Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Jubilee From Leviticus to Qumran

People who commend Christian involvement in social justice issues frequently appeal to Jesus’ so-called jubilee announcement in Luke 4:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release (Hebrew: דרור; Greek OT [LXX]: ἄφεσις) to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6).

According to Leviticus 25, every fiftieth year was to be a jubilee where property would be returned to its ancestral owners, and everyone who had sold themselves as an indentured servant to a fellow Israelite or as a slave to a resident alien would be released:

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month -- on the day of atonement -- you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty (Hebrew: דרור; LXX: ἄφεσις) throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. (Lev 25:8-10 NRSV)

Jesus did not appeal directly to Leviticus, of course, but it is often suggested that since Isaiah 61 alludes to Leviticus 25, Jesus was announcing the year of God’s jubilee in his own ministry. And if Jesus patterned his own ministry after the jubilee legislation in the Torah, how much more are we justified in adopting the jubilee as a paradigm for Christian social action?

Now, I believe Christians should be concerned about social justice, but I have always questioned the assumption that Luke 4 is a jubilee text simply because it quotes Isaiah 61. As a matter of principle I do not assume that first century readers of Jewish Scripture share our modern understanding of the text: Isaiah 61 may well allude to Leviticus 25, but this does not mean that a quotation from Isaiah 61 would have been understood by Luke as a reference to the jubilee. Perhaps it does, but I’m not ready to take it for granted without more evidence from within Luke-Acts that Luke read Isaiah 61 as a jubilee text or, failing that, enough evidence from contemporary literature demonstrating that Isaiah 61 was commonly read in this way.

Perhaps it doesn’t.
Perhaps it does.
Perhaps it doesn’t.

The question nagged at me enough that I ordered in a couple monographs on the jubilee through Inter-library loan. ILL deadlines being what they are, I read them right away.

As her title indicates, Sharon H. Ringe’s Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for Ethics and Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), is deeply interested in the ethical and theological implications of jubilee language. But her conclusions disappoint: “As difficult as it is to know how and to what extent the Jubilee proclamation was deliberately chosen and recognized as such by Jesus, it is equally difficult to know whether the Gospel writers or their sources were aware of incorporating images rooted in the Jubilee traditions, or whether they simply reproduced such images without being aware of their roots” (89). Because she concludes that the jubilee laws in the holiness code (Lev 17-26) are post-exilic and roughly contemporaneous with Isaiah 55-66, she can only speak of Jubilee imagery in Isaiah 61 and, indeed, in the New Testament as a whole.

John Sietze Bergsma’s fascinating study, The Jubilee from Leviticus to Qumran: A History of Interpretation (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 115; Leiden: Brill, 2007), is much more helpful in addressing the influence of the jubilee laws in the OT and in Second Temple Jewish literature. Among other things, Bergsma demonstrated to my satisfaction that the jubilee legislation in Leviticus 25 reflects a pre-exilic setting (something one cannot take for granted in current OT scholarship). Though there is precious little evidence that the jubilee year was observed during or after the monarchy, Bergsma also makes a strong case that the laws of jubilee were originally rooted in a lived situation. Most important, Bergsma shows that the laws of jubilee are reflected in several other biblical and post-biblical texts. Many of these suggestions are not original to Bergsma, but several of them are new to me:

  • Ezek 46:16-18 applies the jubilee to a new situation involving the “prince,” taking for granted that “the year of liberty” was still operative and understood by his audience: “...if he makes a gift out of his inheritance to one of his servants, it shall be his to the year of liberty (Hebrew: דרור; LXX: ἄφεσις).”
  • Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple is dated to the day of atonement mid-way through a jubilee cycle (Ezek 40:1): “Only the association with the jubilee year text (Lev 25:8-10) makes meaningful sense of both the figure of ‘twenty-five years’ and the ‘beginning of the year’ on the ‘tenth day of the month’“ (189).
  • 2 Chr 36:21 combines Jeremiah’s prediction of a seventy year exile with the prediction in Lev 26:34-35 that during the exile the land “shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbath years.” “If both assertions are true, then during the exile the land made up for seventy missed sabbatical years. This implies that Israel had failed to observe the sabbatical year for a period of 490 years, or ten jubilees, which is approximately the time the Chronicler allots to the period of the monarchy” (209-210).
  • Bergsma argues that the “seventy weeks” in Dan 9:24-27 extend Jeremiah’s prediction of a seventy year exile sevenfold “according to the principle of Lev 26:18. . . . The initial period of discipline--Jeremiah’s seventy years--had come and gone without provoking the necessary repentance. The period of discipline would now be increased ... to ‘seventy weeks’ or 490 years” (220). 490 years is a jubilee of years. References to atonement in Daniel 9 are also significant, because the jubilee year was to be proclaimed on yom kippur: “Just as the Day of Atonement re-establishes wholeness in the cultic and spiritual realm, the jubilee re-establishes it in the social and economic realms. The use of jubilary chronology by the author of Daniel implies that at the end of his envisioned period of ‘seventy weeks,’ not only will sin be atoned for (Dan 9:24), but Israel will be released from socio-economic bondage and return to her land, as promised by the prophets, particularly Jer 29 (cf. v. 14), which is the key prophetic passage to which Dan 9 responds and on which it builds” (227).
  • In Isaiah 61 the speaker’s mission to “proclaim liberty (לקרא דרור) to the captives” alludes to the jubilee and applies the concept figuratively to the return from exile. The key here is that the Hebrew word translated “liberty” (דרור) is rare. In fact, Bergsma argues that all other occurrences of the word are connected to the jubilee. In this context, the mention of the “favorable year” of YHWH most likely also refers to the year of jubilee.
  • Isaiah 58 also appears to echo the laws of jubilee: The only fast legislated in the Torah occurred on yom kippur, the day of atonement for the sins of the people; yom kippur was also the day on which the year of jubilee was to be announced by trumpet blast. In Isaiah 58, the prophet is summoned to announce the people’s sins “like a trumpet” (58:1); the fast God chooses recalls the commands in Leviticus 25: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go share your bread with the hungry, and . . . not to hide yourself from your own kin” (Isa 58:6-7). It is striking that the quotation from Isa 61:1-2 in Luke 4:18-19 includes a line from Isa 58:6. I need to think about this some more.
  • In some of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the early Jewish books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch “the jubilee appears as a unit of time, consisting of seven ‘weeks,’ which is used to schematize Israel’s sacred history. At the end of the jubilee period, or at the end of a ‘great jubilee’ consisting of a sacred multiple of jubilees, Israel is portrayed as experiencing liberation and restitution” (249).
  • Other Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the Community Rule (1QS x 6-8) calculate the jubilee as part of their cultic calendar.
  • As in Daniel 9, still other texts from Qumran include the jubilee in discussions about the future. The most important of these texts is 11QMelchizedek, which combines quotations from Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Isa 61:1-2 and most likely Daniel 9 (among others). According to 11QMelch, Melchizedek acts as the herald of Isa 52:7 and 61:1, proclaiming liberty “to free them from...all their iniquities” (line 6). Melchizedek acts on the day of atonement (!) to carry out God’s vengeance (line 13) and to comfort the afflicted (line 20). Here is indisputable evidence that some Second Temple Jews saw Isaiah 61 as a jubilee text—but did Luke share this framework of interpretation?

Bergsma concludes his study as follows: “In Second Temple Judaism the legal and ethical aspects of the jubilee are largely eclipsed by its use as chronological unit....The association of the jubilee with liberation is not lost, but eschatologized. The liberation that the jubilee represents becomes identified almost exclusively with the dawning of the eschaton. Even at Qumran...there is little or no evidence that the jubilee year was observed legally and economically, even if the jubilee cycles were calculated. Increasingly in the Second Temple period, the arrival of the eschatological jubilee is associated with the coming of a messianic figure . . . . Finally, a shift occurs in Second Temple literature concerning the type of debt the jubilee addresses. While the original legislation was clearly concerned with monetary debt, the later texts apply the jubilee to moral-spiritual debt, i.e. sin.”

And then this final sentence: “These general observations may be of assistance in evaluating the significance of jubilary allusions or motifs in the New Testament.” Indeed.

In another post, I will consider the implications of Bergsma’s study for my question about the jubilee and Luke-Acts. This one has gone on long enough!

(In case you are wondering, the picture has nothing to do with the post. It was taken on t.'s birthday outing at Memorial Lake yesterday.)


Christian Gedge said...

Bergsma makes good sense. There is no doubt in my mind that Jeremiah and Daniel hold the key to understanding the Sabbatic/Jubilee cycle.

The problem unfortunately has been fuzzy dating and when that is known Luke4 fits in like a jigsaw.

Thanks for posting this, Chris

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Chris. I'm interested in your thoughts about how Luke 4 fits in.

Christian Gedge said...

Here is an introduction to my recent book:

There is good reason to believe Jesus baptism was a '49' (AD26) His proclamation of the year of the Lords favour was a '50' (AD27)

I would be happy to send you a complimentary copy of 'The Atonement Clock' if you wish to assess it.