The Land Ethic of Leviticus
“The earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.” ― Chief Seattle
As a child growing up in New England, I was fascinated by American Indian connection to land. I longed to trace my heritage back to a people who knew how to live in harmony on their native soil, a people who understood that whatever they did to the land, they did to themselves, and vice versa. It has been a great joy to me, though bittersweet in the midst of the global ecological crisis, to find out that as a Jew I am indeed heir to such a tradition.
The land ethic in the book of Leviticus does not on the surface look like one of a unified web. When we look at the priestly voice in Tanakh, one of its most striking features is its obsession with distinction and category. There is holy space – the sanctuary – which is divided into different levels of holiness, and there is profane space outside of the sanctuary, and space outside of the camp. There are animals fit for eating, animals we may not eat, and specific animals that are fitting for specific sacrifices. There is a high priest, a tribe of priests, and everyone else who are not priests. There is human, and there is Divine. There is the Israelite, and the non-Israelite. It seems a world of black-and-white, a world fractured and di- vided, meant to enforce hierarchy, and perhaps to control a populace in service of strict cult ic worship.
I want to suggest a radically different view of the book of Leviticus, based on my study of it this year. I have come to believe that the priestly authors are obsessed with distinction and categories not because they actually see the world as divided, but precisely because they experience the world as radically unified and they need distinctions to help them function within the unity. Specifically, the priestly source suggests an organic relationship between environment and people, where the two are both separate and unified, like a couple in marriage. They are two points of a triangle whose third point is God. In order for the Israelites to be in right relationship with God, they have to be in right relationship with land -which is essen- tially the same thing as being in right relationship to each other. Land and people. People and Land. They are not separate.
We see the intimate connection between humanity and land in a series of specific word usages found throughout the book of Leviticus. In 12:3we are commanded to circumcise the foreskins of our male babies as the sign of the covenant begun in Genesis: וּבַיּוֹם עָרְלָתוֹ ַׂשר ְּב ּמֹול ִי ִמיִני ְּׁש ַה .In ,19:23we are commanded not to harvest fruit from a tree for three years, and in the fourth year to give all of the fruit to God: ָכל ֲא ַמ כָּל־עֵץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם אֶל־הָאָרֶץוְכִי־תָבֹאוּ ֵכל ָא ֵי לֹא עֲרֵלִים לָכֶם יִהְיֶה שָׁנִים ׁש ָׁשל אֶת־פִּרְיוֹ עָרְלָתוֹ .וַעֲרַלְתֶּםThe word ערלה is here used both for human foreskin, and for the part of the tree not to be cut for three years. We hear the echo of Chief Seattle: "All things are connected like the blood which unites one family." The blood of the baby and the sap of the sapling tree. Our covenant with God is marked on our bodies and on the land, for they are intricately connected.
One of the most striking examples of land and human bodies being inextricably linked is in the same chapter. Leviticus :19:29 זִמָּה הָאָרֶץ וּמָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא־תִזְנֶה לְהַזְנוֹתָהּ אֶת־בִּתְּךָ:אַל־תְּחַלֵּל "Do not profane your daughter by forcing her into prostitution, lest the land be prostituted and be filled with depravity"(trans. my own). The connection between women's bodies and the land has been pointed out by the modern eco-feminist movement, which connects the degradation of nature to the abuse of girls and women worldwide. In Leviticus, we see clearly that the body of one of the most vulnerable members of Israelite society –the unmarried female –is not just a symbol of degraded land. The verse does not say "to prostitute your daughter is like degrading the land." It says that prostituting your daughter will degrade the land. Her vulnerable human body is part and parcel of the vulnerable ecosystem of ancient Israel, and her degradation is the land's degradation. As Ellen F. Davis points out in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, the selling of a daughter into prostitution is a last resort, parallel to selling an ancestral piece of land to avoid starvation. The need to do either or both out of destitution occurs in a "culture that in an economic aspect is characterized by with the holiness writer calls ,זמהdepravity" (pp. .)92 In other words, a culture where the web has been broken, where the covenant is not respected, and what befalls the sons and daughters of the earth befalls the earth.
One of the best examples of the land as both separate and unified with people is in the observance of the seventh year of rest. Leviticus :25:4 לָאָרֶץ יִהְיֶה ַׁשבָּתוֹן ַׁשבַּת ׁשְּבִיעִת הַוּבַשָּׁנָה ֹמר ִתְז לֹא וְכַרְמְךָ תִזְרָע לֹא ָׂשדְךָ לַיהוָֹה ַׁשבָּת .Just as human beings keep the seventh day as holy and do not work, so we are commanded to let the land rest every seventh year. Human beings and the land are unified in our rhythm of rest, which parallels God's rest on the seventh day of creation. But we are separate in scale of rest. Whereas human beings need to rest once a week for a day, God knows the land needs a fallow year every seven years. The partners in the land human marriage are joined, yet respected in their respective needs.
In Leviticus 19:9(as well as in )23:22we are commanded to leave the corners of our field unharvested: ֵּקט ַל ְת לֹא קְצִירְךָ ֶקט ֶל ְו לִקְצֹר ָׂשדְךָ פְּאַת תְכַלֶּה לֹא אַרְצְכֶם אֶת־קְצִיר .וּבְקֻצְרְכֶםThese corners, שדך ,פאתare to be left for the poor and the stranger. In Lev 19:27 we are commanded not to cut the corners of our hair or beards: זְקָנֶךָ פְּאַת אֵת ְׁשחִית תַ וְלֹא רֹאשְׁכֶם פְּאַת תַקִּפוּ .לֹאThe ethi- cal rationale for the first of these seems clear enough. We should leave gleanings of food for the needy. But what is the reason not to cut the corners of our hair or beard? What on earth can that have to do with the covenant or religious ethics? The answer lies in the rationale that the text itself brings for both of these commandments. It is the rationale of the Holiness Code repeated over and over throughout Leviticus: אלהיך ה' ,אני because I am God your God.
This repetition that marks the Holiness Code is the priestly source's way of expressing the deep truth that Chief Seattle called the web of life. The Holiness Code is full of instruc- tions on how to treat land, how to treat our own bodies, and how to treat each other. But why do we treat our land and animals in certain ways? Why do we treat our bodies in certain ways? Why do we treat each other in certain ways? The answer in Leviticus is both the most simple and the most profound: אלהיך ה' ,אניbecause I am God your God.
To our rational minds, this is no reason at all. It is as though our mother has told us clean our rooms and when we ask why she says "Because I'm your mother and I tell you to." Our linear, rational mind cries out for more substance to the reason. But our mythic, relation- al mind understands. As young children, we do what our parents tell us to do because they are our parents, and (assuming healthy, loving parenting), our behavior is part of a schematic, functioning family home life. In the Holiness Code, the Israelites do what God tells them to do because they are in relationship to God through a covenant, and every act they do to any piece of their world is an act upon the covenant. Cleaning up, helping with chores, and expressing love and affection are the ways a child finds her place in the web of her family. So too leaving the corners of the field and the corners of hair, circumcising baby boys and leaving the fruit trees alone for three years were how the priests asked the Israelites to find their place in the web of relationships between people, land, and God.
As Davis points out, "The priestly tradition speaks not the language of the discursive intellect, but rather that of the embodied imagination," (pp. 84) If we look with our linear, rational mind at the Holiness Code and the priestly source, we will find it frustrating, full of repetitive minutia. But if we look with our mythic, relational mind, then the text delineates the right ordering of the world, or the microcosm that is Israel, its people and land... By means of a string of concrete examples [of behavior], the writer is showing what holiness looks like on the ground. It is a matter of reckoning deeply, imaginatively, and creatively with the stuff of ordinary life (Davis pp.84-85).
If cleaning up, helping with chores, and expressing love and affection is the "stuff of ordinary life" for a child in her home, then living well and sustainably on the fragile fertile soil of the highlands of Canaan was the stuff of ordinary life for the ancient Israelites. To do this, the priests codified a system of behavior between people and land, people and each other, and people and God that would keep the system going.
So what, practically, does this radical unification of land and people have to do with us today? Certainly it might compel us to heed more closely what at first glance seem like te- dious chapters of biblical law. But the lesson goes far beyond interesting textual and histori- cal analysis of the Bible. Standard religious education, when looking charitably at Leviticus, might inform us that these chapters are the story and laws of a particular people wanting to live in right relationship to their God. From this conclusion, we might ask ourselves today what rituals and religious expression would lead us to live in right relationship with our God. This is a profound and important call to spiritual seeking. But it does not go far enough to un- derstanding the biblical text in its context, and the deeper message the text has for us.
Simply put, the priestly source – and indeed, as Ellen Davis argues, much of Tanakh – is the story of a people who live in a fragile ecosystem, and want to have enough food. It's that simple, and again that simplicity is profound. Dependent not on mighty rivers for irrigation but on the sky for rain, this ancient culture of farmers developed intricate codes of behavior toward each other and the land because they understood that their very existence on that land was dependent upon their respect for its fragility and its needs. Their cult was not about a religious ideal of living in right relationship with an abstract God; rather it was about living in right relationship to the ecology of a particular concrete place, a place whose agri- cultural bounty would be a barometer for how well the people were keeping up their end of the covenant with their God. Read through these eyes, Leviticus is deeply in line with Chief Seattle. We might call it web literature -that is, writing that understands Aldo Leopold's Golden Rule of Ecology: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."(A Sand County Almanac, xxvi) In Leviticus language, the rule would be this: "A behavior is holy when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the Israelites dwelling in the land. It is a breach of the covenant when a behavior tends otherwise."
We are living in an age of unprecedented population growth, ecological imbalance, and potential food insecurity. Like the ancient Israelites on their fragile highland soil, we cannot take our continued dwelling on our land for granted. Like the ancient Israelites, we need to develop codes of behavior toward the land and toward each other that lead toward se- curity, health, and abundance. Like the ancient Israelites, we need to learn to read ecological destruction not as a niche issue or special interest problem, but as a sign that as a species we have broken the covenant of how to live well on the land.
In Leviticus ,26we hear a haunting promise that speaks to us today more than ever. God will grant us peace and abundance if we follow God's laws faithfully. The earth will bear fruit, the rains will come in their time, and we will be victorious against our enemies. But if we do not listen to the right rules of conduct that the priests have set out in the name of God, then we will fall prey to infertile earth and dry skies, wild beasts and deserted roads, and we will eat and not be satisfied. And the land, tired from all the years we have not let her rest, will take her rest whether we like it or not. Leviticus :26:34 ֵמי ְי ֹּכל ַׁשבְּתֹתֶיהָ אֶת־ הָאָרֶץ תִּרְצֶהאָז ַׁשבְּתֹתֶיהָ אֶת־ וְהִרְצָת הָאָרֶץ ְׁשבַּת תִּ אָז אֹיְבֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ וְאַתֶּם .הָשַּׁמָּה"Then the land will make up for her Sabbaths all the time of desolation. You will be in the land of your enemies, but then the land will rest and will make up for her sabbaths." The land is not a vehicle for our satisfaction, she is one integral point of the triangle between people, land, and God. If we do not let her act with integrity, God will step in and make up the difference.
Our bodies are the earth. Our hair is the fields. Our limbs are the trees. It is no more a question of empathy and morality whether we do or do not destroy the earth than it is a ques- tion of empathy or morality whether we do or do not cut off our own right arm. The priestly source knows this, but also knows how easily we forget it. So Leviticus sets up an intricate system of behavior to help us remember. But the system and its distinctions and categories – between humans and animals; between our bodies and the land; between our fields and our livelihood -- are but human constructions, there to help us hold up our end of the bargain, but not to blind us to the truth of radical unity.
Indeed, if we read the word covenant where Chief Seattle uses the word web, we be- gin to see the priestly view of the world: "We did not create this covenant of life, we are merely members of it. Whatever we do to the covenant we do to ourselves.”