Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 6 - Announcing the Good News

During the time Rome ruled over Judaea, the people of the land raised their messianic hopes according to the calendar of Sabbatical cycles as outlined by the Book of Daniel[1]. The opening of the one such long-awaited sabbatical season, marked by the twentieth year of Tiberius ( 34 C.E.)[2], was then at hand. A "Son of man" from the House of David, who was named Jesus, stood before the Sabbath assembly at Nazareth and eagerly announced the impending "acceptable year of the Lord." He alerted his listeners to the good news by reading the "haftarah" scripture[3], which summarized the prescribed section ("sidrah") from the Torah that related to the sabbatical year. The passage read: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn". Jesus further reported that the time for good news was then at hand. The good news meant economic recovery for the poor, physical rehabilitation for the disabled, and liberty for the oppressed. The entire program was meant to be a "new deal" for the disenfranchised citizens of Israel.

The congregation responded to this public pronouncement of good news with mixed expressions of astonishment and hostility. Those who were troubled by these words probably felt that Jesus should set aside his utopian madness instead of launching a perilous career to cure national ills. The reaction was predictable enough in a land dominated by Roman rule, where, ultimately, the imperial Roman military machine stood ready to annihilate any movement towards self-determination among its provincial satellites. Consequently, general opinion failed to endorse any public expression fostering the spirit of nationalism. The intimidated populace was flanked on either side by opposing forces. The Herodians and the loyalist Sadducean group, who expressed their allegiance to Rome, stood on one side, while the Zealots[4] and rebels, who forcefully resisted foreign incursions against their national and religious integrity, stood on the opposite side. Ultimately, either side supported their position through campaigns of fearful oppression.

The program Jesus presented endorsed a complete observance of their ancient law concerning the "acceptable year of the Lord," which was also known as either the season when "the land shall observe a sabbath[5] of the Lord" or as the "year of release" (shemittah). " The law applied only to the land of Israel and its inhabitants, and declared every seventh year as dedicated to God. After "seven weeks of years", the fiftieth year was set aside as the Jubilee year, when liberty should "proclaim liberty throughout the land and all the inhabitants thereof."[6]

Since the Sabbatical year occurred every seventh year, it frequently has been referred to as simply the seventh year[7], even though the term "seventh year" may be more descriptive of the civil year than the religious year. Even so, the seventh year was a period of rest or repose, which was set aside for special religious observance as similarly practiced for the Sabbath day. In fact, the entire year was regarded as a religious festival. The same sabbath regulations that affected the mid-festival days applied also to the seventh year. The general goals for the seventh year were to honor God, improve the status of the poor, and to allow the land of Israel to lie fallow. Those who normally worked the land were freed from normal agricultural labor to pursue a vocation of religious training.

The sabbatical season formally began in the spring well before the beginning of the civil new year at the first of Tishri. In this way, seventh year observance was drawn out over a period lasting some eighteen lunar months. As the new season began at Passover, the work ended in the grain fields, and later again, as the Festival of Weeks approached, the work ended in the orchards[8]. Since the season opened at several distinct stages, the season also followed a similar staggered schedule as each respective phase drew to a conclusion.

The effective regulations[9] during the seventh year stated that nearly all native agricultural commerce should be suspended. The restrictions governed orchards, vineyards, and grain fields. No sowing of seed, transplanting, grafting, fertilizing, irrigating, plowing, land reclamation, harvesting, produce transporting, or produce marketing were permitted. The sole sovereign of the land was God, and he benevolently permitted his subjects to share the land as public property. Maintenance or construction of any restriction such as a fence or a wall limiting public access to the land was prohibited[10]. Anyone, along with the beast of the field[11] and the fowl of the air, was allowed to wander over the open land and search out his "daily bread" from whatever grew naturally on the land. Regulated amounts of raw material for clothing, building, or even vegetation could be removed from the field as long as the removal did not affect the permanent economic value of the land.

Small lots of produce governed by daily needs could be gathered by hand, carried from the field, and stored inside a house. Anything could be taken from the field, which left the permanent value of the land unchanged. Whenever a situation first occurred wherein either a certain produce was not found in the field or the new seasonal growth budded forth, then all accumulated storage of that particular produce, excepting enough for three meals, had to be removed and disowned. The excess had to be removed outside the dwelling and made available for immediate public consumption. Any remaining produce or aftergrowth was burned or thrown into the sea. This latter obligation was known as the "Law of Removal."[12] The Law of Removal prevented anyone from hoarding or accumulating a profit from seventh-year holy produce.

Any item of commercial value exchanged for seventh-year or holy produce acquired the same characteristics as the holy produce itself. Therefore, whenever the time for the law of removal arrived, the exchanged item had to be reexchanged for an equivalent amount of consumable produce. The redemption of money or durable goods by holy produce assured that no one was allowed to acquire a profit from dealing in holy produce.

Some food-related trades that were vital to the public welfare carried on in spite of the seventh year. The instance where the watchmen were hired by the Sanhedrin illustrates the case. They were commissioned to prevent straying cattle from inflicting damage to self-sown grain fields, vineyards, saplings and the like. They also warned all passersby not to consume any of the scarce, standing grain. Grain fields were especially protected to safeguard an adequate supply of grain for the temple shewbread[13]. Some landowners found it necessary to work a portion of the land. This exemption became necessary in order to pay the unrelenting Roman taxes.

Trade dealing with vegetation falling in the general category known as herbs was allowed, so that the tithes for herbs were collected in the seventh year, but were exempt from tithe payments in the following year. These vegetables could be grown and cared for in gardens attached to a home (home gardens), which were unaffected by seventh-year regulations.

During ordinary years imported produce competed with native produce that was found in local markets, but in the seventh year foreign produce served as a major source of food for those who had the financial resources. It is also likely that contributions were solicited from throughout the Diaspora for the sake of the poor during the seventh year.

A trade like fishing was not affected by the seventh year, because it did not work the land. Other nonagricultural trades also continued, but only on a noncontractual basis.[14] Those workmen who honored their religious duty would only accept an allowance determined by their daily needs. The saying, "A workmen is worthy of his hire", and the rule, "A measure for measure," governed the transactions among countrymen.

Another seventh year feature related to the annulment of financial debts.[15] If a person could not find the means to restore a loan to its rightful owner before the seventh year, then seventh-year regulations obliged the owner to forgive the borrower both his moral and financial shortcoming. Consequently, bondservants who were citizens of Israel gained release from their bondage.

During the time of Herod the Great, seventh-year regulations caused severe credit limitations among the Jewish people. This limitation became serious enough to prompt Hillel, a leading religious scholar of the day who codified the many oral teachings among the people, to initiate a legal document called the Prosbul[16]. This mechanism permitted circumvention of the traditional law for the benefit of tradesmen who might otherwise suffer an economic loss. A loan document would be drawn up before the start of the sabbatical year and deposited at the temple for safekeeping. When the civil portion of the sabbatical season ended, the loan document was returned to the originating party and the terms of the loan were resumed.

The policy of uninterrupted taxation, instituted by Augustus at the time of the first Roman census enrollment in Judaea (6/7 C.E.), caused an unusual economic burden during the seventh year. Tension between the Roman loyalist overlords and the zealot minded subjects also would rise to a new feverish pitch with every census enrollment that happened to overlap with every other sabbatical season Tax payments were due during the seventh year and collected by the publicans as they were in any ordinary year. The tax collector's occupation never had been appreciated, and had acquired an even lower ranking among the people during Jesus' lifetime. They were disfellowshipped from the community and were treated in the same class as aliens and bandits.

The practices tied to the seventh year had a far-reaching effect from the time of the original foundation of Israel, and at later time periods, including the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile. Necessary social and economic reform was administered through the framework built around the sabbatical year. Once more during the time of Roman rule, Jesus followed the program set forth at the time of Moses and his personal namesake Joshua, son of Nun. The many traditions relating to the seventh-year period, and the fiftieth year may never be fully recovered from the past during the time when the Jewish Temple stood in Jerusalem. However, sufficient material can be assembled to describe how Jesus revived the many traditions associated with the "acceptable year of the Lord" and served the needs of the sick, poor, and oppressed. Throughout the time from when Jesus and his disciples passed through the grain field, continuing until the "cleansing" of the temple, Jesus apparently promoted the principles pertaining to the kingdom of heaven and the acceptable year of the Lord.

[1] For a survey describing the belief that the inevitable coming of the messiah would take place during a sabbatical season, see "Chronomessianism: The timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles," Ben Zion Wacholder, Vol. 46, Hebrew Union College Annual.
[2] The late date of spring 34 CE has been generally discounted by Gospel scholars. However, Hugh J. Schonfield, in both The Passover Plot� and "The Jesus Party," placed the chronological period covered by the synoptic gospels as occurring after the death of Philip the Tetrarch (twentieth year of Tiberius - 33/34 CE), and roughly concurrent with a Sabbatical year and a trailing Roman Census. Whereas the Census dates appear certain, the ancient timing of sabbatical cycles has not yet been unanimously resolved. This author agrees with the chronology outlined by the essay, "The Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles During the Second Temple and early Rabbinic Period," Ben Zion Wacholder, Vol. 44, Hebrew Union College Annual.
[3] Luke 4:16-30; Isa. 61:1-2; and Triennial Cycle, Encyclopedia Judaica.
[4] Num. 25:6-11, Phineas initiates the Zealot Tradition
[5] "The English 'sabbath' is used for the seventh day of the week, certain festival days, and the sabbatical year which occurred every seven years." (pg 475) Ancient Israel, R. de Veaux. Also note Lev. 25:4
[6] Lev. 25:10; the inscription found on the Liberty Bell (1776).
The significance of the period, 34 through 35 CE, may well have been heightened by the occurrence of a Jubilee. The available evidence (see footnote 1. on this page) indicates the possibility that this period, as well as the militant movements spearheaded by the Maccabees (ca. 163 BCE), and later by Bar Hochba (132/133 CE), were all coincident with a Jubilee.
[7] The Hebrew word for seventh is "shevi'ith"
[8] Mishna, Shevi'ith 1:2,2:1. (Quoted in Introduction)
[9] Exodus 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7; Deut. 15:1-7, 23:24-25, 31:10-13.
See also MIshna Shevi'ith (Seventh Year).
[10] Tosephta Peah 6:1, Biblical Commentary of Ba'al Haturim, "In a Sabbatical year a man opens his vineyard and tears down his fence." Also see Philo, Concerning the Commandments, II, 104, and Maimonides Code (Sabbatical and Jubilee Year, IV,24).
[11] The Essential Philo, edited by N. Glatzer, On the Ten Festivals (The Second Festival) VII,2:
"and all those who breed flocks and herds lend their cattle with fearlessness and impunity to graze on the land of others ..." The free-grazing animals left animal droppings as fertilizer on the open fields. The open fields and free-roaming animals help to explain why cattle should be falling in a ditch as described by Luke 14:5.
[12] Maaser Sheni 5 :
&npsp;&npsp6. "On the eve of the first Festival-day of Passover in the fourth and seventh years the duty of Removal was fulfilled. ..."
&npsp;&npsp7. If a man had produce at this time and the season came for Removal, the school of Shammai say: He must redeem it with money. And the school of Hillel say: It is all one whether it is in the form of produce or of money,"
&npsp;&npsp6. R. Judah said �Beforetime they used to send to householders in the provinces [saying], 'Hasten and duly tithe your produce before the time of Removal shall come', until R. Akiva came and taught that all produce was exempt from Removal if its tithing season was not yet come."
[13] Luke 61-5;
[14] Mishna, Shevi'ith 8:4-5
[15] Mishna, Shevi'ith 10:1
[16] Mishna, Shevi'ith 10:3-7

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