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.
I have got into some classic arguments with sceptics who (for some strange reason) frequent Climate Denial Crock of the Week (CDC) over limits to growth and carrying capacity; such as here for example.
As ever, your Bible-based perspective is very interesting but, boiled down to basics, my opinion as stated over on CDC is that, unless we are all going to take a massive cut in living standards, we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. However, one of the most challenging aspects of accepting this reality is that it is then very hard to fault the logic of Sir Nicholas Stern – who says that we should all become vegetarians because it is much more energy-efficient than feeding crops to animals and eating them instead (and ever-more humans needing ever-more livestock is putting pressure on land etc). The food-related bits of this episode of the UK’s Channel 4 Brave New World programme are very relevant and worth watching…
Finally, while I think of it, if you can, you should consider making a trip to London over the next few months (I am!) to get to see the Leonardo da Vinci Exhibition at the National Gallery – they have assembled a dozen or so of his paintings from all over the world for probably the first (and last) time ever. Although, for obvious reasons, the original of The Last Supper is not among them! However, if you do ever make it to the UK, you could go and see the oil-on-canvas copy of the original that hangs in the chapel of Magdalen College in Oxford (see here for photographic evidence (scroll down to near the bottom)! I took my kids to Oxford about 18 months ago but, annoyingly, I did not know this even existed (let alone where it is) at the time…
Thanks for the comments Martin!
Yeah, I barely scratched the surface fo trying to apply what I’m doing in the biblical text. I think a reduction in living standards for the “developed” world is inevitable and would be better if we did it voluntarily rather than being forced by nature. I’ve grown more and more interested in exploring adding insects to my diet. 80% of the world already incorporates into their diet. They are ubiquitous and the most efficient at converting plant material to protein. I’ve heard and read a few things arguing that they would make a very sustainable source of protein for the future if we can get over our own cultural hurdles.