Jubilee imagination

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One of the underlying issues in the current election cycles in our various nations is that of the growing disparity between rich and poor, the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent, the haves and the have-nots. More broadly, serious questions continue to be raised about the sustainability of much of our economic systems. But rather than accept these tensions with a sense of apocalyptic resignation, the Bible offers and urges us toward imagining—and working toward—ways in which our societies and our lives might be structured differently.

Some of the Bible’s most interesting insights into social ordering come from the time in which God worked with the Israelites to set up what might have been a model society. Meeting them as a people who had no home of their own and were waiting for their arrival in the Promised Land, God knew the social and economic importance that land would take on as they established their new nation in Canaan. Under the leadership of Joshua, God oversaw an orderly distribution of the land by tribe and family groups.

We should not be surprised that the Bible offers insights and wisdom.

But He also knew that over time the wealth, opportunity, and resources that were connected with landholding would tend to become concentrated in the hands of the few. Family difficulties, ill health, poor choices, and other misfortune might cause some landholders to sell their lands for short-term gain or simply to survive, but this would mean the family might be dispossessed for successive generations.

God’s solution was to decree that land could never be sold absolutely. Instead, land would only be sold until the next “Year of Jubilee,” at which time the land would revert to its allotted family, and any land sold could be redeemed by the seller or another member of their family at any time. Again, God reminds the people of their relationship to Him and how that affects their relationships with others: “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me” (Leviticus 25:23, NLT).

As described in the remainder of Leviticus 25, this jubilee year—every 49th or 50th year (verse 8)—was also “a time to proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live there” (verse 10); a time when slaves would be set free, debts forgiven, and the land rested. In short, the Year of Jubilee was to be a re-set mechanism for the social and economic system of the Hebrew nation; restoring the equitable distribution of and access to the land and the freedom God had given to His people.

And, of course, the reality of a jubilee year would have an influence on the people’s relationship, business, and other activities in the intervening periods: “The regulations that God established were designed to promote social equality. The provisions of the sabbatical year and the jubilee would, in a great measure, set right that which during the interval had gone wrong in the social and political economy of the nation” (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p 534).

Bible historians are unsure as to whether these economic and social rhythms were ever fully followed for any significant period of time (see 2 Chronicles 36:21), but they offer an intriguing glimpse into how the world—and our economies—might work in God’s imagination. Moreover, they underline God’s particular concern for the poor and the marginalised, as well as His concern to see justice done in our world, particularly, it seems, by sometimes-radical redistributive justice.

These are complex issues and we should be wary of simplistic responses or resolutions. But we should not be surprised that the Bible offers insights and wisdom. Both the Bible and Ellen White’s reading of it would urge us to creative imagination and positive action in response to economic disparity and the many symptoms of it: “These regulations were designed to bless the rich, no less than the poor. They would restrain avarice and a disposition for self-exaltation, and would cultivate a noble spirit of benevolence; and by fostering good will and confidence between all classes, they would promote social order, the stability of government. We are all woven together in the great web of humanity, and whatever we can do to benefit and uplift others will reflect in blessing upon ourselves” (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp 534, 535).

Amid political debate and economic uncertainty, God calls His people to imagine differently, to care for others, for our societies and particularly for the least of these. And to work toward how our world might be changed if we lived out the Bible’s wisdom in more practical ways—large and small—for the good of all.


Originally published at www.adventistworld.org.

* Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.