Leviticus 25:8-10 reads: “You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. 10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (ESV).
Taken at face value, this verse seems to say that after the 7th Sabbath Year (Year 49), the 50th year is the Year of Jubilee. Since both the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee are years where the land lies fallow, this means that for two years in a row the Israelites did not cultivate or reap the harvest of their land.
But is this really what is meant?
Two other proposals offer alternative explanations for how the Year of Jubilee and the 7th Sabbath year relate.
First, some propose that the Jubilee and the 49th year are one and the same. They coincide. The Jubilee is part of the 7th Sabbath. When the text says “50th year” it means the 49th year—the 7th Sabbath Year—by means of either inclusive reckoning or by being a round number. Inclusive reckoning would mean that even if the “Year” began midway through the calendar year, it still counted as a full year. Scholars sometimes point to verses like John 20:26 where “eight days later” actually means “a week later” by means of inclusive reckoning (Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, 319) to demonstrate this biblical concept.
A second proposal is that instead of the 49th and 50th years being totally different or totally the same, the year of Jubilee would be a short “year” following the 49th year. Perhaps two different calendars were used – a civic calendar and a cultic calendar, or an agricultural calendar and a religious calendar. Either way, the Jubilee would be an abbreviated “year” and not require two full periods of 365 days to let the land lie fallow.
But in the end, I find the best explanation the most natural explanation. The 50th year was the Jubilee. Just like the text says, at the end of seven periods of seven years (so 49 years), the Jubilee followed, for an entire year.
Perhaps the best evidence for this (besides the most natural reading from the text itself in Lev 25) is Lev 23:15-16, which is worded in a similar fashion to 25:10-11. It reads: “You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. 16 You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the LORD” (ESV).
Here, describing the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost), it’s clear that we’re talking about 49 days + 1 day = 50 days. That’s where the pente part of Pentecost comes in. Leaning on this parallel text, it’s most natural to read the Year of Jubilee as 49 years + 1 year = Year 50.
The moral of this story is: let’s not overcomplicate things. Leviticus is complicated enough on its own!