In the recent days the term Jubilee has gained much attention in our Kenyan politics. The term now is being peddled as a means to political liberation for the reason that it coincides with our 50 years of independence.
But our politicians are not alone in this as some gospel preachers have joined the bandwagon attaching kerygmatic value to this term ever than before. This has brought about confusion in the way it is being handled. For instance, throwing about scriptural references in all sorts of direction without proper hermeneutical application has been prevalent. The church in Kenya therefore needs to have a real academic discussion on the issue of Jubilee in Kenya as it is being reapplied in ways that we could call hermeneutical gymnastics in the pulpit!
It is on the account of such a need that I join my colleagues to shed light on the possible intended meaning of what the Biblical Jubilee is? This I do in reference of the following primary texts: Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15; Nehemiah 5; Jeremiah 34:8-22; and Isaiah 61, 58:6.
Firstly, in consideration of the OT the Jubilee motif emergence, reemergence and reapplication appears in the Pentateuch, reappears in the prophets and later is presented as a central feature of the paradigmatic manifesto of the Jesus of Luke-Acts. It is in this claim that Christians and the church anchor their view. But there has been a wider debate amongst theologians whether Jesus’ view of Jubilee was a reflection of the social, economic and practical Jubilee found in Leviticus or it was an eschatological ideal based upon Isaiah?
A question of this kind deals a blow on how then we understand Jubilee? It becomes an issue of utopian ideals versus practical realities which present many challenges to the modern day would be promoters of Jubilee. Is it possible to successfully reinterpret Jubilee for the world today?
Secondly, we come to ask did the Jubilee ever occur? Bible scholars will tell you evidence for the actual occurrence is slight. The paucity of this evidence suggests that it was difficult to gain the commitment of the community to such an ideal despite it being within their legislation for at least three reasons:
- We can infer that, the implementation of the actual occurrence was difficult because the year of Jubilee, coming straight after a Sabbath year, was seen as potentially crippling, making Israelites vulnerable to outside attack.
- Also it may be they did not have enough faith to believe God would provide. Or maybe people explained their way out of the practicalities because they were unwilling to release their control of valuable land and slaves.
- Whatever other reason for this seeming failure of the jubilee concept to be consistently realized, it is good enough to note that it remained a concept embedded in Israel’s consciousness that, particularly in the light of the exile, it grew into an eschatological ideal.
Thirdly, why was Jubilee needful in post-exilic Israel? This was due to greed and the desire of the powerful to maintain status quo.
It was also to ensure fair sharing of the land amongst returning exiles and those who had remained as such Jubilee became a concept grounded in social economics. Within the Septuagintal translation of deror, aphesis it pays attention to this practical aspect rather than the religious or spiritual aspect. This was characterised by release, all debts would be cancelled while Israelites who had to sell themselves into slavery to their fellow countrymen would be returned to their family and their ancestral lands, to begin anew.
Such reordering of society was to remind people that, ultimately, they were the servants of the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and that the Land was Yahweh’s. If this reality was never achieved in theocratic Israel, how possible is it in a Kenyan context?
Borrowing from the prophets and Luke-Acts therefore we can conclude that, Jubilee does indeed point to an eschatological reality to be realized only in Christ. Then there will be justice, no more pain, and we will be with our God. And being together with God is our greatest treasure, not regaining our earthly lands. Not that justice on earth is not important it is just not the final reality to be realized in Christ.
NB: I am indebted to my professors at the LST on the course: Theology of the Poor, upon which I was able to reflect on the Jubilee concept locally.