“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (Leviticus 25:3-5)
It seems that, with caring for the earth, there was a guarantee it would still produce what people needed for life. “You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath.” Such was the sabbatical year. Leviticus 25:8-55 outlines an early version of land reform. It was the year of jubilee. It was the sabbath after the fiftieth year (7 years times 7 years). Debts were to be forgiven. Slaves were to be freed. And most of all, land that was sold was to revert back to the original owners.
In her article, “When Earth Demands Sabbath: Learning from the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Leah Schade notes, “In the 50th year they were commanded to take care of each other. No interest charged on debts. No price-gouging. ‘If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them,’ (25:35). The working poor are to be released from their debts. Everyone is set free, including the very Earth itself.”
What is the justification for this reordering of priorities? “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (v. 23). Here is God’s message to us: The land belongs to me. The earth belongs to me. You are the caretakers.
In my Old Testament classes at Bible college and seminary, when the year of jubilee was discussed, there seemed to be a consensus that it was never observed. Maybe it was felt that God couldn’t be trusted. Maybe there was a fear about what it would do to the economy!
It’s interesting that this month marks the 50th year after the inauguration of Earth Day in 1970. What kind of jubilee could it be?
The coronavirus is forcing an economic slowdown. This slowdown has had dire effects, leaving millions around the world jobless. And yet, it is not without any beneficial qualities. It’s been observed that, in some places, pollution levels are falling.
For a long time, I’ve wondered about the measure of economic health as being growth of the economy. A faster rate of growth is better than a slower one. What is “growth”? Is it increasing our use of the earth’s resources? Is it, contrary to the vision of the sabbatical year, not allowing the land to recover—not allowing it to breathe?
Schade reflects on this mania of growth. “In the human body, cells that grow without rest, consume all surrounding resources, and take over the system are called ‘malignant’ because they lead to death. The kind of growth envisioned by our consumerist culture is, indeed, leading to death. Whether it’s a microscopic virus that erupts when humans refuse to respect the wildness of land or creatures, or monster storms super-pumped by global warming that churn across the land, the results are catastrophic in biblical proportions.” Runaway growth of human cells is called cancer.
A lesson from the Easter event is that the one who is the resurrection still bears scars. As the hymn says, “Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.” Scars do not prevent thriving—and thriving in a way never believed possible.
The year of jubilee is about healing. Does it take a virus to bring it about?