Bible Leviticus

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

The previous post explored the nature of idolatry. In this post I hope to connect that background of idolatry to the insistence on sabbath-keeping in Leviticus 26. The question we ended with is “Why does YHWH demand something that none of the other gods do?”

In another post exploring the sabbatical year in Exodus 23:10-13 I came to this conclusion about idolatry,

“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.”

And then in another post exploring Jubilee and Salvation I came to this conclusion about the connections between Jubilee, Jewish Feast Days, the sacrificial system and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, the very practical social ethic of the Jubilee has been intimately linked to the religious calendar of the Jewish people. 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.

So, I would suggest that YHWH has a vision and intention for the whole world as Creator that the other gods do not. Other gods are often portrayed as being selfish and mercurial in the biblical narrative and elsewhere. The Babylonian god Marduk created the world through violence and chaos whereas YHWH is portrayed as bringing order to the chaos and with a trajectory toward non-violence, peace or shalom (despite some troubling episodes).

Sabbath-keeping, since it encompasses the economic and ecological (in other words all of what it means to live on this planet), is precisely what it means to call YHWH God, to give ultimate allegiance to this God. To deny the order and right-relatedness that YHWH is calling Israel into is to deny that YHWH is the one God and to give your ultimate allegiance to other gods. This chapter, Leviticus 26, goes on to describe the connection laid out in these first two verses in more detail.

If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Lev 26:3-4)

The passage goes on to detail the blessings associated with keeping the Sabbath commands. Then the passage turns to warnings about the consequences of not keeping the economic and ecological practices of YHWH.

I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it…Your strength shall be spent to no purpose: your land shall not yield its produce, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. (Lev 26:16,20)

The litany of horrors and consequences facing the disobedient goes on at length and is really disturbing. The conclusion of this list comes back to Sabbath for the land.

And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste. Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy (or make up for) ts sabbath years. As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living on it. (Lev 26:33-35)

It’s almost as if God would bring the consequences of disobedience on the people in order to restore the health and right-relationship with the land. So, regardless of whether the humans that God covenants with are willing to keep the Sabbath (economically and ecologically), eventually the land will receive the rest it needs and requires.

How should we hear this command and warning in light of the multiple ecological crises we face because of human activity on this planet?

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