The heart of Leviticus 25 is best understood in terms of stewardship and submission. The text focuses on Israel’s management of the land, economic recovery, and stability for the poor. In all of this modern readers can find some important applications to their own concepts of holy living. Holiness applies to matters of broad justice.
The text can broken down into three sections, each intending to protect debtors from complete ruin.
I. Introduction (v. 1)
II. The Jubilee: A Sabbath for the land (v. 2-22)
III. The Jubilee: The Redemption of Property (v. 23-38)
IV. The Jubilee: The Redemption of Slaves (v. 39-55) (see Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 316)
Each category helps to develop both man’s dependence upon God and His own responsibility for the well-being of others. An exploration of each category will unpack these elements further.
The text begins with a discussion about the Sabbatical year. Just as there was to be a Sabbath every week, so there was to be, built into the rhythms of a lifetime, a whole year of Sabbath for the land. This event occurred every 7 years and was intended to give the land a rest from the cultivation of crops. No sowing, pruning, or reaping was to be done and strict observance of all in Israel was required. The land would produce food, but it was uncultivated. The theological goal of the Sabbath year was to remind Israel that they were ultimately dependent upon God. The Sabbath year did this even more than the Sabbath week, because it was entire year before they could work the fields, before they could seek to ensure they had enough food to eat. They would truly have to rely on God.
There was also a real benefit to the poor during this season. The Sabbath year meant that the Israelites were truly to live like nomads, in the sense that they were permitted to eat whatever they came across in the field, even if it was not their field. They could freely pluck, harvest, and eat as the walked. The slaves and the sojourner who had no field of their own could freely enjoy the supply of the Sabbath produce (v. 6). The Jubilee year did even more, however, to serve the poor.
Every seventh Sabbath year the poor and destitute were given a fresh start. Any land that might have been sold off to meet a financial debt was returned to the original owner. Slaves too were released, returned to their families (v. 10). Both the redemption of property and the redemption of people were significant markers of the identity of Israel. Financial desperation might tempt them to do all kinds of things, but they were not to be finally identified by such things. The land and the people ultimately belonged to God and must be returned and restored to their proper order under His rule.
How should we think about the implications of this passage for us today? Many will quickly want to run to political systems and policies. There’s no doubt that Leviticus 25 has things to teach us in this regard, but we must be careful not to miss the context for the content. These policies were established for the theocratic nation of Israel. Nowhere else in Scripture do we see these laws restated, or commanded, certainly not in the New Testament as Jesus lives and dies under Roman law. Yet, we ought not discount the principles of justice that are outlined here.
Christians of all people ought to be concerned with matters of justice. We ought to care about relief of the poor, stewardship of the environment, and restoration of families. We ought to uphold, if not the details of Leviticus 25, the spirit of it. The principle of dependence upon God reminds us that we are all on equal footing before Him. Paul says to the Corinthians:
For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor. 4:7)
We have nothing is not a gift from God. Abuses of the land, or our labor, or other people, is a dismissal of our dependence upon the sovereignty of God. This is why we may say that there are more sins in our work ethic than just slavery and child labor. Workaholism, for example, is an attempt to abuse our labor because we do not trust in God to provide. There is much here that warrants our reflection. Reflections on our industries, our environmental impact, our labor laws, our cultural practices, and even our own individual habits.
Justice is an issue for the believer because all land, all property, all work, and all people belong to God. We are merely stewards of His creation and His gifts. Leviticus 25 served to remind Israel of this, it can serve to remind us too.