A Sabbath for the land

Leviticus 25 – beginning with the first seven verses – A Sabbath for the land (Leviticus 25: 1-7)

The Genesis account of the Creation tells us that when God made humankind He gave us responsibility for what happened next with the created world. God then ‘stepped back’ and had a sabbath, or day of rest. Humankind’s first day was also this sabbath and some see significance in this for our well-being and work-life balance: that from our rested bodies and minds come our energy, passion and creativity. Then humankind’s relationships with God, with each other and with the environment went horribly wrong at the Fall.

Fast forward to the past 100-150 years, to the industrial revolution and, more recently, the computer revolution. All humankind’s relationships continue to be dysfunctional and, considering current conflicts and climate change, are possibly/probably getting worse.

In contrast to this chaos, Leviticus 25 stands out as a chapter in the Bible where God almost uses the ‘sabbath day’ as a pattern, a principle, to help humankind develop practices that begin to restore, if not even enhance, our relationships with the environment and with each other. In this article we are focusing on one of these pattern-principles: our relationship to the land.

Covering a significant proportion of the world’s land surface like a thin skin is soil. The topsoil, the layer in which roots extract nutrients and most of the water used in plant growth, can be as little as 15 cm thick and is rarely more than 2 m thick. This soil is a highly complex ‘entity’, taking 100s, if not 1000s, of years to form and is easily exhausted or destroyed. Although scientists now know a lot about the soil, as humankind we fail to appreciate its wonders and our dependence on it. Just think about the words we use to describe some of its manifestations in everyday life: ‘mud’, ‘dust’, ‘dirt’ – most of which have negative connotations.

The soil is an amazing assembly of inanimate material – derived from the rock on which it rests – and biological life – derived from the plant life added from above – all worked on by innumerable bacteria and other simple flora and fauna, around whom an intricate and complex ecosystem develops. The health and quality of this active, mysterious, hidden universe is reflected in earthworm presence and activity – at least in the British Isles. Plants can grow because of all that happens in the soil, hence humankind’s dependence on it for all of our food and for much of our fuel and fibre, directly or indirectly.

So how do we look after this delicate and fragile realm beneath our feet, our vehicles, our villages and cities?

As the people of Israel were preparing to be resident in the land God was going to give them, they were told in the first seven verses of Leviticus 25 that ‘the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord’. Even how this is stated helps give us, and presumably gave those listening to Moses too, a sense that the soil was valuable and to be respected. They were to farm the land for six years, and then it was to have a ‘rest’ for a year (vv2-3). This was not just simply a ‘rest’, it was a ‘sabbath of rest’ and, to really make the point, the writer of Leviticus says it was ‘a sabbath to the Lord’ (v4a). And then the instructions are repeated – no sowing, no pruning, no reaping of the ‘volunteers’ from the previous crop, i.e. what grows of itself from the previous year (vv4b-5a). Even in this short section of seven verses the point is gently but firmly made again – ‘the land is to have a year of rest’ (v 5b).

‘But, but, but …’, we almost hear the people listening say, panic setting in, ‘What are we going to eat?’ illustrating the dependence they had on the land directly for food. In these verses, when the sabbath year is being instituted, God simply states that the people and everyone – servants, hired workers and even visitors – and their animals, can eat ‘whatever the land yields during sabbath year’.

And there the writer pauses, going on to introduce the concept of the year of Jubilee in the next ‘paragraph’. I imagine the people were saying ‘but we’ll never survive on just what the land itself produces, especially if we’re not to eat the volunteers’. It seems a ridiculous suggestion to our modern minds too. But is it?

Harvesting of crops and grazing of grassland by animals removes nutrients and water, used in plant growth, from the soil. In conventional, i.e. intensive technologically-dependent, agriculture nutrients are added as fertiliser to supplement those available in the soil and water is added in irrigation on occasion, so enabling us to achieve remarkable yields. Organic agriculture has been more sensitive to how the soil is affected by continuous cropping and grazing and now more researchers are recognising that we need to appreciate how all aspects of soil behaviour need attention and management if agriculture is to continue to be productive.

A fallow year was (and still is in some parts of the world) a vital element of crop rotation and essentially the sabbath year allowed the land to be fallowed. Not only is soil water replenished during this rest period, but nutrients removed in harvest are restocked through the work of the microbes and micro-fauna. It is a testament to the abundance and vitality of the soil community that one year in seven is almost enough to keep the land ‘in good heart’. (Was the Jubilee year instituted because it wasn’t quite enough? This is for another article.)

But the question remains, if the land is being rested and only non-crop plants are to be eaten, will there be enough food? This is early in agricultural history so fields and vineyards will have a lot of other plants growing alongside those deliberately planted. It would have been a challenge, which only Ray Mears, Bear Grylls, et al. in modern times have risen to, but using the ‘weeds’ for food would have been possible, along with foraging and hunting. After all our food plants are actually domesticated wild plants.

Later in the chapter, vv18-22, God addresses the people’s concerns, not with scientific details but with promises of the land ‘yielding fruit’ and that they ‘will eat your fill’. In answer to the people’s explicitly-stated concern about the seventh year, He makes what seems an outrageous promise, from a scientific perspective at least, that the land, when it’s ‘tired’ in the sixth year, will yield enough for 3 years. This is in the realm of the miraculous but it should not surprise us. Our response to God’s abundant provision and generosity through what the land produces each and every year should be worship and thankfulness. If it were, then trusting God for His provision every seventh year would be much more natural.

This passage reads as, and is, a call to faith, to trust in God’s provision and His knowledge of the world He created and how it works. The sabbath year may have helped, and indeed may have been intended to help, people remember that the six years of harvests have been provided by the Lord. Most importantly though, it is a call to care for and to respect what He has provided to meet our needs, including and especially the micro-world beneath our feet that few of us know anything much about and take for granted. Sabbath is a practice that, by disturbing our routine, can stimulate us to think about how we do the job He gave us to do in enabling the created world to fulfil its potential.

Of course I have to apply this to my own profession, that of agronomy (the science of growing crops). With food security becoming more central to Government policies around the world, and technology driving towards ever-more intensive methods which do not always respect the land, this is a challenge. There are hopeful signs, though, that the soil is being valued more holistically, i.e. as a living resource to be carefully nurtured, and the use of environmentally sensitive and friendly crop management is being encouraged.

Leviticus 25 is an amazing chapter which also fleshes out redemption and the concept of property. How God sees the land and people is integral to the whole passage. In addition, the radical concept of the year of Jubilee is introduced. There is much more to be unearthed here, too, about how the land occupies a central role in the community and how it is to be looked after, especially in the light of God saying ‘the land is mine’ (v23). This truth underlies these first seven verses and will be explored in further articles.

2 thoughts on “A Sabbath for the land

  1. Bro – I love reading your thoughts, thanks for sharing. I remember chatting to you about the Sabbath year and Jubilee year before. Look foward to more.

    • Thanks Gareth. But for the record, it wasn’t me who wrote this but my friend, EW:

      “EW is an agricultural scientist, working not just with cereal and potato crops, but with the farmers who produce and businesses that transform them into food and other products.”

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