Jubilee – a Worthwhile Action? Maybe Not… But a Worthwhile Thought for Sure
Biblical exegesis is not my strong point. I’m not even completely sure what “exegesis” means. (Looked it up: “explanation, critical analysis, interpretation.”) If our parish priest – kindly man though he is – caught me doing that with the Bible, I’d probably be saying “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” until the Holy Virgin and God got tired of listening.
Nonetheless, I’d like to weigh in on something the Bible says about the theme of this American Consequences issue: Debt.
You’ll find a few general warnings about the dangers of debt in the Bible…
The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again: but the righteous sheweth mercy, and giveth.
And one very specific “solution”…
Individuals, private businesses, corporations, countries, continents, and the whole damn world are now so overburdened with debt that we may be facing a “Jubilee” – a rare and dramatic event where some or even all debt is canceled.
The Jubilee has its basis in the book of Leviticus, Chapter 25. The Israelites were instructed that every half century there should be a reversion of land to its original owners or their heirs, a general forgiveness of debt, and a manumission of bond-servants.
In the year of this jubile ye shall return every man unto his possession.
The slate is wiped clean and everybody gets to start over. It’s a nice idea.
Never mind that The New Oxford Annotated Bible contains the following footnote: “there is no evidence that the jubilee program was ever carried out”…
At one time or another, most of us have wished for a Jubilee (involving both our financial and personal affairs).
But the imposition of a Jubilee on a credit-integrated, globalized, 21st-century economy would (will?) be a disaster.
And I don’t want that disaster to be blamed on ancient tribes of wandering Israelites… Their Torah was committed to writing early in the first millennium B.C. And it was about events that took place a thousand years before they were recounted.
Things have changed since then.
Of course, right and wrong haven’t changed. The Ten Commandments remain carved in stone just the way they were in the movie of the same name starring Charlton Heston.
But social rules and religious observances do change. For example, a few chapters earlier in Leviticus…
And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests… shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar…
O’Rourke though I may be, I’ve been to temple for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and have never seen anything like that.
Plenty of things are extant in the Bible that today’s observant Jews and Christians frown upon – slavery, polygamy, child marriage.
God gives us rules according to time and circumstances. God did not speak through Moses to tell the ancient tribes of wandering Israelites, “Thou shalt not look upon thy iPhone at the dinner table.”
The Jubilee – from the Hebrew word yobel, meaning “ram,” hence “triumphant blast of a ram’s horn” – has its basis in the particular circumstances of the Israelites in the 2nd millennium B.C.
The most important circumstance was that the Israelites lived in a zero-sum economy. They were farmers and shepherds. They were dependent on land. There was (excluding a brief parting of the Red Sea) a fixed amount of land. Land in the possession of someone else was land on which you couldn’t plant or let your flocks graze. And if all the land was in the possession of someone else, you and your family starved.
Many primitive agriculturalists make some sort of provision for equal access to land. Julius Caesar, in The Gallic War, mentions that among certain Germanic tribes it was not “permissible to remain dwelling in one place for more than a year.”
The zero-sum nature of land is the opposite of the modern economy, where we can make more of everything. We can, in effect, make more land by vastly increasing the agricultural productivity of farms and fields. We can, in actuality, make more land by piling up the landings in skyscrapers.
Worthy of note in Leviticus Chapter 25 is an exception to the Jubilee redistribution of land.
… the house that is in the walled city shall be established for ever to him that bought it throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubile.
People with their home in a walled city are presumably not farmers or shepherds. They’re making a living from services, crafts, and trade.
Services, crafts, and trade are not – and never were, not even back when Moses was floating down the Nile in his baby basket – zero-sum endeavors.
The other circumstance that the Israelites faced was predatory lending. I’m talking about something much worse than payday loans. With payday loans there is, at least, a payday. This wasn’t always so among primitive agriculturalists.
The crops and herds of the second millennium B.C. were hit-or-miss. One too many lions lying down with your lambs and you could be wiped out. The land of milk and honey may have been, climatically, a little sweeter and milkier than it is today, but it was still grievously prone to droughts.
Farming is by nature credit-dependent.
Income arrives once a year. Sometimes it’s bounteous and can hold you through the next harvest. Sometimes it’s nil, and when planting time comes, you’ve eaten your seed corn.
The predatory lenders of the time were like the Mafia loan sharks of today. They had no commercial interest in you getting out of debt. These lenders wanted the “vigorish.” They wanted the “juice.” (Literally, if you were growing grapes or olives.) Worse, they wanted you to fail to pay the vig, so they could move in on your business.
These were coercive loans. When you ran out of resources to repay, you’d have to “lease” your land to the lender. When you ran out of land to lease, you’d have to lease yourself and become the lender’s bond servant.
The same thing is going on in rural India to this day… and in plenty of other dark corners of the globe.
But here and now, in the developed world’s sophisticated conduct of business, industry, and commerce under the rule of law and the light of transparency, there should be no need for a Jubilee.
And yet… and yet…
Maybe, as we’re pondering “Jubilee,” we should be considering how many of the probably never-to-be-paid debts that modern people have incurred are, in fact, the result of predatory and coercive lending practices.
There are, after all, other kinds of predation than financial. And there are other kinds of coercion than brute force…
• What about politically predatory loans made by government agencies looking to score populist points by luring poor people into impossible mortgage debt and suckering the young into gigantic student loans?
• What about strategically coercive loans made by rich nations to poor nations to keep those poor nations in thrall?
• What about World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans made for the sake of “political stability” to keep predatory and coercive dictators in power?
A Jubilee in the Biblical sense might not be the best basis for action. But the moral ideas that underlie the Jubilee remain a good basis for thought.
Among those thoughts is that we are only temporary visitors to the Earth and our job is to take care of it in the short term, make it fruitful, and avoid permanently ruining the place… not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the posterity that we’ll never meet.
The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.