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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Sabbatical Year

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SABBATICAL YEAR (including year of Jubilee )

1. OT references . In a consideration of the regulations connected with the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, it is of the greatest importance to keep distinct the various stages of the Jewish legislation on the subject. The various ordinances differ greatly in character and detail; and in order to comprehend this diversity it is necessary to assume as granted the main conclusions of OT criticism, and to admit at any rate that a separation in time and difference in spirit characterize the several parts of the ‘Mosaic Law.’

Exodus . In Exodus 23:10-11 an entire cessation of all field-work is ordered to take place in every 7th year. This is said to be dictated by a regard for the poor and the beasts of the field. In effect the gift of one year’s produce to the poor is prescribed, that the landless may receive the usufruct of the soil. In Exodus 21:2-6 it is laid down that a Hebrew slave can be kept in bondage only for six years. After this period he was automatically emancipated, though his wife and children must remain in servitude, if he had married after his term of service began. But provision was made for cases where a slave might desire to remain in this condition. A public ceremony took place which signified his acceptance of the position in perpetuity. Nothing is here said which leads us to suppose that there was one simultaneous period of emancipation all over the country, and no reference is made to redemption of land or remission of debts.

Deuteronomy . In Deuteronomy 15:1-3 the 7th year is assigned as the period at which all the liabilities of a Jew were suspended (or possibly, as Josephus supposes, entirely cancelled); this provision was to be of universal operation. Deuteronomy 15:12-18 repeats the ordinances of Exodus 21:1-36 with regard to the emancipation of slaves; here again no simultaneity of redemption can be inferred. Deuteronomy 31:10-13 prescribes that the Law is to be read every 7th year (the ‘year of release’) at the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Nehemiah 8:13-18 ). Nothing is said in Deuteronomy about a possible redemption of land.

Leviticus . In Leviticus 25:1-55 provision is made for a seventh-year fallow; but there is no mention of the poor. The reason assigned is that the land, being Jehovah’s land, must keep Sabbath, i.e. the Sabbath principle is extended to cover nature as well as man. We also find here the jubilee ordinances. After 49 years had elapsed, every 50th year was to be inaugurated as a jubilee by the blowing of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement. All slaves were to be emancipated (this may be a modified substitute for the earlier provisions with regard to emancipation after 7 years); no mention is made of the possibility of perpetual slavery, but it is ordained that the Hebrew slave of a foreigner may be redeemed by a relative, all Jews being essentially Jehovah’s servants. The land was to lie fallow, and providential aid is promised to ensure sufficiency of produce during the period of three years when no harvest could be gathered, viz. the 49th year, which would be a sabbatical fallow, the year of jubilee, and the following year, when tillage would be resumed. Here also we find elaborate directions for the redemption of land in the jubilee year. They may be thus summarized: (1) No landed property may be sold, but only the usufruct of its produce up to the next jubilee, and the price must be calculated by the distance from that period. (2) A kinsman may redeem land thus mortgaged, or (the meaning may possibly be) exercise a right of pre-emption upon it. (3) The mortgager may redeem at the selling price, less the yearly proportion for the time elapsed since the sale. (4) House property in walled towns (not in villages) may be sold outright, and is redeemable only during one year. Such property was presumably regarded as human and artificial, whilst all land was essentially the property of Jehovah. (5) The Levitical possessions were redeemable at any time, and did not come under the jubilee provisions. (6) Nothing is said in Lev. as to the remission of debts, but there is a general prohibition of usury. (7) In Leviticus 27:16-25 a field devoted to Jehovah must be valued at once at a fixed rate, and might be redeemed at this price, plus a fine of 20 per cent., up to the year of jubilee. If not redeemed by then it became sacred property: no redemption of it was thereafter possible.

2. Purposes of the Sabbatical rules . The purposes underlying the ordinances above catalogued may be classified under 4 heads: but it is practically impossible to assign any certain priority of time to any one of the classes. ( a ) The periodical fallow . This is a very common provision in agriculture, and the seven years’ period is still observed in Syria. Since the fallow year was not at first everywhere simultaneous, the earlier historical books are silent about it: and indeed it cannot have been generally observed. For the 70 years’ captivity and desolation of the land was regarded as making up for the unobserved Sabbaths of the land ( 2 Chronicles 36:21 , cf. Leviticus 26:34 ; Leviticus 26:43 ). The reference in Nehemiah 10:31 may be to the periodical fallow or to the remission of debts. But 1Ma 6:49 ; 1Ma 6:63 shows that the fallow year was observed later. ( b ) The emancipation of slaves (cf. Jeremiah 34:8-9 ). Such a provision must have been very difficult to enforce, and we find no other possible reference to it. ( c ) The remission or suspension of debts . The only reference is the dubious one in Nehemiah 10:31 . ( d ) The redemption of real property . The kind of tenure here implied is not uncommonly found in other countries, and Jeremiah 32:6 ff., Ruth 4:1-22 , Ezekiel 7:13 show that something akin to it did exist in Palestine (cf. also Ezekiel 46:17 ). But that it was in no sense universal may be inferred from Isaiah’s and Micah’s denunciations of land-grabbing; on the other hand, 1 Kings 21:3-4 furnishes an instance of the inalienability of land. Cf. Leviticus, p. 543 b .

In general we have no sign that the sabbatical and jubilee provisions were ever strictly observed in Biblical times. Their principles of rest and redemption, though never practised as a piece of social politics, were preached as ideals, and may have had some effect in discouraging slave-owning, land-grabbing, and usury, and in encouraging a more merciful view of the relations between Jew and Jew. Thus Isaiah 61:1-3 is steeped in the jubilee phraseology, and Christ adopted this passage to explain His own mission ( Luke 4:18 ff.).

A. W. F. Blunt.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sabbatical Year'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/s/sabbatical-year.html. 1909.

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