Bible Review 15:1, February 1999

“Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land”

The economic roots of the Jubilee

By Michael Hudson

According to biblical law, every 50 years a Jubilee year is to be proclaimed—debts are to be canceled, and property is to be returned to its original owner. How such a year could avoid causing economic disruption and chaos, however, has been hard for scholars to understand. Many have regarded the Jubilee law as nothing more than a utopian ideal, more an expression of social idealism than a practical policy. But viewed in its broadest ancient Near Eastern context, the Jubilee turns out not to be so utopian or impractical after all, given the economic structures of ancient societies.

The announcement of the Jubilee appears in Leviticus 25 as part of the holiness code given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: “You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud…on the Day of Atonement…And you shall hallow the fiftieth year” (Leviticus 25:8–10).

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