The Star Trek series often posed the question, “What constitutes life?” Now isn’t that an important question? The answer to that question determines treatment. What we deem as “not life,” we tend to use up or discard. And this question lays heavily on the heart of the abortion debate. When does life begin? If I can scientifically prove or validate that an embryo is not “life” it can be discarded if I deem it to be inconvenient or too emotionally difficult or somehow a risk to myself. But if that embryo is “life” then discarding it becomes criminal and immoral. And isn’t it ironic that we will go to great lengths to save the lives of some owls, but not even blink at the casual and clinical destruction of babies. “What is life?” is a foundational question then. It determines who or what we have to respect. Ah, but I’m not really talking about abortion. But I am talking about the issue of life and respect; how we treat living things and people. And if God wants me to respect the life of animals, shouldn’t I respect the life of babies?
Exodus 23:10-13 is not about destruction of life, but it is about respecting life; allowing life to rest and recuperate. Verses 10-11 are about the sabbatical year, the seventh year, when the fields and the vineyards are to be abandoned. For six years they are to work the land. On the seventh year they are to let it drop (literal translation) and leave it alone. On this year of the land and vineyards being left alone, it is not the landowner who may harvest whatever volunteer crop there may be. It is the poor. It is important to note that Yahweh made provisions for the poor during the six years of working the land as well. It would be woefully inadequate if the poor were allowed to harvest only on the seventh year. And the animals which would normally be run off the land, are for this year allowed to graze the forsaken fields and vineyards. I am convinced that these are provisions for the sabbatical year and not reasons Yahweh is giving for this command. So, what is the reason? The land is alive. I am not making any kind of reference to a mother earth ideology. The land has an energy that generates life in all manner of vegetation. And that life can be used up just like any other life. So, Yahweh commanded his people to not work the land on the seventh year; to abandon it so that it could recuperate. I am confident that this is about respecting the life of the land. It is a command against using up life. The life of the land is intended to be cultivated in order to produce life which in turn sustains life. But if it is used up, it will cease to be able to produce what is needed to sustain us.
In verse 12 the Sabbath is again commanded. The seventh day of the week is a day of ceasing; of resting. Once again God includes animals in this provision. Animals were considered farm implements, but they are more; they are “life” and they need rest. They are not to be used up. This command is for both the owner and the animal. When speaking of animals, it is about them resting. When speaking about people, the slaves and foreigners, the word is refreshed. The lives of slaves and foreigners are not to be used up either. People need times of rejuvenation. God knew that if he just gave the command to cease from working on the seventh day, that many of the Israelites would have gladly refreshed themselves while they sent out their slaves and foreign servants to work the animals and the land. These commands are about resisting the temptation of using up “life”.
Verse 13 seems to be out of place; a summing up of all of Yahweh’s guiding principles, while the guiding principles continue on. Durham calls verse 13 an addendum to a section rather than an overall summary. And this seems more likely. But why here? As far as we know this deep respect for life; a respect that allows “life” to be rested and refreshed, was not found among any of the nations surrounding the Israelites. Therefore the gods of those nations had no such respect of life. Land, animals, and people could be used up until they perished. Don’t even remember the names of those gods; don’t utter their names. Yahweh is the God who cares about rest; the God that cares about “life”.
Many have pointed out that life has a natural cycle of energy and rest. God wants us to honor that cycle; to respect life so much that “life” is allowed to flourish. The life-source in the land will produce more; the animals will survive longer; the servants will accomplish more if their “life” is nourished instead of used. What is life? It is the energy to produce and if that energy is used up it will cease to be useful. Don’t use people or animals or land up. Nurture “life” and let it thrive with moments of being rejuvenated. Walter