Category Archives: Sabbath

Idolatry and Sabbath Part 1: Leviticus 26:1-2

I don’t remember the first time I heard the idea that God’s provision of the land to the Israelites was conditional. I know it was a sermon I listened to online, but I don’t remember who it was or where I found it. That simple idea changed the way I thought about the modern nation of Israel and their conflict with Palestinians. Leviticus 26 describes this provisional gift of the land to the Israelites, but it goes deeper than a place for them to lay their heads.

You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. (Lev 26:1-2)

I’ve written a bit here about idolatry and about Sabbath, but I’m not sure I’ve connected the two the way this passage does. The rest of Leviticus 26 is framed, and should be read, with this initial statement in mind. Do not make and/or worship idols and keep my sabbaths. I am God.

I’ve unpacked before that Sabbath is not about taking a day off to lie in the hammock (but that does sound nice). The sabbatical laws include the Sabbath day in the creation narrative and enshrined in Exodus (20:8-11), the Sabbatical year every seventh year to give the land rest and culminate in the vision of the Jubilee in which both land, humans and non-human animals are restored to right and whole relationships. These laws gather together a vision of the right relationship between YHWH, God’s people and the land including non-human animals.

Who cares about idolatry?
To our ears idolatry in the Bible sounds strange and foreign. It doesn’t sound like anything we would ever do. “Don’t make little (or big) figurines/statues out of wood or stone and then bow down to them.” That doesn’t seem like much to ask. I haven’t been tempted to do that lately and don’t foresee my new whittling hobby turning into a religious obsession. Am I right?

However, in the marketplace of gods and religions that Israel found itself in, this was a real problem. People had friends and family (especially after the intermingling during the Babylonian Exile) who subscribed to all kinds of different gods and religious notions. In a world where you are focused primarily on survival and security for yourself and your clan, people were probably willing to go along with whatever seemed to work. They were not concerned the way we are with whether or not a theological idea or religious belief system is the correct one. They wanted a good yield from crops and their livestock to be protected. They didn’t want to get killed by other clans, tribes or nations.

I’m not saying they didn’t actually believe in these gods or the myths and beliefs surrounding them. I’m sure they did (though let’s admit that it’s pretty hard to get inside the head of these people). What I’m saying is that their rationale or reason for choosing to believe or follow particular god or gods did not stem from their quest to discover the “Truth”, their own existential journey for self-enlightenment or self-actualization. These are modern inventions.

What is idolatry?
The prohibition against idolatry comes from Exodus 20:2-6,

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The end of this prohibition certainly sounds overly harsh to our ears, but this kind of prohibition was a new thing and worshiping whatever god worked for you was probably the norm. Monotheism was the new kid on the block and the point had to be made that this was serious. The game had changed.

In this prohibition to worship or create idols we have the same reason given as in Leviticus 26, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, I am YHWH, the one who demands absolute worship and rejection of other gods. The invocation of the name of their God and their relation ship as God’s people is tied in to what God has done for them, “the one who brought you out of Egypt.” So, in part, idolatry has to do with relationships and right-relatedness. These people have entered into a covenant relationship with YHWH through their ancestors, the oft invoked “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

YHWH has also held up YHWH’s end of the deal. They have been incredibly liberated from slavery in Egypt. This is the foundational act which ties these people to YHWH and which is invoked to maintain their covenantal commitments to this God and what this God requires. With this background in mind then, idolatry is a breaking of this covenant relationship with YHWH particularly by following other gods, creating and worshiping idols.

So, why does this YHWH, the new kid on the block, demand something that none of the other gods do? I’ll explore the answer in the next post which will connect Sabbath to this idea of idolatry.

Cultivating Economic Peace in an Age of Instability

This story is similar to my own journey in understand the relationship of economics to the purpose and mission of the church.

CommonWealthWe tried to imagine an economy informed by the narratives of scripture, one bearing witness to the reign of God. It would be made of the same ingredients as the dominant economy: the same money, jobs, buying and selling goods and services. We weren’t going to try to roll back to a subsistence economy, or a household economy, or barter, or self-reliance. What was needed, we thought, was an economy not based on the goals, values and practices of this age, but one based in the life and teachings of Jesus, as revealed through scripture and the life of Christian communities through the ages.

An economy driven by such a direction seemed to be one in which all are taken care of; none acquire wealth at the expense of the others; all have what they need to live on; excessive consumption is not valued but a shared communal life is; mutual dependence is pursued; true costs are measured; all are called on to participate; we avoid categories that place some in the role of service provider and others in the role of service recipient (volunteer, minister/ministry, needy…). We assume we have all we need to take care of each other as brothers and sisters, fellow members of Christ, the living expression of the grace and provision of God.

via Cultivating Economic Peace in an Age of Instability.

Jubilee is Salvation (Leviticus 25:9-10)

The second thing I noticed (Read What Shall We Eat? for the first) in re-reading Leviticus 25 is that the Jubilee is explicitly connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is the pinnacle of the sacrificial system to which Jesus’ death and resurrection has often been compared. While I don’t think that the sacrificial system is the only lens through which Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was or should be understood, it certainly is an important one both in Scripture and in the Christian tradition. So, what does it mean then that the Jubilee is supposed to be initiated by a shofar blast on the Day of Atonement?

If you just google Yom Kippur and Jubilee you will quickly find a lot of nonsense about the rapture happening on Yom Kippur in the year of Jubilee. That is not what this post is about. This is about the connection between the social practices found in the Jubilary code and its association with the cultic religious ritual of Yom Kippur. I would like to explore a series of questions concerning this connection: What is the role of the shofar and its connections to both religious and social contexts? What is the religious significance of Yom Kippur? Why is it connected to the Jubilee (or conversely why do we disconnect them)? Finally, what does this connection tell us about the nature of salvation in terms of Jubilee?

When was the shofar used?
The shofar was used in different contexts, but primarily announced full religious holidays. This was also the case with the Jubilee which was connected to the religious festivals that marked the Jewish calendar.

The sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah announced the jubilee year, and the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur proclaimed the actual release of financial encumbrances. (from Wikipedia)

It is interesting to note that the shofar was also used as a call to arms when Israel went to war. The most famous instance of this use of the shofar is certainly from the book of Joshua when the blast of the shofar horn brought down the walls of the city of Jericho. M. Douglas Meeks describes the significance of that event in his book God The Economist.

The blowing of the Jubilee horn (shofar) in the story of Joshua is the symbol of what brings down the rotten economy of Jericho. (89)

The theology of war in the Hebrew Bible was that the battle always belonged to YHWH. Often battles were won through some sort of trickery which sometimes avoided bloodshed and often avoided the Israelites committing violence (e.g. Gideon in Judges 7). When Israel ignored YHWH and tried to fight their own battles their efforts were typically thwarted. This is not to excuse the violence in the Hebrew Bible that is clear and difficult to understand, particularly when commanded by God.

My point is that there is a theological thread throughout the Hebrew Bible that says YHWH will fight the battles for Israel. In this context the blast of the shofar that brought down the walls of Jericho could certainly be interpreted as proclaiming liberation from economic domination and oppression and the institution of a new economy. It is also important, as we will see shortly, that there was not the clear distinction between sacred and secular that we try to draw today. Thus, the shofar as a sacred instrument proclaimed Jubilee both in the temple and on the battlefield.

What does Yom Kippur mean?
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the culmination of the Jewish year. In the Hebrew Bible this was the ritual when the High Priest placed his hands symbolically on the head of a goat designating it “Azazel”. This transferred the sins of the people to the goat which was then driven out into the wilderness. This is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Through this ritual the entire community was purified, their sins atoned for. In other words, this was a chance for the community to start from scratch in their relationship to YHWH. It was also an opportunity for repentance as the community recognized their sins and brokenness. There was now new possibility for living a new way.

What has the Jubilee to do with Yom Kippur?
According to Jubilee USA the practical connection between the Jewish calendar and the year of Jubilee worked like this:

From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year, slaves would not return home but would not work either. The fields would not return to their hereditary owners, but the owners would eat, drink and rejoice with their crowns upon their heads. Then, when Yom Kippur arrived, the slaves would return home and the fields would revert to their hereditary owners.

So, there is very explicit connection between the practice of Jubilee (theoretically at least) and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. The Jubilee is announced at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but this is only the beginning. It’s also interesting to point out that the Jewish new year begins in Autumn at the end of the harvest. The new year begins when the possibilities of the earth have been exhausted for that year and we turn to look toward the possibilities of next season. In light of the previous post which talked about the divinely abundant harvest promised prior to the Jubilee, this moment of turning from an incredible provision beyond expectations to the year of liberation ahead is heightened that much more.

The culmination of the Jubilary practices coincides with the culmination of the religious calendar on Yom Kippur when the Jubilee is proclaimed in its fullness and fulfilled completely. Jubilee is a process. It does not occur all at once. It is first declared and the enacted. This is the way many understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. This new order or economy is first proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, but we are now in the process of enacting the fullness of that declaration with the promise that it will someday be complete.

What has the Jubilee to do with Atonement?
So, the very practical social ethic of the Jubilee has been intimately linked to the religious calendar of the Jewish people. This is to be expected from a worldview that did not distinguish the sacred from the secular. The practice of the Jubilee is the enacting of the divine economy within the community and is therefore inextricably linked to Israel’s relationship to YHWH maintained through the temple practices and rituals including Yom Kippur.

The Jubilee, or “Year of the Lord’s favor”, is picked up by Isaiah (61:1-3) and later Jesus (Lk 4:19) and made central to the identity of God’s people in both testaments. Further, Jesus’ work on the cross has been understood in relationship to the sacrificial system in Israel. He is called the “Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) and later in another John’s vision in Revelation (Rev 5:6-8; 7:10). So, Jesus identifies his mission with the Jubilee and the Jubilee is intertwined with the sacrificial system by which we have tried to understand the cross. Therefore whatever we want to say about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it must include this understanding that the proclamation of new beginnings on Yom Kippur is also the declaration of the radical new economy of the Jubilee. Salvation is Jubilee and vice versa.

What Shall We Eat? (Lev 25:6-7, 20-22)

In reading the Jubilee once again and Walter Brueggeman’s commentary on it from Finally Comes The Poet , I was struck by two particular aspects of this passage that I had missed previously. The first relates to a question that I think many people think of, if not ask explicitly, when thinking about the practice of letting fields lie fallow for an entire year. The text itself asks, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” (Lev 25:20). With global population now at 7 billion, we don’t really have the luxury of following this kind of practice right? Well, first let’s listen to the text and see if it has anything to say to a world with 7 billion people.

This question is the central theme of this blog, “What shall we eat?”. Perhaps in the imagination of the agrarian readers of Leviticus it was almost as impossible as it seems to us to feed yourself without practicing constant and intensive agriculture. The answer to the question of how they will eat if the land is not in production is found at the beginning and middle of the chapter:

The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely…I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives. (Lev 25:6-7, 19, 21-22)

So, here’s the radical thought to sit with for a second: The earth produces food without the help of human beings. Some of the plants that we consider a nuisance and call weeds are actually edible. Before you start foraging for dinner among your local neighborhood make sure you get educated. Back in the day it was common knowledge what to eat and what not to eat. We have lost that common knowledge and now must rely on field guides and experts to learn what we can forage in our local bioregion. This fact, that the earth supports all of the life on it without the help of human beings, is the central idea of the Sabbath practices which culminate in this year-long practice of cultivating the mindfulness of our place within the creation that sustains us.

Now, the global population when Leviticus was written between 538-332 BCE was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million. That’s only 3% of the current world population of 7 billion. So while the advent of agriculture had already begun to significantly increase global populations, the pressures of population on the land to produce was minimal compared to today. I’ve heard lots of different figures about what the carrying capacity of the earth is in terms of human population from 10 million all the way up to 9 billion. Regardless, it is clear that this practice of an entire year without production would not support current and future levels of population.

Now, you careful readers will point out that in the text God promises a bumper crop just prior to the Jubilee that will carry them through the fallow year and then some. While it may seem like this is the product of human ingenuity and hard work, any good farmer will tell you that there’s really not much you can do to get yields of the magnitude suggested by this passage. Sure there are bumper crops, but not because of anything any farmer did to make it happen. Studies have shown that even our best technological attempts to improve yield can’t out perform nature. So, the provision of food to carry people through three years on one year of production is a miracle intended to tell them, “Quit worrying about it and trust me”.

So, we have created a world which is completely dependent on the efforts of human beings to maintain and sustain itself. This clearly contradicts the heart of the Sabbath practices which reorient our lives around the fact that we are not owners in an absolute sense and the maintenance and sustenance of life on this planet does not depend on us. What are the repercussions for a world in which we have transgressed this Sabbath boundary and made a world dependent on us, in essence making ourselves God? I suggest that this question, “What shall we eat?” reveals once again our addiction to control and domination and our complete disconnection from the land. The Jubilee is a radical act of faith in the ability of the creation to sustain itself and ourselves, if we are willing to understand the boundaries of the system as it was created.

Up next… Jubilee is Salvation.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)