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Shemot/Exodus 23:10 And six years you shall sow your land and you shall gather her fruit.
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Tradition almost entirely subsumes this verse into the one that follows: "For six years ... but on the seventh ...". The following verse is taken as the start of commandment #84 in Sefer HaChinuch and attracts significant comment as a positive command: let the land lie fallow every seventh year. The same pairing process also befalls the next two commandments in the text - "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour" (Shemot 23:12). That treatment, however, obscures the blessing that is thus hidden in the first half of each pair.
The Hebrew text is unexceptional. The first phrase of the verse contains the verb , the 2ms Qal prefix form of the root , "to spread, to scatter, hence to sow, plant" and the derivative noun , seed, so here "you will/shall sow". The verb in the second phrase, , is the 2ms Qal affix form of the root , "to collect, gather, assemble", with a vav-reversive construction, rendered here "and you will/shall gather".Rashi comments that "the word means 'bring into the house' as the same verb is used, albeit plural, in D'varim 22:2 'you shall bring [a lost animal] inside your house'". The Rashbam affirms, "gather it into your house and do not leave it unclaimed" as it would then be technically ownerless during the sabbatical year so could be taken by anyone. The last word in the verse, , is a fs abstract noun with a 3fs possessive suffix, 'her', from the root , "to come, enter", literally "a coming in", usually "profit, produce or fruit".
Hirsch explains that "for six years you are to treat your land as your own property", whereas in the seventh, the land is declared to be formally ownerless, so that the non-cultivated growth may be freely taken and eaten - but not harvested - by anyone. This is part of the social security net for the Israelite community: in the seventh year, everyone may take what they need to eat each day from the after-growth of the land, which although not cultivated and allowed to lie fallow so that it regains fertility, will nevertheless produce a smaller than usual crop. This is particularly true of vineyards and olive trees, which are explicitly mentioned in 23:11. Those who have once allowed potatoes to grow in their gardens will confirm how important it is to dig thoroughly through the potato bed to find and harvest every single potato even down to the smallest size, otherwise the plant will regrow from even a tiny tuber in successive years! The Hebrew text of Vayikra 25:3-7, where the sabbatical year regulations are repeated in a little more detail, starts with , changing "your land" to "your field" to make the command even more personal. This does not apply only to the nation, but to each individual; each person must sow and then set aside his own field and in that way the nation will observe the commandment.
However, we still haven't seen the blessing that is hidden in this verse. It is that sowing and harvesting are juxtaposed together. Fox six consecutive years the Israelites will be able to sow and there will be fruit for them to gather in. Put another way, in each of the six years, if the land is sown, G-d promises that there will be a harvest to gather. This promise of abundant provision during six years often gets lost in the promise that everyone will be able to eat enough in the seventh year, but is just as much a promise of G-d. Exactly the same blessing is also present in the second command pair: "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour" (Shemot 23:12); there will be work for six days. Wow - there's a blessing! Do your work faithfully, by the week and through the year, and you will see the rewards of your labours.
Is this blessing unconditional or are there strings attached? Will G-d simply provide the fruit of the fields and weeks of work, regardless? The ancient Sages thought not. TheMekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael reports that Rabbi Ishmael said: "When the Israelites do the will of G-d, they have to observe only one year of release in seven, as it is said, 'Six years you shall sow your field'. But when the Israelites do not do the will of G-d, they are forced to have four years of release in seven for twice they will sow but not harvest the next year." Moshe makes it clear to the Israelites before they enter the Land that G-d's blessings are dependent on their obedience and remaining in good relationship with Him. First he says, "If you obey the L-RD your G-d, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day ... all these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the L-RD your G-d" (D'varim 28:1-2, JPS), then particular to the theme of agricultural provision, "Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock" (v. 4, JPS). To make sure that the people understood, Moshe then draws the opposite picture: "But if you do not obey the L-RD your G-d to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect ... Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock" (v. 15,18, JPS), this to result in expulsion and exile from the Land, the land of promise and provision.
But what about today? Are we as believers entitled to G-d's provision? Does the ancient promise given to the Jewish people in the Land apply to believers in Messiah - Jew and Gentile - in the diaspora in the modern world? Those teaching the prosperity gospel certainly think so; they teach that G-d's bountiful provision is always available to those that are in good relationship with Him. Healing, wealth and material prosperity and abundance, family relationships; all these are promised to those who love G-d and give generously - in both time and money - to the kingdom. Using texts such as, "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. And thereby put me to the test, says the L-RD of Hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need" (Malachi 3:10, ESV) and "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for G-d loves a cheerful giver. And G-d is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work" (2 Corinthians 9:6-8, ESV), people are manipulated into giving far beyond their ability, often leading them into debt. Lack of prosperity and well-being is blamed on sin - hidden or unconfessed - in the life of a believer, or a lack of faith. Believers that do not prosper will be disciplined or ostracised and then - constructively or explicitly - expelled from their church or fellowship.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua said, "For [G-d] makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45, ESV). This seems clear enough; it is an expression of G-d's grace to all the children of Adam, a fulfillment of His covenant to Noah after the flood: "So long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease" (B'resheet 8:22, JPS). Under G-d's hand, the earth will continue to yield food so that mankind - as a whole - can eat. Man's bad decisions and selfish motives mean that the use and distribution of that yield is uneven and disproportionate: crops that could feed starving people in the third world are instead processed to produce bio-fuel for the western nations to decrease their carbon emissions. G-d will hold man responsible for those decisions in time to come. We also know that G-d uses famine as a tool for punishment "When a land sins against Me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out My hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast ..." (Ezekiel 14:14, ESV) and to catch the people's attention - this is sometimes commuted to a spiritual famine: "'Behold, the days are coming,' declares the L-rd G-D, 'when I will send a famine on the land -- not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the L-RD'" (Amos 8:11, ESV).
Are we entitled to G-d's blessings and to expect Him to provide everything we want, to make us comfortable? Absolutely not - not only did He never promise that, it would be entirely against His character and His repeatedly declared way of working. But in His grace, G-d has promised to provide for our basic needs: "The nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you" (Luke 12:30-31, ESV). We must remember that we can forfeit His blessings by breaking or abusing our relationship with Him, but never so badly that there is no way back. There are always six years to sow and harvest, to work in the field of the kingdom and receive His provision, if we will hear His voice.
Further Study: Isaiah 55:1-2; Daniel 9:9-14; James 1:5-8; 1 Peter 3:10-12
Application: What is your harvest looking like? Are you struggling on slim pickings or confidently enjoying what G-d sends for each day? A conversation with the Quartermaster might be in order!
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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