God was clear that He was never going to fully give the Promised Land to the Israelites—He was simply going to let them live in it.
“The land must not be sold without a way of getting it back. That is because it belongs to Me. You are only outsiders who rent My land.” (Lev. 25:23)
Of course everything God creates is His property, but most of us don’t acknowledge this fact in our everyday lives. Instead we get very touchy about someone else telling us what to do with OUR stuff. To help Israel keep a grip on His Ownership of everything, God gave them some very particular rules about how to manage the land He was letting them live on. The Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee were two key principles that were designed to challenge their faith and keep them aware of their dependency on God.
When you’re a farmer, it’s vital that you get a good crop every year. But God ordered Israel to only plant for six years and then take a year off. Every seventh year was called a Sabbath Year—which meant every seven years, Israelite farmers would find themselves with no income. This is very nerve-wracking. Can you imagine having your boss tell you that you have to take a whole year off with no pay? What about your family that is depending on you to provide for them? How is this supposed to work out in real life? Well, God told His people that they could eat whatever happened to grow on the land while it was being let go for a year.
Gee, great. So now farmers could watch their nice fields filling up with weeds and try to beat wild animals to whatever scraps of food might happen to grow. And of course since they couldn’t plant for a whole year, there would be no harvest for the next year. This Sabbath Year Law was really messing them up for a couple of years. God understood that and He promised to provide.
“Suppose you say, ‘In the seventh year we will not plant anything or gather our crops. So what will we eat?’ I will send you a great blessing in the sixth year. The land will produce enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat food from the old crop. You will continue to eat food from it until the crops from the ninth year are gathered.” (Lev. 25:20-22)
God understood that His rules would make the people uncomfortable. But He wanted them to practice trusting Him to provide for them instead of relying on the illusion of their own strength. After all, God is the One who causes plants to grow in the first place. Just pushing seeds into the ground isn’t a guarantee of anything. But we humans find it almost impossible to keep our awe of God fresh once something becomes a consistent pattern. Who rejoices every time they turn on a faucet and water comes out? It’s an extraordinary gift from God that we have running water in our modern homes, yet we’re long over thanking Him because we’re so used to it. What renews our sense of appreciation? Spending time in a place without running water. When we come home after a long backpacking trip or after doing mission work in an area that doesn’t have such conveniences, we are filled with gratitude when that wonderful, clean water comes flowing into view. Likewise, the farmer who sees a whole year of no harvest approaching is anxiously watching for Yahweh to provide. When a bumper crop comes in on year six, he is going to be singing praises for the next couple of years because he will recognize God taking care of him.
Negative things happen in societies. People are sold into slavery and families become too poor to hang onto the land they inherited from their ancestors. When these factors are left unchecked, societies can swing out of balance with a few greedy misers making life miserable for everyone else. To help keep Israel in balance and preserve equality among her 13 tribes, God came up with the Law of Jubilee. Every fiftieth year was declared a Jubilee Year, and on that year all Jewish slaves were to be freed and all property was to be given back to their original owners. Such regulations create an interesting real estate market.
If I live in the early days of the Promised Land and I want to sell you my land, the first question you’re going to ask is “How much longer is it until Jubilee?” because when that year comes, you’ll have to give my land back to me. Jubilee was like another Sabbath Year as far as farming was concerned—the land was to be given rest. So then, before you put any money on the table, you want to know how many years of harvest you’ll be able to get out of the land I’m offering you before you have to give it back.
“The price you pay must be based on the number of years since the last Year of Jubilee. And the price you charge must be based on the number of years left for gathering crops before the next Year of Jubilee.
When there are many years left, you must raise the price. When there are only a few years left, you must lower the price. That is because what the man is really selling you is the number of crops the land will produce. Do not take advantage of each other. Instead, have respect for Me. I am Yahweh your God.” (Lev. 25:15-17)
As He dictates His Laws to Moses for chapter after chapter, God keeps repeating phrases like “Fear Yahweh. Have respect for Me. I am your God.” This was His way of reminding the people that He was the One they were really accountable to and He was the One who was watching their behavior. There was no way to sin in secret. Sometimes it seems like we can because people are easy to trick. God understands the nasty little pranks we like to pull on each other, which is why He said things like:
“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am Yahweh.” (Lev. 19:14)
There’s perverse pleasure to be found in insulting a man who can’t hear what you’re saying or causing a blind man to trip. But God reminds us that He is watching.
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.” (Lev. 19:18)
“I am Yahweh.” This wasn’t just another human being ordering Israel about, it was the God of the Universe giving her commands that He expected her to obey. We can’t fool God—He sees into our hearts, He sees what we do when no one’s looking, and He promises to discipline us when we disobey His orders.
Slavery was a common practice in the world ancient Israel lived in. God allowed His people to buy non-Israelites and retain them as their lifelong property which could be passed down as an inheritance to their children. But Jews were not supposed to treat other Jews the same as their foreign slaves—instead they were to view them as hired hands and release them during the Year of Jubilee:
“…for Israelites belong to Me as servants. They are My servants whom I brought out of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.” (Lev. 25:55)
Before we conclude that God loved Israel more than He did other ethnicities, we must remember the big picture. Israel was supposed to stand out as different. Her people had some extra privileges—like getting to rank higher than other slaves even when they were doing the same work—but those extra privileges came with extra responsibilities as well. God set Israel up with a permanent inheritance of land and He assigned specific portions of the land to each of the thirteen tribes so that when everyone returned to their family’s land on the Year of Jubilee, balance and order would be restored to the society as a whole. These special Laws were supposed to preserve peace and stability within Israel’s society so that she could remain strong as a nation and therefore put lots of energy into honoring Yahweh. We must be careful not to read too much into God’s favoring of Israel—He was merely equipping her with the resources she would need to fulfill her higher calling as God’s representatives to the rest of the world. Israel was supposed to stand out not as extra-loved, but as an example of how beneficial it was to submit to Yahweh as God and live according to His principles. God gave Israel many strange Laws that often seemed impractical and nonsensical. These Laws would attract the attention of foreigners who would wonder why the Jews were doing things backwards to everyone else. Then those same foreigners would see how Yahweh supernaturally provided for His people because they were obedient to Him. They would see the bumper crop coming in every sixth year, they would witness the peace and joy that filled the land every Jubilee Year and want to find out about how they, too, could become part of Yahweh’s favored ones.
Of course this glorious plan didn’t work out. Israel enslaved her own people and refused to release them on Jubilee Year. She chose not to live a life of faith in Yahweh and instead tried to rely on her own strength and alliances with those around her who worshiped demons. The results were disastrous. But if God knew everything would fall apart, why did He go through all the trouble of listing out His Laws in the first place and why did He spend so much time talking about how the ideal society should operate? We can ask the same question about the New Covenant. The Father knew in advance that most souls would refuse to submit to Jesus, yet He still had His Son suffer the penalty for every sin ever committed. As humans, we struggle to understand this because we don’t identify with intentionally wasting pain and energy. But God isn’t human and clearly He doesn’t feel His efforts were wasted. By going to such lengths to rescue first the ancient Jews and now the whole world, He is helping those of us who do come to Him to understand who He is. God deals in extremes. First He spends centuries chasing after a nation that never wanted much to do with Him from the beginning. Then He puts Himself through intense anguish and sacrifices His beloved Son in order to make it ultra-simple for an entire world of people to come to Him. Having watched Him in action down here, we should not be surprised to find Him equally extreme in eternity. There He will shower blessings and joy upon those who didn’t do anything but state the obvious, and He will also eternally torture those who refused to revere Him. Given God’s exuberant response to our obedience, why should we hesitate in living lives that are fully devoted to Him? When we hear what His good plans for Israel were—plans that she never fully experienced due to her own rebellion—we are reminded that obeying God is the only way to find true peace and joy. As His creatures, we were designed for His benefit. When we do what He wants, we experience soul satisfaction. When we resist Him, we find ourselves tormented and miserable. Heaven and Hell are simply extreme expressions of the two options God has been presenting to us since Genesis. “Aligning with Me is the only way you will thrive,” He has been telling us since the beginning. Today the Holy Spirit is giving each one of us convictions that teach us what aligning with God looks like in our personal lives. If we are wise, we will listen closely for His Voice and carefully follow all of His instructions.
“Praise be to You, Yahweh; teach me Your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from Your mouth. I rejoice in following Your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on Your precepts and consider Your ways. I delight in Your decrees; I will not neglect Your word.” (Ps. 119:12-16)