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THE SABBATIC YEAR AND THE JUBILEE.
The system of annually recurring sabbatic times, as given in chap. xxiii., culminated in the sabbatic seventh month. But this remarkable system of sabbatisms extended still further, and, besides the sacred seventh day, the seventh week, and seventh month, included also a sabbatic seventh year; and beyond that, as the ultimate expression of the sabbatic idea, following the seventh seven of years, came the hallowed fiftieth year, known as the jubilee. And the law concerning these two last-named periods is recorded in this twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus.
First (vv. 1-5), is given the ordinance of the sabbatic seventh year, in the following words: "When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruits thereof; but in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather: it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land."
This sacred year is thus here described as a sabbath for the land unto the Lord,—a shabbath shabbathon; that is, a sabbath in a special and eminent sense. No public religious gatherings were ordered, however, neither was labour of every kind prohibited. It was strictly a year of rest for the land, and for the people in so far as this was involved in that fact. There was to be no sowing or reaping, even of what might grow of itself; no pruning of vineyard or fruit trees, nor gathering of their fruit. These regulations thus involved the total suspension of agricultural labour for this entire period.
It was further ordered (vv. 6, 7) that during this year the spontaneous produce of the land should be equally free to all, both man and beast: "The sabbath of the land shall be for food for you; for thee, and for thy servant and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant and for thy stranger that sojourn with thee; and for thy cattle, and for the beasts that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be for food."
That this cannot be regarded as merely a regulation of a communistic character, designed simply to affirm the absolute equality of all men in right to the product of the soil, is evident from the fact that the beasts also are included in the terms of the law. The object was quite different, as we shall shortly see.
That it should be regarded as possible for a whole people thus to live off the spontaneous produce of self-sowed grain may seem incredible to us who dwell in less propitious lands; and yet travellers tell us that in the Palestine of to-day, with its rich soil and kindly climate, the various food grains continuously propagate themselves without cultivation; and that in Albania, also, two and three successive harvests are sometimes 489 reaped as the result of one sowing. So, even apart from the special blessing from the Lord promised to them if they would obey this command, the supply of at least the necessities of life was possible from the spontaneous product of the sabbath of the land. Though less than usual, it might easily be sufficient. In Deut. xv. 1-11 it is ordered also that the seventh year should be "a year of release" to the debtor; not indeed as regards all debts, but loans only; nor, apparently, that even these should be released absolutely, but that throughout the seventh year the claim of the creditor was to be in abeyance. The regulation may naturally be regarded as consequent upon this fundamental law regarding the sabbath of the land. The income of the year being much less than usual, the debtor, presumably, might often find it difficult to pay; whence this restriction on collection of debt during this period.
The central thought of this ordinance then is this, that man's right in the soil and its product, originally granted from God, during this sabbatic year reverted to the Giver; who, again, by ordering that all exclusive rights of individuals in the produce of their estates should be suspended for this year, placed, for so long, the rich and the poor on an absolute equality as regards means of sustenance.
"And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. Then shalt thou send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement shall ye send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall 490 be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field."
The remainder of this chapter, vv. 8-55, is occupied with this ordinance of the jubilee year; an observance absolutely without a parallel in any nation, and which has to do with the solution of some of the most difficult social problems, not only of that time, but also of our own. Seven weeks of years, each terminating with the sabbatic year of solemn rest for the land, were to be numbered, i.e., forty-nine full years, of which the last was a sabbatic year, beginning, as always, with the feast of atonement in the tenth day of the seventh month. And then when, at its expiration, the day of atonement came round again, at the beginning of the fiftieth year of this reckoning, at the close, as would appear, of the solemn expiatory ritual of the day, throughout all the land of Israel the loud trumpet was to be sounded, proclaiming "liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." The ordinance is given in vv. 8-12 above.
It appears that the liberty thus proclaimed was threefold: (1) liberty to the man who, through the reverses of life, had become dispossessed from his family inheritance in the land, to return to it again; (2) liberty to every Hebrew slave, so that in the jubilee he became a free man again; (3) the liberty of release from toil in the cultivation of the land,—a feature, in this case, even more remarkable than in the sabbatic year, because already one such sabbatic year had but just closed when the jubilee year immediately succeeded.
Why this year should be called a jubilee (Heb. yobel) 491 is a vexed question, on which scholars are far from unanimous; but as it is of no practical importance, there is no need to enter on the discussion here. To suppose that these enactments should have originated, as the radical critics claim, in post-exilian days, when, under the existing social and political conditions, their observance was impossible, is utterly absurd.4747Thus Dillmann writes: "That the law (of the jubilee) in its principal features was already issued by Moses does not admit of demonstration to him who wills not to believe it; but that it cannot have been in the first instance the invention of a post-exilian scribe is certain. Only in the simpler communal relations of the more ancient time could a law of such an ideal character have seemed practicable; after the exile, all the presuppositions involved in its promulgation are wanting" ("Die Bücher Exodus und Leviticus," 2 Aufl., p. 608). Not only so, but in view of the admitted neglect even of the sabbatic year,—an ordinance certainly less difficult to carry out in practice,—during four hundred and ninety years of Israel's history, the supposition that the law of the jubilee should have been first promulgated at any earlier post-Mosaic period is scarcely less incredible.
The Jubilee and the Land.
"In this year of jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession. And if thou sell aught unto thy neighbour, or buy of thy neighbour's hand, ye shall not wrong one another: according to the number of years after the jubilee thou shalt buy of thy neighbour, and according unto the number of years of the crops he shall sell unto thee. According to the multitude of the years thou shalt increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of the years thou shalt diminish the price of it; for the number of the crops doth he sell unto thee. And ye shall not wrong one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the Lord your God. Wherefore ye shall do My statutes, and keep My judgments and do them; and ye shall dwell in the land in safety. And the land shall yield her fruit, and ye shall eat your fill, and dwell 492 therein in safety. And if ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase: then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for the three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the fruits, the old store; until the ninth year, until her fruits come in, ye shall eat the old store. And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me. And in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land. If thy brother be waxen poor, and sell some of his possession, then shall his kinsman that is next unto him come, and shall redeem that which his brother hath sold. And if a man have no one to redeem it, and he be waxen rich and find sufficient to redeem it; then let him count the years of the sale thereof, and restore the overplus unto the man to whom he sold it; and he shall return unto his possession. But if he be not able to get it back for himself, then that which he hath sold shall remain in the hand of him that hath bought it until the year of jubilee: and in the jubilee it shall go out, and he shall return unto his possession."
The remainder of the chapter (vv. 13-55) deals with the practical application of this law of the jubilee to various cases. In vv. 13-28 we have the application of the law to the case of property in land; in vv. 29-34, to sales of dwelling houses; and the remaining verses (35-55) deal with the application of this law to the institution of slavery.
As regards the first matter, the transfers of right in land, these in all cases were to be governed by the fundamental principle enounced in ver. 23: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me."
Thus in the theocracy there was no such thing as either private or communal ownership in land. Just as in some lands to-day the only owner of the land is the king, so it was in Israel; but in this case the King was Jehovah. From this it follows, evidently, that properly speaking, according to this law, there could be no such thing in Israel as a sale or purchase of land. All that 493 any man could buy or sell was the right to its products, and that, again, only for a limited time; for every fiftieth year the land was to revert to the family to whom its use had been originally assigned. Hence the regulations (vv. 14-19) regarding such transfers of the right to the use of the land. They are all governed by the simple and equitable principle that the price paid for the usufruct of the land was to be exactly proportioned to the number of years which were to elapse between the date of the sale and the reversion of the land, which would take place in the jubilee. Thus, the price for such transfer of right in the first year of the jubilee period would be at its maximum, because the sale covered the right to the produce of the land for forty-nine years; while, on the other hand, in the case of a transfer made in the forty-eighth year, the price would have fallen to a very small amount, as only the product of one year's cultivation remained to be sold, and after the ensuing sabbatic year the land would revert in the jubilee to the original holder. The command to keep in mind this principle, and not wrong one another, is enforced (vv. 17-19) by the injunction to do this because of the fear of God; and by the promise that if Israel will obey this law, they shall dwell in safety, and have abundance.
In vv. 24-28, after the declaration of the fundamental law that the land belongs only to the Lord, and that they are to regard themselves as simply His tenants, "sojourners with Him," a second application of the law is made. First, it is ordered that in every case, and without reference to the year of jubilee, every landholder who through stress of poverty may be obliged to sell the usufruct of his land shall retain the right to redeem it. Three cases are assumed. First 494 (ver. 25), it is ordered that if the poor man have lost his land, and have a kinsman who is able to redeem it, he shall do so. Secondly (ver. 26), if he have no such kinsman, but himself become able to redeem it, it shall be his privilege to do so. In both cases alike, "the overplus," i.e., the value of the land for the years still remaining till the jubilee, for which the purchaser had paid, is to be restored to him, and then the land reverts at once, without waiting for the jubilee, to the original proprietor. The third case (ver. 28) is that of the poor man who has no kinsman to buy back his landholding, and never becomes able to do so himself. In such a case, the purchaser was to hold it until the jubilee year, when the land reverted without compensation to the family of the poor man who had transferred it. That this was strictly equitable is self-evident, when we remember that, according to the law previously laid down, the purchaser had only paid for the value of the product of the land until the jubilee year; and when he had received its produce for that time, naturally and in strict equity his right in the land terminated.
The Jubilee and Dwelling Houses.
"And if a man sell a dwelling house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; for a full year shall he have the right of redemption. And if it be not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be made sure in perpetuity to him that bought it, throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubilee. But the houses of the villages which have no wall round about them shall be reckoned with the fields of the country: they may be redeemed, and they shall go out in the jubilee. Nevertheless the cities of the Levites, the houses of the cities of their possession, may the Levites redeem at any time. And if one of the Levites redeem [not], then the house that was sold, and the 495 city of his possession, shall go out in the jubilee: for the houses of the cities of the Levites are their possession among the children of Israel. But the field of the suburbs of their cities may not be sold; for it is their perpetual possession."
In vv. 29-34 is considered the application of the jubilee ordinance to the sale of dwelling houses: first (vv. 29-31), to such sale in case of the people generally; secondly (vv. 32-34), to sales of houses by the Levites. Under the former head we have first the law as regards sales of dwelling houses in "walled cities;" to which it is ordered that the law of reversion in the jubilee shall not apply, and for which the right of redemption was only to hold valid for one year. The obvious reason for exempting houses in cities from the law of reversion is that the law has to do only with land such as may be used in a pastoral or agricultural way for man's support. And this explains why, on the other hand, it is next ordered (ver. 31) that in the case of houses in unwalled villages the law of redemption and reversion in the jubilee shall apply as well as to the land. For the inhabitants of the villages were the herdsmen and cultivators of the soil; and the house was regarded rightly as a necessary attachment to the land, without which its use would not be possible. But inasmuch as God had assigned no landholding to the Levites in the original distribution of the land,—and apart from their houses they had no possession (ver. 33),—in order to secure them in the privilege of a permanent holding, such as others enjoyed in their lands, it was ordered that in their case their houses, as being their only possession in real estate, should be treated as were the landholdings of members of the other tribes.4848The interpretation of ver. 33 presents a difficulty which, if the rendering retained in the text by the Revisers be accepted, is hard to resolve. But if we assume that a negative has fallen out of the first clause in the received text, and read with the Vulgate, as given in the margin of the Revised Version, "if one of the Levites redeem not," all becomes clear. In the exposition we have ventured to assume in this instance the correctness of the Vulgate.
The relation of the jubilee law to personal rights in the land having been thus determined and expounded, in the next place (vv. 35-55) is considered the application of the law to slavery. Quite naturally, this section begins (vv. 35-37) with a general injunction to assist and deal mercifully with any brother who has become poor. "If thy brother be waxen poor, and his hand fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a sojourner shall he live with thee. Take thou no usury of him or increase; but fear thy God: that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor give him thy victuals for increase."
The evident object of this law is to prevent, as far as possible, that extreme of poverty which might compel a man to sell himself in order to live. Debt is a burden in any case, to a poor man especially; but debt is the heavier burden when to the original debt is added the constant payment of interest. Hence, not merely "usury" in the modern sense of excessive interest, but it is forbidden to claim or take any interest whatever from any Hebrew debtor. On the same principle, it is forbidden to take increase for food which may be lent to a poor brother; as when one lets a man have twenty bushels of wheat on condition that in due time he shall return for it twenty-two. This command is enforced (ver. 38) by reminding them from whom they have received what they have, and on what easy terms, as a gift; from their covenant God, who is Himself their 497 security that by so doing they shall not lose: "I am the Lord your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God." They need not therefore have recourse to the exaction of interest and increase from their poor brethren in order to make a living, but are to be merciful, even as Jehovah their God is merciful.
The Jubilee and Slavery.
"And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee; thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant: as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee: then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. For they are My servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have; of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession; of them shall ye take your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour. And if a stranger or sojourner with thee be waxen rich, and thy brother be waxen poor beside him, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner with thee, or to the stock of the stranger's family: after that he is sold he may be redeemed; one of his brethren may redeem him: or his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be waxen rich, he may redeem himself. And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he sold himself to him unto the year of jubilee: and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years; according to the time of an hired servant shall he be with him. If there be yet many years, according unto them he shall give back the price of his redemption out of the money 498 that he was bought for. And if there remain but few years unto the year of jubilee, then he shall reckon with him; according unto his years shall he give back the price of his redemption. As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him: he shall not rule with rigour over him in thy sight. And if he be not redeemed by these means, then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, he, and his children with him. For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
Even with the burdensomeness of debt lightened as above, it was yet possible that a man might be reduced to poverty so extreme that he should feel compelled to sell himself as a slave. Hence arises the question of slavery, and its relation to the law of the jubilee. Under this head two cases were possible: the first, where a man had sold himself to a fellow-Hebrew (vv. 39-46); the second, where a man had sold himself to a foreigner resident in the land (vv. 47-55).
With the Hebrews and all the neighbouring peoples, slavery was, and had been from of old, a settled institution. Regarded simply as an abstract question of morals, it might seem as if the Lord might once for all have abolished it by an absolute prohibition; after the manner in which many modern reformers would deal with such evils as the liquor traffic, etc. But the Lord was wiser than many such. As has been remarked already, in connection with the question of concubinage, that law is not in every case the best which may be the best intrinsically and ideally. That law is the best which can be best enforced in the actual moral status of the people, and consequent condition of public opinion. So the Lord did not at once prohibit slavery; but He ordained laws which would restrict it, and modify and ameliorate the condition of the slave wherever 499 slavery was permitted to exist; laws, moreover, which have had such an educational power as to have banished slavery from the Hebrew people.
In the first place, slavery, in the unqualified sense of the word, is allowed only in the case of non-Israelites. That it was permitted to hold these as bondmen is explicitly declared (vv. 44-46). It is, however, important, in order to form a correct idea of Hebrew slavery, to observe that, according to Exod. xxi. 16, man-stealing was made a capital offence; and the law also carefully guarded from violence and tyranny on the part of the master the non-Israelite slave lawfully gotten, even decreeing his emancipation from his master in extreme cases of this kind (Exod. xxi. 20, 21, 26, 27).
With regard to the Hebrew bondman, the law recognises no property of the master in his person; that a servant of Jehovah should be a slave of another servant of Jehovah is denied; because they are His servants, no other can own them (vv. 42, 55). Thus, while the case is supposed (ver. 39) that a man through stress of poverty may sell himself to a fellow-Hebrew as a bondservant, the sale is held as affecting only the master's right to his service, but not to his person. "Thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant: as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee."
Further, it is elsewhere provided (Exod. xxi. 2) that in no case shall such sale hold valid for a longer time than six years; in the seventh year the man was to have the privilege of going out free for nothing. And in this chapter is added a further alleviation of the bondage (vv. 40, 41): "He shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee: then shall he go out from thee, 500 he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. For they are My servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen."
That is, if it so happened that before the six years of his prescribed service had been completed the jubilee year came in, he was to be exempted from the obligation to service for the remainder of that period.
The remaining verses of this part of the law (vv. 44-46) provide that the Israelite may take to himself bondmen of "the children of the strangers" that sojourn among them; and that to such the law of the periodic release shall not be held to apply. Such are "bondmen for ever." "Ye shall make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession; of them shall ye take your bondmen for ever."
It is to be borne in mind that even in such cases the law which commanded the kind treatment of all the strangers in the land (xix. 33, 34) would apply; so that even where permanent slavery was allowed it was placed under humanising restriction.
In vv. 47-55 is taken up, finally, the case where a poor Israelite should have sold himself as a slave to a foreigner resident in the land. In all such cases it is ordered that the owner of the man must recognise the right of redemption. That is, it was the privilege of the man himself, or of any of his near kindred, to buy him out of bondage. Compensation to the owner however, enjoined in such cases according to the number of the years remaining to the next jubilee, at which time he would be obliged to release him (ver. 54), whether redeemed or not. Thus we read (vv. 50-52): "He shall reckon with him that bought him from the 501 year that he sold himself to him unto the year of jubilee: and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years; according to the time of an hired servant shall he be with him. If there be yet many years, according unto them he shall give back the price of his redemption out of the money that he was bought for. And if there remain but few years unto the year of jubilee, then he shall reckon with him; according unto his years shall he give back the price of his redemption. As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him."
Furthermore, it is commanded (ver. 53) that the owner of the Israelite, for so long time as he may remain in bondage, shall "not rule over him with rigour;" and by the addition of the words "in thy sight" it is intimated that God would hold the collective nation responsible for seeing that no oppression was exercised by any alien over any of their enslaved brethren. To which it should also be added, finally, that the regulations for the release of the slave carefully provided for the maintenance of the family relation. Families were not to be parted in the emancipation of the jubilee; the man who went out free was to take his children with him (vv. 41, 54). In the case, however, where the wife had been given him by his master, she and her children remained in bondage after his emancipation in the seventh year; but of course only until she had reached her seventh year of service. But if the slave already had his wife when he became a slave, then she and their children went out with him in the seventh year (Exod. xxi. 3, 4). The contrast in the spirit of these laws with that of the institution of slavery as it formerly existed in the Southern States of America and elsewhere in Christendom, is obvious.
These, then, were the regulations connected with the 502 application of the ordinance of the jubilee year to rights of property, whether in real estate or in slaves. In respect to the cessation from the cultivation of the soil which was enjoined for the year, the law was essentially the same as that for the sabbatic year, except that, apparently, the right of property in the spontaneous produce of the land, which was in abeyance in the former case, was in so far recognised in the latter that each man was allowed to "eat the increase of the jubilee year out of the field" (ver. 12).
Practical Objects of the Sabbatic Year and Jubilee Law.
Such was this extraordinary legislation, the like of which will be sought in vain in any other people. It is indeed true that, in some instances, ancient lawgivers decreed that land should not be permanently alienated, or that individuals should not hold more than a certain amount of land. Thus, for example, the Lacedemonians were forbidden to sell their lands, and the Dalmatians were wont to redistribute their lands every eight years. But laws such as these only present accidental coincidences with single features of the jubilee year; an agreement to be accounted for by the fact that the aim of such lawgivers was, in so far, the same as that of the Hebrew code, that they sought thus to guard against excessive accumulations of property in the hands of individuals, and those consequent great inequalities in the distribution of wealth which, in all lands and ages, and never more clearly than in our own, have been seen to be fraught with the gravest dangers to the highest interests of society. Beyond this single point we shall search in vain the history of 503 any other people for an analogy to these laws concerning the sabbatic and the jubilee year.
What was the immediate object of this remarkable legislation? It is not irrelevant to observe that in so far as regards the prescription of a periodic rest to the land, agricultural science recognises that this is an advantage, especially in places where it may be difficult to obtain fertilisers for the soil in adequate amount. But it cannot be supposed that this was the chief object of these ordinances, not even in so far as they had respect to the land. We shall not err in regarding them as intended, like all in the Levitical system, to make Israel to be in reality, what they were called to be, a people holy, i.e., fully consecrated to the Lord. The bearing of these laws on this end is not hard to perceive.
In the first place, the law of the sabbatic year and the jubilee was a most impressive lesson as to the relation of God to what men call their property; and, in particular, as to His relation to man's property in land. By these ordinances every Israelite was to be reminded in a most impressive way that the land which he tilled, or on which he fed his flocks and herds, belonged, not to himself, but to God. Just as God taught him that his time belonged to Him, by putting in a claim for the absolute consecration to Himself of every seventh day, so here He reminded Israel that the land belonged to Him, by asserting a similar claim on the land every seventh year, and twice in a century for two years in succession.
No one will pretend that the law of the sabbatic year or the jubilee is binding on communities now. But it is a question for our times as to whether the basal principle regarding the relation of God to land, and by necessary consequence the right of man regarding 504 land, which is fundamental to these laws, is not in its very nature of perpetual force. Surely, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that God's ownership of the land was limited to the land of Palestine, or to that land only during Israel's occupancy of it. Instead of this, Jehovah everywhere represents Himself as having given the land to Israel, and therefore by necessary implication as having a like right over it while as yet the Canaanites were dwelling in it. Again, the purpose of God's dealing with Egypt is said to be that Pharaoh might know this same truth: that the earth (or land) was the Lord's (Exod. ix. 29); and in Psalm xxiv. 1 it is stated, as a broad truth, without qualification or restriction, that the earth is the Lord's, as well as that which fills it. It is true that there is no suggestion in any of these passages that the relation of God to the earth or to the land is different from His relation to other property; but it is intended to emphasise the fact that in the use of land, as of all else, we are to regard ourselves as God's stewards, and hold and use it as in trust from Him.
The vital relation of this great truth to the burning questions of our day regarding the rights of men in land is self-evident. It does not indeed determine how the land question should be dealt with in any particular country, but it does settle it that if in these matters we will act in the fear of God, we must keep this principle steadily before us, that, primarily, the land belongs to the Lord, and is to be used accordingly. How, as a matter of fact, God did order that the land should be used, in the only instance when He has condescended Himself to order the political government of a nation, we have already seen, and shall presently consider more fully.
It is obvious that the natural and therefore intended effect of these regulations, if obeyed, would have been to impose a constant and powerful check upon man's natural covetousness and greed of gain. Every seventh year the Hebrew was to pause in his toil for wealth, and for one whole year he was to waive even his ordinary right to the spontaneous produce of his fields; which year of abstinence from sowing and reaping once in fifty years was doubled. Add to this the strict prohibition of lending money upon interest to a fellow-Israelite, and we can see how far-reaching and effective, if obeyed, were such regulations likely to be in restraining that insatiate greed for riches which ever grows the more by that which feeds it.
Yet again; the law of the sabbatic year and the jubilee was adapted to serve also as a singularly powerful discipline in that faith toward God which is the soul of all true religion. In this practical way every Hebrew was to be taught that "man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." The lesson is ever hard to learn, though none the less necessary. This thought is alluded to in ver. 20, where it is supposed that a man might raise the very natural objection to these laws, "What shall we eat the seventh year?" To which the answer is given, with reference even to the extreme case of the jubilee year: "I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for the three years; until the ninth year ... ye shall eat the old store."
But probably the most prominent and important object of the regulations in this chapter was to secure, as far as possible, the equal distribution of wealth, by preventing excessive accumulations either of land or of 506 capital in the hands of a few, while the mass should be sunk in poverty. It is certain that these laws, if carried out, would have had a marvellous effect in this respect. As for capital, we all know what an important factor in the production of wealth is accumulation by interest on loans, especially when the interest is constantly compounded. There can be no doubt of its immense power as an instrument for at once enriching the lender and in proportion impoverishing the borrower. But among the Israelites, to receive interest or its equivalent was prohibited. One other chief cause of the excessive wealth of individuals among us, as in all ages, is the acquirement in perpetuity by individuals of a disproportionate amount of the public land. The condition of things in the United Kingdom is familiar to all, with its inevitable effect on the condition of large masses of people; and in parts of the United States there are indications of a like tendency working toward the similar disadvantage of many small landholders and cultivators. But in Israel, if these laws should be carried into effect, such a state of things, so often witnessed among other nations, was made for ever impossible. Individual ownership in the land itself was forbidden; no man was allowed more than a leasehold right; nor could he, even by adding largely to his leaseholds, increase his wealth indefinitely, so as to transmit a fortune to his children, to be still further augmented by a similar process in the next and succeeding generations; for every fifty years the jubilee came around, and whatever leaseholds he might have acquired from less fortunate brethren, reverted unconditionally to the original owner or his legal heirs.
However impracticable such arrangements may seem to us under the conditions of modern life, yet it must 507 be confessed that in the case of a nation just starting on its career in a new country, as was Israel at that time, nothing could well be thought of more likely to be effective toward securing, along with careful regard to the rights of property, an equal distribution of wealth among the people, than the legislation which is placed before us in this chapter.
It deserves to be specially noticed by how exact equity the laws are distinguished. While, on the one hand, excessive accumulations, either of capital or of land, were thus made impossible, there is here nothing of the destructive communism advocated by many in our day. These laws put no premium on laziness; for if a man, through indolence or vice, was compelled to sell out his right in his land, he had no security of obtaining it again until the jubilee; that is to say, upon an average, during his working lifetime. On the other hand, encouragement was given to industry, as a man who was thrifty might, by purchase of leaseholds, materially increase his wealth and comfort in life. And the effect on inheritance is evident. There could, on the one hand, be no inheritance of such colossal and overgrown fortunes as are possible in our modern states,—no blessing, certainly, in many cases, to the heirs; and neither, on the other hand, could there be any inheritance of hopeless and degrading poverty. A man might have had an indolent or a vicious father, who had thus forfeited his landholding; but while the father would doubtless suffer deserved poverty during his active life, the young man, when the jubilee returned, and the lost paternal inheritance reverted to him, would have the opportunity to see whether he might not, with his father's experience before him as a warning, do better, and retrieve the fortunes of the 508 family. In any case, he would not start upon the work of life weighted, as are multitudes among us, with a crushing and almost irremovable burden of poverty.
It is certain, no doubt, that these laws are not morally binding now; and no less certain, probably, that failing, as they did, to secure observance in Israel, such laws, even if enacted, could not in our day be practically carried out any more than then. Nevertheless, so much we may safely say, that the intention and aim of these laws as regards the equal distribution of wealth in the community ought to be the aim of all wise legislation now. It is certain that all good government ought to seek in all righteous and equitable ways to prevent the formation in the community of classes, either of the excessively rich or of the excessively poor. Absolute equality in this respect is doubtless unattainable, and in a world intended for purposes of moral training and discipline were even undesirable; but extreme wealth or extreme poverty are certainly evils to the prevention of which our legislators may well give their minds. Only it needs also to be kept in mind that these Hebrew laws no less distinctly teach us that this end is to be sought only in such a way as shall neither, on the one hand, put a premium on laziness and vice, nor, on the other, deny to the virtuous and industrious the advantage which industry and virtue deserve, of additional wealth, comfort, and exemption from toilsome drudgery.
In close connection with all this it will be observed that all this legislation, while guarding the rights of the rich, is evidently inspired by that same merciful regard for the poor which marks the Levitical law throughout. For in all these regulations it is assumed that there would still be poor in the land; but the law secured to 509 the poor great mitigations of poverty. Every seventh year the produce of the land was to be free alike to all; if one were poor his brother was to uphold him; when lending him, he was not to add to the debt the burden of interest or increase. And then there was to the poor man the ever-present assurance, which alone would take off half the bitterness of poverty, that through the coming of the jubilee the children at least would have a new chance, and start life on an equality, in respect of inheritance in land, with the sons of the richest. And when we remember the close connection between extreme poverty and every variety of crime, it is plain that the whole legislation is as admirably adapted to the prevention of crime as of abject and hopeless poverty. Well might Asaph use the words which he employs, with evident allusion to the trumpet sound which ushered in the jubilee: "Happy the people that know the joyful sound!" i.e., that have the blessed experience of the jubilee, that supreme earthly sabbatism of the people of God.4949See Psalm lxxxix. 15.
Most significant and full of instruction, no less to us than to Israel, was the ordinance that both the sabbatic and the jubilee years should date from the day of Atonement. It was when, having completed the solemn ritual of that day, the high priest put on again his beautiful garments and came forth, having made atonement for all the transgressions of Israel, that the trumpet of the jubilee was to be sounded. Thus was Israel reminded in the most impressive manner possible that all these social, civil, and communal blessings were possible only on condition of reconciliation with God through atoning blood; atonement in the highest and 510 fullest sense, which should reach even to the Holy of Holies, and place the blood on the very mercy-seat of Jehovah. This is true still, though the nations have yet to learn it. The salvation of nations, no less than that of individuals, is conditioned by national fellowship with God, secured through the great Atonement of the Lord. Not until the nations learn this lesson may we expect to see the crying evils of the earth removed, or the questions of property, of land-holding, of capital and labour, justly and happily solved.
Typical Significance of the Sabbatic and Jubilee Years.
But we must not forget that the sabbatic year and the year of jubilee, following the seventh seven of years, are the two last members of a sabbatic system of septenary periods, namely, the sabbath of the seventh day, the feast of Pentecost, following the expiry of the seventh week from Passover, and then the still more sacred seventh month, with its two great feasts, and the day of atonement intervening. But, as we have seen, we have good scriptural authority for regarding all these as typical. Each in succession brings out another stage or aspect of the great Messianic redemption, in a progressive revelation historically unfolding. In all of these alike we have been able to trace thoughts connected with the sabbatic idea, as pointing forward to the final rest, redemption, and consummated restoration, the sabbatism that remaineth to the people of God. To these preceding sabbatic periods these last two are closely related. Both alike began on the great day of atonement, in which all Israel was to afflict their souls in penitence for sin; and on that day they both began when the high priest came out from within the veil, 511 where, from the time of his offering the sin-offering, he had been hidden from the sight of Israel for a season; and both alike were ushered in with a trumpet blast.
We shall hardly go amiss if we see in both of these—first in the sabbatic year, and still more clearly in the year of jubilee—a prophetic foreshadowing in type of that final repentance of the children of Israel in the latter days, and their consequent re-establishment in their land, which the prophets so fully and explicitly predict. In that day they are to return, as the prophets bear witness, every man to the land which the Lord gave for an inheritance to their fathers. Indeed, one might say with truth that even the lesser restoration from Babylon was prefigured in this ordinance; but, without doubt, its chief and supreme reference must be to that greater restoration still in the future, of which we read, for example, in Isa. xi. 11, when "the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, which shall remain, from Assyria, and from Egypt, ... and from the islands of the sea."
But the typical reference of these sacred years of sabbatism reaches yet beyond what pertains to Israel alone. For not only, according to the prophets and apostles, is there to be a restoration of Israel, but also, as the Apostle Peter declared to the Jews (Acts iii. 19-21), closely connected with and consequent on this, a "restoration of all things." And it is in this great, final, and exceedingly glorious restoration of the time of the end that we recognise the ultimate antitype of these sabbatic seasons. When read in the light of later predictions they appear to point forward with singular distinctness to what, according to the Holy Word, shall be when Jesus Christ, the heavenly High Priest, shall come forth from within the veil; when the 512 last trumpet shall sound, and He who was "once offered to bear the sins of many" shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for Him, unto salvation (Heb. ix. 28).
Even in the beginning of the Pentateuch (Gen. iii. 17-19) it is explicitly taught that because of Adam's sin, the curse of God, in some mysterious way, fell even upon the material earthly creation. We read that the Lord said unto Adam: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground." It is because of sin, then, that man is doomed to labour, toilsome and imperfectly requited by an unwilling soil. It lies immediately before us that both the sabbatic year and the year of jubilee, by the ordinance regarding the rest for the land, and the special promise of sufficiency without exhausting labour, involved for Israel a temporary suspension of the full operation of this curse. The ordinance therefore points unmistakably in a prophetic way to what the New Testament explicitly predicts—the coming of a day when, with man redeemed, material nature also shall share the great deliverance. In a word, in the sabbatic year, and in a yet higher form in the year of jubilee, we have in symbol the wonderful truth which in the most didactic language is formally declared by the Apostle Paul in these words (Rom. viii. 19-22): "The earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage 513 of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now."
The jubilee year contained in type all this, and more. Where the sabbatic year had typically pointed only to a coming rest of the earth from the primeval curse, the jubilee, falling, not on a seventh, but on an eighth year, following immediately on the sabbatic seventh, pointed also to the permanence of this blessed condition. It is the festival, by eminence, of the new creation, of paradise completely and for ever restored.
Moreover, as falling in the fiftieth year, and therefore on an eighth year of the sabbatic calendar, the jubilee was to the week of years as the Lord's day to the week of days. Like that, it is the festival of resurrection. This is as clearly foreshadowed in the type as the other. For in the year of jubilee not only was the land to rest, but every bond-slave was to be released, and to return to his inheritance and to his family. In the light of what has preceded, and of other revelations of Scripture, we can hardly miss of perceiving the typical meaning of this. For what is the great event which the Apostle Paul, in the passage just cited, associates in time with the deliverance of the earthly creation, but "the redemption of the body," as the final issue of the atoning work of Christ? For as yet even believers are in bondage to death and the grave; but the day which is coming, the day of earth's redemption, shall bring to all that are Christ's, all that are Israelites indeed, deliverance "from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God."
And as the slave who was freed in the year of jubilee therewith also returned to his forfeited inheritance, 514 so also shall it be in that day. For precisely this is given us by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament (1 Peter i. 4, 5), as another aspect of the day when the heavenly Aaron shall come forth from the Holiest. For we are begotten unto an inheritance, reserved in heaven for us, "who by the power of God are guarded through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." Cast out through death from the inheritance of the earth, which in the beginning was given by God to our first father, and to his seed in him, but which was lost to him and to his children through his sin, the great jubilee of the future shall bring us again, every man who is in Christ by faith, into the lost inheritance, redeemed and glorified citizens of a redeemed and glorified earth. Hence it is that in Rev. xxii. we are shown in vision, first, the new earth, delivered from the curse, and then the New Jerusalem, the Church of the risen and glorified saints of God, descending from God out of heaven, to assume possession of the purchased inheritance.
And the law adds also: "Ye shall return every man unto his family;" which gives the last feature here prefigured of that supreme sabbatism which remaineth for the people of God (Heb. iv. 9). It shall bring the reunion of those who had been parted and scattered. The day of resurrection is accordingly spoken of (2 Thess. ii. 1) as a day of "gathering together" of all who, though one in Christ, have been rudely parted by death. And yet more, it will be "the day of our gathering together unto Him," even the blessed Lord Jesus Christ, the "Goel," the Kinsman-Redeemer of the ruined bondsmen and their lost inheritance: "Whom not having seen, we love," but then expect to see even as He is, and beholding Him, 515 be like Him, and be with Him for ever and for ever. Who should not long for the day?—the day when for the first time, this last type of Leviticus shall pass into complete fulfilment in the antitype; the day of "the restoration of all things;" the day of the deliverance of the material creation from her present bondage to corruption; the day also of the release of every true Israelite from the bondage of death, and the eternal establishment of all such with the Elder Brother, the First-begotten, in the enjoyment of the inheritance of the saints in light.
"Love, rest, and home! Sweet hope! Lord! tarry not, but COME!"
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