Thursday, April 28, 2011

Leviticus and our treatment of the land

It’s funny how one thing ties in with another sometimes. Recently, I was reading Ecological Hermeneutics when one sentence in Tim Gorringe’s article, ‘Keeping the commandments: the meaning of sustainable countryside’ really leapt out at me. It said ‘To swap Torah for the gospel of the market is to sell our birthright for a mess of pottage’ (p289).

I don’t know why this sentence had such an effect on me. Maybe it was because I didn’t quite get it. Maybe it was because I do believe there are better ways of doing things than according to market-based rules. Or maybe it just did, for some unknown reason. All I know that is, in that whole article, it was the only sentence I felt the need to make a note of.

But what really emphasised the point was that, later that day, I was reading Leviticus. And I knew that Leviticus had a lot in it about caring for the land, and ensuring the land provided for everybody. But maybe it was because I’d just read that sentence, that verses seemed to jump out at me. And there seemed to be a lot more in Leviticus than I had even realised.

Here are some of the verses I found (taken from NRSV The Green Bible):

Leviticus 19:9-10. ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God!

Leviticus 23:22 ‘When you reap the harvest of your land you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien. I am the Lord your God!

Leviticus 25:3-5 ‘Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in their yield. But in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after-growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

Leviticus 25:23-24 ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.

Leviticus 26:34-35 ‘Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, or you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbath years. As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your Sabbath when you were living on it.’

Now people might say that these are Old Testament laws and we don’t need to follow them today. And they would be right. But in looking at these verses, some things seem clear to me. First of all, God cares about the land. He wants it taken care of, not just used excessively until there is nothing left. He particularly wants the land to keep on producing food. But this is not just food for the people who own the land - indeed, Leviticus 25:23 makes it clear that no-one owns the land at all. God owns the land and we are ‘but aliens and tenants’. The food that the land produces must provide for the ‘poor and alien’ as well. The Israelites are commanded not to take every last thing from the land, but to leave some for other people.

It is very easy to read these verses and say they don’t apply. They’re Old Testament laws. Plus, most of us don’t have a harvest to glean. But to do this is a cop-out. We must instead look at our lives in light of these verses and see what they’re telling us to do today. Should we buy more food than we need and simply throw out what we don’t use? Should we buy heaps of consumer items, all of which are a drain on the earth’s resources? Should we waste electricity? Should we get everything we can out of the earth now, leaving nothing for future generations? Should some of the world get heaps of food and items while the other parts are starving? Should we destroy the world’s environment, hurting the poor and vulnerable? I think if we read Leviticus, the answer to all those questions must be ‘no’.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating that the land is not ours. It is God’s. We are ‘but aliens and tenants’. Leviticus 26:34-35 also has a warning for us. If we don’t treat the land well now then it will lie desolate, so that it enjoys the rest that we did not give it. I don’t think that’s a warning just for the Israelites. And it’s not just about our moral choices or how well we worship God. It’s a warning for us now. If we won’t give the land a rest, then God will. Even if it means that it no longer produces what we need from it. 

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