This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.
We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.
Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.
The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)
It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.
It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.
Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.
More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.
Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.
I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.
Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.
All My Relations by Ulali
To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come
We are the land
This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago
And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492
To those who have kept their homelands
And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them
And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today
To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way
To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people
To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are
To those who search and never find
To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted
To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many
To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people
To those that give up and those who do not care
To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again
To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth
To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own
To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other
To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better
To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty
To the young, the old, the living and the dead
To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth
Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual
The truth that lies in our hearts
All my relations