Category Archives: Deuteronomy

The Law of Liberty (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

One semester in seminary I was taking a New Testament class and a Greek class on the Letter of James. In my New Testament class I volunteered to write a paper about James 1:25-27. I thought I’d have a leg up since I was already doing research by reading the letter in Greek for another class. I discovered a couple of wonderful texts on James that connected it to this chapter of Leviticus. First, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote an article asserting that the entire letter of James can be read as a gloss of Leviticus 19. He lines up the topics covered side by side, verse by verse, and it is astonishing to see the parallels. Robert Wall wrote an excellent commentary on James in which he suggests that the reference to the “law of liberty” in the passage I was assigned, or also “royal law” (2:8), is a reference to the Jubilee in Leviticus 25. These two commentaries have a lot to do with the way I read James, Leviticus 19 and ultimately the biblical narrative. I would like to consider these two insights, first reading James’ letter as a gloss of Leviticus 19 and then the idea that the “law of liberty” and “royal law” is a reference to Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee.

If you just read Leviticus 19 and the James’ letter together the parallels jump out. James 2:1-7 is an extended exposition of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” However, James does not settle for the total impartiality in Leviticus, but seems to suggest in verses 5-7 the “preferential option for the poor” argued for by liberation theology.

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

Perhaps James, reading Leviticus 19, realized that it is rarely the poor that are shown partiality or favoritism within the unjust systems with which he was familiar. This is then followed by James’ quote of Leviticus 19:18 (to which we will return later). James 4:11 finds its corollary in Leviticus 19:16 concerning slandering and treatment of neighbors. James’ invective against the rich and oppressors in 5:1-6 very closely resembles Leviticus 19: 9-11, 13 and 35-36. These are the most obvious connections, but more commonalities exist concerning the more general tone and emphasis on the outworking of covenantal relationship with God through the just relationships within the community and to the earth. In James’ language we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).

The Law of Liberty
I also wrote a paper in seminary arguing that, in terms of the relationship of faith and works, Paul and James are actually on the same page, but are coming from different perspectives, particularly in terms of their unique missions, and writing to very different audiences. This is very important in terms of the way James and Paul use the term “law”. Paul’s Gentile audience does not have the same relationship to Torah that James’ Jewish audience does. Now, let’s turn to the way that James uses the term “law”.

James uses the term law in seven verses. Out of those seven three use the phrase “law of liberty” or “royal law”. Are these just stylistic flourishes? The repetition of the phrase “law of liberty” in both 1:25 and 2:12 suggests an intentionality and distinction from other uses of the term. In verse 25 it is the “perfect law, the law of liberty”, further elevating the status of the phrase. This comes as James is making the central argument of his letter, the judgment of true or sincere faith by the actions it produces (1:22-25). The next use of the phrase “law of liberty” occurs within the same passage as the term “royal law”; therefore we will consider them together.

Verse 8, which quotes directly the “love your neighbor” command in Leviticus 19:8, comes immediately after the discourse on partiality and favoritism towards the rich and the “preferential option for the poor” which I mentioned above. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well” (Jas 2:8). This love command does away with the partiality and favoritism as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (discussed in the previous post). The designation “royal law” seems to carry the same weight that Jesus gives to Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31where it is paired with the Shema as the commandment on which “depend all the Law and Prophets” (22:40). So, this is nothing new from what we have already seen.

The Jubilee in Leviticus is described in this way “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10). So, if we take Robert Wall’s suggestion that the “law of liberty” is a reference to the Jubilee, then we should read 1:25 and 2:12 in light of this reference. James concludes his diatribe against partiality and the law with verses 12-13, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” In the context of the Jubilee then this can be read as a reference to the forgiveness of debts, freeing of slaves and return of land and with the land the equality of economic opportunity.

The “law of liberty”, then, represents an ideal of social, economic and ecological relationships that may have never actually been practiced according to many scholars. Thus James’ insistence that “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25) may be an indictment of Israel’s inability to fulfill this “perfect law”. It represents a messianic hope for the coming reign of God where all injustice and inequality will be done away with, while simultaneously urging Israel and the church to embody this coming hope in concrete practice that was not considered a distant impossibility.

In the first post on Leviticus 19 in its original context, I argued that the entire chapter concerns the convergence of relationships between God, humanity and the earth. In light of this, what we have said about the New Testament passages and references to Leviticus 19 should also be read in light of the connections that Leviticus 19 itself makes between the command to “love your neighbor” and the Sabbath practices to care for the earth which includes the Jubilee. I think that this integrated, holistic way of thinking is assumed by Jesus, Paul and James in their words and actions.

We have also seen how the law to “love your neighbor” includes the social and political realms. Our relationship to possessions and wealth is directly related by Jesus to our living out the “love your neighbor” law. Jesus moves this law from the realm of feeling, where we have relegated it, into the realm of action by transforming neighbor from a category of people into an action taken by the righteous person. Paul challenges the Powers by elevating this law of love above “what is owed” to the Powers and authorities of this world. He also defines our understanding of the freedom we have in Christ in terms of the limits that the law of love places on freedom because of its social, political and economic implications. This is exactly what James does in his letter concerning the practical application of the law of love, the “royal law”, and its companion, the Jubilee, in which this law of love is expressed most concretely in terms of the social, economic and ecological ordering of our lives.

The command to “love your neighbor” has never seemed both so simple and complex at the same time. This law of love draws to itself so many aspects of our lives and society that are broken and unjust. Yet, Paul simplifies it so eloquently for us in his advice to the Romans living in the heart of the Empire, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). The outworking of this reality will take a lifetime for individuals and longer for the world, but we don’t have to perfect it before we can begin practicing it in our lives and embodying it in our communities and churches.

Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.

The Law of the Land

This is the second post in a series responding to a conversation I’ve been having with a friend of mine about the notion of property rights in the Bible. The first post was mainly to respond to his post. The intention of this post is to outline another possible view of the biblical understanding of property. Then perhaps we’ll draw out some application to our current global context.

I think it’s helpful to step back and take a more broad look at the Bible and its context. It is a thoroughly agrarian book produced by agrarian people and is very concerned about matters agrarian. The Old Testament laws we like to skip over are often concerned in detail about agrarian matters (i.e. your brother’s ox or sheep Deut 22:1-4). The parables Jesus used to talk about the kingdom were based on agrarian ideas and metaphors. (For a very thorough, scholarly, yet accessible book on an agrarian reading of the Bible, I can’t recommend highly enough Scripture, Culture and Agriculture by Ellen Davis).

I think the conversation about property rights and the Bible should be rooted where the Bible roots it… in the land.

If we are attempting to discern what the Bible has to say about economics, it is imperative that we begin with the biblical worldview, not our own. In the biblical world land is not simply one thing among a long list of possible possessions. It is the basis of all wealth, assets and possessions. The biblical writers understood economics in the only terms they possibly could… the land. All aspects of wealth in the biblical world are directly connected to the land. When Jacob tries to win over his estranged brother, Esau, he sends gifts, symbols of his wealth, in the form of goats, sheep, camels, cows and donkeys (Gen 32). These are the flocks and herds he has shrewdly accumulated from his father-in-law, Laban. Without modern CAFOs these animals required a large amount of land. Wealth at this time would simply not be possible without a direct connection to land. Even Jesus, who was apparently a carpenter by trade, likely practiced subsistence agriculture in season and was a carpenter during the off months.

So, what then was the relationship to the land? And what does this mean about a biblical understanding of property?

I’ve written before about how the Sabbatical laws build on each other, the commandment to remember the Sabbath every seventh day, practice the Sabbatical year every seventh year and finally the Jubilee every seventh Sabbatical Year. I think it’s essential in order to understand the biblical framework to recognize that these laws form an integrated whole that (whether or not they were always practiced) form the ideal relationship between the people of God, the earth and each other, what some might call biblical economics.

Leviticus 25:23-24 “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”

I mentioned before that the Jubilee sets an ideal limit on economic growth for the sake of the community and the earth. Leviticus 25 sets the price for land at the number of harvests until the Jubilee, when the land will be returned to its original owner (Lev 25:15). One objection that immediately comes to mind is that not owning the land indefinitely may lead those working the land to abuse it in order to squeeze as much from the land as possible before the Jubilee. In practice this probably happened and as before the Jubilee may never have been implemented. Yet the community decided to preserve these laws in their sacred text as the ideal.

Leviticus 25 begins by cautioning the people how to use the land justly (which again is the basis for all property and wealth) during the Sabbatical Years (Deuteronomy 15). The land is commanded to have rest every seventh year. Obviously this means the people and animals rest from work as well. The covenant in which God gives the Promised Land (which, by the way, was previously inhabited and certainly belonged to other people before the Israelites) is not unconditional.

Deuteronomy 15:4 “However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land your Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”

The commands referenced in the above verse are partially the Sabbatical laws which concern debt forgiveness and setting slaves free, but more importantly concern access to and proper us of the land. There are conditions set by God for the possession and ownership of the land. The possession of the land is not absolute. The land may be bought and sold between Jubilee years, but this is only to be temporary. God also cautions here that the condition for their possession of the land is their proper and just use of the land. The question before us is what to do when the land or possessions are not used justly, which I hope to discuss in the next post.

Modern capitalism tends to forget that nothing, no product (except maybe financial instruments, but don’t get me started), is disconnected from the land. The laptop I’m typing this on was produced from petroleum that took millions of years to produce, minerals, silicon, etc. to make up all the parts. My computer (and any physical object you buy) represents probably hundreds if not thousands of plots of dirt around the globe where the raw materials were extracted to create this product. So, although we have become more and more disconnected from the land in our minds and our everyday lives, the reality continues to be that we are ultimately dependent on the land. I believe that biblically and rationally we should be wary of any economic system that does not recognize this relationship and take it into account.

So, simply applying the economics of the Bible directly to a system in which land is only one possession and not the basis of wealth, would be a categorical error. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to learn from biblical economics, just that it should always be understood first within its original context. Hopefully, I will be able to draw out some principles that we can apply in the next post more concretely.

To Own or Not to Own

I’ve been emailing back and forth with a good friend of mine, Justin Tapp, who studied economics at Baylor about this article from Jesus Radicals. He finally wrote a post summarizing his thoughts on our conversation about private property and the Bible. I’m not an economist and he’s no biblical scholar, but I think the exchange of perspectives is healthy.

The article uses Augustine as a lens to talk about how the Christian tradition (Augustine in particular) views economics in general and the notion of private property specifically. My friend is somewhat skeptical of this approach, preferring to stick to sola scriptura. Unfortunately, I think this remnant of Reformation theology is not so helpful, because it has never existed. We all come from a tradition. No one reads the Bible alone.

With that said here’s where we’ve found some common ground:

  • God’s intention in creation was not for private property. The original intention was a creation in which the idea of private property is not necessary, because there is not scarcity.
  • “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) According to Scripture, God is ultimately the Creator of all things and holds ultimate claim to all of creation, including material goods. Our view of possessions should keep this in mind.
  • Christians should hold possessions loosely. There are many cautions against the dangers of materialism in Scripture and our calling is to serve others with what we have been given.

First I’d like to say that I agree with the main point that Scripture does not advocate one person (or many people) taking property, because they believe it is being used unjustly. The application of that idea sounds like a nightmare. However, I think this one point causes Tapp to miss the forest for the funny-looking knot hole on that one tree.

I would like to respond to a few points that Justin makes in this post. Mostly places I think he misuses and misinterprets Scripture (probably mostly minor and obscure problems because I’m a theogeek). Then in the next post I’d like to make a case for another way of understanding the roots of property rights in the Bible.

Tapp uses Exodus 20:15,17 to talk about property rights. Among the things listed that belong to your neighbor in this passage are his wife, manservant and maidservant. In the world that this text was written in, the idea that women and slaves were property that could be stolen or coveted were assumed. Based on Scripture (Gen 1:27), we have decided that possessing human beings is not just and it is not a right. The BIble clearly justifies it based on the passage Justin mentioned (and others), but we have collectively decided as a church over time that the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God trumps the idea that women and slaves should be considered property. This verse certainly cautions against stealing and acknowledges that people “own” things in some sense, but the idea that this is the same as our modern concept of “absolute ownership” is another leap.

The author of the article at Jesus Radicals makes a distinction between “Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice” and “the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution.” The author does not really do a good job of clearly describing this distinction and then uses it later to claim “Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation.” I hope to spend some time unpacking this distinction in another post. It should not be assumed that our modern conception of property rights is exactly what we find in Scripture. That would be reading into and imposing on the text our own beliefs, eisegesis, which is a big no-no in biblical interpretation (but, I confess, sometimes difficult to catch, especially in myself).

Tapp mentions Leviticus 25, the Jubilee, as one possible place where Scripture outlines how we are to use poperty and possibly redistribute them. Tapp states,

“However nowhere does it state how big a person’s property can be or how many possessions she can have, etc. God isn’t a central planner that decides who gets what, he affirms His people’s ability to trade and make those choices.”

Now, I certainly don’t believe God is communist the way that the term “central planner” implies, but in the context of the Jubilee the Israelites were to return “everyone… to his own property” (Lev 21:13). How is this possible if the land is bought and sold for 49 years? How do they know where to return? God divided up the land in Deuteronomy 3:12-17 among the twelve tribes of Israel. So in a very literal and real sense the Jubilee did place a restriction on the amount of land one family or tribe could own within a generation or two. I think the Jubilee both affirms “people’s ability to trade and make choices” while also placing very real limits on the amount of property and possessions (land being the only source of wealth at the time) people could accumulate.

Many scholars believe the Jubilee was likely never practiced by the Israelites. So, why not let it fade away with all the other impractical, idealist notions that have come and gone? Because Leviticus 25 is not an isolated passage. It is part of the Sabbatical Laws (Gen 2 and Deut 15) all of which concern the proper use of land and our relationship to creation and each other. It is picked up by Isaiah 61 to describe the coming perfection of God’s reign and then quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 when he gives his mission statement in Nazareth. This is not some obscure passage that we can simply write off as an anomaly. It is central to the good news proclaimed by Jesus.

Tapp also uses the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) to illustrate the way the Bible talks about use of property. No matter what you’re trying to argue, you should always be careful using parables to support your argument. They are notoriously slippery things. Parables are meant to shock us and make us uncomfortable. If we think we know what they mean, we probably are not paying enough attention. Both this parable and the oft quoted following parable are both disturbing and upsetting when read fully. The moral of the parable seems to directly contradict the Great Reversal found through the Gospels and the Hebrew Testament, the last shall be first, the rich sent away empty, the valleys lifted and mountains leveled. So, much more careful exegesis and interpretation should be done before applying it to our conversation about property. It seems to open a can of worms.

Now that I’m done nitpicking… I hope to outline another view of property based on the agrarian worldview of the biblical text.

Food in the Bible: Sabbath

When I wrote the post on Joseph’s experiment in redistribution, I was stunned by what I found. It is still profoundly disappointing to see such injustice, particularly in our own scripture. As I pondered that, however, I thought that perhaps the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is the antidote. In Joseph’s story he tries to bring about a just distribution of goods and fails miserably. In Leviticus 25 we are given a model that seems to undo this kind of injustice, but scholars tell us it was probably never tried. This idea that Jubilee is the antidote to our failing human efforts at justice brings me to a foundational concept in Scripture that serves as a basis for much of my thinking on food, poverty and justice… Sabbath.

J.D. Crossan in God and Empire says, “It is not humanity on the sixth day but the Sabbath on the seventh day that is the climax of creation… our ‘dominion’ over the world is not ownership but stewardship under the God of the Sabbath” (53). The reason that scripture gives for observing the Sabbath is not worship, which most Christians and maybe Jews seem to think. The reason given is so that the slaves and foreigners could have rest as well (Ex 23:12; Deut 5:14). Again Crossan says,

The Sabbath Day was not rest for worship, but rest as worship… In summary, the Sabbath was about the justice of equality as the crown of creation itself (54).

The Sabbath Day is extended to the Sabbath Year (Ex 21:2 and Deut 15) and finally the Sabbath Jubilee (Lev 25). Every seventh year both male and female slaves were to be set free and debts were remitted, or forgiven. Provisions are given for both male and females to ensure that they are cared for within the social context of the time. Both male and female slaves are to be restored to a just and equal standing in the community when they are set free. Deuteronomy warns that masters should not consider this a hardship. Lenders are also warned that they should not withhold loans from their needy neighbors when the seventh year is close. “Your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (Deut 15:9)

The Jubilee goes even further by commanding that every seventh Sabbath Years “you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family” (Lev 25:10). God had divided the land up between the tribes, but knew that inevitably inequality and injustice would creep in. The Jubilee is the final rule that prevents inequality from remaining within the people of God. Lest we think this applies only to Israel or the church, remember that the purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham constituting the people of God was that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Israel was meant to be a model to the rest of the nations of what it meant to live in relation to God and each other.

The Sabbath was not just about people either.

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard and your olive orchard” (Ex 23:10-11).

The whole of creation rests on a foundation of balance between work and rest. This passage also clearly indicates the relationship between the work and rest of the land and the people as well as the implications for equality and justice. Thus the right ordering of relationships, between people and between people and the earth involves a balance of work and rest which ultimately results in just distribution of resources.

Crossan sums it up by saying that through the progression of Sabbath laws “we can see clearly the demand of God for a just distribution of land-as-life based on the creation theology in Genesis 1:1-2:4a” (71).