Ruth and Jubilee

by Deborah Horscroft

Every seven years the Israelite Sabbath year laws provided for the freeing of all slaves, the cancellation of all debts and the laying fallow of the land. After seven sabbaths on the Day of Atonement a “Jubilee” year was called, and in addition to these other liberations all land was returned according to the original Mosaic distribution. In this way land was not so much bought and sold, as leased until the next year of Jubilee (and priced accordingly).

One’s land could also be recovered before the year of Jubilee by redemption. Either the owner or a kinsman could redeem the land for a price proportionate to the number of harvests before Jubilee. This is what Boaz did for Ruth and Naomi.

The basis for the release of slaves, debts and land was God’s ownership of both the people and land. Since he had delivered them from Egypt into the Promised Land, neither they nor the land could ever be sold.

When Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-2)

Passages in the Old Testament such as this were part of a growing understanding by the people of God that as they had been redeemed from Egypt and Babylon, so the Messiah would bring liberty to God’s people. Jesus claimed that he was the fulfillment of these prophecies. (Thanks to R.B. Sloan’s excellent article on Jubilee in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, IVP 1992)