that “regulation doesn’t mean approval, just as regulation of a vice doesn’t mean you approve of it.

Nice try, but there’s a fundamental issue with this – namely that this book is meant to function as a law code and, today, is used as a moral code, and the only argument it has to offer against the practice of owning actual human beings is that certain people shouldn’t be owned by other people because they already belong to God (v.55).

This is why I started gagging whenever I hear someone claim to derive their moral code from the Bible or, worse yet, ask me how I could possibly know right from wrong without it.