Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land
unto all the inhabitants thereof.
—Inscription on the Liberty Bell (1752/3)
This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
—Jesus of Nazareth (AD 30)
Jubilee Bond Servants
The Mosaic Law permitted and regulated various sorts of bond service. In previous articles (located here and here) we’ve considered penal service, indentured service and lifetime service as a home-born slave. A fourth type was wrapped up with the Jubilee laws and had a couple of forms, both of which were terminated every 50 years by the Jubilee.
Israel’s liturgical calendar was an expansion on the seventh day Sabbath. In addition to the weekly Sabbath, Israel celebrated the new moon each month and five annual sabbatical feasts. Three of these – the Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles — fell in the seventh month Tishri. Beyond that, every seventh year was a Sabbath of the land, a year of release from charity loans, and a time when short-term indentured servants were set free (Lev. 25:1-7). After seven such Sabbath years came the Jubilee, a 50th year Sabbath (vv. 8-12).
In the Jubilee the land continued to lie fallow, all agricultural lands returned to the heirs of the original owners and Hebrew bondservants who hadn’t been freed in the previous year were set free. The Jubilee was announced in the last month of the 49th year with a trumpet blast on the Day of Atonement. So our concern will be with the two sorts of bondservants freed by the Jubilee, but first we must better understand the Jubilee’s significance.
The Jubilee as a Type and Shadow
As an extension of the Sabbath theme under the Old Covenant, the Jubilee pointed forward to the world to come, the Kingdom of the Messiah. It spoke of the security, liberty and peace that would characterize that coming era. In that new world, the prophets said, “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” (Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10).
In Isaiah’s prophecy, the Messiah speaks of His own ordination and mission in terms of the Jubilee:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD . . . (Isa. 61:1-2a).
The “acceptable year of the LORD” is the cosmic Jubilee, the final realization of all God’s promises to His people. Notice the emphasis on liberation and particularly the words, “proclaim liberty.” Clearly, the Jubilee was typical and prophetic and because of this … the things associated or interwoven with it must have an end … in both senses of the word. Both a goal and a termination.
When Jesus preached His first sermon in Nazareth, He began by reading Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Messianic Jubilee. Then He sat down to teach and, with every eye fastened on Him, He said, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21). Jesus came to free men from sin. The liberation of bondservants at the Jubilee was a picture of this. This is why the Jubilee began with the Day of Atonement.
The Nature of Jubilee Bond Service
To understand Jubilee bond service, it’s important to remember how the shorter “indentures” worked. These indentures were normally the result of a man defaulting on a zero interest charity loan. A man who defaulted on such a loan would sell himself (or be sold) into service, and the money would go to his creditor. He would receive no wages during the time of his service. That service could last no more than six years, and when the indentured servant was released to return to his own lands, his employer was to supply him liberally from his own flocks, threshing floor, and winepress … that is, with capital for a new beginning (Deut. 15:7-15).
Jubilee service dealt with a more serious sort of financial misfortune. Say a man has already mortgaged (leased) his family’s lands. Having nothing else, he has made his own labor the surety for a commercial, interest-bearing loan. But in the end, his business venture falls through. He can’t repay the loan. Probably happened a lot actually. So, at this point he must sell himself into service and pass on the price of that service to his creditor(s).
This is where the two forms of Jubilee service come in. The debtor could either sell himself and his services to an Israelite, one of the covenant people, or to a “stranger,” a resident alien. The Israelite was required to treat his servant with kindness and respect, but interestingly, the stranger was under no such legal restraints. Here is most of the relevant legislation:
And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. . . . You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God (Lev. 25:39-40, 43).
Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself (Lev. 25:47-49).
In general then, life in an Israelite home would be easier for the indentured servant than life in the home of a resident alien. The Israelite was required to treat his servant as hired man and “not rule over him with rigor.” This might imply that he was to pay him wages on top of the purchase price. In any case, he was to be generous with him. Furthermore, the indentured servant would live and work in the context of a family that feared God. He would not have the spiritual and psychological strain of living in a home dominated by pagan thought forms and residual idolatry.
On the other hand, the resident alien might be in a better position to buy the man’s services. He would not have the prior obligations of making charity loans or buying short-term indentures. And he might expect a higher return on the Jubilee servant since he could work him harder. The implied lesson was this … Financial responsibility and future-orientation are the best way to avoid being enslaved to pagans with all that might involve.
It is in connection with bond service to a stranger that God introduces the figure of the kinsman-redeemer, the go’el (Lev. 25:48-49). This man is the bondservant’s next of kin. He has the duty to buy back his kinsman from bondage if he is able, particularly if that kinsman in bondage to a resident pagan.
The New Testament reveals Jesus Christ as our Kinsman-Redeemer (1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 5:9). He is our brother, the divine Son of Adam, who has paid our redemption price with His own blood (Heb. 2:10-18).
Jubilee bond service then, was a kind of picture of our bondage to sin. God addressed that picture with two others … the bondservant could be freed by the coming of the Jubilee or through a price paid by the Kinsman-Redeemer. With these pictures fulfilled in Christ, Jubilee bond service has faded from covenant life. Christ now promises His Holy Spirit and “Freedom in His Spirit” to those who believe the Gospel, and He calls us through the Gospel to live responsible and self-disciplined lives. The goal: He wants all of His people to act and live like free men and women.