Here is another entry on my reading of Jacob Milgrom’s commentary, Leviticus.
Leviticus 25 contains the laws of Jubilee. The word “Jubilee” probably refers to the ram’s horn mentioned in verse 9 as being sounded to announce the 50th year. Compare it with Gabriel’s trumpet that announces the resurrection and the end times in the New Testament.
It meant the redemption of debts, the freeing of slaves, and the return of forfeited land to the original families entitled to it. Milgrom shows that amnesties of this kind occurred in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. But they occurred when the burden of debt became so great that it threatened the economy–kind of like the recent bail-outs in the United States. In Israel, in contrast, the Jubilee years came about on a sabbatical calendar. They were periodic, not occasioned by the economy.
Many have claimed that these laws are Utopian and never actually were enforced in Israel. Milgrom argues that there is evidence that the laws were largely observed, although not enforced in post-exilic Israel. They were not enforced because there are no enforcement clauses in Leviticus 25. There are no penalties proscribed for violations. These laws had moral force only.
Yet Milgrom believes that there was a real effort to follow the law.
He spends some time arguing that the law requiring land to lie fallow for a year was not that much of an agricultural hardship.
I think he is right about this. Unirrigated farmland needed to lie fallow on a rotating basis anyway. On the farm I grew up on we did what was called strip farming. Alternating strips of land were left as stubble in alternating years. So it is quite possible that half the land in Israel was left unfarmed every year anyway. In the sixth year, they may have farmed all or most of the land so as to produce a surplus to cover the Sabbath year. (More and more modern farmers are using chemical techniques to get around leaving part of their land unfarmed. We will have to see if this works in the long run.)
There is a big difference between the way others saw property rights and the way the Hebrew Bible saw them. In Egypt, for instance, all the land belonged to the Pharaoh. In other cultures as well, the Crown was ultimate owner of all land. Israel, however, went through a long period when there was no king. There was a village-based culture. The land around the village belonged to the clan. But Yahwists also believed that God was the king of Israel. So the Crown did own the land in the sense that God was the Crown.
This became more complicated when there was a human king. The story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) illustrates this. Naboth did not believe he had a right to sell his land, even to the king. Leviticus 25:23 states the principal. The land belongs to God. So you do not have the right to permanently sell it. The secondary ownership of the land was with the clan, not the individual. Although Leviticus, according to Milgrom, shows an evolving trend toward private property.
The effect of the property laws was to prevent feudalism, where rich people owned vast estates and most of the people were serfs. The land, according to Leviticus, had to keep going back to the clans who were originally allotted land.
Two other things for today:
First, I am struck by the difference between walled cities and villages in verses 29 and 31. There was one law for Jerusalem and a different law for the countryside. To me, this means that for the social situation outside Jerusalem in the eighth century, we should pay careful attention to Micah. He was from the village culture. Isaiah and Jeremiah were Jerusalem prophets.
Second, with regard to slavery, the modern view of human rights just was not a factor. An Israelite could not be somebody’s slave, because he or she was God’s slave. There was no appeal to our view that we belong to ourselves.
In Egypt the Crown owned the land, but he also owned you. So farmers farmed the Pharaoh’s land and, in the season of the Nile flood, they were conscripted to work on the Pharaoh’s building projects. This may have been the situation of the Israelites (Exodus 1:14). Except for the rigor of the labor required of them, the Israelites were in the same situation as all subjects of Pharaoh.
Their freedom came when they transferred from being owned by Pharaoh to being owned by God. This is essential to the whole biblical concept of redemption. So the notion of property rights about land gets treated in the same chapter of Leviticus that deals with people as property. The overarching view is that both real estate and people ultimately are the property of God.