Calum Carmichael, «The Sabbatical/Jubilee Cycle and the Seven-Year Famine in Egypt», Vol. 80 (1999) 224-239
The comparative method is of limited value in locating the Sabbatical/Jubilee cycle of Leviticus 25 within the framework of similar institutions in the ancient Near East. Not only is the character of the biblical institution distinctively Israelite, but so is the manner in which the Levitical lawgiver devised the entire cycle. The lawgiver formulated rules to ensure that the Israelites do not do what the Egyptians did in their land (Lev 18,3). Borrowing details from the Genesis account of the seven-year famine in Egypt, the lawgiver set out Yahwehs scheme for his peoples welfare. The scheme stands opposed to the pharaohs for the Egyptians at the time of the famine.
With the approach of the millennium it seems appropriate to look at an institution, the Year of Jubilee, that, despite confounding interpreters as to its original meaning, has never ceased to capture the imagination of religious thinkers and political reformers down through the centuries. The law establishing the Jubilee, which goes back two and a half thousand years, continues to stimulate models for liberation from oppressive forces, for reconciliation, and for new beginnings1.
I will argue in this paper that the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycle, with its climactic Year of Jubilee, becomes intelligible once we relate it back to the developments in Egypt at the time of the famine there. The policy adopted by the pharaoh in line with Josephs counsel is the key to how the Israelite institution came to be formulated. How the formulation chimes with what we know of comparable institutions in the ancient Near East will also come under scrutiny.
I. Survey of the interpretation of the biblical Jubilee since 1950
Bewilderment about the laws of the Sabbatical year and the related Jubilee year in Leviticus 25 is understandable. Their unreal aspect is manifest. Every seven years there is to be no sowing or harvesting throughout the entire land. Every fiftieth year, the Year of Jubilee, one year after the seventh Sabbatical year, the land has again universally to lie fallow. In prospect, then, are two years in succession of fallow conditions that deprive the entire population of its normal source of food. If these rules were actually observed, how, then, would the people eat?
Equally baffling are the requirements that all Israelite slaves must be released from servitude when a Jubilee year comes round and that every Israelite must return to his ancestral land. Commentators are quick to point to the problems. Unlike the equivalent Exodus and Deuteronomic rules, which have slaves released after six years