The Least of These

(An excerpt from Shemitta: For the Land Is Mine by Mark Edward Vande Pol,

Shemitta starts with restoration of that broken bond between brothers: farmer and shepherd, settler and nomad. However, the Sabbath for the Land initiates a process that goes far beyond mere productive land, and national defense; it optimizes socioeconomic productivity and institutes true social justice by a mechanism so elegant as to have escaped historic notice, one that presages the pattern of G_d’s revelation, extending over millennia.

During the Sabbath year while most people are in the field, Ex. 23:11 says that the poor would remain on the homestead, “that the poor may eat.” So, let us take a moment to visualize how this might actually work.

Who are these people? In Biblical terms, “the poor” are those who are physically, mentally, or financially incapable of caring for themselves. They include the mentally retarded, the sick, the physically disabled, the destitute, and the extremely aged. In the Shemitta year, the poor have a pivotal role.

Any household has maintenance requirements and security risks, whether feeding and watering animals, controlling vermin, securing the property, whatever. Then there is the added demand to care for those who cannot manage the simple necessities of life: eating, personal hygiene, or walking. To take care of these needs, the landowner has motive to seek relationship with the poor, offering to bring them into the land for a trial run, to match their capabilities with the tasks necessary to keep the household intact while he is away on sabbatical. The retarded might do labor, the aged might teach children, the weak might keep watch, whatever. During the training period, the landowner would need to exemplify the forbearance that caring for people with problems often requires: exercising justice, mercy, and generosity. [45] At the same time however, he would have to discipline those who either willfully reject the teaching, are incapable of getting along, or who are destructive to the operation in general. He might even have to evict them.

Before the Sabbath year begins, the owner and the qualifying trainees enter a contract: They care for the household and each other during the year in return for staying on his land, with the additional prospect of long-term employment when he comes back and perhaps an independent life thereafter. Then, the owner redeems all debts per Deut. 15:1-11 and leaves for the year. While he is gone, the poor will be tested in the exercise of independent skills and their treatment of each other.[46],[47] Upon his return, the owner judges their works according to their abilities. Those who did well have the prospect of a labor contract for the ensuing six years, per Lev. 25:34-43. At the end of that term, the servants would face a choice: Stay with him as servants with a secure future, or go out on their own free of debt, with the landowner supplying the means for them to begin an independent life (Deut. 15:13-17). That deadline gives the poor a sense of urgency, to build their capabilities over the ensuing six years such that they might live independently for the rest of their days.

Note how beautifully this process maps onto the grand sweep of history, over thousands of years. G_d sought relationship with Abraham and they made a covenant: G_d would protect and multiply Abraham while Abraham would care for His land and walk with Him. Abraham’s descendants were brought out of poverty and bondage and into the land. The Owner promised to teach and protect them as long as they would follow His Torah earnestly. The Owner worked with them in the land for a time. He evicted the entire north kingdom for idolatry and disciplined Judah in Babylon. At the end of the training, He offered a New Covenant and paid with His life to redeem all debts. Then He left, with His servants free to accept and exercise that gift or not, with the promise to return and judge their performance.[49] He will return to reign for a time with those who followed Him. At the end He will judge by our deeds, for an eternity with Him, or everlasting damnation without.[50]

To me, this Levitical process was to be a sign by which Israel would recognize the Messiah in this pattern of obedience to G_d’s redemptive plan: One Owner, who brought Israel into the land, taught them, made a covenant, redeemed all debts, left, and will return to judge, written in the Torah over a thousand years before Yeshua walked the earth. This teaching demands nothing more than the best of each person based upon their respective ability, truly a way to maximize total productivity, that even the least might attain a secure means of subsistence along with the possibility of an independent life. It is a system by which rich and poor are motivated to eliminate poverty together by two key elements of that “grab bag” in Leviticus 25, stitched together in a manner that has totally escaped Biblical interpretation. Why?

It works only if Exodus 23:11 is translated as an instruction to “release and abandon” both the land and the crop. This magnificently elegant system with its amazing prophetic pattern, was designed to deliver upon a goal that has eluded humanity since the dawn of civilization:

Deuteronomy 15:4 However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

Moses knew very well the people were not going to obey. So why did he bother with this? Because he was obeying the Lord in telling him to say it. So then, for whom is this message directed?

"Who hath ears to hear, let him hear."

Shemitta is surely not just about debt, or agriculture, or national defense. This is an amazing multidisciplinary synthesis of seemingly unrelated elements organized through but one remote, simple, and inscrutable verse no one has ever observed. Go ahead, try to convince yourself that this unprecedented and elegant system, with a logic that unfolds repeatedly and only by obedience, written in structured poetry, patterning events hundreds, even thousands of years in the future, is a work of mere “cultural anthropology,” where there is no record of any people anywhere ever doing anything even remotely similar, before or since. I may be a pretty smart guy, but I sure can’t make that leap.

Only a prosperous, free, and independent people can praise G_d without coercion or restraint, as loud and long as any man could find in his heart to proclaim. It is a lot easier to get loud about it outside and alone. Witness David’s behavior parading in front of the Ark.[51] Pastoral life is hard, but there are slow times as well, time to think, to write, to praise, and to pray. It is no surprise that Israel’s greatest literature was written by shepherds, Moses and David, her greatest leaders. It was a re-infusion of that lifestyle every seven years, by which an urban intelligentsia could cross fertilize with the wisdom of a quiet life at peace with G_d and in intimate contact with the reality of life and death risks in His land. A nation that puts His Word ahead of their comforts, that understands His Law keeps them free, a society held secure by brother-hood without fear of anyone but Him, is one that can express that love without restraint. Even in the harshest of circumstances; they had their first responsibilities covered, including where to keep the feasts.

26:11 And I will set My tabernacle among you,

But He was not done with His Blessings, the greatest was to come:

11 …and My soul shall not abhor you 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your G_d, and ye shall be My people.

For the longest time, even after the many revelations involved in writing this book, I took verses 11 & 12 metaphorically. I guess it was so hard to believe that the Lord of Creation himself would walk among us, something so alien and unreal, something of which I feel so terribly undeserving, that I could not even contemplate it. In any case, and as a personal matter, once verse 26:10 became clear to me, and the whole scene of the Shemitta year resolved, I was musing about it at our congregation and a Jew asked me what one would do about the requirements for the feasts during the Shemitta year.

There are at least two ways to look at this verse: One is that in the Shemitta year, the priests and Levites would set up the Tabernacle of Sinai among the people in the field, moving throughout the land and celebrating the feasts in the field as they did before Jerusalem was ever built. Thus, if they ever had to evacuate Jerusalem they would be able to take the holiest of their objects with them and go into battle with the Ark of G_d. Upon the people doing their part, He would do His, just as He promised the sons of Abraham.[52] In other words, in my totally unsupported opinion: In G_d’s country things cut both ways; we do our part out of faith and He does His out of loving respect for obedience.

The other interpretation is the more direct and spiritually challenging: G_d Himself would set up HIS tent among the people and walk among them as He had with Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. While it is indeed almost inconceivable, a whole nation keeping Shemitta would require an enormous act of faith demanding strict discipline to continue camping out, cycle after cycle, eating old food stocks just for the purpose of national strength in brotherhood with His beloved people of the land. It is a command that is especially demanding in time of peace when there is no apparent justification for enduring such hardship. Maybe He didn’t see the Temple to be as essential to Him as is commonly supposed:

The Revelation. 21:3 And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them,

Rev. 21:22 And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God the Almighty, and the Lamb, are the temple thereof.

Envision the social transformation from keeping Shemitta for decades: Relationships would combine work skills such that projects might go more smoothly. As the defense infrastructure was completed and dispersed, people would have less to do on that level each succeeding cycle. Other projects would become the goal, such that there might be no poor among us, while enriching the land itself simply for wildlife or beauty. Eventually, the people might assemble for larger projects, with several tribes convening to build even greater public works.

As to who would be in charge of projects with potentially national scale, remember, There was to be no king but Him:

Lev. 26:12 And I will walk among you, and will be your G_d, and ye shall be My people.

Verse 12 is the only place in the Torah where G_d Himself promised to walk among the common people of Israel (although the root for “walk” is a verb with many meanings).[53] Still, who among the people could be in the presence of the Lord and not die? Only the High Priest on Yom Kippur. To me, this verse is as if He’d said, ‘If you manage to keep this law out of love for Me, you will have become a nation of priests,’ a light to the people of the Earth demonstrating how liberty really works and what they can do to make it happen. This verse is the last promise of blessing in Leviticus. The key is keeping the Sabbath for the Land. Every time I think about it, I am blown away.

Lev. 26:13 I am HaShem your G_d, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that ye should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and made you go upright.


[45] (Luke 10:25-37, The Good Samaritan) As to who are the poor to bring into one's home, Yeshua is clearly practical, in that He offers aid and teaching to those capable of freely coming to Him (Mat 16:9-10, feeding the multitudes), while rejecting those so capable who do not (Mat. 7:6 & 10:13-15). Simultaneously, He teaches us to show compassion to those in dire need to bring them to Him, but did not have the Samaritan bringing the victim into his home. Instead, the good Samaritan put up the man at the inn. In effect, the man was then free to make a similarly independent choice.

[46] Mat. 18:21-35, The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

[47] Matthew 25:1-13 The Parable of the Ten Virgins

[48] Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27, & Mark 12:1-11

[49] Matthew 25:31-46, The Judgment of the Nations

[50] Rev. 20:12-13, The Last Judgment

[51] 2 Samuel 6:16

[52] Genesis 18:19

[53] He promised to ‘walk against” the people more than once in B’chukotai. In Deut. 23:14, Moses warns the people that HaShem walks in the camp when instructing them to bury their waste. Somehow, I don’t think either is even close to the same.

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