Thursday, October 30, 2014

SG50 and Christianity's Jubilee
Singapore will celebrate 50th anniversary next year. The SG50 committee was set up to see through various events and programs to commemorate this important milestone. Many are using the common phrase "golden Jubilee" to mark this anniversary. And of course the word "Jubilee" came from ancient Israel's religious tradition. For this reason, many local Christians see this celebration as the "Jubilee". Some think that the nation has entered into its 50th year since 9 August 2014, and so the Jubilee has started.

The Love Singapore movement describes the Jubilee as a time for "celebration" and "consecration" (see screenshot below). The Global Day of Prayer in Singapore has changed the name for 2015's nation-wide prayer event to Jubilee Day of Prayer. The Anglican Diocese of Singapore calls the faithful to "pray, prepare and posture for a year of Jubilee in both Church and Society."

In view of all these, it's perhaps good for churches to rediscover the concept of Jubilee.

1. Jubilee's Origin
The concept is found in Leviticus 25-27. There are two possible etymological origins for the word 'Jubilee'. The first one is its connection to the Hebrew term yobel, the horn trumpet which was blown to mark the beginning of Jubilee (Lev. 25:9). 

The second one is related to the verb y-b-l that means 'lead back, lead forth', which carries the imagery of release and return (Isa. 55:12, Jer. 31:9). Hence, the word yobel was translated into the Greek word aphesis ('liberation') by ancient scholars of the third to first century B.C. to be used in the Septuagint.

This connotation of freedom goes along with Lev. 25:10's main theme of Jubilee as the liberation of the Israelites: "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." Subsequently, the prophet Ezekiel called it the "year of liberty" (46:17). (See the brief discussion in David L. Baker, "The Jubilee and the Millennium: Holy Years in the Bible and Their Relevance Today," Themelios 24.1 [1998]:47.)

Additionally, Jeffrey Fager points out that the background for Jubilee is the ancient socioeconomic system of land tenuring. The Jubilee carries "moral imperative toward its economically vulnerable members." Hence the proclaimed liberty is to free the vulnerable members in the Israelite society from alienation from their land. (Jeffrey A. Fager, Land Tenure and the Biblical Jubilee: Uncovering Hebrew Ethics through the Sociology of Knowledge [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993], 122.)

2. Jubilee's Purposes
Regardless of its etymological root, it is clear that Jubilee is to be celebrated by proclaiming liberation marked by the sounding of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in every fifty-years cycle (Lev. 25:8-9).

And Jubilee's occurrence on the Day of Atonement is not coincidental but to highlight the other significance of the jubilation: the Israelites will not only be liberated from alienation from their inherited land, but also liberated from their sins and separation from God. This combination of Jubilee and the Day of Atonement points out the overarching motif of the people's restoration to their rightful place before humans and God. As Brian T. Hoch comments,
"[T]he reason the Jubilee begins on Yom Kippur is that both institutions are kindred events of restoration. The primary foci of the restorative activity are: the meeting places with Yahweh (in respect to the Jubilee it is the land; with Yom Kippur, it is the sancta), and his people who are to meet with him."
(Brian Thomas Hoch, "The Year of Jubilee and Old Testament Ethics: A Test Case in Methodology," PhD diss., (Durham University, 2010), 91.)
The prophet Isaiah refers to this "consecrated" year as the "year of the Lord's favour", when liberty is proclaimed and restoration takes place (61:1-9). John Bergsma, in his survey of the history of interpretation of the Jubilee, called this the first messianic re-reading of the Jubilee for it is "associated with a coming "messianic" (anointed) figure, who will proclaim and inaugurate a new age characterized by the freedom and restoration of the jubilee year." (John Sietze Bergsma, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation [Leiden: Brill, 2007], 202, 203.)

The Jubilee is to be expressed among the Israelites through the following 12 instructions:
I. The Israelites should return to their family property (Lev.25:10, 13).

II. The Israelites are not to sow or reap plantation that grow by itself, or harvest untrimmed vines. They should eat only the produce from the existing crop (Lev. 25:11, 19).

III. The Israelites should not overcharge or undercharge one another---must practice 'fair price' as an expression of their reverence for God (Lev. 25:14-18).

IV. On the year before Jubilee, the sixth year, the Israelites' plantation will produce food enough for the next three years. They are to resume work on their plantation on the eight year (Lev. 25:20-22).

V. No land must be sold permanently as God is the true owner. Hence all sold land must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:23-24).

VI. Israelites who become poor can sell their land, and their relatives should help them to buy back the land. If no relatives can help them, then their land will remained with the buyer until Jubilee (Lev. 25:25-28).

VII. Houses within walled cities can be sold permanently, though the possibility for original owner to buy back the house should remain for the first year after the sale. After that, the house will be owned by the buyer permanently. These houses need not be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:29-30).

VIII. Houses  in villages can be sold, but must be restored back to the original owner during Jubilee (Lev. 25:31).

IX. Levites' permanent possession is the pastureland, which cannot be sold. Their houses, however, can be sold though need to be returned to them during Jubilee (Lev. 25:32-34).

X. Israelites should provide social safety net to the unfortunate Israelites as how they are to treat foreigners. They should lend fellow Israelites money without interest, sell them food at cost price (Lev. 25:35-38).

XI. If poor Israelites sold themselves to their fellow Israelites, they must not be treated as slaves, but as servant. And they and their family should be liberated and be restored to their property during Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-43). The same with Israelites who sold themselves to foreigners (Lev. 25:47-55).

XII. Trade and manage the land fairly by determining the price according to its proximity to the Jubilee (Lev. 27:16-25).
Several times the Israelites were reminded of their obligation to follow these instructions because of their covenantal relationship with God (Lev. 25:17, 36, 38, 43, 54, 26:1-2, 12-13, 44-45). Bergsma helpfully explains the reason why Jubilee falls on the Day of Atonement (his preferred term "Day of Purgation") and its connection to the above listed instructions:
"[T]here is nothing arbitrary about the proclamation of the jubilee on yom kippur; on the contrary, there may be the most intimate conceptual relationship between the purgation of the temple and the restoration of social justice in Israel. [...] Inasmuch as the renewal or reassertion of a (divine or human) king’s rule was associated with the re-establishment of "freedom"... and "social justice"... for the populace throughout the ancient Near East, yom kippur offered an attractive occasion in the cultic calendar of Israel for the proclamation of the jubilee. [...]

"As the kingly rule of the patron deity of Israel is re-affirmed and renewed through the purging of the sanctuary, the deity expresses his justice and righteousness by proclaiming freedom to his servants who live on his sacred estate. [...] The primary imperative of the jubilee was the return of each Israelite to his ancestral possession of land and his clan. The reunification of family with land is the central concern of all the stipulations."
(Ibid, 31-32, 105. Emphasis added.)
For detailed discussion on the Leviticus Jubilant laws, see David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 80-97.

From all these, we can draw out two major objectives of the Jubilee. First, Jubilee is about the restoration of the Israelites' socioeconomic life, and hence the whole community's sustainability. The institution of social safety net through property return, workers' liberation, and cessation of field plantation brings about a new start for the less fortunate and narrows the gap between the rich and the poor. 

Secondly, the Jubilee was instituted to have the Israelites put into practice their knowledge that they belong to God, that God is their Lord. "Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God." (Lev. 25:17) "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers." (v.23) In other words, Jubilee was given to transform 'theology' into 'ethics', turning the people's knowledge of God into practices that reflect that knowledge.
3. Jesus Christ and Jubilee
Although there is no explicit mention of the Jubilee in the New Testament, Jesus quoted the messianic imagery of Isaiah's "year of the Lord's favour" as the overarching motif of his ministry (Isa. 61:1-2; Lk. 4:18-19). He proclaimed the fulfillment of the Jubilee concept through him (Lk. 4:21). He has initiated the true Jubilee. And it is through him, we gain liberation from socioeconomic struggles and eternal separation from God.

His followers (as the spiritual descendants of the Israelites) therefore have the responsibility to carry out the restoration of socioeconomic life and community's sustainability among themselves. Living out this communal life is practicing the acknowledgement that we belong to God. It is the reflection of our covenantal relationship with him. Christians' understanding of Jubilee should always be appropriated through Jesus' ministry.

This is not a call for state communism. It is not meant for everyone, just as the Israelites' Jubilee is not for everyone. It is for the churches. This church-based ethics is how Christian disciples to live in their community.

Therefore, Christian's celebration of the Jubilee is neither a call for cancellation of public debt (à la Jubilee 2000 movement) nor overturn alleged unfair political and economic policy (à la John H. Yoder's proposal). Christopher  R. Bruno has clarified this in his article: ""Jesus is our Jubilee"...But How? The OT Background and Lukan Fulfillment of the Ethics of Jubilee," in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53/1 (2010):81-101.

Rather, Christianity's Jubilee is a call for the faithful to establish and manage the church as a community where believers are liberated from socioeconomic struggles and spiritual alienation from God. Let this messianic Jubilant call as understood through Jesus be a reminder for local churches as the nation celebrates her 50th anniversary.

1 comment:

Nik said...

Maybe I think of things in a very simplistic manner. And perhaps not the most convincing either.

Assuming most of our parents are mostly good and mean us well. To me, God is like a parent. Perhaps the first parent mankind ever had.

But as we grow up, some of us stay close to our parents. And some drift away and don't believe in them anymore for whatever the reasons. But no matter what, if those parents are worth their salt, they will be do their best to be constant, unwavering, loving and patient.

They love and protect us the best they can. But they can't prevent everything that happens around us.

And even if we choose to separate ourselves from our parents for whatever our reasons, life will still go on around us. Both good and bad. That's what freewill is all about.

But to me it is comes down to this. And it is to miszs not having our parent as a companion for much of our journey in life. I am sure many of us can do it but how much more better it would have been I would think.

But it comes down to our choice. For me, I would like to continue my journey with my God for as long as I can.