This semester I taught “The Bible as Literature” (or, I should really say, I had two discussion sections as a TA—or as we so WASP-ily say “a preceptor”). Never before had I had the opportunity to explore the Scriptures in such an ecumenical way. I had Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish students, which led to a lot of wonderful discussion, both theological and—yes—literary.
This was also, however, an opportunity to discover (or rediscover) things in the Bible, most especially those things that might be easily passed over or otherwise forgotten. In my case, it was the ancient Israelite idea of the Jubilee that really stood out. It seemed both totally inscrutable and incredibly important, somehow necessary and impossible. In fact, having now spent a couple months thinking about the idea, I’d like to share my thoughts. Why? Well, for one I have a blog and that’s what these things are for, but, more importantly, I think, concerned as we are by the little things that divide us, even the rules that we must uphold or tear down, we often forget about the fundamentals of the Faith, those core qualities that define the Lord, our god.
First off, I’m not talking about the Book of Jubilees (which is canonical for Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church and for Beta Israel—Ethiopian Jews, though not for any other contemporary Christians or Jews). What I have in mind is found in Leviticus. These Jubilees refer to feasts celebrated every 49 or 50 years (scholars are unsure which) by the ancient Israelites. These no longer take place, because the land allotted to each tribe is no longer inhabited by that tribe.
Although arcane, and now in the past, like much in the Old Testament, there is much of significance to be gleaned here (forgive how much I am quoting, but I think it’s key to see exactly how much space this takes up):
You shall count seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—such that the seven weeks of years amount to forty-nine years. Then, on the tenth day of the seventh month let the ram’s horn resound; on this, the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn blast shall resound throughout your land. You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family. This fiftieth year is your year of jubilee; you shall not sow, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth or pick the untrimmed vines, since this is the jubilee. It shall be sacred for you. You may only eat what the field yields of itself.
In this year of jubilee, then, each of you shall return to your own property. Therefore, when you sell any land to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, do not deal unfairly with one another. On the basis of the number of years since the last jubilee you shall purchase the land from your neighbor; and so also, on the basis of the number of years of harvest, that person shall sell it to you. When the years are many, the price shall be so much the more; when the years are few, the price shall be so much the less. For it is really the number of harvests that the person sells you. Do not deal unfairly with one another, then; but stand in fear of your God. I, the LORD, am your God.
Observe my statutes and be careful to keep my ordinances, so that you will dwell securely in the land. The land will yield its fruit and you will eat your fill, and live there securely. And if you say, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we do not sow or reap our crop?” I will command such a blessing for you in the sixth year that there will be crop enough for three years, and when you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating from the old crop; even into the ninth year, until the crop comes in, you will still be eating from the old crop.