In 2014 the United States’ external debt—the world’s largest—was assessed at almost 18 trillion dollars and that of the UK at about 9.5 trillion (both countries, of course, have considerable external assets that partially balance this). Niger and Malawi, by contrast, owed less than 2 billion each, or 10,000 times less than the United States and the United Kingdom. An unthinking application of the biblical Sabbatical Year, whereby debts were regularly cancelled at seven-year intervals, would certainly be welcomed by the U.S. and U.K. governments, even if they were obliged to follow the other biblical provision and leave their land to lie fallow for a year; as for freeing slaves, they might justly claim they have done that already.
The Bible, in calling for the cancellation of debts every seventh year, surely did not have in mind the wholesale cancellation of international debt, and in any case how could we distinguish between one nation’s debts and another’s? So what does the Bible really ask of us?
The Historical Context of the Jubilee Laws
We are not going to make any sense of the Jubilee and sabbatical laws in the final chapters of Leviticus unless we work out what sort of social and economic structures they are trying to reform. The author of Leviticus envisages (though this may be wishful thinking) Twelve Tribes of Israel, each family on its rightful patrimony, in a largely agricultural society where each farms his own patch; taxes in kind are collected for support of the priests, and tribal elders administer justice. The system does not work perfectly, since it is vulnerable to human failings and greed. Some people are unable to support themselves from their land, or cannot pay their tithes, or otherwise get into debt, and in consequence they are forced to sell their land or sell themselves or their children into slavery; over time a class of rich landowners develops and oppresses the poor. The prophets are scathing about this—“Woe to those who join field to field and house to house,” declaims Isaiah (5:8). Leviticus addresses the problem by laying down the law: no interest may be charged, no debt or period of slavery may last beyond the Sabbatical Year, and all land (other than that falling to the priests) must return in the Jubilee year to the family to whom it had been apportioned by Moses and Joshua.
We do not now live in that sort of society, but as human beings we suffer the same failings. Social and economic injustice are with us, driven by greed, competitiveness, and the desire for power. Would the remedies of Leviticus work for us? The short answer is no, and they evidently didn’t work for ancient Israel either, despite the exhortations of the prophets and the authority of the Law of Moses, though they did challenge the people with an ideal and portray an ideal regime under which the worst excesses might be controlled.
However, there are deep reasons why the ideal of Leviticus does not fit contemporary reality. Let’s look at some of them:
- No industrial and technological society can function without extended credit. Our great achievements—hospitals, universities, medical research—all depend on the availability of long-term credit, which in turn depends on the existence of banking mechanisms.
- We do not live at a subsistence level, but demand complex amenities and services such as housing, transport, and sanitation, none of which can be financed by individuals. Only large, transnational enterprises can achieve the levels of investment and economies of scale to produce the goods and services to sustain our quality of life.
- We do not live on ancestral patrimonies.
Already in the first century, under Roman rule, conditions had changed to the extent that the economy would be damaged were debts to be cancelled every seven years. To enable commercial credit, Hillel devised the prosbul (from the Greek prosbolē or pros boulēn, “before the council”), under the terms of which a debt might, before the seventh year, be placed in the hands of the court for collection; then, like a fine owing to the court, it would not be remitted in the seventh year (Mishnah Sheviit 10:3–9). In like vein, to uphold the right of someone who has been forced to sell his property to redeem it within twelve months (cf. Leviticus 25:29–34), Hillel ruled that if the debtor was in a position to buy back his house but was unable to do so because the creditor was avoiding him, he could circumvent the creditor by depositing the sum with the court (Mishnah Arakhin 9:4), a measure analogous to the Roman depositio in aede. Hillel was neither evasive nor weak-minded, but recognized socioeconomic change where he saw it.
Adapting Jubilee to Contemporary Society
If the law as enunciated in Leviticus cannot be applied in changed circumstances without modification, how can we achieve its purposes? Is it possible to engage in a modern technological society without succumbing to greed and selfishness? Can wealth be distributed equitably? Undoubtedly, the present economic order is marred by social and economic injustice among and within nations and by the overexploitation and destruction of natural resources. Scripture is not concerned with designing an economic system, but rather with prescribing how to implement justice and compassion within any given system. While Judaism does not identify progress with the increased provision of material goods and services, it does teach us to look after the poor, to heal the sick, to provide food and shelter for those in need, to educate, and to pursue justice. All these injunctions demand material as well as personal resources. Wealth is held in trust from God; we are responsible for ensuring its fair distribution.
Seven lessons may be derived from the laws on economic matters in Leviticus. I shall first restate each law or group of laws, then suggest how the law might be interpreted to become relevant to the needs of contemporary global society.
Law 1. Aim at the fair distribution of wealth, work, and credit (this encompasses numerous laws on care of those in need). Global extension—let the rich nations assist the poor.
Law 2. Provide credit for those who need it, but not in such a way that they cannot discharge their debts (no interest may be charged). Global extension—international finance should be granted on favorable terms.
Law 3. Provide opportunity for remission of excessive debt (sabbatical release). Global extension—reschedule and remit debt. Care must be taken, however—as Hillel indicated—not to do this in a manner that would undermine the possibility of future credit. A general remission of international debt would be absurd, but consideration should be given in exceptional cases.
Law 4. Do not overexploit the land (let the land rest every seven years). Global extension—conserve the environment.
Law 5. Preserve the bond between people and land (land reverts to its original owner in fifty years). Global extension—traditional land rights should be respected as far as compatible with economic realities. However, as fewer people work on the land, our ultimate dependence on its resources and our love for it must find fresh ways of expression, particularly through conservation methods as based on contemporary scientific understanding.
Law 6. The land is held as a trust from God, “for the land is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23). In truth, this is more of a principle rather than a law. Global extension—the planet is held as a trust from God.
Law 7. Periodically when things go wrong, as they inevitably will in the course of time, joyfully “overhaul” the system (the Jubilee “year of freedom”). Global extension—some will enrich themselves at the expense of others and some will be placed under the domination of others. Be ready from time to time to make the necessary adjustments to bring freedom to all, in joy, peace, and common humanity.
All this implies a full and vigorous program for the improvement of the world economic order. The precise means, however, must be worked out on a sound economic, social, and environmental basis. Simply to take laws from the Bible and call for their universal implementation does injustice to the Bible by misinterpreting its intentions and risks undermining the global economy and exacerbating the poverty and injustice we seek to eliminate.
In sum, we learn from Leviticus that the planet is held as a trust from God and development is subject to the constraints needed to conserve the environment—it must be sustainable over the long term. Our common humanity under God demands that the rich nations assist the poor. International finance must be provided under favorable terms, without the imposition of conditions and structures that hamper development. Periodically, debts may need rescheduling or even remission; this must be done judiciously, so that future credit is not inhibited. Traditional land rights should be respected as far as compatible with economic realities; as fewer people work on the land and mobility increases, our ultimate dependence on the earth’s resources and our love for it must find fresh ways of expression. No system is perfect, and inevitably some will enrich themselves at the expense of others and some will be placed under the domination of others. From time to time we must be ready to make the necessary adjustments to bring freedom to all, in joy, peace, and common humanity.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Winter 2015 print issue: Jubilee and Debt Abolition. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/jubilee to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)