Sometimes we come to perceive the significance of scripture by an analytical, linear, left-brain process. We use our minds to work out the principles behind biblical teaching and to see how to apply them to today. But sometimes we see scripture's significance by jumping to a more intuitive, right-brain, imaginative, visionary, prophetic insight. The Holy Spirit can work both ways, and both appear within scripture itself. The jump from Leviticus 25 to Jubilee 2000 was an imaginative, visionary leap, not a linear step. As such it was in keeping with the way the jubilee vision fired people within biblical times.
The explanation of the jubilee in Leviticus 25 begins from the requirement that farmers observe a sabbath year, so that once every seven years they sow no crops in their fields. People thus acknowledge that the land belongs to God. So once in a while they leave the land alone (as the weekly sabbath acknowledges God's right to time and leaves that chunk of time alone).
The requirements of Exodus 23:10-11 had already turned this religious instinct into a practice that could benefit the needy, who were to be allowed to gather what grows naturally in the sabbath year. Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 take up that concern for the poor and on the basis of it develop imaginative and radical visions of how to deal with situations of poverty that arise as Israel becomes a more complex society. Theologically they start from the nature of Israel's exodus faith and ask what that implies for such situations. They also link with the vision of the prophets and suggest how prophetic principle could be expressed as practical policy.
Leviticus 25 comes at the end of the "Holiness Teaching" that begins in Leviticus 19. Like Deuteronomy, Leviticus as a whole constitutes a God-inspired dream of a new foundation for Israel's life as a people, a new style of life for Israel. The book presupposes that the people will not live the life that exodus faith requires and will find themselves in exile, but that this need not be the end of their story. God will give them another chance after exile (see Leviticus 26).
Leviticus 25 is the only place in scripture that describes the jubilee year (it is also mentioned briefly in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 36:4). The jubilee was to happen every 49 years, perhaps Leviticus is being more realistic than Deuteronomy with its freeing every seven years. The word "jubilee" comes from the Hebrew word for the blowing of a trumpet, because that was the signal that this year was starting (25:9-10). The jubilee involved "proclaiming release" (deror). That expression is the one that Jeremiah 34 uses for what happened in the seventh year.
In both the sabbath and jubilee years things were to go back to square one in some way. In general, when someone got into economic difficulty, first obligation to help rested within their extended family. Their nearest relative is under moral obligation to come to their aid in these circumstances and thus to act as their "redeemer" or "restorer" might be a better translation. The aim was to get things back to square one. In the sabbath year people who had been forced by hardship to hire themselves to someone as workers were to become free. In the jubilee year people who had been forced by hardship to rent their land to someone else were to receive their land back. An underlying principle is the assumption shared by the Navajo and other native Americans, that you cannot own land. You can own buildings, which you make, but land belongs to God.
Leviticus recognizes that human selfishness means people would resist the jubilee principle. They would be tempted to try to make a profit out of other people's need. They would not want to lend money if they were not going to be able to make their profit, and would try to get round the regulations. The regulations thus remind them to keep God in mind, to "revere God". In some ways the regulations are impractical in that one cannot see how they could be implemented, but they are practical in recognizing that the value of the "lease" on land will diminish as the jubilee draws near. They thus try to think through the practical outworking of the vision and to take account of the perspective of lender as well as borrower.
Now it may be that throughout its history Israel did leave the land fallow one year in seven as Exodus says, but there is no reference to this in the Old Testament. Nor is there any reference to Israel ever observing the sabbath-year freeing of people who were working for other people because of debt, in the way Deuteronomy 15 says. The nearest to an exception (significantly) is a story in Jeremiah 34:8-17 about it not happening. There is no indication that the jubilee year was ever implemented. Nor is there any reference to people lending without interest, while there are many passages that imply that people did lend at interest. In any group, the regulations or exhortations that leaders give do not necessarily tell us anything about how life was.
This might only resemble the way the church has not usually implemented the Sermon on the Mount, though that analogy indicates that Israel may not have been simply being disobedient. When Jesus told people to cut off their hands, he probably did not mean it. There are other examples of teaching in the Torah that was not implemented, and the implication may be that the people knew that this was a vision rather than a policy. We misunderstand the Torah when we think of it as a law book. It is more like a vision. This does not mean it was not to be taken seriously, any more than Jesus' comment about cutting off hands. It means scripture is offering us a vivid picture; you have to work out how to put it into practice.
The awareness that it is a vision rather than a piece of law may help us to handle the fact that as a literal practice it would have its disadvantages: For instance, it could end up penalizing people who work hard and rewarding the lazy. While Moses' Torah or Teaching includes regulations that look designed for quasi-legal literal implementation, other material looks more like concrete embodiments of a style of life. We would miss the point if we took it legally we might fulfill the law's letter but not its visionary demand.
The problems the jubilee vision was designed to handle appear in Nehemiah 5:1-13, where we have seen that Moses' teaching about lending was being ignored in the context of pressures issuing from the failure of harvests and the demands of taxation placed upon people by a foreign government. Those have forced people to borrow money against the surety of their land, their children's freedom, and their own freedom.
Even if they regain their freedom in the seventh year, they are very unlikely to be able to regain self-sufficiency as a family if they have lost their land. They will never be able to escape the poverty trap. Nehemiah insists that the well-off return property and land and cease foreclosing (or charging interest) on loans. There is no reference to the jubilee, but it is a jubilee-vision that Nehemiah implements.
The function of the requirements in Leviticus 25 for us (like the function of the story in Nehemiah 5) is to stimulate the theological and ethical imagination. No Old Testament law binds us as law, because we do not live by law. But the whole Old Testament is designed to shape the life of the people of God (2 Timothy 3:15-16: in speaking of "scripture" it is referring to the Old Testament, of course, because the New Testament did not exist). It shapes us by portraying God's vision for human life by suggesting ways in which this could be worked out in practice in different contexts, and challenging us to discover what that this will look like in our own context.
Apart from Nehemiah 5, we know of three occasions in scriptural times when people did take the jubilee vision and applied it in fresh ways in their context. First, in Isaiah 61 the prophet testifies to having been called by God "to proclaim release to captives". This is the one other place where that word "release" comes in the Old Testament. The captives are the people of Judah who are oppressed and depressed as a result of the devastation of Jerusalem and the decimation of its population. The whole people and the whole land are in a position like that of individuals who have become impoverished through bad harvests and have lost their land or freedom, and the chapter applies the "release" image to them.
Second, the Qumran "Melchizedek" prophecy (11QMelchizedek) explicitly puts together Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, and Isaiah 61 and promises that in the last days (which the Qumran community believed were imminent) people will be released from their sins.
Third, Luke 4 tells the story of Jesus following the Qumran prophecy in declaring that the last days have arrived and that he is bringing about another embodiment of the ministry described in Isaiah 61. The context of his ministry suggests that the "release" of which he speaks is release from illness, demonic oppression, and guilt.
The image of a special occasion when release is proclaimed is thus one capable of being applied to different contexts when believers of vision see people in bondage and see this is God's moment for their release. The Jubilee 2000 movement saw the new millennium as another such moment. It saw that jubilee was not essentially eschatological or "spiritual" or Christological. The indebtedness of Third World countries puts them into another form of bondage, different from that in Leviticus, Nehemiah, Isaiah, 11QMelchizedek, and Luke. The visionaries who gave birth to the Jubilee 2000 idea invited us to hear God calling us to see here another way in which the image of "release" can be realized in the world. God did not require Israel to apply the jubilee vision outside the people of God, but it would make sense if God now does want that, as the renewed Israel is to reach out to the entire world.
As Leviticus envisioned, the cancellation of debts puts everything (or rather, something) back to square one rather than leaving people permanently oppressed by debts from which they can never recover. The jubilee gives people a new start.