Sabbath is a very important concept in God’s economy, and we see it applied in this chapter to more than just a day of the week. Not only are people commanded and get to enjoy rest, but the people are commanded to give the land a rest as well, one out of every seven years. And as we know, land does indeed need rest to remain fertile; if it is not given rest all the nutrients are used up and it will at some point no longer be able to produce crops or grow much other than weeds.
Remember back in Genesis 3, one of the results of the fall was that the ground was cursed:
“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
The ground itself experiences the effects of the fall, and we all understand “painful toil” even if we don’t work directly with the ground. So it too must be given rest.
God also gives the Israelites a Jubilee where they are to:
10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubileefor you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines.12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.
I believe this is the only time this word translated into our word liberty is used in the Bible. Everywhere else in the Bible it’s translated as freedom. But what exactly is this liberty being proclaimed? What are they to be liberated from? From the context it seems they are to be liberated from dependence on the land to reflect on their dependence on God. As he says in verse 23, the land is his.
The Jubilee happens every fifty years, after seven sabbatical years the land is given an additional year of rest. This is proclaimed on the Day of Atonement because everything the Israelites do is about what God is doing and has done for them. I found this good concise explanation of Jubilee:
The Jubilee then came every fifty years. When the trumpet sounded on the fiftieth year, and specifically on the Day of Atonement, liberty would be proclaimed “throughout the land to all its inhabitants” and then all of the property that had been taken by others for unpaid debts would have to be returned to the original families (clans). On that year there would be no reaping or planting or gathering of the crops for it was to be “holy to” the nation Israel and everyone could “eat the produce of the field.” What a celebration that must have been. Everyone that had been indebted was then released from that debt and able to start over again by having their land returned to them.
God is granting them liberty from the curse of the land that came about because of the fall. This is of course a temporary liberty; the permanent liberty came in Christ. It seems God was saying that by proclaiming liberty on the Day of Atonement, there is a liberty that can only be had in some ultimate sacrifice. We will be freed ultimately from the curse of the bondage of sin to a glorious liberty as children of the living God, our Father who art in heaven.
One thing that seems incongruous and that skeptics like to harp on, is that in this chapter while God is proclaiming liberty for the Israelites, he affirms slavery in general:
44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
How in the world can God affirm that one person can own another? See, the skeptics say, either your God is immoral, or he is just made up by men. But I think I see a possible rationale at the end of the chapter (this doesn’t take into account that slavery in ancient times was not the same institution as African chattel slavery as practiced in America even though people counted as property):
54 “‘Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
The Bible is the story of God’s plan of redemption, and he does everything for a reason. The Israelites are to be freed, are to enjoy liberty because God has freed them, they are his people, they belong to him. Everyone else, all the peoples that surround them, are not free, they are still in bondage to sin, thus they are in effect slaves, and God uses the human institution to show Israel, and us, that without him, without his initiative, his choosing, his working, his power, his will, we are slaves, slaves to sin and death. And from which we have been set free by the power of God in Christ.