Biblical principles and todays gardens?
From childhood, I have had the blessing of being immersed in scripture. My parents regularly read the Bible and Bible storybooks to us. My father had only one year of high school, but he had gone further in knowledge of scripture than anyone that I knew. On Sunday evenings our small church frequently featured a Bible quiz. Because he could answer quicker and more questions than anyone, a “Dean Alleman rule” was instituted: When anyone answered three questions, that person was not eligible to answer again until no one knew the answer. From that heritage, I have questioned why we don’t celebrate Christmas as the disciples and Paul did, wondered if it was significant that the only time in the Bible a man tells a woman “I love you” it is Samson to Delilah and raised the question of “fallowing”. I have known of the “fallow” year rule, but have never heard a farmer or gardener practice it or discuss it**. After all, we eat pork, plant two kinds of seeds in a field (rye with clover) and wear cotton/polyester clothes. Fallowing fields is commanded by God:
Ex 23:11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unploughed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (See also, Lev. 25: 1-4)
Interpretations of “fallow ground” law
To what extent is the ‘land rest’ command binding on the Christian today? What are the principles by which to interpret scripture on the matter of land rest? Do we choose the general interpretation, looking for the principles behind the law? This approach would conclude that practices like crop rotation, manuring the fields, composting and mulching meet the purpose of these regulations and are the equivalent of “rest”? Or, should we follow the practice of some observant Jews who do not use the land at all during the seventh year. I read of some who lease their orchards the seventh year (to Arabs) to meet the requirement of the law of land rest?
What is the basis for the Christian taking this scripture literally? First, I assume that the Gen. 2 instruction to Adam to “serve and preserve the land” provides the basis for interpreting this passage. Second, Jesus (Mark 2 23-28) tells us that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. From this I conclude that the Sabbath rest was made for human benefit in three areas: 1. Observing the Sabbath and the Sabbath year was commanded the Hebrew people as a symbol of their trust in God to provide for them. Letting the land rest for the seventh year demonstrated their trust in God. 2. Resting the land from cultivation during the Sabbath year provided for rejuvenation of the land. 3. Sabbath rest for the land was one way of providing for the poor. These three principles stand behind the literal application of the fallowing law (as it does the related practices in Leviticus).
Trust in God
How do Christians demonstrate their trust in God for provision of food? Trust in God for provision of food seems even more distant in a society where most do not have gardens, get their meat and dairy products from the grocery store and buy their orange juice from Brazil and more distant sources. Gardens, however small, give parents and children a way to experience dependence on God. Even when the water comes from a faucet and the fertilizer comes from a bag, there is realization that some part of the growth is beyond our control. Organic practice seeks to feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant. Here the dependence is a bit clearer. With the use of permanent mulch, the work of worms and their allies to convert leaves, grass and kitchen trimmings to “new earth” is evidence of God’s creative work on our behalf. The third principle, providing for the poor relates closely to this one. Giving a portion of our garden production to the poor acknowledges that we rely on God to provide for us. However, one benefit that observing the Sabbath rest demonstrates, trust in God, is difficult to provide for in modern agricultural practice. Is it possible that returning to a literal “fallowing” would be an opportunity to increase our trust in God?
Rest and renewal
What contemporary agricultural practices provide for the land to get rest and renewal? While the “rest” part may be difficult to understand in modern practice, the renewal part is clear. I believe that the organic standard of “feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants” comes close to replicating the benefits of the Sabbath year. Jesus words that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath establishes the principle. The practice of agricultural Bible-believers to exempt farmers, especially dairy farmers and poultry farmers from the “no work on Sunday” rule is a tacit recognition of this principle. The agricultural practices seen in the Bible such as those required by the fallowing rule were reflective of climate and soil conditions typical of the Middle East. Stiff soils and dry climates where there are two crops per year taking off the land, lose fertility faster than in temperate zones where the soil lies dormant from Oct. to April (or is covered with a “green manure” crop of rye, vetch or a combination of plants.
The renewal of permanent mulching is apparent at the garden I worked with. The red clay ridge had probably been stripped of most of its fertility before the slaves were freed. With the application of six inches or so per year of leaves, hay, grass and the addition of coffee grounds, what had been “waste” became soil amendment: “fertilizer”, if you please. (Due to the pressure of companies producing nitrogen fertilizers using fossil fuels, organic gardeners/farmers are not permitted to call these ingredients “fertilizers”.) Over a period of ten or so years, three to six inches or more of organic matter has turned to black soil—the original red mineral portion of soil (subsoil) is still below it. The soil tests completed (at conventional agricultural laboratories) show that all nutrients are well above optimum for nourishing crops. A soil scientist told me that if I were a farmer with a soil management plan, I would not be permitted to add even compost to the garden. So, does this restoration of land (and the rescuing of organic matter from the landfill) equal the Biblical requirement of renewal? If all of creation is good, then the worms, sow bugs and microorganisms that process leaves, grass and coffee grounds into soil are an important part of creation. When the right conditions are created, these creatures transform raw organic matter into compost or humus which is the plant and animal part of soil (the rest being primarily mineral). By mixing carbon and nitrogen materials, reducing the particle size and maintaining a good moisture level, worms and the microherd can convert several feet of “yard trimmings” (wastes) into “new earth”. Is this part of God’s work to bring about a new earth/reverse the degradation of land by erosion and overuse? Extending the idea of shalom to all of creation is a continuation of this understanding. The good or best of conditions for organic matter processors is the “shalom of the microherd”. Mulching creates a suitable environment for sow bugs and worms. Letting the worm created channels for moisture and nutrients function in the intended manner creates soil creations that permit plants to be at their best: part of the creation God declared was good.
Care for the poor
How do contemporary gardening practices provide for the poor in the way that gleaning from volunteer grain or other plants might provide during the fallow year? The garden referred to in the previous paragraph raised produce and flowers for a food pantry. If there was a practice comparable to carbon sequestration/carbon banking which permits those adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to pay, for instance, forest owners a fee to continue to pump out excess amounts of carbon. Forests sequester or capture “excess” carbon and give off oxygen. So, food pantry gardens can be a “bank” for agricultural practices, which do not of themselves provide for the poor. Since 1995 the Garden Writers of America/GardenComm (a secular organization) have promoted their “plant a row for the hungry” program where the extra rows of produce can be taken to the local food pantry. Again, this is a way that gardeners can meet the principle of “providing for the poor” while continuing to use the land. https://gardencomm.org/PAR Can permanent mulch, minimum and organic gardening fulfill the purpose of the Sabbath rest for the land? If the poor are fed, the land is improved and trust in God for provision is taught and experienced, then one can say that there is some accomplishment of the principles behind fallowing/Jubilee year.
(Whether conventional gardening practices accomplish God’s purpose in giving the fallowing command can be investigated by someone else.)
**Two later references (Jeremiah 4:3-4a, Hosea 10:12) to “break up your fallow ground” are sometimes interpreted to mean ‘stop sinning.’ But since God instructed the Hebrews to let ground lie fallow, normal “fallowing practice” would not constitute sin. Ploughing previously fallow ground would begin the next cycle of creation and renewal. That seems the most likely focus of Jeremiah and Hosea.