Leviticus 25 and Sabbath for the Land
At the heart of the universe is a giant pause button. Life needs moments to stop, rest and wait. Seeds fall into the Earth and wait for Spring to germinate. Trees drop leaves in Autumn and don’t do the work of photosynthesis. A caterpillar must hang in a cocoon for three weeks to undergo metamorphosis. Mammals spend months in the womb before birth into the world. Creation and creativity need a pause. The creation story in Genesis does not end with creating the land, sea, animals, and finally, humans. The ending is a day of rest, as the creator of the universe stops to rejuvenate. Sabbath is a divine mandate; a weekly day of rest is enshrined in the Ten Commandments, right there with Don’t murder, steal, or lie. The day’s text from Leviticus 25 says that even land must rest. Land squeezed for every ounce of productivity will become used up and lifeless.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Sabbath?” You might answer Sabbath is a day set aside for holy purposes. Many of you grew up when there were blue laws; stores didn’t open on Sundays. Maine was the last New England state to end blue laws for department stores by popular referendum in 1990. Informally, you weren’t supposed to play cards or do anything frivolous. It was a time to go to church, be with family, and Mom didn’t cook dinner. Now 30 percent of Americans work on weekends. We may lament these changes as part of the downfall of society, but it sure is convenient to run into Hannaford’s after church on Sunday. I suppose if you are only going to break one of the ten commandments, not observing Sabbath is better than lying or murder. To go backward would require taking on the NFL, Little League sports, the Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, you name it.
The truth is we don’t know how to stop. Pausing and resting are a part of all creative processes. I don’t think we believe this is true. Our default American attitude is to work longer and harder. Workers are constantly measured by what they produce. We can track UPS delivery trucks by GPS and computerize work to maximize efficiency. You can get an app on your phone to help convert your to-do lists into hourly task lists of maximum efficiency. I tried it out and soon felt anxious and inadequate. There was no room in the program for someone stopping in who was feeling sad or to get to the hospital in an emergency. There is no algorithm for how long I should spend on a hospital visit to maximize my caring time. I just led a four-day retreat for clergy, and our most powerful session was on the topic of not feeling like enough. There is never an end to the demand for more and our internalized expectations. Sabbath becomes a luxury.
I wonder if it relates to our misunderstanding of God giving humans dominion over the Earth.
Believing that dominion means dominance is at the heart of our crisis, both our time and environmental crises. After creating human beings in the divine image, God says, “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and all the wild animals of the earth.” We have translated this to mean that we can take what we want from the Earth because we are more important and superior. We call the trees, minerals, plants, and animals “natural resources” as if they exist, waiting to be taken and in endless supply. Dominion makes us believe we are in charge of the Earth, and the goal is to maximize all these resources for human needs and profit.
I hoped to find that the Hebrew word for dominion was poorly translated and that stewardship is a viable alternative. But the Hebrew word “radah” means ruling, having dominion, or exercising authority over something. I looked at all the other places where “radah” is used in the Bible, which almost always refers to a king’s authority. We can’t blame “dominion” on the translators. So far, no principal modern Biblical translations use the word stewardship instead of dominion. The best I could find was from The Message by Eugene Peterson:
God blessed them:
“Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
For every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
Being responsible is a step up from dominion and closer to the Hebrew understanding of the duties of a king. Kings are not given absolute dominion but must be accountable for the well-being of the people. My favorite Old Testament theologian, Walter Brueggemann, says the Old Testament is a debate between two schools of thought, the Royal tradition that emphasizes the greatness of kings like David and Solomon and the prophetic tradition, which challenges greed and excess power and demands responsibility.
I think the most robust case against excessive dominion, a “take-what-we-want mindset,” is this idea of land Sabbath in Leviticus 25. The setting for this text is Moses listening to God on Mt. Sinai. Sinai is where Moses receives the Ten Commandments, the foundations for being a just people. Leviticus is the early law book, and here is an early argument for sustainable farming dating as long ago as 1000 BCE :
‘When you enter the land I will give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3 For six years, sow your fields, and for six years, prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year, the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.
Caring for our soil, land, and forests is not new. Neither is the overuse and destruction of nature. Jared Diamond wrote in the 2005 book “Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed,” that many ancient societies disappeared due to the ecological overload of their food systems. We can see how this could influence Biblical history if we do some historical correlation.
The first great civilization was in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Syria and Iraq. The peak of the Sumerian civilization was around 2100 BCE, but signs of decline were evident around 2000 BCE. One of the critical factors in the collapse of Mesopotamian civilizations was soil salinization due to irrigation practices. As cultures developed advanced agricultural techniques, they relied heavily on irrigation to support their growing populations. However, the water used in irrigation contained salts; over time, these salts accumulated in the soil. This salinization gradually reduced soil fertility, making it less suitable for crops. Add in a few years of drought, and people either starved or moved away, leading to the diminishment of Sumeria, and the great city of Ur slowly disappeared from the Earth.
This history corresponds to the life of Abraham and Sarah, whom biblical scholars date to around 1900 BCE. God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave the city of Ur in Sumeria, and go to the more fruitful land of Canaan and start anew. Think about the implications of this story. The biblical story of three great religions begins with Abraham, a climate refugee who must leave a declining city due to ecological destruction. No wonder Moses sets out an environmental Sabbath for the land in Leviticus. The people’s health depends upon the care of the land from where we get our food. Even 1000 years before Christ, people understood we had an inter-relationship with the land. If we ignore the balance and care of the ecosystem, it will crumble. Even land needs a Sabbath.
If we look around the world today, most of our political crises are rooted in climate change, as land can no longer support people. Countries most affected by drought include Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Guatemala. The crisis on our southern border is initiated by climate change, created by desperate people where the land no longer supports them. No measure of walls, military power, or immigration policies will insulate us from the most potent force of instability. We notice the wildfires, the floods, and the 110-degree heat waves. But the quiet disaster is that thousands of people are leaving their homes because they have no water to sustain life and nowhere to go. We are a world of Abraham and Sarahs looking for a home.
I know it is simplistic to say the answer is restoring Sabbath, realizing that land and people need rest to be fruitful. But I do believe Sabbath is a practice that can teach us a more sustainable way to live. To honor the Sabbath means we recognize our limits. On a personal level, we only have so much time and energy. On a global plane, we only have so much water and arable land. All life exists in precarious balance. To honor the Sabbath means we commit to choices that sustain life, for ourselves and for all living things.