Apparently the rabbis still argue about exactly how and when to apply the sabbath years but, from my perspective as a gentile and only an amateur student of the Bible, it's pretty simple: you grow your crops and harvest for six years and the seventh year you allow the land itself to enjoy a sabbath rest. In the close reading we've been doing in our Wednesday morning class, I came to realize that the people could walk into the field and eat the produce of the field - but they couldn't do a full-on harvest and they couldn't prune the vines, etc. — the land needed to be allowed to entirely rest but the product of the land could be consumed (the grapes didn't have to fall to the ground and become compost, at least *not all of them*). God promised His people Israel that He would provide for them in the keeping of this commandment:
‘You shall thus observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land. Then the land will yield its produce, so that you can eat your fill and live securely on it. But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in. (Leviticus 25:18-22)This resonates with the dream the Lord sent to Pharaoh and Joseph interpreted, by the grace of God (Exodus 41), enabling Egypt to become a storehouse of plenty during a tremendous region-wide famine, doesn't it?
But sadly, the Jews didn't give the land its sabbath rest, as God instructed them — and the land enjoying its rest was so important to God that He sent Judah (the southern kingdom, when the kingdom split into two different nations after the death of King Solomon; ) into exile in Babylon for seventy years, collecting the sabbaths due the land over the passage of 490 years:
Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete. (2 Chronicles 36:20-21)The earth is the LORD’S, and its fullness, the world, and those who dwell in it. (Psalm 24:1) — but that's surely not the way we think about it in our natural human state; it's one of so many things with which we must grapple in order to come into agreement with God!
In my humanity, I think I'm important (and, on one hand, I am important: humans are precious to God and He values us to a staggering degree). The error I fall into is to under-appreciate how much God values the rest of His creation. Yes, we're special (Narcissistic Dust!) - but we're not the only special thing. YHWH values the land and doesn't want it polluted (we naturally think of physical pollution, and God certainly doesn't want that, but mostly He doesn't want the land polluted spiritually — and that's a discussion for another day). He wants it treated with respect and care, including giving it the same proportion of rest (one of seven) that we are meant to enjoy on a weekly basis; the land is to enjoy it on a “week of years” basis.
So here's the verse that jumped out at me today in Bible study and made me pause before I blithely answered the “own or rent” question:
‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me.’ (Leviticus 25:23)The New Living Translation really drives it home: “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.” *Gulp*. No wonder the scribes and pharisees took such offense when Jesus told this parable:
And He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time. At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, so that they would give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he proceeded to send another slave; and they beat him also and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed. And he proceeded to send a third; and this one also they wounded and cast out. The owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy these vine-growers and will give the vineyard to others.”
When they heard it, they said, “May it never be!” But Jesus looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. (Luke 20:9-19)
How then do I live as an alien and sojourner on this earth, on the land which my society says I “own”?
At the very least I'd better be sure I'm giving my Land-LORD the fruit which is legitimately His own!