THE JUBILEE IN THE BIBLE
After the bitter experience of the Babylonian exile, in which the people of God had the experience of being deprived of their own land, of the temple, of their own consistency as a people; a horizon of hope, of liberation, opened up. Prophecy interprets that which has been experienced. And prophecy is the precious service that a man gives to his own brothers, to his own people, interpreting, with the power of God and with the wisdom given by God, the historical events and happenings in which one was involved.
«The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion -- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit» (Isaiah 61, 1-3a).
The prophet heralds a year of the Lord's favor and not on his own personal initiative, but by means of an unction worked by the Spirit of the Lord: it is a divine gift. And this year expresses itself in two vital, highly positive directions: liberation and consolation. Liberation is from physical evils, from interior lacerations, from the condition of slavery; consolation is a transformation of the way one feels, of the way one exists: from mourning one passes to joy.
City, countryside, experiences of rural work and sheep farming are tied up in a novelty of life more human and more constructive. Time is marked by the Lord's gift.
The word "jubilee" is derived from the Hebrew word jobel, which means "ram's horn"; since it was precisely that horn which was used as a trumpet, whose sound indicated to everybody the beginning of the jubilee year. The book of Leviticus, in the code of holiness, is the source which tells us of the significance of the jubilee year, a year of liberation "par excellence," which is at the end of seven weeks of years, the fiftieth year.
«And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the loud trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family» (Leviticus 25, 8-10).
In the same Leviticus there are texts and very precious parallel models for understanding the jubilee year's intention and design. Meanwhile it is important to be aware that in the Near East, in the ancient cultures, the cycle of the moon was chosen as the criterion for marking time: the week (seven days) takes on, even before the Judaic legislation, a strikingly religious character. The Lord marks the times of work and of rest. Already the first chapter of the first book, Genesis, interprets the creative activity of God with the structure of seven days, even with lucid consciousness of the transcendenceof God who "speaks", and his speech is creative, it is "benediction".
The feasts of the Hebrew calendar are also marked by seven days; such is the duration both of the feast of the unleavened (bread) and of the feast of the tabernacles. In particular, Pentecost (fiftieth day), or the feast of the weeks, is celebrated seven weeks after the Saturday of Passover. The sources of these laws are found in chapter 23 of the book of Leviticus, and even earlier in chapter 34 in Exodus and chapter 16 of the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy.
One ascertains with joy and with appreciation how faith in God also carries Israel's culture, living in it a primacy in time, in work, in relationships. Some realities, which involve persons, tools and means to live, are not able to be subjected to unchecked egoism and the insatiable careerism of some people.
The believer may not tolerate the forms and the duration of a life of slavery, even as it was practiced by other peoples. Just so it is not tolerable that, because of debt or poverty, a family or a father be deprived of his land forever, since the land comes from God and is a fruitful gift for man.
From this, the detailed divine laws which idealistically intervene to promote justice and hope. The utopia consists precisely in the distance between one jubilee and another, and the difficulty of putting it into practice, but the orientation is clear: it questions, challenges, presses to accept the gift and to promote a culture of liberation.
«For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another» (Leviticus, 25, 12-14).
And regarding persons.
«And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee; then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God» (Leviticus, 25, 39-43
There is a fundamental expression and proposal of experiences in the jubilee year: rest.
A rest carrying gift and relationship with God: everything is his gift and we are able to refer everything to him. The culture of the "Saturday" changes the quality of life; it leads one back to one's own roots, to the reasons for one's own existence; and can open to the happiness possible in history.
«A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, not reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field» (Leviticus 25, 11-12).
This consolation will resound in an unforeseeable and complete way in the relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord, thanks to whom it is possible to live rest and restoration; to have the experience of consolation in the face of every desolation.
«Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light»(Matthew 11, 28-30).
The letter to the Hebrews, taking departure from Psalm 95, verse 11«he swore in his anger that they should not enter his rest» and referring to the forty years of pilgrimage of the ancient people of Israel in the exodus, makes one meditate in a stupendous way on Christian rest.
«Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day, 'Today,' saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, 'Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.' For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience» (Hebrews 4, 6-11).
A Look Toward the Future
The late Old Testament biblical literature in a vision on the eschatological future announces in typical apocalyptic language the final and definitive liberation of God's people. It is the prophecy of Daniel (9,24) of the seventy weeks, i.e., of a conventional calculation of ten jubilee periods.
«Seventy weeks of years are decreed concerning your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place».
It falls on every generation to revive the expectation and search for the Lord, of the gift which gives itself, of a novelty of life where liberation, consolation and rest, which, from time immemorial and forever is the design of mercy and of goodness which God has for every person and every people.