Notes (NET Translation)
1 The LORD spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai: 2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must observe a Sabbath to the LORD. 3 Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather the produce, 4 but in the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath of complete rest — a Sabbath to the LORD. You must not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 You must not gather in the aftergrowth of your harvest and you must not pick the grapes of your unpruned vines; the land must have a year of complete rest. 6 You may have the Sabbath produce of the land to eat — you, your male servant, your female servant, your hired worker, the resident foreigner who stays with you, 7 your cattle, and the wild animals that are in your land — all its produce will be for you to eat.
The land is given to the Israelites by God. Every seventh year will be a sabbatical year in which normal agriculture will not be practiced. Man and beast shall eat what grows naturally. “By such observance the people clearly acknowledge Yahweh’s ownership of the land and boldly demonstrate their trust in him for their food supply.”1
The practice of allowing arable land to lie fallow periodically was a necessary aspect of ancient agriculture, especially where extensive irrigation was utilized. It served to reduce the quantity of alkalines, sodium and calcium, deposited in the soil by irrigation waters. In modern times, with the use of fertilizers, the soil is replenished through crop rotation. So, although the scheduled release of land every seventh year may smack of artificiality, expressing the cyclic thinking of the ancient Israelites, the agricultural advantages were real.
In this regard, we know that one of the major causes for the decline of the once prosperous Neo-Sumerian economy of Mesopotamia early in the second millennium B.C.E. was the high alkaline content of the soil in areas of the Diyala River region, where irrigation was extensively utilized. Crop yields fell drastically, and the economy failed. There is also evidence that Near Eastern farmers in more recent periods have left different plots of land fallow each season, so that over the course of a period of years all of their fields underwent replenishment.2
Cf. Ex 23:10-11.
8 “‘You must count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, and the days of the seven weeks of years will amount to forty-nine years. 9 You must sound loud horn blasts — in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, on the Day of Atonement — you must sound the horn in your entire land. 10 So you must consecrate the fiftieth year, and you must proclaim a release in the land for all its inhabitants. That year will be your jubilee; each one of you must return to his property and each one of you must return to his clan. 11 That fiftieth year will be your jubilee; you must not sow the land, harvest its aftergrowth, or pick the grapes of its unpruned vines. 12 Because that year is a jubilee, it will be holy to you — you may eat its produce from the field.
Every fiftieth year is a jubilee year in which all land reverts to its original owners and indentured Israelites return to their homes. The fiftieth year is also a sabbatical year. The year of jubilee begins in autumn with the sounding of a ram’s horn. The jubilee year prevented the rich from amassing large estates and reducing the poor to landless tenant farmers.
Scholars disagree on whether the jubilee overlaps with the forty-ninth sabbatical year. If it did not overlap then every fifty years there would be back-to-back years where agriculture was not practiced. The question and answer in vv 20-22 concern what the Israelites would eat in the seventh year. If this concern relates to the jubilee year then it indicates the jubilee year and forty-ninth sabbatical year overlap.
Although the text does speak of a fiftieth year, the ancient way of reckoning time does not exactly mesh with the modern way, especially when numbers are used symbolically. Every calendar offers difficulty in counting days; e.g., May 7 to May 10 is considered three days although it is part of four. Similarly, from Jubilee, the seventh sabbatical year, to the next Jubilee is fifty years. Texts stipulating that the Feast of Weeks begins on the fiftieth day after Passover face the same problem with numbering. Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Passover, the day after the seventh Sabbath. But the calendric description in Lev 23:16 identifies Pentecost as “the day after the seventh Sabbath,” even though it begins its counting with the day after that Sabbath, not with that Sabbath; i.e., forty-nine exact days are counted as fifty days. This difficulty for a modern way of counting was not necessarily a problem for the ancients, especially since they did not number the years consecutively. Furthermore, if the 490 years of Daniel 9:24 are ten Jubilees, then this passage supports the position that Jubilee was the seventh sabbatical year of a cycle. In this light the number fifty may be more emblematic rather than a specific calendar number. This last proposal may explain why the post-exilic community kept track of sabbatical years but did not make any reference to the year of Jubilee. Eg., Josephus records sabbatical years for a 126-year period, but he does not account for the year of Jubilee (Ant. 13.9.5; 14.10.6).3
13 “‘In this year of jubilee you must each return to your property.
The following verses give cases under which a person might lose his land in the first place.
14 If you make a sale to your fellow citizen or buy from your fellow citizen, no one is to wrong his brother. 15 You may buy it from your fellow citizen according to the number of years since the last jubilee; he may sell it to you according to the years of produce that are left. 16 The more years there are, the more you may make its purchase price, and the fewer years there are, the less you must make its purchase price, because he is only selling to you a number of years of produce.
This law only refers to the sale of land between Israelites. The price of the lease was based on the number of years the purchaser could farm the land.
17 No one is to oppress his fellow citizen, but you must fear your God, because I am the LORD your God. 18 You must obey my statutes and my regulations; you must be sure to keep them so that you may live securely in the land.
To live securely in the land is to live without fear of attack or invasion.
19 “‘The land will give its fruit and you may eat until you are satisfied, and you may live securely in the land. 20 If you say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not sow and gather our produce?’ 21 I will command my blessing for you in the sixth year so that it may yield the produce for three years, 22 and you may sow the eighth year and eat from that sixth year’s produce — old produce. Until you bring in the ninth year’s produce, you may eat old produce.
23 The land must not be sold without reclaim because the land belongs to me, for you are foreigners and residents with me. 24 In all your landed property you must provide for the right of redemption of the land.
Underlying this legislation is a theory of land tenure that may be formulated quite simply: The God of Israel, to whom all land ultimately belongs, has granted the Land of Israel to His people, Israel, as an everlasting ahuzzah, “holding.” In so doing, he has imposed on them certain conditions of tenure. Foremost among these is denial of the right to alienate land through its permanent conveyance to a purchaser — a right that is usually considered an intrinsic element of ownership.4
The right of redemption (v 24) means that the purchaser must accept the redemption payment of the original owner (he cannot refuse it). The jubilee year was merely the latest date at which the land would return to the original owner. The following laws provide some examples of redemption.
25 “‘If your brother becomes impoverished and sells some of his property, his near redeemer is to come to you and redeem what his brother sold. 26 If a man has no redeemer, but he prospers and gains enough for its redemption, 27 he is to calculate the value of the years it was sold, refund the balance to the man to whom he had sold it, and return to his property. 28 If he has not prospered enough to refund a balance to him, then what he sold will belong to the one who bought it until the jubilee year, but it must revert in the jubilee and the original owner may return to his property.
Verse 25 envisions a close relative (redeemer) buying the land in order to restore the property to the original owner. The redeemer would not buy the land for himself. Verses 26-27 envision the original owner acquiring the means to buy his land back and doing so at a fair price. Implicit in the law is that the purchaser must not refuse the right of redemption.
29 “‘If a man sells a residential house in a walled city, its right of redemption must extend until one full year from its sale; its right of redemption must extend to a full calendar year. 30 If it is not redeemed before the full calendar year is ended, the house in the walled city will belong without reclaim to the one who bought it throughout his generations; it will not revert in the jubilee.
A house within a walled city could be redeemed for one year (presumably for the purchase price). After that year, the house belonged permanently to the buyer.
This exception in the laws of redemption coincides with the nature of life in a walled city. In these larger cities the population was racially mixed, and the populace did not live off the land. Canaanites and other resident aliens who lived in the cities were not covered by land inheritance laws of Israel; this exception thus gave them the right to buy and sell houses in Israelite walled cities.5
31 The houses of villages, however, which have no wall surrounding them must be considered as the field of the land; they will have the right of redemption and must revert in the jubilee.
A house not in a walled city was treated the same as a field (arable land).
32 As for the cities of the Levites, the houses in the cities which they possess, the Levites must have a perpetual right of redemption. 33 Whatever someone among the Levites might redeem — the sale of a house which is his property in a city — must revert in the jubilee, because the houses of the cities of the Levites are their property in the midst of the Israelites. 34 Moreover, the open field areas of their cities must not be sold, because that is their perpetual possession.
The Levites are not permitted to sell any property outside the city walls. They could sell houses but they could always redeem them or wait until the jubilee to get them back. Verse 33 means that if one Levite sells his property to another Levite the property still reverts to the original owner in the jubilee year. These laws prevent the Levites from ending up without a home of their own. Cf. Num 35:1-18; Deut 19:2-9; Josh 21.
35 “‘If your brother becomes impoverished and is indebted to you, you must support him; he must live with you like a foreign resident. 36 Do not take interest or profit from him, but you must fear your God and your brother must live with you. 37 You must not lend him your money at interest and you must not sell him food for profit. 38 I am the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan — to be your God.
Verses 35-38 deal with indebtedness while verses 39-41 deal with indenture. “The crucial difference between them is that one who possesses property that he can sell or mortgage is still free, but one who has no assets must work off his debts as an indentured servant.”6 The man in debt was to live like a tenant on his own land, like a foreign resident.
Interest-free loans are well attested in ancient financial records, and laws against taking excessive interest are also known, but Israel is alone in totally prohibiting interest payments on loans to the poor. These loans were essentially charitable: they enabled a poor farmer to buy enough seed corn for the next season. Both here and in Exod. 22:24 (Eng. 25) interest is prohibited on loans to the poor, while Deut. 23:21 (20) explicitly allows foreigners to be charged interest.7
The law is meant to prevent the servitude the Israelites experienced in Egypt.
39 “‘If your brother becomes impoverished with regard to you so that he sells himself to you, you must not subject him to slave service. 40 He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee, 41 but then he may go free, he and his children with him, and may return to his family and to the property of his ancestors. 42 Since they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, they must not be sold in a slave sale. 43 You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God.
The impoverished brother is one who can do nothing else but sell himself in servitude to another person. This law instructs the master to treat the indentured servant in a respectful manner, like he would treat a hired worker. Verses 41-42 seem to suggest that the indentured servant must work until the jubilee year. It is not clear how this law fits with Ex 21:1-6 and Deut 15:12-18, which set the limit of service at six years. Later Jewish tradition holds that all Israelite slaves, even those who bound themselves for life to their master, were set free at the jubilee (b. Qidd. 15a; Josephus, Ant 4.8.28).
A person who becomes the master of a fellow Israelite is not to “rule over,” that one “ruthlessly.” The root means “grind down” (qal) and “crush, break in pieces, rub off” (piel). Used with a slave, it describes toil that breaks the body and grinds down the spirit. The appeal to follow this standard is the master’s “fear” of God (cf. vv 17, 36).8
44 “‘As for your male and female slaves who may belong to you — you may buy male and female slaves from the nations all around you. 45 Also you may buy slaves from the children of the foreigners who reside with you, and from their families that are with you, whom they have fathered in your land, they may become your property. 46 You may give them as inheritance to your children after you to possess as property. You may enslave them perpetually. However, as for your brothers the Israelites, no man may rule over his brother harshly.
Foreign slaves were not released in the jubilee year. Wenham writes:
A theological reason underlies this discrimination: God redeemed his people from Egyptian slavery, to become his slaves (vv. 42, 55). It is unfitting, therefore, that an Israelite should be resold into slavery, especially to a foreigner (cf. Rom. 6:15-22; Gal. 4:8-9; 5:1). The jubilee law is thus a guarantee that no Israelite will be reduced to that status again, and it is a celebration of the great redemption when God brought Israel out of Egypt, so that he might be their God and they should be his people (vv. 38, 42, 55; cf. Exod. 19:4-6).9
While there is some truth in this statement it does not really explain the discrimination. Surely freeing foreign and Israelite slaves would also prevent Israelites from being reduced to slavery again.
Job 31:13-15 implies that the harsh treatment of foreign slaves was not acceptable to God either.
47 “‘If a resident foreigner who is with you prospers and your brother becomes impoverished with regard to him so that he sells himself to a resident foreigner who is with you or to a member of a foreigner’s family, 48 after he has sold himself he retains a right of redemption. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49 or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or anyone of the rest of his blood relatives — his family — may redeem him, or if he prospers he may redeem himself. 50 He must calculate with the one who bought him the number of years from the year he sold himself to him until the jubilee year, and the cost of his sale must correspond to the number of years, according to the rate of wages a hired worker would have earned while with him. 51 If there are still many years, in keeping with them he must refund most of the cost of his purchase for his redemption, 52 but if only a few years remain until the jubilee, he must calculate for himself in keeping with the remaining years and refund it for his redemption. 53 He must be with the one who bought him like a yearly hired worker. The one who bought him must not rule over him harshly in your sight. 54 If, however, he is not redeemed in these ways, he must go free in the jubilee year, he and his children with him, 55 because the Israelites are my own servants; they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
Verses 47-54 concern the case of an Israelite becoming indentured to a non-Israelite. A non-Israelite master had to abide by the same rules as an Israelite master.
Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17-22. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.