The Hebrew Bible's vision of Sabbath economics contends that a theology of abundant grace and a communal ethic of redistribution is the only way out of our slavery to the debt system, with its theology of meritocracy and private ethic of wealth concentration. The contemporary church, however, has difficulty hearing this as good news since our theological imaginations have long been captive to the market-driven orthodoxies of modern capitalism.

Our fears have persuaded us that the biblical Jubilee is at best utopian and at worst communistic. Yet we find it awkward simply to dismiss the biblical witness, so an alternative objection inevitably arises, as if on cue: "Israel never really practiced the Jubilee!" If genuine, and not simply a strategy of avoidance, this challenge is best addressed by considering both the "negative" and "positive" evidence.

By "negative" evidence I mean the fact that Israel's prophets repeatedly and relentlessly criticized the nation's leadership for betraying the poor and vulnerable members of the community. This strongly suggests that the Sabbath vision of social and economic justice remained a measuring stick to which they could publicly appeal.

There can be no question that the Sabbath disciplines of seventh-year debt release and Jubilee restructuring were regularly abandoned by those Israelites who wished to consolidate social advantages they had gained. The historical narratives in the Hebrew Bible indicate that as the tribal confederacy was eclipsed by centralized political power under the Davidic dynasty, economic stratification followed inexorably. Indeed, the prophet Samuel warned that a monarchy would be linked intrinsically to an economy geared to the elite through ruthless policies of surplus-extraction and militarism (1 Samuel 8:11-18). 

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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