The Common Good
May-June 1998

God Speed the Year of Jubilee!

by Ched Myers | May-June 1998

The biblical vision of Sabbath economics.

God speed the year of jubilee, the wide world o'er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th' oppressed shall vilely bend the knee
And wear the yoke of tyranny, like brutes, no more—
That year will come, and Freedom's reign
To man his plundered rights again, restore.
—William Lloyd Garrison, 19th-century abolitionist

"We read the gospel as if we had no money," laments Jesuit theologian John Haughey, "and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the gospel." Indeed, in most North American churches today, it is exceedingly difficult to talk about economics. This topic is more taboo than politics, more even than sex—a subject with which our churches have recently become all too preoccupied. Yet no aspect of our individual and corporate lives is more determinative than the economy. And few subjects are more frequently addressed in our scriptures.

The pre-eminent challenge to the human family today is the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and power. Since statistics are wearisome, a few must suffice to capture this drift. The United Nations reported in 1992 that income disparities between the world's richest and poorest have doubled since 1960. Today the wealthiest 20 percent of the world's population receives almost 83 percent of the world's income, while the poorest 20 percent receive less than 2 percent! In 1965, the average U.S. worker made $7.52 per hour, while the person running the company made $330.38 per hour; today, the average worker makes $7.39 per hour, the average CEO $1,566.68 per hour—212 times more!

This is "trickle up": the transfer of wealth from the increasingly poor to the increasingly rich. And neoliberal policies of "structural adjustment" are not only hardening this income polarization, they are deepening psychic and social alienation. Whether through plant closings, the demise of the local grocery store, or the crisis of the family farm, we in the First World are now witnessing the epidemic of communal displacement that has already devastated local culture, institutions, and environments in the Third and Fourth Worlds.

Any theology that refuses to reckon with these realities is both cruel and irrelevant. We Christians must talk about economics, and talk about it in light of the gospel. "Churches," asserts Cornel West, "may be the last places left in our culture that can engage the public conversation with non-market values." Yet those who would challenge postmodern capitalism and its self-reflexive market discourses are struggling to find an alternative language and practice, particularly with the apparent discrediting of state socialism. This ideological vacuum offers a unique opportunity for the church to rediscover a radically different vision of economic and social practice—and one that lies right at the heart of its scriptures.

The Bible recognizes that inequalities will inevitably arise in "fallen" society—a realism it shares with the worldview of modern capitalism. Unlike the social Darwinism of the latter, however, the biblical vision refuses to stipulate that injustice is therefore a permanent condition. Instead, God's people are instructed to dismantle, on a regular basis, the fundamental patterns and structures of stratified wealth and power, so that there is "enough for everyone." This socioeconomic vision is articulated in a variety of ways in both testaments: through Exodus storytelling (Exodus 16), Levitical legislation (Leviticus 25), Deuteronomic exhortation (Deuteronomy 15), prophetic pronouncement (Isaiah 5), gospel parable (Matthew 25), and apostolic pleading (2 Corinthians 8-9). This article will examine the Hebrew Bible roots of this tradition; the sequel will look at how Jesus appropriates and renews it.

Manna and the Sabbath
The Biblical standard of social and economic justice is grounded in God's call to "keep the Sabbath." The word "Sabbath" comes from the Hebrew verb shabat, which means "to rest or stop working." It first appears in the Bible as the culmination of the story of creation: "God rested on the seventh day from all the work God did" (Genesis 2:2). Here a primal pattern is set: "Good" work (Genesis 1:31; Hebrew tob, better translated as "delightful") is followed by Shabat. This Shabat is "blessed" (2:3), just like the creation itself (1:22, 28). Richard Lowery points out that "in a delightful twist, ‘rest' is signified as a verb in this passage and ‘work' as a noun." Sabbath, he contends, captures the double theme of this creation story: abundance and limits.

Human beings are to imitate God in practicing Sabbath. The next place we encounter the term (now as a noun, not a verb) is in the archetypal story of hunger and bread in the wilderness (Exodus 16), sandwiched between two stories of thirst and water (Exodus 15:22-27 and 17:1-7). The people have been sprung from slavery, but must now face the harsh realities of life outside the imperial system. Their first test of character, not surprisingly, is how they will sustain themselves. The ancient Israelites—like modern North Americans—couldn't imagine an economic system apart from the Egyptian military-industrial-technological complex that enslaved them. "Would that we had died at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this desert to die of famine!" (Exodus 16:3).

The manna story is not just a feeding miracle. It is a parable that illustrates Yahweh's alternative to the Egyptian economy (Exodus 16:6). God "raining bread from heaven" symbolizes cultivation as a divine gift, a process that begins with rain and ends with bread (see Isaiah 55:10 and the parallel between the wilderness manna and the produce of the settled land in Joshua 5:12). This story narrates a "test" to see if Israel will follow instructions on how to "gather"—a symbol in traditional societies for harvesting (Exodus 16:4). The people's first lesson outside of Egypt concerns economic production!

Moses' instructions give us the three defining characteristics of this alternative economic practice. First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs (Exodus 16:16-18). In contrast to Israel's Egyptian condition of oppression and need, here everyone has enough: "Those who gathered more had no surplus, and those who gathered less had no shortage." In God's economy there is such a thing as "too much" and "too little." (This contrasts radically with modern capitalism's infinite tolerance for wealth and poverty.) Exodus 16's "theology of enough" is underlined by the (probably later) version of the manna story in Numbers 11, in which the people's persistent "cravings" are punished with a plague of "too much" (Numbers 11:33-34; see Psalm 78:20-31, 106:13-15).

Second, this bread should not be "stored up" (16:19-20). Wealth and power in Egypt was defined by surplus accumulation. It is no accident that Israel's forced labor consisted of building "store cities" (Exodus 1:11), into which the empire's plunder and the tribute of subject peoples was gathered. (This too prefigures capitalism, whose dictum, according to Marx, was: "Accumulate, accumulate, accumulate—this is the Law and the Prophets!"). The Bible understands that dominant civilizations exert centripetal force, drawing labor, resources, and wealth into greater and greater concentrations of idolatrous power (the archetypal biblical description of this is found in the story of the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11:1-9). So Israel is enjoined to keep wealth circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating through strategies of accumulation.

The third instruction introduces Sabbath discipline (Exodus 16:22-30). "On the sixth day, when they distribute what they bring in, it will be twice as much....Six days you shall gather; but on the seventh, which is a Sabbath, there will be none" (Exodus 16:5, 26). We Christians regard the Sabbath at best as merely one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), at worst as a quaint Jewish custom. But here we see that it is instituted even before the covenant at Sinai. Indeed, it is reiterated in ultimate terms at the conclusion of the covenant code: If the people do not practice Sabbath, they will die (Exodus 31:12-17). Not only then is Shabat the crowning blessing of creation; it is also the "beginning and end of the law."

We Christians therefore trivialize (and even "profane") the Sabbath if we regard it merely as a day when Jews do as little as possible, or as a code of nit-picking prohibitions. Torah's Sabbath regulations represent God's strategy for teaching Israel about its dependence upon the land as a gift to share equitably, not as a possession to exploit (see for example the rituals enjoined in harvest festivals, Leviticus 23:9-25). The prescribed periodic rest for the land and for human labor means to disrupt human attempts to "control" nature and "maximize" the forces of production. Because the earth belongs to God and its fruits are a gift, the people should justly distribute those fruits, instead of seeking to own and hoard them.

"Sabbath observance requires a leap of faith, a firm confidence that the world will continue to operate benevolently for a day without human labor, that God is willing and able to provide enough for the good life," writes Lowery. "Sabbath promises seven days of prosperity for six days of work. It operates on the assumption that human life and prosperity exceed human productivity."

This first lesson was fundamental: The people were instructed to keep a jarful of the manna in front of the covenant, so as never to forget Sabbath economics (see Hebrews 9:4). The manna story, in sum, illustrates human dependence upon the divine "economy of grace." Sabbath observation means to remember every week this economy's two principles: the goal of "enough" for everyone, and the prohibition on hoarding. This vision is, of course, utterly contrary to economics as we know it. And our incredulity is rather humorously anticipated in the story itself: "Manna" means "What is this?" (Exodus 16:15).

THE SOCIAL JUSTICE CODE of Exodus 23 extends the Sabbath cycle to a seventh year: "You shall let the land rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat" (Exodus 23:10-11). The Sabbath year restores equilibrium by restraining the activity of "productive" members of the economy and freeing constraints upon those the economy has marginalized, both the disenfranchised (the poor) and the undomesticated (wild animals)!

The ecological and social wisdom of the Sabbath year goes beyond the agricultural good sense of letting land lie fallow. Kentucky philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry articulates Sabbath economics in his notion of the "two economies." He believes the all-encompassing and integrated system of nature should be understood as the "Great Economy," upon which human systems ("little economies") by necessity depend. The problem, Berry writes, is that our modern industrial economy, with its managerial penchant for control and its lack of limits, "does not see itself as a little economy; it sees itself as the only economy. It makes itself thus exclusive by the simple expedient of valuing only what it can use—that is, only what it can regard as ‘raw material' to be transformed mechanically into something else.... The industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy."

The Sabbath rest commanded for the land and the laborer restores the primacy of the Great Economy, and forces humans to re-adapt to its limits. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow puts it, "This shabat betokens the peace agreement ending the primordial war between ourselves and earth which began as we left Eden—which came from a misdeed of eating and brought us painful toil and turmoil in our eating."

The Deuteronomist goes even further, interpreting the Sabbath year to include debt release (Deuteronomy 15:1-18). This was intended as a hedge against the inevitable tendency of human societies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few, creating hierarchical classes with the poor at the bottom. In agrarian societies such as biblical Israel (or parts of the Third World today), the cycle of poverty began when a family fell into debt, deepened when it had to sell off its land in order to service the debt, and reached its conclusion when landless peasants could only sell their labor, becoming bond-slaves. Since there were no banks in antiquity, it was larger landowners who acted as creditors—and who foreclosed, adding to their holdings.

The prophet Isaiah railed against precisely this process of economic stratification by which wealthy creditors "add house to house and field to field, until there is room for no one but you" (Isaiah 5:8). He saw it as a betrayal of Israel's vocation to be "God's pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed" (Isaiah 5:7).

The Sabbath year debt release intends to safeguard both social justice ("there will be no one in need among you") and sound fiscal policy ("creditor nations will not rule over you," Deuteronomy 15:4-6). But anticipating the human tendency toward selfishness, the practical Deuteronomist specifically forbids people from tightening credit in the years immediately prior to the Sabbath remission (15:7-11). The remission applies to debt slaves as well, not only freeing them but demanding that they be sent away with sufficient resources to make it on their own (15:12-17). Whether or not the community will enjoy the blessing of the land is contingent on its fidelity of this Sabbath discipline, which Deuteronomy, like Exodus, grounds in the memory of being liberated from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 15:15; see 5:15).

THE FULLEST EXPRESSION of Sabbath logic is the Levitical "Jubilee": a comprehensive remission to take place every "Sabbath's Sabbath," or 49th-50th year (Leviticus 25). The Jubilee (named after the jovel, a ram's horn that sounded to herald the remission) aimed to dismantle structures of social-economic inequality by: releasing each community member from debt (Leviticus 25:35-42); returning encumbered or forfeited land to its original owners (25:13, 25-28); freeing slaves (25:47-55). The rationale for this unilateral restructuring of the community's assets was to remind Israel that the land belongs to God (25:23) and that they are an Exodus people who must never return to a system of slavery (25:42).

The Jubilee was perhaps already prefigured in the "Feast of Weeks" (Shavuot, later the feast of Pentecost), a celebration of the first fruits of the harvest (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:15-25; Deuteronomy 16:9-12):

Feast of Weeks: "From the day after the Sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks....You shall count until the day after the seventh Sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord" (Leviticus 23:15-16).

Jubilee: "You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period...gives forty-nine years....And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants" (Leviticus 25:8, 10).

This suggests that "Sabbath economics" applied at each harvest, not just every other generation.

Lowery acknowledges that the Sabbath vision is diametrically opposed to our modern assumptions about economics. The two main assumptions of classical economics are: 1) scarcity; and 2) unlimited need. These, he writes, "breed resignation to systems of distribution so unequal as to guarantee homelessness and starvation. On the other hand, they create an imperative toward unlimited economic growth." Sabbath economics, however, based on "the principles of abundance and self-restraint, turn this classical economic approach on its head. If you assume that resources are abundant, sufficient for the survival and prosperity of human life, and that human needs and wants are limited, then no one need starve or suffer the elements through lack of housing or clothing." The conclusion we must draw, says Lowery, is that "long-term, systemic hunger, homelessness, and poverty can be viewed only as a failure of human will."

If Sabbath economics is an unfamiliar notion to North American churches it is not because it is obscure or incidental to the scriptures. Rather, it has been marginalized by interpreters who seek to legitimate the very concentrations of wealth and power that the biblical tradition denounces. It is important to point out that many of the texts cited above probably did not take their final Torah form until after the Babylonian Exile (sixth century B.C.E.). This means that the ancient vision of Sabbath economics that originated among tribal Israel was revisioned almost half a millennium later, under very different circumstances. It is a radical vision that has continued to surface among justice-seeking Jews and Christians ever since.

Ched Myers, the author of The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics (Church of the Savior, 2001), worked with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Los Angeles when this article appeared.

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