Thoughts and teaching on Leviticus chapter 25
Jubilee, the sabbatical year and the present world order
Was the Jubilee ever observed?
What effect would a celebration have had on Israel?
Thoughts on some of North’s statements
1. Chapter 26 - Lev 25:14-17
2. Chapter 27 - Lev 25:18-22
3. Chapter 28 - Lev 25:23-24
4. Chapter 29 - Lev 25:35-38
5. Chapter 30 - Lev 25:39-43
I’ve already dealt extensively with the concept of the year of Jubilee in my notes under the Cross series of studies and the reader is directed there. It’s also linked directly from the Leviticus home page.
The concept of the Jubilee is tied up closely with the coming of Jesus and His work on the cross, His resurrection and ascension into Heaven in which all those who were bound into sin and oppression are released into the freedom of service to God through the annulling of all debt (this latter, incidentally, being the principle of the sabbatical year and not the Jubilee - Deut 15:1-2).
As such, the year of Jubilee can be seen to be fulfilled and the spiritual outworking of what the Law could only point towards and be a shadow of has now come as a reality in the lives of all those who belong in the Church. Such a position is acknowledged by North (page 392) even though he also notes earlier (page 386) that
‘...every aspect of this law as well as its Mosaic judicial context is judicially binding in the New Covenant’
But nowhere do we read that the literal observance of all the OT Law imposed upon the Jewish nation is binding upon the new nation within the nations of the world - that is, believers saved in all situations and cultures who are brought together into the one body by the blood of Jesus Christ. Had it been thought that the year of Jubilee still needed to be observed and that there was a grave danger in the significance of such a position being overlooked, it would surely have been mentioned by the meeting of the Jerusalem church in Acts chapter 15.
As it is, they realised that the Mosaic Law wasn’t binding on the new Gentile converts and mentioned only a few of the more important rules which they felt continued to be necessary to observe (Acts 15:28-29). No other ‘burden’ was deemed important enough by either themselves or the Holy Spirit, a clear indication that God had already either fulfilled or made obsolete the Law in Jesus Christ (see my notes here where I’ve commented on these twin concepts of fulfilment and obsolescence).
Having said this, the quote from North may be somewhat misleading for he frequently states in later chapters that the year of Jubilee is no longer an obligation upon the NT believer - how the ‘Mosaic Judicial Context’ which required a literal observance can both be binding and ‘annulled’ (North’s word, not mine) at the same time is difficult to understand. It would be wrong of me to suggest that North has changed his position midway through his book but some clarification on the meaning of the statement above is necessarily required.
But the reality of the Jubilee, should be the experience of each believer - not in a literalistic way every fiftieth year but by the release and rest that Jesus’ death brought about. And not only should Jesus’ followers receive the fulfilment of the Jubilee but they should be partakers of its reality wherever they might find themselves as channels of the Lord’s presence to the world.
Jubilee, the sabbatical year and the present world order
The institution of a set up such as the release of all those enslaved and the cancelling of all debt (the latter of which took place every seventh year - Deut 15:1-2) is unlikely ever to catch on in present day society because it’s built upon materialistic principles which are antagonistic to the very idea.
If ever debt was cancelled, the financial institutions of the world would be thrown into turmoil and despair, for the strength of their profit-making enterprises would be undermined and man would have to re-evaluate his style of living. Of course, it should be pointed out that Leviticus chapter 25 doesn’t teach that debt should be cancelled per se (there’s no inauguration of these practices by forbidding any existing loans to be recovered - rather, the system is simply expected to be started once the settlement of the land has been completed - Lev 25:2) but that a different set up of how debt is entered in to should be brought in - that is, debt is seen to be a necessary part of Israelite society for limited periods.
Debt is actually spoken of as being annulled every seventh year (Deut 15:1-2) and must have been an integral part of the sabbatical and Jubilee celebrations - but there’s no specific instruction that all Jews should start with no debt upon entry into the Promised Land.
In such circumstances, material gain would become less important than looking after those around us, knowing that there’d be extensive time periods when nobody would be receiving an income (the sabbatical years and the one Jubilee year would make 8 years out of every 50 unprofitable and, to all shareholders, one in which their investment would offer only a nil return) - if, that is, we expand the legislation to include the increase from a wide range of employments, not limiting it solely to agricultural labourers. These sorts of events would destroy western society and revert mankind back into a more simplistic way of life.
Although I doubt if it would ever fully be made to work due to the nature of man (if indeed it was legislated for in the present day), the real problem is the set up of the present world systems where trade and commerce are twin pillars. Therefore, though Jesus’ work has inaugurated the fulfilment of the year of Jubilee, its final perfect outworking will only come about after His return when Babylon, the label for materialistic world influence in the Book of Revelation, will be destroyed (see my notes on Revelation chapters 17-18).
Only when materialism is destroyed, then, can Jubilee be finally fulfilled (the legislation seems to have been given to safeguard Israel into not being deflected into becoming a materialistic society but one centred upon and looking to God Himself for provision) - though believers should experience and taste the reality in their own lives, conforming themselves not to the image of the world which struggles after more wealth and riches but to the nature of Jesus Christ who gave away what He had that others might be made free, becoming rich with the prosperity that’s in Him alone.
Was the Jubilee ever observed?
We might ponder whether Israel ever fully kept this law and instituted a year of release even once in their early history before they turned away from YHWH to serve other gods (Judges 2:7,10). It’s impossible to say either one way or the other but the idea of the succession of inheritance isn’t without witness even in the parts of Bible which are removed from this day by a great many years.
So, for example, in the first confrontation of Naboth by Ahab (I Kings 21:1-4), Naboth refuses the king the right to buy his vineyard by taking an oath (the first two words which prefix his statement), declaring (21:3)
‘YHWH forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers’
If such an idea was still held by one Israelite, we can be fairly certain that the concept of tribal and familial inheritance were being practiced to some degree at this time. One of those things which king Zedekiah did when the city of Jerusalem was hard pressed by the Babylonian armies was to have his people to enter into covenant to release all those slaves who were Jews (Jer 34:8-12), presumably because they were respecting the Law given to Moses which appeared at the beginning of Leviticus chapter 25.
However, they quickly recanted and brought the freed Jews back into slavery once more so that the prophet Jeremiah called them to account with words that were quoted from the Levitical passage (Jer 34:14). Although this stops short of mentioning the Jubilee, it shows that the idea of a release from bondage wasn’t unknown. Even more, the exile which began shortly after this incident was to continue (II Chr 36:20-21) until
‘...the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath to fulfil seventy years’
The Jubilee, then, the fiftieth year which occurred after the first seven sabbaths and which stood as a conclusion to them, seems to be alluded to, the non observance being given as a reason for the length of the exile in Babylon. Although this doesn’t tell us whether the Jubilee was ever observed in the land, it does show us that, if the sabbath rest on the land and the release on slaves was a point of contention between YHWH and His people, the rarer Jubilee is all the more unlikely to have ever been observed which stood or fall with the observance of the seventh sabbatical year (that is, each fourty-ninth year).
However, some may take the passage in II Chronicles to be saying that the seventy years’ rest ‘filled up’ what had been lacking since the nation’s conquest of the land. As seven sabbbatical years took place every fifty (each fifty year cycle contained sabbaths on the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd and 49th years with the Jubilee on the 50th. The next sabbath would then presumably be celebrated once more not on the 56th year but the 57th. North, however, accepts that the 50th year was also the first of the next 49 year cycle so that the Israelites only had 5 full years of agricultural employment until the eighth sabbatical year - there’s no definitive statement in the Bible for either my or North’s interpretation), seventy sabbaths would be of 500 years duration and, when 586BC is taken as the date of the Fall of the Jerusalem, the reader would understand the date of conquest of the land of Israel to have been c.1086BC had the Jubilee never been celebrated.
However, Zondervan dates their occupation from 1400BC while Whitcomb in his ‘Chart of OT Patriarchs and Judges’ places it around 1398BC which misses the mark by around three centuries.
The date of 1086 represents a time somewhere in the midst of king Saul’s reign which, although not a definitive marking of the beginning of anything might be more significant than it would at first have appeared. After all, the prophet Samuel had warned the Israelites of the severe economic burden that would be imposed upon them now that they’d turned from YHWH as King over them to wanting a human figurehead and leader (I Sam 8:11-18).
That their oppression would be defined in terms of agricultural tax, figuratively speaking (I Sam 8:14-15), could have meant that, when the economic hardships began to descend upon the nation, sabbatical and Jubilee years were reluctant to be observed because the same amount of revenue was expected by the king even in non-producing years. A date which occurs midway through Saul’s reign, then, is entirely plausible as being the literal date from which the Jews began to put to one side the legisaltion of the Mosaic Law on land rest - the date from which their society became more materialistically centred and less God fearing.
Whatever the precise date, it isn’t too important - the point that needs to be made is that, if the seventy years is the exact number of sabbaths that were missed, it would suggest that, early in Israel’s history, the sabbatical rest of the land was taken in all seriousness and observed even though we have no Scriptural evidence to indicate that this was so - it could even be referring to sabbaths which were scattered throughout the period of their possession of the land.
However, it strikes me that the seventy years’ rest was a symbolic number to represent the full amount of years that the law had been ignored rather than one that should be taken literally (Jer 29:10 also speaks of seventy years being fulfilled ‘for Babylon’ where no correlation with the non-observance of the sabbath is mentioned).
It’s unlikely that throughout the length and breadth of Judah, there was no cultivation taking place between the exile and the return, for the inhabitants of the land would still have needed to produce some crops to survive. Therefore, the sabbath rest seems to be indicative of a scenario whereby no major agricultural use was being imposed upon the land even though many would still have farmed the holdings they’d been able to secure following the exile of Jerusalem.
North (page 534) notes that
‘There is no longer a jubilee year. Jesus Christ…abolished it’
but, as I commented on the Law on a previous web page, the twin ideas of fulfilment and obsolescence are best applied to what Jesus did and, in this case, fulfilment not abolition is the correct option. Even so, North also states that Jubilee was finally and completely abolished in 70AD with the fall of Jerusalem but we might ask ourselves how realistically the Jubilee could have been observed after the exile of the nation into Babylon when not only were family lines ended but land boundaries would realistically have been largely forgotten. More than this, though, in a society that had flaunted the rules of the sabbatical and Jubilee years, most of the land would already have been sold in perpetuity, ancient ownership having been disregarded and ignored while the original ownership would have been forgotten after a very insignificant amount of time.
For example, Jeremiah’s purchase of land (Jer 32:1-15) shows us that the land laws had generally been ignored because there’s an assumption both that such a tract of land could continue to be owned for a period of time which would have extended beyond a fifty year period (which would have spanned at least one Jubilee) and that the prophet was able to purchase it outright rather than to have paid an amount which corresponded to crops that were able to be grown on it until the next year of release (Lev 25:16).
And, as indicated in the text, the land was a field (Lev 25:25) not property in a city (Lev 25:29-30) so that it should rightly have been released in the year of Jubilee. But, further, Jeremiah (Jer 1:1) was
‘…of the priests who were in Anathoth…’
so his purchase was probably of a holding of a priest, a Levite, about which it wasn’t specified in Leviticus chapter 25 (see especially Lev 25:29-34 - Joshua 21:18 gives us the information that Anathoth was one of the recognized cities of the Levites which was given specifically to Aaron’s descendants) because it wasn’t accepted that descendents of Levi could hold possession in the land. Rather, they were given common land adjoining cities for their own use but this land was forbidden to be sold (Lev 25:34).
Having said that, to speak of the right of redemption would further indicate that there was some idea still prevalent in the society that family members had a first right to purchase land when it came up for sale - we can’t be sure, however, that the land in question had been handed down since the first apportioning of the land under Joshua and, as it probably belonged to a Levite, it’s more than unlikely.
We have to assume that, had there been no willing purchaser within the family, it would have been sold to anyone who could have put up the asking price.
Therefore, although we might see the year of Jubilee being fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the celebration of the year in accordance with the Mosaic legislation and with the return of the known families onto their rightful land largely ceased to be a possibility even before the exile.
What effect would a celebration have had on Israel?
What would the effect have been had both the sabbatical years and the fiftieth Jubilee been observed as commanded?
I noted above that the conversion of a society into a materialistic one (where land acquisition and holding through purchase, and where excessive personal prosperity takes place at the expense and exploitation of others) would have meant that such a year of Jubilee could never have been realistically accepted because of the undermining of that society by the reversion of land to the descendent of the original family who’d been given it and the release of the Jew back into that inheritance.
Even more so when an agricultural increase from the land would be forbidden which, if extrapolated, could have been seen to have applied to various others professions - it should be noted, though, that no mention is made of smithying, metalworking, building and the like even though it could have been and the likelihood is that the sabbatical and Jubilee years weren’t to be expected to be applied in this manner, solely referring to a rest on the land rather than on professions - the farmer, therefore, wasn’t being forbidden to farm, then, as much as he was being told to let the land have rest. The majority of Israelites are likely to have had their main source of income or increase through their working of the land - even a jeweller is likely to have fed himself to some extent through the crops he grew on his tribal allotment.
On the other hand, although the person who tilled the land and who’d received its increase in the allowed years would have been forbidden to both sow and reap, the sabbatical year represented a time of unprecedented gleaning for the poor (Ex 23:10-11) but also for those who were resident within the land who needed sustenance (Lev 25:6-7), while the Jubilee also would be seen to provide for the nation through the natural cycle of the year (Lev 25:12 - though the previous verse does provide some restriction upon what could and couldn’t be eaten). The point was, though, that there was to be no cultivation so that it might not be made to yield more than was natural - instead of the land being barren, then, it was left fallow and the naturally occurring produce was to be food for all.
But, if the population of the nation had continued to grow, it would have meant that Israelites would have had less and less land upon which to grow crops and support themselves. North (page 387) calculates that
‘Every 24 years, the average family’s share of the farm would shrink by half. The average allotment would have been down to a little over an acre within a century with a population growth rate of 3 per cent a year’
Although many might disagree with the math employed (and I haven’t done the calculations myself because I’m not sure what area North began with as representing the land of Israel), there’s no doubting that the general thrust of his argument here is warranted - that, before very long, the laws of release which had been introduced to bring about freedom would be the same ones which would potentially restrict them.
Against this, though, one must realise that Israel still had much of the land to possess once the military campaigns had been temporarily ended under Joshua and that renewed expansion of the territory would mean that, for a while, the problem of not having enough land would be negated. The ‘unsettled’ land was the property of tribes who seem to have been forced to settle on land that was the right of others until the time came when their own inheritance could be acquisitioned.
Even so, when expansion was necessary beyond the original boundaries of the initial invasion, who would settle the new land? The question goes unanswered (and unasked!) in the Bible probably because the problem was never encountered, but it’s not too much a stretch of reasoning to have expected descendants of Jews who held allotments within the original land to move out into the conquered places.
Just what the conquering Israelites were to do with the land which lay beyond their boundaries, however, goes unmentioned in the passage which deals with the terms of war against such places (Deut 20:10-20).
We could theorise that an obedient nation might have seen their Messiah come to them at a much earlier date than He actually did - that is, God’s promise of the ultimate Redeemer of all mankind could have been fulfilled at a point in their history when His sacrificial work would have propelled the nation to scatter themselves throughout the earth to proclaim to all men the message of the Gospel as they were originally destined to do.
In this case, although we might theorise that Jubilee would have acted as a restriction, the legislation - if observed - would have prepared the nation for the coming of the Messiah and limited the number of years that He would have delayed. A nation which was bulging at the seams for the acquisition of new land would have been only too willing to journey to nations far and wide as ambassadors for their God, relieving agricultural production to feed the land’s consequently fewer inhabitants.
In other words, disobedience allowed for the nation to exist longer without the fulfilment of the Promise than obedience would have done.
One further clarifying observation needs to be made on this subject, however, and that’s the statement in Ex 23:31 (my italics) that God would set the nation’s boundaries
‘...from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you’
A literal fulfilment of the italicised phrase would indicate to us that the land given to the Jewish nation was to be a vast expanse - much larger than the area over which the tribes had gone in to take possession. In this way, therefore, God had provided for the continued expansion and multiplication of His people for a great many generations so long as they remained faithful and obedient to Him which, in reality, never happened.
North sees the Israelite population becoming more centred on cities with time than on rural habitation. He argues that within a short space of time, the apportioning of the land within families would have meant that each new family descended from the original inhabitants would have had a plot of land not much more significant than a garden plot or allotment which could supplement other income but not be the sole source of prosperity.
Although I take his point, the significance of further expansion into the fullness of their promised territory would have offset this problem for a much greater number of years than he imagines.
One final point needs making concerning the opening words which state that this legislation was given to Moses (Lev 25:1)
‘...on Mount Sinai’
a phrase which seems to set apart this chapter as being a special one in the whole Book (some commentators prefer the translation ‘at Sinai’ which would pull away from the belief that Moses received it while He was communing with God on the mountain itself).
However, a similar phrase has occurred in 7:38 as a summary of the place where all the details concerning the sacrificial offerings were spoken to him and, later, in both 26:46 and 27:34 the location of Sinai is given and here it reads as if it’s an entire summary on the contents of this particular scroll.
It’s not just that Leviticus chapter 25 was given on the mountain of Sinai but the entire series of statutes and regulations that appear in this Book appear to have also been delivered to him here - no one passage is elevated (if you’ll excuse the pun) into a higher place than any other by the mention of the place where it was received.
Thoughts on some of North’s statements
As I’ve noted on the Leviticus Home Page, I decided not to deal in detail with North’s chapters dealing with Leviticus chapters 25-27 because of the large amount of time needed for what I consider to be very little profitable teaching.
However, I decided that to read North in conjunction with the exposition of the Scriptures was necessary in case there were points which needed dealing with that, because of the nature of my study, would have gone unrealised. After all, North’s idea to deal with the Book economically is a refreshing approach - the only problem is that many of the passages are extrapolated incorrectly and a great deal of assumption is made which distorts the simple interpretation needed on the text.
The following, then, are some observations on North’s text which I’ve felt are warranted
1. Chapter 26 - Economic Oppression by means of the State
Chapter 26 opens with the quote of Lev 25:14-17 and then goes on to try and define the sort of oppression that YHWH meant in the first and last of the verses. From out of the blue, the concept of an oppressing magistrate or civil ruler who wouldn’t honour or recognise the year of Jubilee is introduced into the explanation when, firstly, we don’t read of anything resembling a formal magistrate present in the land of Israel and, secondly, the word of warning against oppressing one’s neighbour is directed solely towards the two parties mentioned - the one who’s selling the value of the crops and the one who’s paying the price for the right to cultivate it until the fiftieth year of release. He writes (page 444) that
‘The decisive factor...was the covenantal faithfulness of the civil rulers’
and not, as the passage plainly assumes, the righteousness of the two parties who are entering into a financial arrangement. The straightforward interpretation is that neither the seller or the purchaser is to ‘pull a fast one’ by respectively insisting on a price that’s known to be too high or on an expectation that a lesser amount is the more realistic.
To put it into experiential terms rather than theoretical ones - the seller mustn’t insist on a price that he thinks he could get when he knows that there are problems which would devalue it if the seller knew. Neither must the purchaser eagerly pay an amount which he knows to be unrealistic because of knowledge that he’s gleaned which would make it of more value.
In other words, both the seller and the purchaser must make every effort to come to an agreement as to a value for the land which is in keeping with what each of them knows where any knowledge held by only one side must be declared to the other.
Oppression, then, is here spoken of as being the taking away of a fellow Israelite’s right to receive a fair price or of an Israelite’s right to pay a fair price. In modern day language of house purchasing, the believer is called upon to declare the mining works which are threatening the foundations of his house if he intends selling it - and the purchaser is expected not to pay a lesser price if he knows that a local developer will be offering the owners of the land double its normal price for redevelopment. In each situation that a person finds themselves in, they must bring to attention any knowledge which would affect the price - and not just information which is to their own advantage while suppressing other facts which would undermine their cause.
These expectations cut right across all contractual arrangements, of course - from multimillion pound agreements to deals worth a few cents - but the bottom line is the Lev 19:18 command that
‘...you shall love your neighbour as yourself...’
which is held up in the NT to be the basis of the Old Covenant after love for God (Mtw 22:39, Rom 13:9, Gal 5:14). Even in the NT Church, however, Paul still witnessed the shrewd dealings of the unrighteous in his letter to the Corinthians, announcing (I Cor 6:8) that
‘...you yourselves wrong and defraud - and that even your own brethren’
While it might be expected that unbelievers would oppress those around them through shrewd dealing, it shouldn’t be so amongst the faithful - righteousness in trade should be expected throughout the affairs of the Church, even between believer and unbeliever (though there are warnings where large-scale agreements are involved - II Cor 6:14).
North correctly identifies the basis of oppression as being the shrewdness of one side of the agreement and should be commended for this - but he goes one step too far by supposing that men and women would argue fairly if left to their own devices and that it’s only the refusal of the judicial authorities to uphold the Jubilee laws which resulted in oppression being the norm in these types of deals. That is, when one side of the agreement is ‘knowledgeable’ that the judges or magistrates won’t decide to have the year of Jubilee enforced.
So North pulls away from the individual sole responsibility of the seller or buyer to a fair degree and places the opportunity for oppression not in the nature of man but in the nature of the legal system which sat over them. He writes (page 444) that
‘Each party in the transaction was therefore warned in advance by God: do not become an oppressor; even if corrupt civil magistrates make such oppression possible by refusing to enforce the terms of the jubilee land law’
and, further (page 445), that
‘...economic oppression in a free market is usually the result of civil magistrates who refuse to enforce God’s revealed law. It is rarely the process of voluntary pricing in a free market that constitutes economic oppression...’
Righteousness under the law was the responsibility of each Israelite. Similarly, righteousness in trading or purchase agreements was their responsibility. North presupposes a corrupt legal system to answer the reason for the command in Lev 25:14-17 but, in fact, God is only safeguarding against the works of the flesh in both the purchaser and seller (Mark 7:20-23) and, in so doing, providing for the correct decision which He would have expected had a dispute have arisen and been brought before the judges of the nation.
The commands aren’t there to warn the Israelites of corrupt judges, then, but to warn them of themselves and the way in which their hearts would be pulled when they saw a way to make more money than they were rightfully entitled to or to receive a piece of land for an amount which was tantamount to a steal.
2. Chapter 27 - Food Miracles and Covenantal Predictability
In an interesting chapter, there are a few concepts that need commenting on. On page 454, North states that
‘As the spiritual maturity of covenant-keepers advances, miracles steadily ease’
going on to expand this in his footnote that
‘This has been the case in the history of Christianity. In the early church, the miracles of healing and exorcism were important in evangelism. Today, both of these gifts are far less evident in advanced industrial nations…’
Firstly, we need to deal with the general facts of the matter - which are hard enough to ascertain as no one deems it necessary to record the numbers of miracles that have occurred in any given place in any one time period (something which I feel is quite justified not to do). However, I don’t feel that North’s observations on this matter are inaccurate - it certainly does appear to me that the West is largely inexperienced in the miraculous while those nations which are more ‘primitive’ or ‘simplistic’ (if you’ll excuse those descriptions) are seeing God move amongst them in a powerful way.
But does this indicate that the West is spiritually mature as North would maintain and that, as a consequence, the Third World are simply ‘kids’, not long out of nappies and needing to see the transcendent power of God to establish them in their faith? Because we’re spiritually mature, then, are we expected to think of cancer as being generally incurable and that God isn’t too interested in healing us because it’s faith that’s important rather than the miraculous?
As you can see, the problem with the statement is that it elevates us in the West to a position of superior faith over those poor souls who have to see God’s power at work in their midst to continue believing and to continue being established in God. Oh how we must long for the day when they grow to be as mature as us so that they can die in their diseases and illnesses! So, too, God who must be getting pretty fed up with delivering people just so they’ll follow Him.
I’m quite happy to accept that the spiritually mature need to see a demonstration of the power of God in their midst less than the spiritually young for the continuance of their faith - but the Biblical record continually affirms the belief that God wants to get involved in the lives of His followers (both in and through them) and I can see no reason why God wouldn’t want to continue to demonstrate His power and love through the things He does.
North’s statement is self-defeating, anyway - for evangelism of the lost must necessarily be aimed at the spiritually immature and, therefore, one would expect the miraculous to take place in order for them to be established in the faith. It’s unlikely, then, for us to think of the West’s evangelism to be any different to that of the Third World.
The main problem, though, is that it raises us up into a position of spiritual pre-eminence and, ultimately, of superiority - something which, judging by the general state of our fellowships, is as far from the truth as it could be.
North has a different way of thinking about how Israelites would have fed themselves during each of the sabbatical years. He writes (page 459) that
‘…they were to become thrifty: saving, not for a rainy day, but for the sabbatical year’
North acknowledges that the harvest of each forty-eighth year was to be a miraculous affair (Lev 25:20-22) and, although there might be grounds for assuming that God’s instructions concerning each of the sabbatical years was also to be considered as a miraculous provision seeing as no tending and planting was to take place (Lev 25:4-5), YHWH doesn’t say that they’re to survive by their thriftiness but, rather, that they’re to eat what grows of itself (Lev 25:6-7).
The point of the sabbatical year, then, isn’t that the land is to lie barren but that it’s to lie fallow - that is, no human energy is to be expended to produce a harvest even though humans are to work in the sense that they must still go out into the fields to glean sustenance.
So, no miracles will be performed but no thriftiness on the part of the Israelites is expected either - they’re to eat their fill of the produce of the first six years, confident that there’ll be sufficient for them in the seventh.
3. Chapter 28 - The Right of Redemption
North (pages 468-70) makes quite a bit out of the details of the allocation of the land of Israel which occurs in the extensive passage in Ezekiel chapters 40-48 going so far as to assume that the instructions had to do with what the returning exiles were to do upon their arrival from Babylon.
If only this passage was as simple as we’d like it to be!
After all, nowhere do we read of anything which would indicate to us with any certainty that this was either what God was to bring about or what God expected His people to bring about within the first few years after the return. The history of the re-establishing of the Jews in their land (the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah) would make us think that they were struggling simply to survive and to do something in the land rather than that they were working to some pre-written blueprint prophesied earlier.
However, the options aren’t very attractive for it’s normally the case (in my experience of hearing people’s opinions) that either one thinks of these chapters as representing a time before the return of Jesus when the Jews will once more have possession of the Temple Mount, that it’s an allegorical record of what was to become available in Christ or that it’s how the New Jerusalem will be set up in type after His return.
Each of these has its own problem - though I don’t intend going in to them here. But, as I showed on the web page dealing with prophecy, such records of future events given to a people should never be considered to be pre-written history. That is, they should never be thought of as being inevitable - just as the majority of prophecy is conditional upon the response with which it’s met in the hearers.
Therefore, along with North, the easiest interpretation is that these prophetic chapters were what God had envisaged His people would be returning in to but, unlike North, I don’t expect that this was something which would have been expected to have occurred upon their immediate return but at a later date and in the fulness of time. Even so, I wouldn’t have thought that the Jews would have expected it to be fulfilled in hundreds of years - they would have been anticipating it to have been brought to fruition sooner rather than later but, for whatever reason, it never came about and, in my opinion, never now will.
Whether one accepts the immediacy of the fulfilment as North believes or that there was to be a progression towards its fulfilment as I myself do, one can understand the importance of North’s observation that
‘The returning Israelites were not authorised to kill or exile [the new inhabitants of the land]...Rather, the resident alien at the return would receive an inheritable grant of rural land’
This is in keeping with Ezek 47:21-23 and should be fully accepted. Whenever the fulfilment was to come, the Israelites within the land were to be given an equal inheritance with every other Jew or Gentile because the latter (Ezek 47:22) were to be treated as
‘...native-born sons of Israel...’
(it should be carefully noted that the seeming rejection of admission into the nation of believers in Ezek 44:6-9 is explained by the context for it appears only to be debarring foreigners as ministers in the Temple for they’re contrasted with the Levites who are to take their rightful place in the new Temple - Ezek 44:10-11.)
Even though the Biblical record notes the origin of those peoples who settled in the northern kingdom at the instigation of the conquering and victorious king of Assyria (II Kings 17:24-41) and even though it notes that they were men and women who didn’t wholly follow after YHWH (II Kings 17:33-41), God still had a plan to graft them in to His future plans for the reformed and restored nation of Israel.
Perhaps not too much should be made of the returned exiles’ refusal to allow the people of the land to build alongside them (Ezra 4:1-3) because it’s noted that they were ‘adversaries’ and may well have been making their request from ulterior motives. What does seem significant, though, is that the Jews of Jesus’ day tended to despise the Samaritans, many of whom were direct descendents of the Assyrian settlers mentioned previously (John 4:9) - it only goes to show that no matter how plain God might have spoken, the prophecy of Ezekiel didn’t sit easy with them.
In this new division of the land, the Levites were, again, not to have any inheritance in the new nation (Ezek 44:28) because YHWH Himself was to be their possession - but the apportioning of the land, as we’ve previously seen, was to be equal between both Jew and Gentile.
One other observation needs to be made here - the land allocated to the nation appears to have been slightly bigger than the area over which the combined kingdoms of Israel and Judah ruled prior to the exile but still much smaller than the full extent of the promise given to the Israelites before their original conquest (Ex 23:31).
So, when this new distribution of land was to occur, would the Jubilee have continued to have been expected to be celebrated along with the sabbatical years? As both rely upon the ‘unsaleability’ of the land as cornerstones of both annual cycles, we should first observe that the prince - who seems to have been the head over the nation in this set up - wasn’t to be allowed to secure anybody else’s inheritance but was to be content with the land that was apportioned to him (Ezek 46:18).
Therefore, although there doesn’t appear to be a definitive statement that the inheritance could be sold, one would tend to presume it because there’s also no definitive statement that the laws of inheritance had changed any from those stated in the Mosaic Law - and more so when the non-observance of the sabbatical years was one of the reasons given for the length of time that the exile was to continue (II Chr 36:20-21).
So, just as we’ve seen previously, this would have had the effect of filling up the land with inhabitants if further expansion was impossible. And, further, the need for Israelites to move ‘to the nations’ would have become a pressing need which would have been given an impetus when the Messiah came who would arm His followers with the message of the Gospel to be taken to the four corners of the earth.
In this way, the vision of Ezekiel chapters 40-48 is best suited to a time prior to the coming of Jesus Christ and, for this reason, shouldn’t be expected to be fulfilled in the future.
4. Chapter 29 - Poverty and Usury
North begins by quoting Lev 25:35-38, a passage which, although it sits in the midst of the legislation concerning the sabbatical and Jubilee years, has little directly to do with it. It does, however, remind the Israelite that they shouldn’t look to the Jubilee as the one method of restoring to an impoverished Israelite some material wealth through the return of their land but, rather, they should be active in their support so that, initially, there might not be a threat of them losing their land and, secondly, that even if they’ve had to temporarily lose control of their inheritance, they shouldn’t be so impoverished that they become destitute.
As such, the passage has to do with the welfare of fellow believers both under the Old Covenant and, when applied to the Church, into the New. Indeed, as we’ll realise, the simplicity of these instructions go largely unheeded by present day believers.
Even though God promised the Israelites that He’d materially prosper them if they remained obedient to Him, He was also realistic enough to state that there would always be poor in the land (Deut 15:11). Therefore, their welfare depended upon the charitable use of their brothers’ wealth - where ‘brother’ in this context should be taken to refer not just to a family member but to anyone who was part of the nation of Israelites.
This has often been taken to be instructing a redistribution of wealth but the Law is plain that the idea was of an interest free loan that was expected to be repaid at a later date. While the Israelites could lend with interest to those who weren’t of their nation (Deut 23:20), they were strictly forbidden to exact a profit from their brethren (Ex 22:25, Deut 23:19), something which was spoken against by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 18:8,13,17, 22:12) and mentioned both in Psalms (Ps 15:5) and in the problems which still were prevalent in Jerusalem upon the exiles’ return (Neh 5:1-13).
Even this ‘loan’, though, was to be annulled as ‘paid in full’ on sabbatical years (Deut 15:1-2) so that whatever loan was granted one’s neighbour would more likely have been cancelled before it was ever repaid.
It would be nice to think that such instruction was generally recognized in the present day Church and being implemented widely - even without a sabbatical year of release being written in to the a loan. My own experience is that, when brothers are approached for a loan, they find some personally justifiable reason why such a loan isn’t for them to give (or, as has been the case at other times, no explanation is given).
Of course, if a brother doesn’t have the cash needed, he’s justified in apologizing for his impotency in the matter but, according to the Law, a known brother (and not a person of dubious moral character) shouldn’t be withheld what he needs (‘needs’ as opposed to ‘wants’).
There’s a good reason to expect that believers who seem never to have enough to live on should be sat down with and their financial arrangements discussed - after all, what some of us hold dear as being a real need is, in fact, a matter of choice. When a brother finds himself less well-off, there are choices which need to be made to reduce expenditure and a brother shouldn’t be expected to subsidise a lifestyle that can be reorganized.
Again, being less well-off than another brother isn’t grounds for the lending of money because it’s solely on the grounds of poverty that such a financial arrangement is to be made. We can’t all have computers, Internet connections, broadband, widescreen televisions, cable or satellite, annual membership to Charlton Athletic Football Club (but donations would be gratefully received), DVD players, pets, redecorated houses, second cars or bigger houses - indeed, some of us who have these shouldn’t have them in the first place because we neglect the Kingdom of God through their possession.
It’s only when a brother is in real need that a loan by a fellow believer mustn’t be withheld - there should be every justification for a brother to be careful to determine whether a request is a real need or simply a desire. And when that need is acknowledged, the loan should meet the need and not include the expectation of anything extra to be paid back - that is, interest or a one-off payment for the lender.
North makes quite a bit about inflation on a monetary loan and thinks that the expectation of the lender to get back an amount of money which has the same buying power as that which was lent is being forbidden by the Mosaic Law. It’s not altogether clear from the words employed in the OT but it seems to me that interest charged is a way of ensuring that what’s received back is more than that which was loaned but that the refusal to account for inflation ensures that what’s received back is less.
I don’t see any problem with a lender expecting to receive back the same as he’s given in effect - and neither should the receiver expect to receive an advantage by the loan. Nevertheless, if the lender is willing to accept that inflation will reduce his capital, he also is seen to contribute to his brother’s welfare through the amount that he’s lost in the transaction. And this seems to be the best way.
North sees a clever way of getting round the loss of inflation. He writes (page 488)
‘In a period of rising prices…an astute charitable lender prefers to lend food…rather than money…A loan “in kind” - a consumer good rather than money - means that the lender will receive back the physical equivalent of whatever he gave up temporarily to the borrower’
but this smacks of being just a bit too legalistic to my mind! It’s not a matter of trying to get round the Law, anyway, but of being faithful to God in the meaning and intention of what He commands. Besides, the Israelite was expected to give to his brother what he needed - and that meant that, if he asked for 2lb of sugar, you didn’t give him a quid and expect him to go and buy it! North would see a request for money as able to be converted into the goods that will be bought with it but the strict interpretation of the text would mean that what’s asked is what’s given and no conversion is to be expected to safeguard the lenders’ interests.
It would be wrong to think of this as a Divine Social Security system for that implies an organization where free handouts are given. Rather, money given is expected to be returned to the lender - in this way, there’s no free lunch written in to the legislation and the poor is thereby expected to find a way in which he’s able to return whatever has been borrowed.
In the UK, the Welfare System grants non-returnable benefit for the ‘essential’ basics but loans are given to be repaid for items which are considered non-essential. Under the Old Covenant, however, interest free loans were expected to be given even for the essentials. Charitable giving, though, would still have continued voluntarily in which money would be given to the poor regardless of any potential to be able to repay - but the Mosaic Law commanded loans not charity.
In the New Testament, Jesus expanded the scope of the definition of the needy ‘brother’ in Luke 6:34-36 (my italics) to include everyone. He reasoned that
‘…if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful even as your Father is merciful’
In other words, His followers weren’t to stay within the confines of the Law and think that they’d been ever so righteous when the example of God Himself showed that His merciful care went beyond the boundaries of the chosen nation to include all men everywhere. And yet, still, the Church of God must be the prime cause for concern to the believer who hears the cries of the poor amongst their own ranks and stretches out their hand to meet the need.
The italicised words also suggest to me that Jesus had the sabbatical annulling of all debts in mind (Deut 15:1-2) for He seems to say that a loan given shouldn’t be expected to be repaid. In other words, a believer should lend within his ability, aware that an expected retrieval of his capital might not be fulfilled.
From a consideration of interest-free loans, North moves on to think about the Welfare State in comparison with the Church’s Welfare program of the OT which, admittedly, is quite far removed from the Scriptures concerned. Perhaps North is stretching the point a little too far but his words are fairly relevant to what often passes for humanitarian support in the form of Social Security payments in the West. Firstly, he writes (page 482) - wrongly in my opinion - that
‘…biblical charity is necessarily morally conditional’
With regard to the words of Jesus quoted above this is seen to be definitely incorrect - Jesus made no conditions upon the moral state of the individual concerned for there to be a loan given. Indeed, by His reasoning concerning the Father, it’s immediately discernible that both righteous and unrighteous benefit from God’s bountiful provision and the believer is exhorted to do the same to emulate Him (with safeguards that we’ve already hinted at earlier).
The OT Mosaic legislation isn’t that definitive, however, seeing as it only mentions that the person who’s to receive an interest free loan is a fellow Israelite. The lender is never expected to investigate the righteousness of the borrower concerned but, rather, is to simply identify them as an Israelite and meet their need.
It seems reasonable to presume that they may have some reservations as to whether the individual is actually poor and so withhold something which they feel isn’t rightfully theirs, but we don’t read of any considerations employed whereby the potential lender thinks
‘Mmm. This person is poor because he was caught robbing and had to pay back his debts’
Rather, he’s simply to lend at no interest in order that the person might once more be useful in their society. The Israelite isn’t expected to be able to accurately determine whether the poor brother is now repentant or rebellious - he simply has to identify the need and meet it.
The most that we can say, though, is that the poor man must be part of the chosen nation and, therefore, that should guarantee some level of righteousness and respect for others which would eventually be uncovered with time if it was false.
The Welfare State is an entirely different ball game, however. As North observes (page 483)
‘The welfare State…in theory looks only at the numbers, not at the moral condition of the recipients of State money…the West’s welfare State must by law ignore moral criteria and respond strictly in terms of formal criteria: so much income, so many children [and so on]…’
and (page 483)
‘The modern welfare State does not distinguish judicially between faith and unbelief or between righteousness and moral rebellion as primary factors underlying both wealth and poverty’
Because North sees the Social Security arrangements as independent of moral uprightness, he also envisages it as being a work that promotes immorality and unrighteousness throughout society - even that it’s self-perpetuating because it funds those people who produce more people like themselves. Therefore, he concludes (page 483) that
‘The welfare State is to biblical charity what fornication is to biblical marriage. It literally subsidizes fornication by subsidizing the bastards who are produced by fornication, thereby swelling the ranks of the government-dependent children of the morally corrupt’
The problem here isn’t that this happens but that the statements are too all-inclusive. They assume that every claimant is morally bankrupt and that whatever money is taken from the wage earners is simply distributed to those who will use it in unrighteous ways or as a basis to bring more wickedness into the world.
I totally agree that there should be some moral obligation placed upon the recipients of State Benefit - but not from any Biblical text because I don’t believe there is one. The Welfare State has developed apart from the way of the Bible which, to flatten it out into simple language, could be taken to be teaching that each culture should look after its own.
Or, to put it another way, a friendship circle should bear with the destitution of their own family and friends and not expect a Third Party to blindly invest in them (I Tim 5:16 - this Scripture expects relatives to care for their own rather than to expect other believers to find the money for their upkeep).
The Church should follow the same criteria - they should make sure that their own are cared for and not think that an outside organization should be set up to rid them of the economic burden. If God cares for all believers then they should at the very least have care for all those who God cares for as His special possession in the earth. To do less would be to deny the brotherhood of all believers and the unity that exists in Jesus Christ.
Concluding, although I’m one for thinking that moral responsibility should be introduced into the State Welfare program, the Church’s clear mandate is to lend, interest-free, to any of their own who have a need and, after that, to expand their horizons to care for the poor in their own society. The Church shouldn’t depend upon worldly secular rulers to meet their essential living needs.
5. Chapter 30 - Promise, Adoption and Liberty
North begins with a quote of Lev 25:39-43 in which the Israelite is commanded to release any Israelite who’s sold himself to them when the year of Jubilee comes. Very quickly, he goes on to contrast the passage with Deut 15:12-18 (Pp Ex 21:2-11) which appears to instruct the Israelite differently - namely, that he’s to release the Hebrew slave on the seventh year after six years service.
Before we look at North’s explanation as to why there should be different legislation for what appears to be the same scenario, we’d best note that North is incorrect in his strict interpretation of Deut 15:12-18. In it, he believes that the seventh year being referred to is the sabbatical year (pages 493-4) - that is, the year which occurred after each of the six years of crop tending and harvesting and which culminated in the Jubilee year in the fiftieth. However, this isn’t the case for nowhere is the sabbatical year mentioned - rather, we read the instruction that the Hebrew slave (Deut 15:12)
‘...shall serve you six years and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you’
If the seventh year had here been considered to have been the fixed sabbatical year, we should have read the text that the slave
‘...shall serve you for a maximum of six years and when the sabbatical year comes you shall let him go free from you’
As it is, the command is clear that six years’ service is what’s expected to be given by the slave and that the idea of release cannot be expected until this has been completed. However, we may theorise that, should the Jubilee year have been proclaimed throughout the land, the release could have been brought forward. It may seem strange that I’ve written the italicised words but, under the Deut 15:12-18 legislation, the slave has the opportunity of serving a full six years and then being given a new start with provision given to him for his release. Alternatively, the slave could choose to remain with his master forever (Deut 15:16-17) and to some who were unsure of their skill in finding their own employment and provision, such a prospect may have been more advantageous and attractive.
Therefore, it may have been that these two systems ran simultaneously for we’re given no specific instructions as to how they were to have precedence over one another, if at all.
Because North assumes that both scenarios are the same in the two apparently conflicting passages, he feels the need to define the type of debt by which the Hebrew found himself in slavery as being the prime reason for the differing sets of instructions. To the question (page 494)
‘...if servitude of up to 49 years was possible [Deut 15:12-18, Ex 21:2-11], why did the threat of no more than six years of bond service judicially identify a morally compulsory charitable loan [Lev 25:39-43]?’
he asserts (my italics) that
‘A man who was so poor that he was willing to risk bond service until the next sabbatical year, but who was unwilling to put up his land as collateral, had a moral claim on a zero-interest charitable loan’
but (my italics) that
‘The borrower who was willing to use his inheritance as collateral in a business loan, or one who had already leased out his land until the next jubilee year, was not equally protected by the Mosaic law. He had no moral claim on a zero-interest charitable loan. Either this was a business loan, in which the element of moral obligation was not involved, or else the person was economically incompetent: he had already leased his inheritance, yet he still wanted a loan.
For this person, the time limits on bond service that were offered by the sabbatical year of release were inoperative. He could be placed into bond service until the next jubilee year’
To North, then, it’s the type of loan - or, perhaps better, the lengths to which he was willing to go to secure the money he needed - that distinguished the type of slavery that the Israelite was to serve under. However, this is purely fanciful for it isn’t the type of unpaid loan that determines the state of the Hebrew but the type of condition in which the slave came to the master.
It’s plain in Lev 25:39 that the person coming into slavery isn’t a slave but, for whatever reason (and it seems the most likely that it’s because he has creditors demanding payment for the money which has been loaned to him), offers himself as a slave to a fellow Israelite. Therefore the text reads (my italics throughout) that
‘...if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave’
In Deut 15:12-18 and Ex 21:2-11, the scenario is entirely different. The former passage states
‘If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you’
and the latter that
‘When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing’
Here the point is that a Hebrew who’s already a slave is offered for sale to a fellow Israelite presumably by a non-Israelite - perhaps, even, he comes up for sale in one of the slave markets.
In this case, the acquisition of the slave does at least two things. Firstly, it provides the master with the additional labour that’s needed in his household and over his affairs and, secondly, it becomes a way in which he can contribute to the liberation of the children of God back into their rightful inheritance.
Although the acquisition of a slave was an economic necessity, it also becomes an act of charity but the slave must serve six full years before his release regardless of when the next sabbatical year falls.
North states with a certainty (page 500) that
‘The criminal did not go free in the jubilee year…the year of jubilee did not apply to convicted criminals’
His logic seems to be borne more out of moral considerations, however, rather than directly from a consideration of the Scriptures and, besides, if the Jubilee wasn’t meant to have applied to the thief, surely we would have expected it to say so? But there’s good reason to expect that, although the thief was also theoretically released in the Jubilee year (if incarcerated for the paying back of the damage of his crimes), the cancellation of the debt he still owed to the victim of his criminal activity wasn’t performed in the sabbatical (Deut 15:1-2) and that, therefore, effectively the Jubilee year brought no release back into the inheritance.
I’ll explain this position in more detail below.
North rightly observes that the assessment of a man being sold into slavery was probably dependent upon the number of years that were to run before the year of release in the Jubilee. After all, three years’ labour would expect to cost a master less than, for example, seven years - the price might also be determined by a consideration of what work a master might think he would be able to get out of a convicted felon.
There would eventually come a situation when the price a man would fetch wouldn’t be able to pay off the debt that he owed to the victim of his crime and then an interpretation of how the Law applied would have to be made as defined above in my opening remarks.
It seems to me that, if the sale price represented an amount that was less than he was obliged to pay, the deficit would have been recorded for reference at a later date when more material wealth was available to the convicted. One might assume that his debt outstanding would be annulled on the sabbatical year (Deut 15:1-2) but the Scripture states that it’s the creditor’s obligation to release what has been lent and not what has been stolen.
The seventh year release, then, wouldn’t apply.
But what of the Jubilee? The man convicted and enslaved would be expected to be released back into his inheritance - the inheritance that he obviously didn’t have ownership of when he was convicted or else it could have been sold to pay back his debt (Lev 25:10 - whatever the state of the Israelite, they were also expected to be able to return to their family). Now that the field is being restored, he’s once more in a position to be able to settle the debt by the selling of his land and, unless the debt was a vast one, there should be sufficient funds available to not only satisfy the legal penalty but to give him something with which to begin anew.
In this way, not only would the full weight of the Law fall upon the criminal but the Jubilee release could also be fulfilled - indeed, the latter would be the reason for the completion of the legal system of restitution and neither would be compromised.
It should be noted that North disagrees with this position. He states (page 508) that the criminal
‘…lost his claim to his family’s land and therefore lost his right to participate in the jubilee’
If this was the case, though, the Law would be seen to exact a payment of continual servitude and, moreover, the victim could never have been compensated for their loss. But the foundation of the Mosaic Law was the making amends for a wrong - that the offender must be prepared to repay what has been taken, whether physical or monetary. The judge was under a strict control to give a penalty of like for like (with certain amounts added to theft) so that the punishment would be seen to adequately fit the crime. This was the basis of the well known maxim of the Mosaic Law (Ex 21:23-25) that
‘…you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe’
Therefore, there’s no good reason to expect that the Jubilee didn’t apply even to the criminal - the Jubilee, after all, was a provision of God’s grace and not based upon the righteousness of every individual.
We should further note that it’s only in one place (that I can find) that the selling of the person is required should the criminal not have sufficient means to make restitution (Ex 22:1) but there are numerous other places where, although restitution is commanded, no explanation of what to do is recorded should there be insufficient funds (Ex 21:18-19, 21:22-25, 21:35-36, 22:2, 22:7-9, Lev 6:2-6, Num 5:6-7). It’s not unreasonable to assume, though, that the Ex 22:1 direction was one that was generally applicable in these circumstances.
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