THE SABBATICAL YEAR AND JUBILEE YEAR
Kenneth Frank Doig
To most Christians and many Jews the sabbatical year is no more that a Biblical curiosity. However, the lack of observance of seventy sabbatical years led to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. Further, the sequence of sabbatical years can give a secondary confirmation to various dates in the chronology, including the 1552 BCE date of the Exodus. By establishing the sequence of sabbatical years the possible year of the Exodus is limited to also falling in a seven-year sequence. Establishing the sequence of jubilee years then limits the Exodus to a forty-nine year sequence. This would apply for any suggested date of the Exodus.
The sabbatical year refers to the land lying fallow every seven years. This is described as "six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop, but during the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord" (Lev. 25:3‑4, see also 25:5‑7 and Exod. 23:10‑11). The Hebrew word "Sabbath" means rest. The release of debts and slaves also followed a seven-year cycle, coinciding with the sabbatical year; also, the Law was to be read publicly (Exod. 21:2‑6; Deut. 15:1‑18, 31:10‑13; Jer. 34:14). The sabbatical year is known in Hebrew as "Shemitah", or "release."
The sabbatical year was the center of Jeremiah's prophecy against Judah: "This whole land shall be a desolation and a horror, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years" (Jer. 25:11). This desolation continued, "until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept Sabbath until seventy years were complete" (2 Chron. 36:21). The implication is that the seventy years of desolation were decreed because Israel had not observed seventy sabbatical years. The sabbatical years were not observed from the time Samuel died during the time of the kings from David to Zedekiah. The emphasis was that the land was to observe the Sabbath rest for seventy years. The timing of the sabbatical years can identify the seventy missed Sabbaths of the land and give a secondary confirmation to the chronology back to the time of Joshua.
Before laying out the sabbatical years a related event, the jubilee year will be examined. After "seven Sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years...you shall sound a ram's horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you" (Lev. 25:8‑10. See also Lev. 25:8‑55; Num. 36:4; Ezek. 46:17; Isa. 61:2; Luke 4:19). Further, "You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee; you shall not sow, nor reap its after growth, nor gather in from its untrimmed vines... You shall eat its crops out of the field" (Lev. 25:11‑12). It appears that the land is to lie fallow for two years in a row. This seems confirmed for the jubilee year by "I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in" (Lev. 25:21‑22).
From which month the Jews reckoned the sabbatical years during the time of the Judges is not specifically recorded. However, there is every indication that all dating during that period was from Abib, which was later known as Nisan (Exod. 12:2). Reaping was normally done in the months following Abib, with the crop sown in the prior year, following the seventh month of Ethanim, which was later known as Tishri. In the description of the jubilee year the land is to be sown in the eighth year for a crop in the ninth year (Lev. 25:22) indicating that the year was measured from Abib. This suggests that in the typical sabbatical year during the time of the Judges that no sowing was done in the second half of the sixth year, but sowing was done in the second half of the seventh year, except in a jubilee year when sowing was in the second half of the eighth year with reaping in the ninth year. This is laid out in the following chart:
Sabbatical/Jubilee Year Alignment
There have been ongoing questions as to whether later jubilee years followed the first jubilee in the fiftieth year in cycles of forty-nine or fifty years, and to whether it was identical with the seventh sabbatical year or the year following. This is reflected in the Talmud: "Is the fiftieth year as before the fiftieth or as after? Come and hear: For a conflict of R. Judah and the Rabbis has been taught: And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year: You must count it as the fiftieth year, but not as the fiftieth and as the first year. Hence they said: The Jubilee is not part of the septennate. R. Judah maintained: The Jubilee is counted as part of the septennate" (Babylonian Talmud, Mishna, Nedarim 61a). As we can see from the above chart, the Rabbis were right that the jubilee was not part of the septennate, but the year following. The problem remains that if the fiftieth year is also fallow, followed by six years of crops before the next sabbatical year, then there were eight years between the seventh and eighth sabbatical years of a cycle. This would result in jubilee cycles of fifty years. In order to maintain the sabbatical years every seven years it is necessary for the jubilee year to be followed by five years of crops before the next sabbatical Year. This will result in cycles of forty-nine years, or else the jubilees would no longer be tied to the sabbatical year cycle.
To help clarify this, we note that the above scriptures were written during the wilderness trek, prior to the first sabbatical year or jubilee year. Thus, the description of the jubilee year being the fiftieth year only need be applicable as a description of the first jubilee year, counted from the division of the land. Future jubilee years would then be counted inclusively from the last jubilee year as the first year, thus maintaining a cycle of forty-nine years. The second jubilee was in the ninety-ninth year, the third in the 148th year, etc. The jubilee year was dependent on following the seventh sabbatical year in a series, but the placement of the sabbatical year was not dependent on the jubilee year. We can expect that the seven-year cycle of the "Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord," remained always every seven years. Thus there were five years of sowing and reaping after the jubilee year until the next sabbatical year, and that the jubilee year was in a forty-nine year cycle. This cycle is shown in the following chart:
Sabbatical and Jubilee Years
Dated from the Exodus (Inclusive reckoning)
It must be noted here that all Scriptural references to the first sabbatical and jubilee years are after the Exodus and timed from the division of the land and the first crop. They begin at exactly the same point. There is no Scriptural justification for projecting these cycles back to the Creation. Such are man made theological constructs that have led to such cults as the Essenes.
During the period of the Judges the Hebrews probably observed an informal agricultural calendar which coincided with the sabbatical year. With the division of Solomon's kingdom, the Northern Kingdom of Israel appears to have adopted a civil calendar based on this agricultural cycle. The southern Kingdom of Judah retained the Exodus Calendar that began in the spring. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Jews of the dispersion shifted officially to a Civil Calendar beginning in the fall for the marking of years, sabbatical years and jubilee years (Mishna, Rosh Hashanah 1:1). This solved the problem of bringing the sowing and reaping of the crops into the same year, or the lack of sowing and reaping into the same seventh year. It was similar to the commonly used Syro‑Macedonian calendar of the Seleucid era. In order to align the later sabbatical years with our chronology years beginning in Abib, we will use the second half of the Civil Year when the crops were reaped.
Can we identify any years in the Old Testament in which a sabbatical or jubilee year can be identified? The answer is essentially no, for several reasons. Just because the land lie fallow, slaves, or debts were released, land redeemed, or the Law read does not necessarily identify that the year was a sabbatical or jubilee year. These may have been the result of wars, famines or religious revivals. Most important, since the Babylonian captivity was for seventy missed sabbatical years, then there were no sabbatical years observed during the period of the kings. It is presumed that the jubilee years would also not have been observed. Therefore, the Scriptural references during that period to fallow land, the Law being read, etc. cannot be to sabbatical or jubilee years. After the reinstitution of the sabbatical year in 519 such a reference is possible, but none are noted. Although the sabbatical and jubilees were not observed during the period of the kings, the prophets may have noted them on their calendars. However, we can discern no certain year in Scripture.
The seventy years of desolation for the missed seventy sabbatical years began in 588 (January 4, 587). This was when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and the land began to lie fallow (Section GM ‑ 2 Kings 25:1; Jer. 39:1, 52:4; Ezek. 24:1‑2). The seventy years ended after God blessed Israel with the foundation of the Second Temple (Section HH ‑ Hag. 1:1, 2:18‑19). This was December 18, 520 BC. It was too late to sow that year. Thus, the following year there were no crops to harvest and the land lie fallow the last, or seventieth year, in 519. This year, 519, was observed as the first of the resumed sabbatical years, the Sabbath rest beginning in 520 and ending in 519 BCE.
By referring to the chronology and the following table we find that the first group of seventy sabbatical years occurred during the time of the Judges. This extended from Joshua to Samuel, and it is presumed that all seventy Sabbaths of the land were observed. The following group of seventy sabbatical years began when David became King of Judah and ended with the final destruction of the Kingdom of Judah. The last sabbatical year of the seventy occurred after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem, while the land was still desolate. The last year of the desolation was the first sabbatical year of the third group of seventy.
Besides the missing seventy Sabbaths of the land accounting for the seventy years of the desolation of Judah, there are no time related references to the sabbatical years in the Bible. We must turn to extra‑Biblical sources to establish a time sequence.
Historical Sabbatical Years
1. After Judas Maccabee and his loyal Jews recaptured Jerusalem from the soldiers of Antiochus IV Epiphines, the Temple was rededicated on December 14, 164 BCE. The Jewish equivalent of this day is still celebrated as the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah (Jesus was born on Hanukkah, equivalent in 5 BCE to December 25). Soon after this Antiochus IV died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Antiochus V Eupator. Lysias waged war in the young king's name against Judas Maccabee, when "in the year 150 they assembled and stormed the citadel" in Jerusalem (1 Macc. 6:20). Judas moved away from Jerusalem and engaged in several battles, retreating from Beth‑zur, where the king "made peace with the men of Beth‑zur, and they evacuated the city, because they had no food there to enable them to stand a siege, for that was a Sabbath year in the land" (1 Macc. 6:49). Judas had further difficulties because "there were no provisions in the storerooms, because it was the seventh year, and the tide‑over provisions had been eaten up" (1 Macc. 6:53). However, due to problems in Antioch, the Syrians retreated, and the Jews gained their independence through a peace treaty. The year 150 is measured on the Seleucid Era beginning in the spring of 311 BCE, this according to Babylonian and Jewish reckoning (see the chapter, "The Evolution of the Jewish Calendar"). The year 150 began Nisan, or April 5, 162. The sabbatical year began in the fall of 163 and ended in 162. According to our chronology we will use the second half of the sabbatical year in 162. Josephus (Ant. XII, chapter 9) later retold the above account.
2. In the year John Hyrcanus became High Priest, he besieged Ptolemy at the fortress of Dagon, near Jericho. After the brutal slaying of his mother, Hyrcanus became disheartened and withdrew. The attack had been delayed until after Tishri 1, the "year on which the Jews use to rest came on; for the Jews observe this rest every seventh year, as they do every seventh day" (Ant. XIII 8:1; Wars I 2:4). John Hyrcanus became High Priest in 135. The reference to the sabbatical year was to the rest beginning in Tishri of 135. According to our chronology, this will be listed from Nisan of 134.
3. 37/36 BCE - See also Herodian Chronology. Herod's army besieged Jerusalem which was "distressed by famine and the want of necessaries, for this happened to be the Sabbatic Year" (Ant. XIV 16:2). "This destruction befell the city of Jerusalem when Marcus Aprippa and Caninius Gallus were Consuls at Rome, on the hundred and eighty-fifth Olympiad, on the third month, on the solemnity of the fast, as if a periodical revolution of calamities had returned since that which befell the Jews under Pompey; for the Jews were taken by him on the same day, as this was after twenty-seven years' time" (Ant. XIV 16:4). At that time the city was in distress, caused "in part by the Sabbatic Year, which was still going on, and forced the country to lie still uncultivated, since we are forbidden to sow the land in that year" (Ant. XV 1:2). The Consuls mentioned served in 37 BCE. The 185th Olympiad ended July 16, 37 BCE. The fast fell on Sivan 22 in memory of Jeroboam forbidding sacrifices in Jerusalem, or June 21, 37 BCE.
The sowing of the land occurs in the first half of the revised sabbatical year beginning in Tishri. Therefore, this reference is to the year 37 is for the period between September 7, 37 and October 15, 36. Again, according to our chronology, the second half of the sabbatical year when the crops were reaped will be used, that is 36 BCE.
4. The Talmud relates that, "The day on which the first Temple was destroyed of the ninth of Ab, and it was at the going out of the Sabbath and at the end of the seventh year... The same happened the second time. But how is it possible that the second time it happened at the end of the septennate?" (Babylonian Talmud, Mishna, Arakin 11b, 12b; see also Shab. 33a). Thus, 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed was the second half of a sabbatical year, observed in 69/70. (The reference to the first Temple being destroyed during a sabbatical year must be an error, probably related to attempting to discern God's time cycles in worldly affairs. That Temple was destroyed in 586, whereas, the sabbatical years fell in 589 (590/589) and 582 (583/582). This would mean that the first Temple was destroyed in the second half of the sabbatical year, that is the first half of 589 or 582. Such cannot be established from Scripture or history.)
Thus, we have four dates for sabbatical years after 519. These are 162 BCE, 134 BCE, 36 BCE and 70 CE. These are all in seven year multiples of each other. It is not possible to interject any additional years for jubilee years on a fifty year cycle in the sequence and then maintain the seven year cycles. Thus, the exact seven-year cycle for sabbatical years and the forty-nine year cycle for jubilee years is established. These years also establish the sequence used in antiquity.
Proceeding from this base we take from our chronology the first sabbatical year as 1499 (Section BE). Joshua and Israel crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land in 1512. They fought and conquered the land in seven years, ending in 1506. During that year "the land had rest from war." (Josh. 14:15) As the year progressed the land was distributed and the first crops sown. The reaping of the first crop, and the first year of the first seven, was the following year, 1505. The seventh year, or first sabbatical year, was in 1499
According to the Talmud there were seven years of conquest, seven years to distribute the land and then seven years to the first sabbatical year (Seder Olam 12). Thus, the first sabbatical year would have been in the twenty-first year instead of the fourteenth year after the entry into Canaan. Nowhere in Scripture is there any indication that the distribution of the land took seven years. The war was over in the seventh year (Section BD). There is every expectation that the Jews, tired of manna and war, would have immediately have begun to plant throughout their conquered land. The time to distribute the land would have been short, and would not have prevented those who had already received a portion to begin to sow. Scripture does not support the Talmud's delay of seven years. This may have been an attempt by the Rabbis to shift the cycle forward seven years to have the jubilee year begin in 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed; then the land would seemingly be restored to its original owner, God.
Can we find a year in which a jubilee cycle is identified? The Book of Ezekiel opens, "Now it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was by the river Chebar among the exiles, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth of the month in the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's exile..." (Ezek. 1:1‑2). Here the thirtieth year of a jubilee cycle is equated with the fifth year of Jehoiachin's exile (see section GL). The year was 593. On the following chart the eighteenth jubilee was in 623, and the thirtieth year following was in 593. The forty-ninth year was the following nineteenth jubilee in 574. Thus, the following table of sabbatical and jubilee years is in correct sequence, whatever the starting date. Ezekiel's dating is laid out as follows:
Ezekiel's Thirtieth Year
Having established a first sabbatical year, and that the following Sabbaths of the land follow at seven-year intervals, it is possible to layout a table of years. Each sabbatical year must match the contact points in Scripture and secular history. The five dates identified as sabbatical years, 520/519, 163/162, 135/134, 37/36 BCE and 69/70 CE are indicated by an asterisk (*). The sabbatical year given started from the fall of the prior year. The sequence of sabbatical years is given in groups of seven, with the following jubilee year preceded by a "J".
The present sabbatical year cycle of the Jews in Israel is not in sequence with the Scriptural and historical pattern, being observed a year earlier. The year 2008 was observed as a sabbatical year, which was from the fall of 2007.