The year of Jubilee was designed to put limits on the extent to which the rich could become richer at the expense of the poor. If a person fell on hard times, he or she might sell part of their inheritance -- their land -- to someone else. If times got really bad, and they had already sold all their land, they might "sell" themselves as indentured servants or slaves. But in the year of Jubilee, held once every fifty years, slaves and indentured servants went free, patrimonies that had been sold reverted to their original owners:
And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. (vs. 10)
In laying forth the law of Jubilee, God explains, "For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God." (vss. 42 & 43).
This is quite an extraordinary passage, potent and relevant yet today. Or so I am thinking, until I run across this:
Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. (vss. 45-46)
That stopped me dead in my tracks. Did I read right? Is God here really saying, "You may not make perpetual slaves of your fellow Israelites. But if you want perpetual slaves, go ahead and take them from among the alien peoples who are your neighbors"? Is God really giving the go ahead here to make slaves of other nations?
Perhaps this passage is like the "hard" things that Lehi taught his children, of which Nephi wrote: "For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought" (1 Nephi 15:3). Perhaps the full meaning and context of a passage such as this can't be properly understood without the Spirit of the Lord.
Perhaps the prophet Abinadi held the key to understanding this passage:
And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God; Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him. But behold, I say unto you, that all these things were types of things to come. And now, did they understand the law? I say unto you, Nay, they did not all understand the law; and this because of the hardness of their hearts; for they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God. (Mosiah 13:29-32)
Perhaps this commandment is like the law concerning divorce, of which Jesus said: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). Could we infer, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to make slaves of your brothers of other nations, but from the beginning it was not so"?
Was the lust for slaves like the lust for wives, that Jacob condemned, when he wrote: "And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son" (Jacob 1:15)?
Did God let the ancient Israelites take slaves of their neighbors, because it was hard enough getting them to give up the idea of making slaves of each other? Was it that God knew it would take several hundred more years of suffering and captivity and slavery before they could understand that no people shall be sold as bondsmen, for they all are God's servants which he brought forth out of captivity?
This is a hard thing to understand, this section of Leviticus 25. A hard law, perhaps, for a hardened people.
But if that is so, the only hearts that could be harder than those which received this law would be the hearts of those that, after the light God shone through Isaiah, after the light God revealed in Christ, would want to go back to that law.