[This devotion derives in part from the content of the commentary on the sabbatical year in THE TORAH: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut and published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, in 1981. This article is very fine as a scholastic work and I refer you to it if you are able to obtain a copy.]
Leviticus 25:1-7 pertains to the laws of the seventh year, just as do the verses of Exodus 23:10 seq. where the year is simply called “the seventh year” and of Deuteronomy 15:1-10, where there is an additional law concerning the cancelling of debts. The focus of the Leviticus passage is on the rest for the land itself and on all Israelites and animals partaking equally of the natural production of the land during that year. Thus, the editor of the TORAH article refers to this law as “a noble expression of social idealism and humanitarian concern.”
The Bible is a practical book.
The rule is that at the end of six years of working the land, the land is to be given rest for one year just as the Israelites are given rest on the seventh day after six days of work. In Leviticus 26:34, 43 the astounding revelation is that the dispersion of the Israelites among the nations is God’s way of “making up” the unobserved sabbatical years of rest for the holy land. This seems to be part of the concern involved in the 70 years judgment in Jeremiah 25 and 29 and in Daniel 9, though the matters specified in those chapters had to do ostensibly with idolatry and the infidelity of Israel to the covenant with God. But issues regarding the Holy Land are always involved in such matters. (Leviticus 18:25)
THE TORAH editor gives a detailed history of how the law was applied over the centuries. It includes the fact that the Jews did a good job generally for many centuries leading up to the time of the sages, though they never were perfect in their observance as a whole people. In fact, during the time of Hillel* that gentle sage created the practice of “prosbul” (a fictious sale of land to a gentile during a sabbatical year) to avoid the practical problems that creditors had with Israelites who used the law to default on debts, thus “virtually abrogating” the sabbatical law.
After the article author’s detailed history, he makes this concluding statement:
“The sabbatical year may have been of practical benefit in preventing exhaustion of the soil, but that was not the intent of the law. It was rather an expression of the Sabbath idea; and, like the weekly Sabbath, it has no parallel in other cultures of the ancient Near East.”
It is interesting to me that even secular agronomists recommend crop rotation to keep soil from becoming depleted of its nutritional content.
The sabbatical year was a spiritual as well as a physical law. It holds for us much to prayerfully ponder. It tells us that the earth itself is alive and needs rest. We should therefore consider this in each generation as we spend our brief time here. As an old farmer I knew many years ago told me, “I have done what my father before me did; I do all I can to leave the land to the next generation better off than when it came to me.”
PROPHETIC REVELATION IN THE BIBLE:
[*For those who think that Jesus followed Hillel in his teaching, this should serve as a sobering contradiction to that notion. Isaiah 50:4-5 makes it clear that Jesus did not learn his doctrine from human teachers but from God; John 7:14-16 shows that Jesus confounded his critics because his doctrine was scholarly but untaught by any traditional school; in Galatians, Paul insisted that his doctrine was not taught him by men but by God; Amos 3:7 says that God will do nothing but that he first reveals it to his servants the Prophets; thus, the Prophetic revelation in the Bible (which Revelation 19:10 says is “the testimony of Jesus”—the Witness of the Son Who is the Messiah as He speaks what he has heard from the Father) is not built upon the reasonings or traditions of human beings. Nonetheless, as 1 Corinthians 14 demonstrates, prophecy is to be weighed by other prophets in a prophetic Beit Din of two or three judges so that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Matthew 18:16; 1 Timothy 5:19; Psalms 12:6); and 1 Peter 1:19-21 tells us that the scriptures decisively guide prophetic interpretation. (See also 1 Corinthians 2:13) Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated to the disciples after he rose from the dead that all things concerning him are latent in the Hebrew scriptures. (Luke 24:27) Finally: We are warned to beware of false prophets, especially in the latter days, so that we not “follow their pernicious ways.” 2 Peter 2:1-3]