Sabbath, sabbath year and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25)

The Sabbath day, a day of rest from labour, occurred every seventh day in ancient Israel. The Sabbath day was intricately connected to God’s covenant with His people. According to Deuteronomy 5:12-15 the purpose of the Sabbath was to remind God’s people that they had been slaves in Egypt and that He had delivered them and brought them into the promised land, their “resting place” (see Deuteronomy 19:9, Psalm 95:11).

Exodus 20:11 roots the Sabbath in creation, when the Lord blessed the Sabbath and “made it holy” (Genesis 2:2-3). At the end of creation God’s rest and His consecration of the seventh day as a Sabbath rest for humans became the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Failure to observe the Sabbath was tantamount to rejecting the covenant and thus resulted both in excommunication and divine punishment (cf. Exodus 31:14, Nehemiah 13:17-18, Ezekiel 20:13).

According to Leviticus 25 the principle of the Sabbath day was extended to legislation of a “sabbatical year” every seven years and a Jubilee” every fifty years (that is, after seven times seven years). Leviticus 25:4 stipulated that every seventh year the Israelites were to give the land a “sabbath of rest” and to allow anyone, including slaves and sojourners (temporary residents), to gather the produce that had grown that year. Then, every fiftieth year, following “seven Sabbaths of years”, those who had acquired others’ ancestral lands were obligated to return them to their original owners (Leviticus 25:8-10). Israelite slaves were also to be released and allowed to return to their families (Leviticus 25:39-41). Had this been practiced (it appears that the laws regarding the sabbath and Jubilee years went largely unheeded prior to the exile), this sabbatical system would have helped to restore social equality by checking the mass accumulation of wealth by a few, providing less fortunate Israelites a way out of permanent servitude and offering a second chance to debtors at least once during their lifetimes.

It is significant that the Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 25:9), when all the people – free and slave, landowner and tenant, as well as the land itself – were purified from sin and uncleanness (Leviticus 16:29-30). The Day of Atonement reminded the Israelites of their own forgiveness and deliverance from  the curse of sin, and the release of slaves was to be their response to the grace of God. Sabbath day, sabbath year and Jubilee each reaffirmed to the Israelites that their Creator and Redeemer owned the title to their land, as well as their very lives (Leviticus 25:23, 55).

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