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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Jubilee, according to some a period of fifty years, according to others, though less probably, of forty-nine years, the termination of which led to certain great changes in the condition of the Hebrews, all of which seem to have been designed and fitted to bring about from time to time a restoration of the original social state instituted by Moses, and so to sustain in its unimpaired integrity the constitution of which he was the author.
Intimately connected with the Jubilee was another singular Mosaic institution, namely, the Sabbatical year. On this account we shall speak briefly of the latter, as preparatory to a right understanding of the former.
While yet wandering in the wilderness, and therefore, before they had entered 'the land of promise,' the children of Israel received from the lips of their great legislator the following law—'six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest; that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid and the stranger may be refreshed' ( sq.). This injunction is repeated in , where it stands as proceeding immediately from the Lord. The land is to keep 'a sabbath for the Lord.' Then in immediate sequence follows the law relating to the Jubilee (). 'And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years, forty and nine years; then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound in the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; and ye shall return every man unto his; possession and unto his family,' etc. etc. (). Land might be redeemed by a kinsman or by the party who sold it; but in the Jubilee year it must return to its original proprietor. Dwelling-houses within a walled city might be redeemed within the first year; if not redeemed within the space of a full year they became the freehold of the purchaser. The houses of villages were to be counted as the fields of the country. The cities and houses of the Levites were redeemable at any time, and could never be held longer than the ensuing Jubilee: the field of the suburbs of their cities might not be sold (). Israelites who were hired servants (Israelitish bond-servants were not allowed) might serve till the year of Jubilee, when they returned to their possessions. A Hebrew sold as a slave to a foreigner resident in Palestine was redeemable by himself or relatives at any time, by making payment according to the number of years to elapse before the next Jubilee; but at the Jubilee such bondsman was, under all circumstances, to be set at liberty (). The only exception to this system of general restitution was in the case of property set apart and devoted to the Divine service—'Every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord; none devoted shall be redeemed' ().
With these scriptural details the account given by Josephus (Antiq. iii. 12. 3) substantially agrees; and it is worthy of notice that the Jewish historian speaks of the law as a reality, as a present reality, as something in actual operation.
The time required by the Sabbatical year and by the Jubilee to be rescued from the labors of the field, was very considerable. Strictly interpreted the language we have cited would take out of the ordinary course of things every sixth, seventh, and eighth year, during each successive septenary, till the circle of fifty years was in each period completed. Nay more, the old store, produced in the sixth year, was to last until the ninth year, for the sixth year was to bring forth fruits for three years.
The reader has now before him the whole of this extraordinary piece of legislation, which, viewed in all its bearings—in its effects on human labor, on character, on religious institutions and observances, as well as on the general condition of society, no less than on the productiveness of the land, and the means of sustenance to its inhabitants—is wholly unparalleled by any event in the history of the world. It is, however, in strict harmony with the Mosaic economy.
The recurring periods of seven years are in keeping with the institution of the seventh day as a Sabbath for man and beast. The aim in both is similar—needful repose. The leading idea involved in the Jubilee—namely, restitution—also harmonizes with the fundamental principles of the Mosaic system. The land was God's, and was entrusted for use to the chosen people in such a way that every individual had his portion. A power of perpetual alienation would have been a virtual denial of God's sovereign rights, while the law of Jubilee was one continued recognition of them. The conception is purely theocratical in its whole character and tendencies. The theocracy was of such a nature as to disallow all subordinate 'thrones, principalities, and powers;' and consequently, to demand entire equality on the part of the people. But the power of perpetual alienation in regard to land would have soon given rise to the greatest inequalities of social condition, presenting splendid affluence on one side and sordid pauperism on the other. A passage in Deuteronomy (), when rightly understood, as in the marginal translation—'to the end that there be no poor among you'—seems expressly to declare that the aim in view, at least, of the Sabbatical release, was to prevent the rise of any great inequality of social condition, and thus to preserve unimpaired the essential character of the theocracy. Equally benevolent in its aim and tendency does this institution thus appear, showing how thoroughly the great Hebrew legislator cared and provided for individuals, instead of favoring classes. Beginning with a narrow cycle of seven days, he went on to a wider one of as many years, embracing at last seven times seven annual revolutions, seeking in all his arrangements rest for man and beast, and, by a happy personification, rest even for the brute earth; and in the rest which he required for human beings, providing for that more needful rest of mind which the sharp competitions and eager rivalries of modern society deny to ten thousand times ten thousand. As being of a benign character and tendency, the law of the Sabbatical and Jubilee year is in accordance with the general spirit of the Mosaic legislation, and appears not unworthy of its divine origin.
Warburton adduced this law in order to show that Moses was in truth sent and sustained by God, since nothing but a divine power could have given the necessary supplies of food in the sixth year; and no unprejudiced person can deny the force of the argument.
Now these laws either emanated from Moses, or they did not. If they did not, they arose after the settlement in Canaan, and are of such a nature as to convict their fabricator of imposture, if, indeed, any one could have been found so daring as to bring forth laws implying institutions which did not exist, and which under ordinary circumstances could not find permanence, even if they could ever be carried into operation at all. But if these laws emanated from Moses, is it credible that he would have given utterance to commands which convict themselves of impossibility? or caused the rise of institutions, which, if unsupported of heaven, must come to a speedy termination, and in so doing act to his own discredit as a professed divine messenger?
But it may be asked, Could the land sustain the people? On this point we find the following important passage in Palfrey's Lectures on the Jewish Scriptures, Boston, 1841, vol. 1 p. 303: 'I find no difficulty arising from any inadequacy of the produce of six years to afford sustenance to the people for seven. To say that this was intended would merely be to say that the design was that the consumption of each year should only amount on an average to six-sevenths of its produce. In such an arrangement it cannot be thought that there was anything impracticable. There are states of this Union which export yearly more than half their produce, and subsist substantially on the remainder, their imports consisting mostly of luxuries. Again, in England nearly three quarters of the families are engaged in commerce, manufactures, professions, and unproductive pursuits; but in Judea every man was a producer of food, with the advantage of a fine climate and a rich soil.'
In spite of all these arguments, some rationalistic writers have hazarded the surprising assertion that these laws were not executed before the Babylonish exile. But in addition to the proofs already mentioned, we have the positive evidence of the Roman historian Tacitus (Hist. v. 4), of Josephus (Antiq. xiv. 10, 6), of Ezekiel (), and of Isaiah (), to the observance of the Sabbatical year at least. And since the essential element of this system of law, namely, the Sabbatical year, was an established institution in the days of Tacitus, Josephus, the Maccabees, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, we think the fair and legitimate inference is in favor of those laws having been long previously observed, probably from the early periods of the Hebrew republic. Their existence in a declining state of the commonwealth cannot be explained without seeking their origin nearer the fountain-head of those pure, living waters, which, with the force of all primitive enthusiasm, easily effected great social wonders, especially when divinely guided and divinely sustained.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Jubilee'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/j/jubilee.html.