What Does God Require? Part 1: The Land

Last month we talked about blueprints. We learned that in God’s original blueprint for creation God stood enthroned above all of the animate and inanimate order and humanity stood just below him as his steward of the same. In that entry I spoke of the impact of the fall of humanity upon the cosmos over which Adam and Eve had been given dominion, and God’s declaration that his ultimate plan is to bring all of creation back to the original blueprint. In this context, I spoke of our current environmental crisis as yet another result of humanity’s rebellion against our God, yet another result of human sin. And I challenged us as the Redeemed Community to begin to think about what our lives would look like if we began to see ourselves as living testimonies of how the world ought to be, rather than what it is. In this entry I would like to explore what such living might look like in real space and time. And for this exercise, we are going to head back to Israel—the nation who stood as the first model of a redeemed and landed citizenry in a fallen world. It may come as a surprise to learn that the law codes of ancient Israel are replete with standards regarding land and creature care. As regards our topic of land care, the OT is very clear that the foundation of God’s expectations is the tenet that the Promised Land is a gift to Israel. It is the land which Yahweh “swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to them and to their descendants after them” (Deut 1:8); it is a land grant offered to Israel by their sovereign lord. Thus, although the offspring of Abraham are invited to live on the land with joy and productivity, the Bible is crystal clear that the land will never truly be theirs. Rather, Yahweh retains the right to reclaim his land; to uproot his people “from their land in anger and fury and in great wrath, and to cast them into another land as it is this day” (Deut 29:28). In sum, Israel’s tenure in the land of Canaan is dependent on their compliance to the covenant. As it was God who owned the land, it was also God who owned its produce. This reality is most evident in the laws of the tithe, the first fruits, and the firstborn. In Israel’s world, as in ours, a citizenry was expected to pay a percentage of their produce to the central government, and a vassal kingdom was expected to pay an annual percentage of the gross national product to its overlord. And as God himself was the king of Israel, he makes similar demands on Israel’s pastoral and agricultural community:

You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed, that which comes forth from the field year by year (Deut 14:22-23) … You shall set aside each of the firstborn males that are born of your herd and your flock for Yahweh your God (Deut 15:19-20) … anyone who sacrifices an ox or a sheep, they must give the priest the shoulder, the two cheeks, and the stomach. You shall also give him the first fruits of your grain, your new wine, and your oil, and the first fleece when you shear your sheep (Deut 18:3-5; cf. Deut 12:10-12; 26:1-15).

In these familiar laws of tithe, first fruits, and firstlings, what we are actually encountering is Israel’s divinely-ordained taxation system, which clearly communicates that it is Yahweh who truly owns the Promised Land. In concert with Israel’s understanding that it was Yahweh who actually owned the land, a number of laws address the longevity of the land’s fertility. The core of these laws is the sabbath rest—a command for humanity to regularly cease production so that the land might be allowed an opportunity to replenish itself. Thus, in Exod 23:10-12 we read:

You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the wild animal may eat.

Lev 25:4-5 rearticulates and particularizes this law.

But during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath belonging to Yahweh; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. Your harvest’s after growth you shall not reap and the grapes of your untrimmed vines you shall not gather, the land shall have a sabbatical year.

In early Israel, fallowing was the primary means by which the land’s fecundity was protected for the next generation. We also find evidence that crops and fields were regularly rotated such that livestock (complete with their nitrogen and phosphorous-rich manure) were grazed upon fallowed fields, and the continuous cultivation of a single crop in the same field was avoided. Thereby, the systemic depletion of soil nutrients and proliferation of pests and diseases specific to particular crops were avoided as well (See Richter, “Environmental Law in Deuteronomy, BBR 20.3 [2010] for further discussion). Then as now, such farming practices limited short-term yield. But they insured the longterm fecundity of the land which thereby provided for the marginalized who lived upon it. These laws of land-protection were taken so seriously in the ancient world that Job names abuse of the land as a valid reason for God to curse him (Job 31:38-40); and God states that one reason for the exile was the nation’s failure to fallow (Lev 26:34-35, 43). Thus in Israel, in contrast to the consumer culture in which we live, God’s people were commanded to operate with the long range fertility of the land as their ultimate goal. They were instructed to leave enough so that the land might be able to replenish itself for future harvests and future generations—even though such methods would cut into short-term profits. Why? “Because I am Yahweh says your God … and the land is mine” (Lev 25:17, 23). When I ponder these laws my mind immediately moves to the nearly 2 million acres a year of American land that is being paved in the noble quest of urban sprawl, the five-acre-a-minute loss of Canada’s boreal forests for catalog paper production, the lunar landscapes in Eastern Kentucky resulting from “mountain top removal” coal mining, and the 1.5 acres of rainforest devoured per second for short-range economic gains. And I wonder … if this land, this planet, is actually God’s, and we are only its stewards, why is it that we feel free to consume it in such a reckless fashion? Next entry: the land and the poor. Sandy Richter

Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).