Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Giant Reset Button

Photo: Flattop341
Baruch Davidson notes that the Jubilee year is not observed or commemorated in modern Israel.

Before the Assyrian conquest of the northern portion of the divided kingdom in the sixth century BC, Davidson says, the Jubilee was regularly celebrated. But a dispute over the interpretation of the words “all who live on it” in Leviticus 25:10 has led many Jews to conclude that the festive year of freedom may only be celebrated when all twelve tribes are living in the Promised Land. So until the return of the ten “lost” tribes, the Jubilee is on hold.

That may not seem a big deal today. It would have been a huge deal to an Israelite in the years before the Assyrian captivity.

The National Reboot

Back then, the Jubilee functioned as a giant reset button, a national reboot. Everything about Israel’s economy turned on it.

“Jubilee” is an English word that comes from the Hebrew yowbel, meaning “ram’s horn” or “trumpet” (because some ancient trumpets were made of ram’s horns), and by association, a “joyful sound”. It was the name given to every fiftieth year in ancient Israel, a holy year-long celebration in which bondservants became free citizens, land and houses that had been sold to pay debt were returned to their original owners and nobody did traditional farm work. The national holiday was announced with trumpets on the tenth day of the seventh month of the 49th year of each Jubilee cycle and celebrated throughout the following year.

The Economic Impact of Jubilee

You can imagine how this impacted Israel’s economy. The Jubilee became the basis upon which all property was valued. Something was worth exactly the amount of use you would get from it until the next Jubilee. If Avram down the street from me was going broke and offered to sell me his field to bail out his family, the value of his property hinged on the number of years left until Jubilee. If Jubilee was next year, his property was worth no more than I could realize from a single crop, and I would pay him accordingly, since the land he was selling me would shortly be his again. On the other hand, if Jubilee were 40 years down the road, I’d be paying Avram a stiffer price but reaping a considerably greater long-term benefit from the deal.

Because of Jubilee, in Israel no land or property purchase was permanent. You had use of certain goods, people or property for a particular period. It was up to you to do something useful with them that would be to your long term advantage while you had them, because one day … poof! They’d be yours no more.

(You can probably make the blindingly obvious application to the Christian life right here, can’t you? But I have a few hours to spare today so I’ll finish up just in case.)

Thus it became critical in one’s business dealings to be right on top of the number of years to Jubilee. Failure to do so could be disastrous. In Israel, ignorance of the Jubilee could bankrupt you. If Jubilee was just around the corner, that piece of land, that house or that hired servant you overpaid for was worthless. The house or land would revert. The servant would be freed.

The Cost of Blissful Ignorance

You might think that would never happen. Who would forget such a thing? Well, fifty years is a long time and there’s a sucker born every minute. Maybe there were not quite 25,754,400 suckers born in Israel between each Jubilee celebration but in those intervals all kinds of Israelites lived and died: poor ones, rich ones, astute ones, not-so-astute ones, alert ones, distracted ones, desperate ones ... in short, in every forty-nine year period prior to Jubilee some people forgot all about the looming financial relief. Jehovah anticipated there would be people in Israel whose failure to take into account the coming Jubilee in their business dealings would make them prey for more wolfish business minds. To prevent this, he mandated that “You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God”. Human nature (and Israel’s chequered history) suggests plenty of fraud probably happened anyway.

The point is, there was a giant reset button in everybody’s future, but not everyone remembered it was there when it mattered to them.

The Last Trumpet

There’s a giant reset button in our future too.

It is not so much that we are to be returned to some blissful Garden-of-Eden-like state we’ve never experienced (though in many ways the coming millennial reign of Christ will have its Edenic qualities), but that the existing order of this world will be overturned by the return of Jesus Christ in ways far more dramatic and final than any mere Jubilee relief, and our reasons to celebrate will be many orders of magnitude greater than those in Israel who had their inheritance returned in the Jubilee.

When Jesus Christ returns for his people, Paul tells us, just like the Jubilee year it will be announced with a trumpet blast:
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
The difference is this: most people in Israel knew when Jubilee was coming. But whether we mean his return in judgment to the world or his return for his people in the air, nobody knows when the Lord Jesus is coming.

The Spiritual Jubilee

Accordingly, Paul tells us, we are to live as if the Lord might arrive for us at any moment; to order our lives as if the reset button might be pushed in the next second or two; to anticipate his return as if our spiritual Jubilee begins tomorrow.

If I am to consider that my Jubilee could be tomorrow, the relative value to me of everything here ought to be precisely zero. With resurrection in his sights, Paul counted whatever earthly gain he had as “loss” and “rubbish”. The things of this world are worth not a penny more than we will realize from them before our Lord returns, and we are to picture that happening … well, maybe even today.

Further, just like Israelites looking forward to the Jubilee, Christians need to be aware that the things we have use of in this world are not really ours at all. Our inheritance is heavenly, not earthly. The only value property and possessions have for the believer lies in what we can do with them to produce for ourselves an eternal reward, “for the present form of this world is passing away”.

If there’s a giant reset button in heaven that, from our perspective at least, could be pushed at any moment, we’d better hold on to the things of this earth with a pretty loose grip, don’t you think?


  1. I wonder if that system could also work nowadays since it could make a serious dent in the complaint about unfair distribution of wealth that many are complaining about.

    Also, in those days, were they familiar with the concept of a lease, which, under the Jubilee system would have made more sense than buying and selling?

    1. What they were doing was essentially a lease transaction by another name, yes. There were limited circumstances in which something changed hands outright, but if I recall correctly it was only when something was deeded to the priesthood and became God's. Everything else was, in effect, leased.

      And, yes, if followed such a system would definitely limit how much the rich could accumulate. A smart, hard-working man would always do better than a lazy, uninterested one, but he'd never benefit unreasonably, and the lazy man could never lose the family inheritance permanently. Today's affluent strata of society would be unlikely to embrace those kinds of restrictions.

      Also, Israelites were not allowed to lend at interest. I can't see North American kleptocrats going for that at all.