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).

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