Jubilee

Abstract: In the Exodus, God delivered his people from slavery in order that they might rest securely with him in his special Promised Land. In order to preserve and reinforce this work of redemption (liberation), God instituted the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55), also known as the “year of liberation.” Every fifty years, this Jubilee was proclaimed throughout the land. Those who had been forced to sell themselves into slavery due to economic hardship were freed; and, likewise, land that was sold was returned to its family. The year of Jubilee both reveals God’s immense compassion for the downtrodden and points us forward in anticipation to the ultimate Jubilee that is achieved for us by Jesus (Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:16-21).



The Jubilee (Lev 25:8-55; cf. 27:16-24; Num 36:4; Jer 34:8-22), also known as a “year of liberty” (Ezek 46:17), was a special institution given by God to preserve and reinforce his work of redemption on behalf of his people.

In the Exodus, God had liberated his people from the bondage of slavery under the Egyptians. He did so in order that he might claim them as his special people and cause them to dwell securely (rest) in his special place (the Promised Land) (e.g., Ex 3:8; Lev 25:38). In so doing, God was recovering his purpose for creation — God’s people dwelling securely with him (resting) in God’s special place.

The first creation, the Garden of Eden, had been ruined due to human rebellion (Adam and Eve’s sin). But God was committed to rescuing and restoring his people and creation. As such, the Promised Land, this new, special place to which God would bring his redeemed people, was presented like new Garden of Eden, a new creation (e.g., Isa 51:3). And as in God’s first creation — God’s resting on the seventh day marked creation’s completion (Gen 2:1-3) — so too the goal in this new creation would revolve around the completion of rest in the land (e.g., Josh 21:44).

To remind his people of this goal (rest: the goal of both creation [see Ex 20:8-11], and, by extension, redemption aimed at new creation [see Deut 15:12-15]), God gave Israel the Sabbath, a sacred day on which the people were to rest. The Sabbath was the sign of God’s special covenant relationship with Israel (Ex 31:12-17); it signaled them to this central promise of the covenant: rest in the land. By observing the Sabbath, this goal of rest was both remembered and realized (at least partially) in the community of Israel.

In addition to the Sabbath day of rest, God also instituted a Sabbath year of rest — the people and land were to rest every seventh year (Ex 23:10-12; Lev 25:1-8). The year of Jubilee – another year of sacred rest — was to be like a “super Sabbath,” occurring after seven of these seventh Sabbath-years (i.e., after every forty-ninth year). As such, the year of Jubilee functioned alongside the Sabbaths to reinforce and signal to God’s redemptive goal of rest.

Every fiftieth year in Israel’s calendar, beginning on the Day of Atonement (Lev 25:9) when God released his people from their sins (Lev 16), a year of release (or liberation; דְּרוֹר [dĕrôr]) — the year of Jubilee — was proclaimed (Lev 25:10). A trumpet made from a ram’s horn (יוֹבֵל [yôḇēl], meaning “ram’s horn,” from which our transliterated word Jubilee is derived) was blown throughout the land of Israel. Liberation was granted to slaves who had been forced to sell themselves into slavery due to economic hardship. And, likewise, the land that individuals were forced to sell was released to be returned to its family (cf. Josh 13:1–21:45).

If God’s people were to become slaves in their own land, this would nullify what God had done in redeeming them from slavery (25:38, 42, 55). And if God’s people were to lose their land, this would contravene God’s redemptive goal of giving them rest in the land (Lev 25:23, 38).

The Jubilee reveals God’s compassion for the downtrodden. Its laws guarded the vulnerable, lifted up the poor, and restricted oppression.

Israel, like Adam and Eve in the first garden-creation, however, rebelled against God; and, as a consequence, God brought judgment: Israel was exiled from the land. Once again, she found herself in slavery to other nations. And no longer did she experience rest in God’s land.

But Israel’s prophets knew that this could not be the end of the story. God’s purposes for his creation could not be thwarted by his people’s rebellion. He would not be stopped in his mission to restore them and his creation.

And so the prophets began anticipating and predicting an ultimate Jubilee in which God would finally and completely deliver and liberate his people, a day in which God would put a decisive end to his people’s exile-causing sin. The prophet Daniel tells of something like a “super Jubilee” (seventy seven-year cycles or “weeks [of years]”, i.e., a ten-fold Jubilee; Dan 9:24-27). And the prophet Isaiah anticipates a time when God’s messianic prophet will “proclaim liberty” and the arrival of “the year of God’s favor” (Isa 61:1-4; also see Ezek 46:16-18).

Enter Jesus, who begins his ministry by reading Isaiah 61 and declaring, “Today this hope for Jubilee is fulfilled in your hearing” (paraphrase; Luke 4:16-21; cf. 7:18-23). Jesus understands his mission and ministry in terms of this final Jubilee. In his ministry we see him healing the sick, raising the downtrodden, and mending the broken. Just as the original Jubilee began with release from sin (the Day of Atonement), so too, through his death in our place, Jesus pronounces release from sin for all who trust in him (ἄφεσις [aphesis] — often translated “forgiveness” — is the Greek word used in the Bible to translate the Jubilee’s word דְּרוֹר [dĕrôr] — “release”; “liberation”). And, finally, at the end of history, when Jesus returns at the sound of a trumpet (coincidentally reminiscent of the trumpet-announcement of Jubilee; 1 Thess 4:16), he will bring this Jubilee to completion — fully liberating God’s people from the corrupting, enslaving presence of sin, and bringing them to their final rest (cf. Heb 3:7-4:13) in the ultimate Promised Land, the New Creation (Rev 21-22).

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