Light from the Sidra

Behar ('In the mountain') 28th May 2016. 20th Iyyar 5776

Torah: Leviticus 25:1-26:2. Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27

Something to celebrate!

A few years ago, a listener phoned Radio 4’s Any Answers programme to ‘remind’ the programme’s listeners that in 1948 Jews from Western Europe invaded Palestine and forcibly expelled two million Arabs from their homes. Israel, said the caller, was established with the help of ‘a bunch of terrorists’ and it was not enough to say the Palestinians could have ‘their own little state’; they should be given the entire land.

The caller’s summary of the last sixty years of Middle East history was almost entirely wrong and when asked if he thought there should be any place for Jews in the land, the gentleman caller replied that he had no answer to the question.

Others would have no hesitation in saying the land we call ‘Israel’ belongs to the Jewish people. Some would go so far as to say that Israel should have no compunction about expelling its Arab citizens.

With its teaching on the Yuval and slavery, Leviticus 25 first of all makes it clear that the land does not belong to Israel; it belongs to God. ‘The land [Hebrew: eretz] shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with Me’ (verse 23). When King David wrote in Psalm 24:1, ‘HASHEM’s is the earth and its fulness; the inhabited land and all those that dwell in it’, the ‘earth’ [eretz] he was referring to might have been eretz Israel, the land of Israel.

Secondly, no Israelite owns another Israelite. An Israelite who has fallen on hard times may sell himself into servitude but when the Yuval comes, he is free to leave the service of his master. Israel’s ethical code was rooted in the fact that HASHEM was real, that he was Melech Olam, the King of the Universe, and therefore the land of Israel as well as the rest of the world belonged to him. He had the right to determine how his people would live in his land.

The ecology of the Bible is built not on some pagan concept the divinity of the earth but on the sovereignty of the Creator.

The people of Israel were to keep every seventh day holy to God. Every seventh year was to be holy to God also and the land was to lie fallow. The benefit derived from allowing the land to rest retarded the rate of salinization of the soil caused by irrigation. Due to exhaustion of the soil and high salt content, large areas of arable land in ancient Mesopotamia had to be abandoned. The land belonged to Yahweh and he knew what was best for the land, and what was best for the people; all the farmers had a year’s holiday!

But there is far more to Leviticus 25 than ‘green issues’.

God created the world in six days and ‘rested’ on the seventh day. The children of Abraham, being called to reflect the image of God, were also to rest on the seventh day after six days of work. In addition, every seventh year was to be a year of rest. Finally, after seven sevens of years, freedom was to be proclaimed for the land, for property and for slaves.

The fiftieth year was the year after the seventh Sabbath year, which means it was a new beginning for the nation. They were beginning a fresh cycle of seven years.

The Haftarah is interesting in this respect because Jeremiah was told to redeem family property on the eve of Judah’s destruction. The enemy was at the gates of Jerusalem and Jeremiah was to redeem family property as a token of his trust that the people, in spite of their sins, would by God’s grace return to the land possess it after seventy years. Ten times seven years will serve as full punishment enough for the people. The incident follows the promise of the Brit Hadashah (New Covenant) in chapter 31, which guarantees Israel’s perpetual possession of the land.

Another interesting and relevant passage is Daniel 9 in which seventy sevens of years are determined for the Jews and for the holy city to finish transgression. This is Israel’s ultimate Jubilee, when Israel will be liberated from sin and transgression through the Messiah who will be ‘cut off’ by death, after which Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed. After Messiah was cut off for sins there was no further need for the sacrifices, and so God took away the Temple.

Liberty from sin? Now that’s something worth celebrating. That is a jubilee!

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