This next portion of the cycle is titled Behar (Leviticus 25-26:2), meaning “in (the) mount of,” and its status as one of my favourite parts of the Torah goes back many years, almost to when I first became a believer. … I remember sitting in my hostel room at uni and reading Leviticus 25 as a young Christian, and marvelling at how good and beautiful it was. I remember enjoying, hugely, the concepts of the year of release and the Jubilee, and delighting in the statutes concerning them because of how incredibly moral they were; and that’s what I’ll be focusing on in this post.
The 7th year of release is generally referred to as the שְׁמִטָּה (shemitta) year, a name derived from Deuteronomy 15:9 and 31:10. The word שְׁמִטָּה means a (temporary) remission, or suspension, and the arrival of this year marked 3 things for Israel: the cancellation of debts and indentured servanthood throughout the nation; the ceasing of all agricultural work on the land; and the public reading of the Torah to all the people when they gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles.
The shemitta is one of many cycles of 7 that characterise Jewish life, e.g. the 7-day week ending in the Sabbath; the 7-day celebrations of Unleavened Bread and Tabernacles that bookend God’s 7-feast calendar; the week-long cleansing period from ritual impurity; a week of celebration and mourning at weddings and funerals; and the traditional belief that creation will go through a 7000-year cycle where 6 millennia of human history will culminate in a final millennium of the Messiah’s reign.
The Jubilee, or יוֹבֵל (yoveil, meaning ram or ram’s horn), on the other hand, was a grand release and homecoming that occurred every 50 years, or after 7 cycles of the shemitta had passed. It was, one could say, the consummation of the liberty to which the shemitta years provided only a taste, when, on top of the cancellation of debt and ceasing of work, the ram’s horn was blown on the Day of Atonement and the land itself reverted to its original allotments of inheritance. Every man was then allowed to walk free, with his family, to return to their ancestral possession, so no one would ever be doomed to a life of permanent struggle and hopelessness.
Thus while the number 7 denotes perfecting or completion, the numbers 8 and 50, respectively, follow the numbers 7 and 49 (or 7 x 7) and so signify that which follows completion/perfection – an entering, if you will, of a transcendent reality that can only come, and indeed is only made possible, after all the work of a cycle of 7 is finished (personally, I tend to think of them as “jubilee” numbers).
So like the cycle of 7, a jubilee event (so to speak) can be measured in days or years. One sees it popping up in Scripture everywhere, for instance the Abrahamic covenant act of circumcision being carried out on the 8th day of a Hebrew baby’s life; the inauguration of the Tabernacle on the 8th day after a week of priestly consecration; the Feast of Pentecost (and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) taking place 50 days after Firstfruits (and the Resurrection); the 8th-day sabbath after the 7-day celebration of Tabernacles; the 50-year Jubilee itself; and of course, the new heavens and earth which are to come when the 7000 years of creation are concluded.
All these are events which mark the entering of a state of spiritual elevation and transcendence for God’s people; it tells us that God has a highly mathematical pattern to the way He deals with creation, and that ultimately, He’s sovereign in the design and timing of history. This results in the concept of His work (and the work of His people) having a beginning and end, and even a new beginning again, appearing throughout His word: regular cycles of completion both expansive and short, encompassing the mundane and the holy, marked by mini-sabbaths and jubilee-type events dotted across time, because He wants to reinforce in our consciousness the idea that He’s committed to finishing what He started – that He will carry out His will and see His work through to the end – because there’s something else, something better, waiting on the other side… and He wants us there with Him to experience it.
Thus no matter how bad things get in this life, how dark the world becomes, how heavy the weight of sin and debt on the account of humanity… there is a time coming when freedom will be declared, and an utterly new, entirely different era of peace, rest and refreshing ushered in, where all creation – man, animal and soil – will rejoice before Him, and be restored. This is the prophetic message of the shemitta and Jubilee laws.
But that’s not all… the Torah tells us that God is not merely a God of the destination, but the journey. The law makes it very clear that just because a release is coming, doesn’t mean that we can neglect how we conduct ourselves, or our affairs, in its anticipation. While instructing His people on how to reckon and observe the shemitta and Jubilee, God also provides, at the same time, twice the amount of Scripture telling them how they should value the sale of property and labour; how to treat their slaves and lend to the poor; and how they should honour the obligation to redeem individuals, homes and land even in the interim between Jubilees, e.g. in these passages excerpted from Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25:
If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him. … It shall not seem hard to you when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant in serving you six years. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.
In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another. According to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years of crops he shall sell to you. According to the multitude of years you shall increase its price, and according to the fewer number of years you shall diminish its price; for he sells to you according to the number of the years of the crops. Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.
If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you.
These passages send an unequivocal message that God’s ways are not to be abused, or exploited for loopholes. Rather, we are neither to be complacent toward ourselves because a release is coming, nor selfish concerning others precisely because it is. … I like to think, in fact, that when we look at the bigger picture to which the shemitta and Jubilee allude, we’re looking into the very heart of God’s plans and desires for our ultimate redemption, as well as the final rehabilitation of everything He’s made.
The Bible consistently highlights the truth that we’re to live with the coming liberty which God will proclaim in mind – to regularly remember and look forward to it – and to conduct our business accordingly: fairly, honestly, and with fear and trembling. Land, life and the liberty to enjoy them are from Him, and He has given it to us for a blessing; we should therefore not only look after our own interests concerning these things, but others – hence the command to fear Him and love our neighbour. Moreover, the fact the Jubilee is marked by the blowing of the ram’s horn on the Day of Atonement is a picture of how, after the great white throne judgement of Revelation 20, the heavens and earth will be recreated and the human race will return to its originally intended, ancestral portion: fellowship with God in the kingdom of heaven, in a world dewy from the touch of new creation. So nothing advantageous or wreckful in this life will last forever, and shouldn’t be allowed to unduly affect our behaviour and attitudes.
This is the reality to which the words of Behar point, and fittingly, it finds its prophetic climax in the last book of the Bible. And upon understanding this, one can then also see God’s greater purpose in commanding His people with these laws: He wanted them to bear the coming reality in mind, but also to declare through the way they lived and conducted their national life that this was going to be the shared future of the whole world. Truly they were to be a light to the nations.
This is why Paul exhorts in 1 Corinthians 6:5-10, concerning lawsuits between believers:
I say this to your shame … brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.
In the spirit of shemitta/Jubilee anticipation, Paul feels it’s better to conduct our affairs in such an honourable way that it were better for us to suffer loss than to cheat our brethren, and give a bad testimony to unbelievers as a result. This springs from a redeemed mindset which looks not toward present gain, nor dwells overly on personal injustice, but rather casts its hope and trust forward to the coming kingdom and its release;
For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 5:5-6)
The Scripture adjures that our hearts should not be grieved or grudging in lending; that it shall not seem hard to us to give; that we shouldn’t deem being generous a loss; and that we shouldn’t oppress one another (or if we ourselves are oppressed, that we shouldn’t repay in kind). … All of which are things easier said than done, of course, but which are no less true and needful, for there is a time coming when justice will be carried out and wrongs redressed, and for the sake of surviving this coming judgement, we ought to look to ourselves and be concerned for the eternal welfare of others. For:
Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie. (Revelation 22:14-15)
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
Some of these sins listed aren’t explicitly associated with a lack of the kindness and generosity required by shemitta/Jubilee awareness, but they do have much to do with loving God and one’s neighbour. And because God is Creator and Judge, who will deal with His creation both justly and redemptively, we need to bear the glory of the new heavens and earth in mind – just as the Israelites were commanded to observe the shemitta and reckon the Jubilee – keeping track of time and counting up every year on the temporal highway to our great release, so we may live in a way which reflects that eternity-dwelling, God-fearing perspective.