The vision of Jubilee in Deuteronomy

In the midst of all of developing ideas of the time, lies a series of laws about debts, which can be found in Deuteronomy 15 and 24.

In the midst of all of developing ideas of the time, lies a series of laws about debts, which can be found in Deuteronomy 15 and 24.

There was obviously a growing experience of debt among the small farmers of Galilee. Bad harvests led to financial difficulties and people were forced to borrow. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 urges all neighbours to lend what is necessary (there’s no expectation of interest yet). And to pay back, they may have to give their services as day labourers. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 assures them that they’ll be given daily pay. If the creditor demands a pledge then Deuteronomy 24:10-13 insists on an honourable way of it being handled. If the debt is so great that he or she should have to enter debt slavery, but it is a Sabbath or fallow year, Deuteronomy 15:1-6 instructs the lender to free them from their debt. If they became a debt slave in another year Deuteronomy 15:12-18 says that in the Sabbath year the master must free them and give them enough to set themselves up independently. The language, unlike other legal codes, is gender inclusive. Help for those in debt is required from their immediate neighbours and it is linked to the holy rhythm of seven years. The word brother is used for the first time of a fellow Israelite, implying, in Deuteronomy 15:2, a family solidarity with one’s neighbour. Help is demanded even at the risk of one’s own considerable financial loss in Deuteronomy 15:9.

The sanction is dire in Deuteronomy 15:9 and 24:15. Anyone who forces the poor to cry out to God will be in a state of sin, a sin (het) which can only be expiated by the death of the sinner. The vision is that poverty when it arises should stimulate all to eradicate it. Sadly no-one seems to have believed, or understood this, so that by the time we get to the book of Leviticus and a newly established set of Laws that are called the Holiness Code, there has been a retrogression.

The new laws omit the provisions for those without landed property. The facility of those without land to live freely off the land in the Sabbath year is subtly changed. Deuteronomy spoke of the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Leviticus speaks of the stranger and the poor. Not only does it presuppose the existence of the poor in Israel, it demotes orphans and widows to the class of the poor. Also, the strangers no longer have a place in the joyful celebration of Israel’s great feasts of Pentecost and Tabernacles, the pilgrimage feasts. Whereas in the time of Deuteronomy, the stranger the widow, the orphan and landless Levite were taken in by Israelite families to participate in Israel’s joy. Now it is only every citizen of Israel in Leviticus 23:42 who enjoys the joyful days in the booths while strangers are excluded.

Deuteronomy’s attempt to provide for all groups of the population is abolished. Now the liberation of slaves will take place every 50th (7×7+1) year instead of every 7th year. Given the short life expectancy of most Israelite victims of poverty, they would not see a Jubilee year. They would not see the end of their debt slavery or be able to start again. Yet there is still some concern for the poor. In the Jubilee year, not only persons but also lands must be returned to their original clan, and debt slaves have clearer rights than ordinary slaves in Leviticus 25:40. But for all the encouragement to help an impoverished brother in Leviticus 25:35-8, the assumption seems to be that the poor will always be there. Leviticus is more realistic perhaps but is it more truly God’s will?

The vision of Deuteronomy is not completely forgotten. The prophets kept something of it alive. Isaiah proclaimed a messianic gospel for the poor. Jesus proclaimed Isaiah’s Gospel to the poor. The meals he shared with whoever would sit down with him are the fulfilment of the festive meals of Israel in Deuteronomy when there was a place for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. The Acts of the Apostles sees the early church in Jerusalem as fulfilling Deuteronomy and of living in the spirit of Jubilee since “there were no poor among them” (Acts 4:34) and “the widows received a daily distribution” (Acts 6).