Sabbatical and Jubilee Years as a Social and Political Vision

Behind these biblical practices is a vision of how politics, economics, and relations to the environment should be structured that makes manifest spiritual concerns as well.

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Early in the sixth century BCE,for example, Jeremiah demanded (chapter 34 [of the biblical book of Jeremiah]) that the people make a jubilee by freeing all their slaves. When they failed, he prophesied disaster. If they would not free their slaves, they themselves would all become slaves. If they would not share their land, they would lose it.

Yet Jeremiah also invoked the Jubilee vision as a vision of hope (chapter 32), even though the Babylonians were on the verge of conquering the land and he was prophesying their victory. At this dire moment Jeremiah, using precisely the legal form delineated in Leviticus 25, paid seventeen shekels to redeem a plot of land in his tribal village. He placed the deed of its redemption in a pottery jar, to remain buried until someday when the redemption could actually take place. And he proclaimed that someday the whole land would be redeemed as well, so that houses, fields, and vineyards could be bought and sold again.

Thus he affirmed that the great liberation of the jubilee applies both to each individual and to the whole people.

Does this vision from another age have any implications for our time?

In this vision, there is a coherent model of a "sustainable economy" in which the people are fed for many generations and millennia, and the land is not tortured into desolation. Today, ecologists and economists focus on how to create just such a sustainable economy. This is no abstraction: It is as personal as Jeremiah’s pottery jar. When people who are struggling over how to protect ancient forests and to use lumber resources properly define their battle in terms of "spotted owls" versus "logger jobs," that is what they are fighting over.

This vision contains a coherent model of how to encourage both entrepreneurship and equality. Political theorists and activists struggle over which of these values is more important, and how to balance them. When people battle over "safety nets" and "tax incentives," over "welfare" and "empowering the poor," those are the issues they are fighting over.

This vision is not only about the grand design of a society, it is also about the details of everyday life. It presents us a coherent model of how families and individuals should borrow from and lend to each other, how they should buy from each other, and contains many other teachings about interpersonal ethics over money, issues that we encounter in our lives every day.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.