Chapter fifteen never uses the word “jubilee,” but it’s clearly a parallel to that practice from Exodus and Leviticus, so let’s compare the two versions again.
In Exodus, there’s a quick reference to setting aside every 7th year to let it “lie fallow” (Ex. 23:10-11). This command goes right along with a sabbath command, and the implication is that they’re giving the land a sabbath, a resting period. That same verb for “to lie fallow” is used in Deuteronomy to mean “to remit, to release” in regards to debt. So every seventh year, all debts have to be forgiven. Likewise, Exodus 21 says that male Hebrew slaves have to be set free after seven years of work unless they voluntarily agree to remain in the household (Ex. 21:1-6). Deuteronomy agrees, but expands the rules so that any freed slave must be given gifts on departure, and that the rules have to be equal for men and women (v 12-17). Additionally, the detail that a slave who wants to remain in a family needs to be taken “before God” to have his ear pierced is removed in Deuteronomy, maybe because everything is supposed to be done in one place now.
That’s different from Leviticus 25, which has the land lying fallow every seventh year, but reserves the freeing of slaves for every fiftieth year, the Jubilee. It says nothing about debts, but does talk about returning land to previous inhabitants.
So… which is oldest? The NOAB speculates that the Exodus account is first, followed by Deuteronomy, followed by Leviticus, but doesn’t give extensive arguments why. I think the idea that Deuteronomy is building off of Exodus makes some sense, particularly the change to accommodate a temple. But the main argument the NOAB makes about Leviticus being later is that, perhaps, the 50 year version “may reflect the difficulty of implementing this idealistic law.”
But I’m not sure that follows, because both passages are talking about different scenarios. Namely, Deuteronomy is talking about debt, i.e. owing someone money, while Leviticus is about land redistribution. Deuteronomy is speaking to a money-based economy, where currency is wealth, full of debt and debtors and people selling themselves into slavery to get out of debt. Leviticus reflects a time where land was wealth, and where being bereft of your family’s land was the main cause of slavery. To me, that would indicate that Leviticus’ version might actually be older, and that Deuteronomy is a response to the development of money- and debt-based economies. People can rack up debt a lot faster than they can encroach on a neighbor’s territory, and that could need a more regular forgiveness system if the goal is to keep everyone out of poverty.
And make no mistake, that’s the goal of this chapter. This chapter optimistically declares that “[t]here will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” (v 4-5) If you follow the law correctly, no one should be taking advantage of anyone and no one should wind up poor. Tithes and other safety nets will keep anyone from being in debt or selling themselves into slavery. But then the chapter goes right around and also says “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (v 11)
Contradiction? No. The writer is merely concluding that, inevitably, people won’t follow God’s commands to the T, and people will wind up poor, so here’s a second set of commands for when that happens.
And if Deuteronomy is, perhaps, the latest stage, then it’s interesting to look at the different layers pointing to a trajectory. Laws become equal for men and women slaves (v 17). Laws become more generous for when they’re freed, where owners provide a start-up for their new flock (v 13-14). Wealth redistribution (now in the form of debt forgiveness rather than land) is more frequent.
If you view the Bible as setting laws on a trajectory rather than set in stone, it would seem like eventually any kind of permanent slavery wouldn’t be allowed, and what slavery there was would look more like an internship.
But that’s not how people tend to read the Bible, and that’s why the catch that, so far, laws of manumission only apply to members of the community (v 7) and not foreigners was used by early American settlers to justify unjust laws making indentured servitude only seven years for whites and permanent for blacks.
This is the danger of Biblical literalism. Rabbinic tradition has always been about trying to find justice behind the Torah, and I think that’s how Christians should view it as well. As one rabbi once put it, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
The Japanese: fusai “debt,” menjo suru “to remit, to excuse, to release” (v 1), toritateru “to collect (a debt, a fine, etc.),” fukoku “decree, proclamation” (v 2), yokoshima na “wicked, wrong” (v 9), miren “lingering attachment” (v 10), sakabune “wine cask” (v 14), kiri “drill, awl,” shuusei “as long as one lives” (v 17), yatoinin “employee” (v 18), toshigoto ni “every year, annually” (v 20).