Biblical Narratives and the Legacies of Utopian Aspirations

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, led the May 2nd session of the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. Kaplan discussed his current book project, The Biblical Jubilee and Ancient Utopian Visions of Liberty, which explores the history of the reception of the biblical jubilee to analyze “the ways in which ancient Jewish and Christian writers employed [it] as a tool in shaping the narratives of their utopian visions.”

The biblical jubilee refers to the description of the sabbatical and jubilee years in Leviticus 25. According to Kaplan, “The jubilee year concludes a forty-nine-year cycle during which, every seven years, the land of Israel is afforded a year of ‘complete rest’ (šabbat šabbātôn; v. 4),” also known as the sabbatical year. Kaplan explained to Faculty Fellows that, according to Leviticus 25, celebrating the jubilee year entails releasing debt slaves and returning property to “familial allotments putatively made during the Israelite settlement of Canaan.” Biblical scholarship on the jubilee has tended to analyze whether the sabbatical and jubilee years were ever actually observed and frequently describes the biblical jubilee as impracticable and utopian, according to Kaplan. Kaplan indicated that biblical scholars’ association of utopianism with impracticability has caused critics to overlook the impact that the “utopian character” of the biblical jubilee has had on “Jewish, Christian, and Western” political and social thought.

Kaplan draws on the utopian theories of Lyman Tower Sargent to claim that the vision of an Israelite society that frees slaves and redistributes land in Leviticus 25 is specifically a “eutopia,” or positive utopia, “because it envisions the enactment of a society in the context of a time and space…that its writer imagines as ideal in comparison to his current situation.” Kaplan highlighted the “generative power” of the biblical jubilee’s eutopian vision by observing that the inscription of Leviticus 25:10 on the Liberty Bell (“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof”) “helped motivate” the movement for American independence from Britain, the abolitionist movement, and the women’s suffrage movement.

Kaplan explained to Faculty Fellows that he sees The Biblical Jubilee and Ancient Utopian Visions of Liberty as addressing the surprisingly underexplored relationship between biblical studies and utopian studies. He suggested that engaging with utopian studies provided him with critical tools to analyze the implications of the idealistic and aspirational qualities of the biblical jubilee. For example, theories of utopia enabled him to consider how Leviticus 25’s assertion that Yhwh is the divine owner of the land of Canaan suggests the aspiration for an ideal social structure with “Yhwh’s kingship as its organizing principle.” He noted that examining how this ancient Israelite aspirational narrative influences the thinking of people centuries later reveals how the imagined ideal societies of those who came before us may shape our own visions of an ideal society and inspire us to work towards its realization.

Faculty Fellows mentioned that aspects of the biblical jubilee appeared to ensure that wealth would remain in the possession of a privileged segment of the Israelite population and wondered whether such a social structure truly constituted a eutopia. Kaplan indicated that an imagined society’s eutopian status depends on whether the imagined society represents the social ideals of those who imagine or interpret it. Other Fellows made comparisons between the notions of land ownership in Leviticus 25’s divinely-organized eutopia and those in Karl Marx’s socialist eutopia. Further, Kaplan’s discussion of the receptions and influence of the biblical jubilee in different historical moments prompted Faculty Fellows to consider the extent to which different cultures, faith traditions, and fields of study view the path to an ideal society as one that returns to a past way of life, leads to an entirely new way of life, or creatively combines the old and the new.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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