Creation's Jubilee

Torah Portion: Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)
Gospel Reading: Philemon
Commentary by: Matthew David Wiseman

Proclaim release in the land, to all of its inhabitants! It is a Jubilee for you, and each one of you will return to his inheritance, and each one of you will return to his family. Leviticus 25:10

Parshat Behar is about a lot of things. We could talk about God’s plan for creation, for planting and harvesting and resting. We could talk about the kinsman redeemer, about family and about Yeshua’s redemption of the world. We could even talk about economics from this chapter, about inheritance and about community. And we will touch on a few of those topics, but I want to focus on a different subject: slavery.

More specifically, I want to talk about the release of Israelite slaves in the Jubilee, and how Sha’ul uses that idea in his letter to Philemon. We should start, though, with the principle of the whole parshah: Sabbath is for the entire Creation. Vayyiqra 25:1-12 starts by setting up the whole idea of the Sabbath year and the Jubilee, namely that Sabbath is a fundamental part of Creation. A midrash points out that in Bereshit 2:2 it says that on the seventh day God “finished” his work, meaning that He created the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not an addition to the natural world, it is part of God’s creation of nature.

This is understood in Vayyiqra as meaning that the Sabbath cannot be limited to the people working the land, who need a Sabbath every seventh day, but it must extend to the land, but because the land lives longer than we do and moves more slowly, its weeks are counted in years. The Torah then goes further, saying that Sabbath cannot be denied to any creature, whether a servant or even a beast of burden: in short, all of Creation is part of this Sabbath. In the seventh year, every part of Creation rests.

After seven cycles of this great Sabbath of Creation, there is a special celebration, a working-out of what the Sabbath means: the Year of Jubilee. Our word “Jubilee” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word used in this chapter, יובל, or “Yovel,” which refers to both the sounding of a shophar, and the celebrating that the sounding inaugurates. The Torah clearly connects this year of celebration to the Sabbath cycle, but it does not give an explanation as to why. Without speculating too much, we can make a couple of observations about their connection. If verses 6-7 describe the rest of all sorts of people and all parts of Creation, the Sabbath of the natural world, verses 13-14 describe their return to “factory settings.” Again every class of person, and even the Land itself, is liberated and returned to the place where it started: it is, from our perspective, as if it is re-created, made new, redeemed.

But there is one other thing we should note here. In verse 2, God says that this commandment came into effect when the people began to “dwell,” (שׁב / shav) in the Land, their inheritance. And then in verse 10 the first thing said about the Jubilee is that it is when a person who “dwells” in the Land “returns” (שׁוב / shuv) to his inheritance. Both of these seem to be a pun on the word “Shabbat.” In the context of this commandment, what it means to “Shabbat” is to rest in and return to the inheritance. So the renewal, in this pun, is implied in the rest.

These themes are taken up by the prophet in Isaiah 61, saying:

The spirit of the Lord YHWH is upon me
Because YHWH has anointed me
He sent me to proclaim good news to the poor
To wrap up the wounded of heart
To proclaim to the captives, freedom
And to those in bondage, liberation.
To proclaim the year of the goodwill of YHWH,
And the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:1-2b)

Isaiah describes this Year in terms of the Jubilee, in particular. The captive slaves are freed, and then in verse four Zion, their inheritance, is restored. Even the Gentiles are involved, in verses 5-6, serving in the harvest. In fact, the ‘goodwill’ here is רצון, the word for a freewill offering which is frequently associated with the firstfruits, as in Vayyiqra 23:9-11. The Jubilee is God’s free gift to mankind, like the freewill offering is mankind’s free gift to God. This also reinforces the connection between the Jubilee and harvest, first introduced in Vayyiqra 25:11, 19-24.

In the case of Isaiah, the release of the whole people of Israel from captivity is being explained in terms of the release of servants of debt. In Vayyiqra 25, individuals are released back to their inheritance, and in Isaiah, the whole nation is released back to its inheritance from Babylon. But the Messiah takes this widening of the scope of Jubilee to an even greater level.

When the Messiah takes up this great chapter in the Synagogue in Luke four and declares that “this day has this writing been fulfilled in your hearing,”  he directly afterwards connects this Acceptable Year with another idea, starting in verse 24:

Amen, I said to you that a prophet is not accepted in his own homeland. But in fact, I tell you, there were many widows in the days of Elijah in Israel, when the skies were shut up three years and six months, when there was a great famine over all the earth, but Elijah was not sent to any but Sarephath the Sidonian, a widow-woman. (Luke 4:24-26)

The entire context of the reading of Isaiah 61 here in Luke is the Messiah’s rejection in Nazareth, which he answers by extending the promise of being redeemed, of returning and resting, to the Sidonians, and then to the Syrians. To people who, presumably, had never been in the exile Isaiah was talking about, nor had they been servants as Moses was talking about. The expansion made by Isaiah, from individuals to the whole people, is furthered by the Messiah to the whole world. In fact, they had not been slaves of debt, but slaves of sin, as Rav Sha’ul puts it in Romans 6:20-23, which Yeshua, significantly, compares to debt in Matthew 6:12.

But we should have expected this to be the eventual outcome from Vayyiqra itself! The Jubilee is a part of the Sabbath cycle, which is a part of the original creation of the world. All of creation is therefore included in it. It is the same in principle as the language we are used to hearing from John, “For God so loved the whole world,” where the Greek word for “world” is really our word “cosmos,” meaning all of everything that has been created. All of creation is being reintroduced to the fundamental elements of its nature, being returned from the slavery of sin to the freedom of life according to God’s commandments. Again, Rav Sha’ul makes this explicit in II Corinthians 5, where he says that anyone who lives in the Messiah is a new creation, and that this is how God was reconciling  the cosmos to himself. Through Yeshua, the Father is re-creating the world and restoring this element of its nature to all people.

But lest we should think that this is just an abstract idea in which Yeshua the Messiah opens the doors to all people without including them in the same kind of familial, covenant relationship that Israel had in our Torah portion, Rav Sha’ul gives us a very concrete example of what the Jubilee means in his letter to Philemon.

Sha’ul introduces his letter to Philemon by emphasizing the fact that the community of faith is a household, and its members are family, incorporated through the Messiah (1-3, 10). What Sha’ul goes on to tell Philemon is that Onesimus’s conversion means that their relationship has changed radically, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” (Phl 12, NRSV) He was not your brother, but now he is. A real change has been made in their natures, and their rightful relationship has been restored by inclusion in the family of God through Yeshua. But Sha’ul declines to insist that Philemon act on this new state, and explains why in 13-14:

I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. (NRSV)

Dennis Hamm points out that this word ‘voluntary’ (hekousios) is the Greek word that the Septuagint uses for a freewill offering (Hamm, 48-49). Philemon is being reminded of the freewill offering of God in the Messiah, the firstfruits of the Spirit as described in Romans 8:18-25, which sets us free from the bondage which had been against our will (ouk hekousa), allowing us to make an offering of ourselves to God (Rom. 12:1). Onesimus is now, like Philemon, incorporated into this new people, made Philemon’s brother and not his slave (Phl. 16, Devarim 15:12) through the Jubilee of the Messiah which he extended to the whole world (Luke 4), restoring the Creation and the Sabbath’s place in it (Vayyiqra 25, Bereshit 1-2).

And the slave does not remain in the house forever, but the son remains forever! If the son has set you free, you are free indeed! Hallelujah!