Leviticus 25 – The Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee


Leviticus 25


In Leviticus 25, the Lord commands the Israelites to observe a Sabbath for the land and to observe the Year of Jubilee, a time of liberation.


The priestly writers place a special emphasis on the Sabbath, beginning in Genesis 2:2-3, and continuing through Exodus into the book of Leviticus. In the list of “appointed festivals” and “holy convocations” in chapter 23, the weekly Sabbath takes first place. The Israelites are to work for six days, but the seventh day is to be “a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation” (23:3; see also 26:2). In chapter 25, even the land is granted a Sabbath rest. Every seventh year, the land is to lie fallow. No sowing of fields or pruning of vineyards is allowed in this Sabbath year. Echoing the commandment in chapter 23, it is to be “a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the LORD” (25:4). The Israelites, their servants, their livestock, and even the wild animals are allowed to eat what the land produces of itself in that Sabbath year, as well as what they have stored from the sixth year, and the promise is that there will be enough food for all (see 25:20-22).

The text goes on to speak of what could be called a Sabbath of Sabbaths. The Year of Jubilee is set by counting off “seven Sabbaths of years,” or seven times seven years. The fiftieth year, then, is to be the Year of Jubilee (25:8-10). It is proclaimed with the blowing of the ram’s horn on the Day of Atonement, the tenth day of the seventh month.

The Year of Jubilee is a time of Sabbath rest, a time of homecoming, and a time of liberation. The land is to lie fallow, as it does in the Sabbath year. Each Israelite is to return to his ancestral land and to his clan. Debts are to be forgiven, Israelite slaves are to be set free, and land is to be returned to its proper owners. In other words, if a person falls on hard times and is forced to sell his land or himself to pay off debts, the sale is not permanent. Both land and people are set free in the Year of Jubilee.

This vision of liberation is based on two primary theological claims. The land belongs not to the one who buys it, but to the Lord: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (25:23). Likewise, Israelites may not be anyone’s slaves, “For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (25:42; see also 25:55). Both the land and the people belong to the Lord, and both are released in the Year of Jubilee from any illegitimate claim on them.

Leviticus 25 also provides for “redemption” of land and people between Jubilee years. If land or people are sold to pay off debts, the nearest relative of the debtor is to “redeem” the land or person by buying them back. The purchase price is to be computed according to the years until the Jubilee. That is, the buyer, either the original buyer or the redeemer, is purchasing harvests, not the land itself. The buyer is paying for people’s labor, not for the people themselves (25:15-16, 23-34, 47-55). If there is no one to redeem the land or people, both are released in the Jubilee.

This remarkable vision of the Jubilee–a vision of economic justice and liberation–has inspired people for thousands of years. Most recently, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the year 2000 as the Year of Jubilee, and “Jubilee” has become the name of a movement of religious communities and others who are calling for the forgiveness of crippling third-world debt. That same Jubilee vision was expressed thousands of years ago in Isaiah 61:1-2: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” It is significant, of course, that Jesus announces the fulfillment of this Jubilee vision in his own life and ministry (Luke 4:16-21). Restoration of that which is lost, liberation of land and people, forgiveness of debts, homecoming, and Sabbath rest–such is the extraordinary vision of Jubilee.