Food in the Bible: Exodus 23:10-13

Exodus 23:10-13 For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11but 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 with your olive orchard.

For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. 13Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.

This is the commandment for the Sabbatical Year. It is followed by a list of the annual festivals to be observed and then a promise that if the Israelites followed the commandments that YHWH would conquer Canaan for them, the Promised Land. It’s important to recognize that this covenant is conditional, “But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes” (Ex 23:22). So the giving of the land to the Israelites is contingent on them following particular agricultural practices.

I don’t know what the agricultural practices of their neighbors in the Ancient Near East were (Philistines, Egyptians, Assyrians or Babylonians). It would be interesting to study that and compare it to the biblical commands. We do know that the recommendation to let fields lie fallow for one year out of seven is better for the land than the intensive production schedules of industrial agriculture today.

As I mentioned in my sermon, the Sabbath commands often combine the ecological and the economic. Let the land lie fallow (good agricultural practice) so that the poor will be taken care of (just economic practice). We have done everything we can to create a division between the economic and the ecological. No matter how hard we try, it appears that this is impossible. Since economics is the way that we order our lives together, it follows that it must involve the ecological. Our lives cannot be ordered together without affecting and connecting to the earth. If we choose to order our lives in such a way that we ignore the ecological, it follows that there will be consequences in both the economic and ecological realm. And that seems to be the case today.

I included the last verse of this passage on purpose, because this is another area that we tried to make into a separate sphere of life. The last verse connects the ecological and economic to idolatry. Augustine talked about the right ordering of love. The problem was not that material things were evil. The problem was that we put them in the place of God. All love properly ordered finds its ultimate place in love for God. Idolatry is not about choosing the wrong religion or worshipping too many gods (though that might be part of it). Ultimately idolatry is about misplacing our allegiances and putting things out of order.

So this command, which tells the Israelites how they need to rightly order their agricultural practices and their social relationships, puts both things under the umbrella of rightly ordering their allegiances. I often hear people say that you should, “Put God first.” This notion puts God somehow in a category that is abstracted and detached from the reality of the world we live in. Here we see that putting God first clearly involves ecological and economic action and right relationships. God does not simply appear at the top of our checklist. Our allegiance to God orders the way we eat, the way we shop, the way we talk, the way we answer the phone, the way we do our job, the way we live our lives and the way treat others.

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