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Vayikra/Leviticus 27:21 When the field goes out in the Jubilee, it shall be holy to the L-rd, like a proscribed field; his possession shall be for the priest.
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In this last parasha of the book of Vayikra, we find ourselves in territory of which we are uncertain. Not only is the text ambiguous, but the exact identity of the parties involved, the precise sequence of events and the detailed mechanics of ANE landholding and religious dedication have become lost in the mists of time. Scholars and religious tradition offer two or three different scenarios to explain what might be going on, but none exactly match the words used by the Torah or are completely coherent with the rules previously given for the Jubilee. Nevertheless, from the overall tenor of the language and apparent penalty for dedicating part of one's ancestral holding, we can draw an important conclusions for our behaviour today as followers of Yeshua, whether Jew or Gentile.
Earlier in Vayikra, the Torah covers the buying and selling of ancestral land. Initially, after laying down the ground rule that "in the year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his holding" (Vayikra 25:13), the transactions are presented in a very matter-of-fact way, making it clear that it is not the land itself that is being traded, but a number of crop cycles: "what he is selling you is a number of harvests" (v. 16, NJPS). A landowner whose interests or skills lay in a different area, could sell a number of years of agricultural operation to another farmer who would bear the costs and risks of production (seed, labour, weather) and take the profit, in exchange for a fixed rental payment. The landowner is safe, knowing that he can redeem the land at any point by buying back the remaining time, or that the land will be released from its tenancy - whoever is then the tenant - without charge, in the Jubilee. This set of rules see these transactions as very normal business undertakings, without any particular obligation or urgency for redemption.
Some verses later, the text addresses the situation where a landowner is forced to sell all or part of his land in order to raise money with which to settle his debts. In this case, however, the Torah places an obligation on a kinsman with sufficient means to redeem the land holding and return it so the seller: "If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold" (v. 25, NJPS). It is, after all, the only way he has of making a living for himself and his family. Should the seller prosper and earn enough to redeem the land himself, then there is a clear expectation that he will do so. Only if there is no kinsman to help him, or if he cannot earn enough to redeem it for himself, "what he sold shall remain with the purchaser until the jubilee; in the jubilee year it shall be released, and he shall return to his holding" (v. 28, NJPS), may he wait for the Jubilee to release the land and return it to him.
We see throughout that there is a non-extinguishable right of redemption held by the original landowner: he - or a kinsman - may redeem the land at any point before the Jubilee; and in all cases the land returns to its original owner - or his heirs if he has died - at the Jubilee. This is based on the fact that each family has been allocated land directly byHaShem, albeit by the hand of Moshe or Joshua, to hold in perpetuity as their irrevocable family holding. Although tenant farmers may come from any of the twelve tribes - even a Levite could be a tenant farmer, if he had the time or resources - this meant that the landholdings never passed to another tribe; the tribal land area remained contiguous. It also served two important social functions: firstly, although hard times might happen, no-one was permanently disenfranchised from the land. Secondly, it prevented the build-up of large estates by wealthy merchants or landowners, buying out the poorer small farms and reducing its owners to permanent poverty as landless labourers or artisans. This models the outright ownership - the freehold - held by HaShem: "But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land" (25:23-24, NJPS). The freehold is not theirs to give away.
However, our text comes two chapters later, in a passage that deals with land that has been pledged or given to HaShem. People have always been free to bring offerings - animals, grain, wine, etc. - to the L-rd by way of thank offerings or free-will offerings. Why, if they could afford it, should they not donate a number of years of production from their ancestral land to HaShem? Why not indeed - and there is nothing to stop a landowner selling all or part of his land for an agreed period to another farmer and then donating that money to HaShem, via the Temple treasury. That is very straight forward and the usual rules for redemption and release will apply. But for some folk, that wasn't enough; they wanted to consecrate their gift directly to HaShem and this required a different set of rules. All of a sudden, the right of redemption is limited and the Jubilee doesn't work in the same way.
Instead of the value of the land - essentially what would have been the sale price - being calculated from the value and quality of the land, its situation and expected yield, the calculation is now based on the cost of the seed needed to sow the ground, regardless of the yield. If he changes his mind, the donor may redeem the land only at a premium: "he must add one-fifth to the sum at which it was assessed" (27:19, NJPS), he must pay a twenty percent surcharge to get his land back. Now the priests and the Temple authorities are not really farmers - they have enough to do in their priestly duties - so the treasurer, the administrator of things consecrated, will usually sell a lease on the land to a farmer who will work it for them on a tenancy basis. The minute that sale has taken place, the original owner may no longer redeem his land and, when the Jubilee occurs, instead of reverting to the original landowner, it is released to the priests!
It is almost as if what amounts to giving the land back to HaShem creates an offence before Him; as if, perhaps, the gift is taken as a slight: I can get by without this land that You have given me; even, at worst, I don't need/want You - I don't need a hand-out. Hence the penalty of permanent loss of the land if it is not redeemed before it could be sold, demonstrating a lack of care or concern for what HaShem has done. It almost seems a deliberate violation of the non-permanent selling of the land that we saw above - failing to provide a way for redemption, so that the priests have to step in and manage the land on behalf of HaShem.
Well, that's all very well, but what does that teach us about our lives and behaviour today? What do ANE landholding rules mean to us in a modern and very different world? The first lesson comes from Yeshua's teaching about unclean spirits: "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation" (Matthew 12:43-45, ESV). Here, a generic person representing the current evil generation, has after a struggle managed to break a bad habit, cure an addiction or change an unhealthy attitude - an unclean spirit has gone out from them and they clean up their lives. But because the person has no right of redemption, the land of their lives having been sold to sin without redemption, the ownership of the land has not changed and the unclean spirit can return. G-d is the only one with non-pre-empted redemption rights and no-one thought to ask Him.
Our second lesson speaks to those who have come to faith in Messiah Yeshua and then fallen away, deciding to return to a life in the world. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that, "if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (Hebrews 10:26, ESV). This is giving Yeshua's gift of salvation back, saying that we don't need it - in the same way as the man who chooses to give away and not to redeem his ancestral landholding. The land has passed into a state where it is impossible for the original owner to redeem it and the loss has become absolute. If anyone who sets aside the Torah dies without mercy, Hebrews continues, "how much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of G-d, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?" (v. 29, ESV).
In an even closer parallel to the case of land redemption, Hebrews tells us that it is "impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of G-d to their own harm and holding Him up to contempt" (6:4-6, ESV). Here the land has been given, occupied, farmed and proven to be a good land with ample harvests and an excellent yield, yet has been discarded as unnecessary or unwanted - throwing G-d's goodness back in His face, assuming it will come round again. The right of redemption has been given up, disregarded and consequently withdrawn. Don't go there, the writer urges: continue to meet together, encourage one another, don't give up for "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living G-d" (10:31, ESV)
Further Study: Luke 12:4-7; Romans 13:11-13; 2 Peter 2:20-21
Application: Have you wandered from the truth and nearly given up on G-d, thinking that you can manage on your own now that you think you know what to do? Don't make the mistake of letting the right of redemption go - call on Yeshua today to exercise His right of redemption over you and draw you safely back into His kingdom.
Comment - 14:16 23May22 GJ: Precious connection!! Seamless Word of Our Redeemer! Hallelujah Halleluyah!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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