“You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard [and] your olive grove.”
God has finished giving the Ten Commandments and is in the process of giving The Law, which feels like several chapters of God going back over the various Commandments and giving color and scope to them. In these verses — the some verses following — God gives color and scope to the command to keep the Sabbath.
The Sabbath; the Rest was not just a once a week thing, it was a once every seventh year kind of thing. The teachers I have heard over the years have been quick to point out that harvesting for six years and doing no harvesting in the seventh year was a call to trust God to provide and to work diligently, particularly in that sixth year. And I am quite sure that is a part of what God had in mind. But He also gives some scope in verse eleven (11). He says that the reason for the rest is (a) so the land can rest (let it rest), (b) as a form of workfare (so that the needy of your people may eat), and (c) as provision for wild animals (the beast of the field may eat).
Letting the land lie fallow would later be borne out by history as a viable method for increasing the productivity of land. Give the land some time off and it produces more in the years it is sown and harvested. There were studies done a decade ago or more in which machines were shut down about once a week and the studies found that the machines lasted longer, had fewer breakdowns, and were just generally better machines. I find myself wondering what the Israelite farming family were doing during that year in which they did not work the fields. Did they improve their homes? Did they pursue the arts or better themselves with all that time? I see a lot of burnout in the modern workplace and wonder if some portion of that is due to us working the same job day-in and day-out for years and years without a respite. Just curiosity.
The Old Testament did not really have a welfare system as we know it today. There was, however, a workfare system. The Israelites were commanded to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and not to pick up the bits that dropped from the carts and bundles during harvest. The corners and the dropped things were to be left for the poor to gather up. The book of Ruth shows this system in action. The Bible‘s model for providing for a person or a family is simple: Work. No work? No food. Before I go nuts on this, Israelites also received a parcel of land as inheritance and then split it up among the family as the years went by, so a place to live was handled. But food and clothing had to be handled by the individual or family. Every seventh year, there should have been a few fields that were left completely unharvested by the owners so that the poor could have a go. It would be a chance for the poor to put in that bit of extra effort to try to get ahead of things, maybe even make some headway toward getting out of poverty.
Finally, the wild animals. Some thoughts presented themselves here. First, God provides even for the wild animals. The idea being that God wanted the Israelites to have a constant reminder that the wild animals were taken care of by God, how much more would He take care of the Israelites, His Chosen People. Second, we have problems in the modern world with wild animals coming into cities looking for food. If there were areas outside the cities — which is where these fallow fields would have been — where the wild animals could find food, we might have fewer problems with wildlife entering cities. Third, the wildlife eating the food in the fields might have provided a bit of fertilization of those fields.
This brings me around to the question of application. I am not a farmer and I have no land to let lie fallow, so that strict interpretation is out of the question. On the other hand, I am a working person and I do recall that Jesus later says that man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man. So this whole resting thing — including the hardcore taking a year off part — is meant to benefit people. The application I take from this is that I need to keep work and rest in their proper place. There should be more work than rest — a 6:1 ratio, or thereabouts — but the rest must be included. Let me work when it is time to work and rest when it is time to rest.
Father, thank You for this reminder that You take care to provide for everyone, including even the wild animals. If You care enough to provide for even them, how much more will You provide for Your children. Thank You for so great a love and for so clear an example of Your provision. Please teach me to keep work and rest in their proper relationship and to include both in my life as You would have them.