The Torah reading of Behar opens with the laws of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee (יובל). The Sabbatical year is every seventh year, and is to be “a Sabbath unto the Lord” (Leviticus 25, 2) in which the land is not to be worked and is given rest. It is to be a time of equality in which all are entitled to the produce of the land – “And the Sabbath produce of the land shall be for food for you, for yourself, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the settler by your side that sojourns with you” (Leviticus 25, 6). The Jubilee is every 50th year, and is to be a time of liberty (Leviticus 25, 10) in which Hebrew slaves receive liberty, all landed property that had been sold returns to its original owner and there is a Sabbath rest for the land (Leviticus 25, 10-11).
It is not clear what the Hebrew term (יובל) that is translated as Jubilee means. Some have speculated that the term translated as Jubilee comes from a term meaning ram as the Jubilee is ushered in by the blast of a horn on Yom Hakippurim of the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25, 9) that according to the Jewish tradition is a ram’s horn. Some have suggested that the term translated as Jubilee comes from a term meaning release or liberation. But, the etymological origins of the term are unknown. The term Jubilee, though, is without question misleading in having connotations of festive celebration (of jubilation). This does not fit at all with the plain meaning of Scripture.
There is a historical question that is also a matter of speculation as to whether the Jubilee year was ever practiced. I will leave aside such a question – for, even if the concept of the Jubilee year in the Bible reflects a moral and spiritual vision, in any case such a moral and spiritual vision expresses moral and spiritual values and ideals that are of the essence of religion in the Biblical conception. The essence of the Jubilee year is a moral thrust reflecting the great revolution of the Hebrew Bible from a religious point of view.
The great revolution of the Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the story of the burning bush, which is a story of revelation – revelation of the very name of God (YHVH) to Moses. The essence of the name of God (YHVH) is that God demands morality, as expressed in Psalm 23 – “the Lord (YHVH) is my shepherd…He restores my soul, He leads me in paths of righteousness for the sake of His name” (Psalm 23, 1-3). This is the essence of the revelation to Moses at the burning bush (that God demands morality) where God first reveals God’s nature as a God of history as opposed to a power of nature (as in the pagan conception of gods as powers of nature) – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). God, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution.
In the Bible, the existence of other gods of other peoples is presupposed rather than denied. In the ten statements (the Biblical term is ten statements and not ten commandments), the statement “I am the Lord your God” declares that YHVH is the God of Israel (to whom the people Israel are to be loyal) among the many gods that are presumed to exist; while the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to serve YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples. Abraham refers to YHVH as the “most high God” (Genesis 14, 22) implying that YHVH is the greatest God among a pantheon of gods. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Hebrew term is Reed Sea and not Red Sea), in the song of the sea, it is written, “Who is like unto You among the gods, O Lord (YHVH)?” (Exodus 15, 11). The verse presupposes the existence of other gods who cannot be compared to YHVH. In addition, in the ten statements YHVH is referred to as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20, 5 and Deuteronomy 5, 9) who demands exclusive worship (service) and loyalty. Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?
In the Biblical culture gods exist, and gods have personal and concrete names such as Ba’al and Ashtarte in the Canaanite culture, and YHVH in the Israelite culture. The Bible demands of the people Israel to be loyal to YHVH among the many gods demanding loyalty. The Bible demands not faith or belief in a theological sense but loyalty in a psychological sense – and, such loyalty will express itself in behavior and a certain way of life. Loyalty to Ba’al will necessarily express itself in a fertility cult in which the essence of religion is ritual practice, whereas loyalty to YHVH will express itself in a life of obedience to the moral will of YHVH in which the essence of religion is morality and not ritual. The Biblical revolution then is in the way that God is conceived as a God who demands morality – and, the essence of religion is thus morality and not faith or ritual.
The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived not only as a God of power (as a source of nature and creation), but in the main as a moral God (as a source of revelation and redemption) who demands morality – and the essence of religion then in the Biblical conception is not faith or ritual practice but morality, as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “And you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”. The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel (ישראל), in Hebrew contains the words righteous (the very same word righteous as in the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”) and the word God, and if divided in the middle means righteous of God (ישר אל) – and, the people Israel then are to be a people devoted to righteousness and right living as the essence of religion. Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out as a person who “will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19).
If we return to the Jubilee year – in the plain meaning of Scripture, the Jubilee year is not described as a time of jubilation or celebration. In the plain meaning of Scripture, the Jubilee year is described as a sacred time of liberation (especially in which Hebrew slaves receive liberty, and all landed property that had been sold returns to its original owner) – “And you shall sanctify (as sacred) the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25, 10).
Moreover, the moral thrust of the Jubilee is expressed both regarding the returning of property to the original owner and the liberation of Hebrew slaves. In both cases, a central concept of the Hebrew Bible appears – fear of God. In relation to the returning of property to the original owner it is written – “And you shall not wrong one another; but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 25, 17). In relation to the liberation of Hebrew slaves it is written – “For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as bondmen, you shall not rule over him with rigor; but shall fear your God” (Leviticus 25, 42-43). Fear of God is a central religious concept then of the passage dealing with the Jubilee year, and it is a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible.
The concept of fear of God is actually part of a religious paradigm of three central religious concepts of the Hebrew Bible – fear of God, love of God and service of God. Fear of God and love of God are psychological and anti-theological concepts of the heart that necessarily express themselves primarily in moral behavior and secondarily in ritual behavior (as moral behavior is the essence of religion in the Biblical conception) – and, proper behavior (moral and ritual) constitutes the service of God.
The Book of Proverbs, the great work of wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, remarkably gives a secular definition of the concept of fear of God – “fear of God is the hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8, 13). Fear of God here in the Book of Proverbs refers not to theological belief concerning God but simply to the hating of evil – a moral conception of fear of God that even a secular person who does not believe in the existence of God in a theological sense can display; and, conversely one who believes in the existence of God theologically may lack fear of God in this moral sense.
The concept of love of God in the Hebrew Bible is, like the concept of fear of God, primarily a moral concept – the fear of God being the hating of evil, and the love of God being the love of goodness. In the Biblical conception of religion the concepts of fear and love of God are not theological concepts characterized by the affirmation of philosophic propositions, such as the existence of God. Rather, they are psychological and moral concepts – feelings of the heart that necessarily express themselves in proper behavior, and are an expression of moral conscience and moral commitment in refraining from committing wrongdoing and in doing good deeds.
Love and fear of God are the psychological motivations that express themselves in the service of God, which flow from the image of God as a slave owner or master. The relationship of a slave to a slave owner or master is one of contrary feelings and motivations. On the one hand, a slave is drawn to a master out of love and gratitude for taking care of the basic needs of the slave (the slave representing property of the slave owner or master who has a vested financial interest in taking care of the basic needs of the slave), and the slave then feels a positive motivation to do the will of the master in performing the service that the master demands. On the other hand, a slave feels a distance from a master, out of fear of the power of the master to punish disobedience, and feels a negative motivation not to transgress the will of the master. Thus, in the religious conception of the Bible, love of God is the positive motivation to do the service of the Master who demands proper behavior, while fear of God is the negative motivation not to transgress the moral will of the Master in behaving improperly.
The exodus from Egypt, the first mass slave escape in recorded history, marking the birth of the Jewish people, is not an end in and of itself. Rather, the physical freedom of the people Israel from oppression and persecution is for the sake of serving God morally and spiritually on Sinai, representing the birth of the Jewish religion. Sinai is the place of the covenant between God and the people Israel (Exodus 19 – 24), in which God commands the people Israel commandments that are in nature moral and ritual (expressing moral ideals) constituting the service of God.
In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that the purpose of redeeming the people Israel from slavery is that they serve God – “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3, 12). The term serve (תעבדון) in the verse, like the term service (עבודה) of God, is from the same root as the word slave or servant (עבד). The people Israel are freed from slavery in Egypt to be servants to God in order to perform the service of God (primarily expressed in moral behavior), as reflected in the concluding verse of the passage dealing with the Jubilee year – “For to Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25, 55).