Caring For the Vulnerable


Exodus 23:9-12


God issues some radical legislation in today’s scripture. Here in the Law of Moses, God commands us to care for 4 groups that need an extra measure of our care: the poor, aliens, animals, and even the land itself.

God commands not just a weekly day of total rest, but a year-long total rest for the land once every 7 years. The people must leave their farmland unplowed and unused, and leave their orchards and vineyards unpruned. Whatever volunteer produce the land produces is to be for the poor and for wild animals to eat.

Notice that here it says that even the purpose of the Sabbath day is “so that your ox and your donkey may rest and so that the slave born in your household and the alien also may be refreshed.” Likewise, in Deut 5’s version of the 10 Commandments, we are told that no one must do any work, not even slaves, nor even aliens, not even “your ox, your donkey, or any of your animals,” so that all of the above may rest. (Rest is not mentioned in the more famous version of the Sabbath law in Exod 20.)

Nobody else in the ancient Near East had a sabbatical year law like Israel’s. We find this law in 2 different collections of laws from Moses. We find it here in the Book of the Covenant in Exodus. We also find it in Lev 25, where it also explains “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” God says in Lev 25:21, “I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years.”

Did this law actually get put into practice? And was it done on a staggered schedule, or did everyone do it at once? We know from the Bible itself that some of God’s laws were rarely if ever observed faithfully. We do have evidence that the sabbatical year was being practiced during the time of Jesus. At that time, everyone took the year off together, and they imported crops from other countries (they still had meat and dairy products). That means that farmers in Israel had a lot of free time on their hands. One of those sabbatical years was the year John the Baptist began to preach, which helps explain why so many crowds were free to go hear John.

The sabbatical year was one of the ways God provided extra food for the poor. Another way is in Lev 19:9-10, where God commands the people, “Do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the alien.” We find this also in Deut 24:19-21: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” We see these gleaning laws being practiced in the story of Ruth, where Ruth gleans over a half bushel per day.

See how much God cares about the poor and powerless! We talked about this last week from the angle that God wants us to defend them from oppression. Here in these laws, we see that God also wants us to share our resources with them. Instead of trying to squeeze out every ounce of profit, the producer is to leave some of what the land has produced for the poor to harvest. All that is required of the poor is their labor. The landowner must set aside their profit motive in obedience to God. Both the landowner and the poor get a blessing from God in the deal.

God gives this provision, not just for Hebrews who were poor, but also for non-citizens. While some aliens were wealthy nomads with large herds, most aliens were landless poor who were at the mercy of their host country. God includes non-citizens in his provisions for the poor. Notice that Israel’s law does more to protect and provide for aliens than any other law code in the ancient Near East does. God reminds the Hebrews, Remember! You know what it’s like to be an alien. You’ve been there yourselves in Egypt, helpless in the clutches of a nation who treated you with cruelty. “Love the alien like you love yourself, because you were aliens in Egypt” (Lev 19:34).

The third category that God cares for in the sabbatical year law is animals. What is our Biblical case against cruelty to animals? We can start with God’s care for animals in today’s scripture. We can add God’s care for animals in the 4th commandment: we are commanded to give them rest from their burdens. We can add Exod 23:5 and Deut 22:4, where we are commanded to help when an ox or a donkey has fallen under its load. We can add Deut 22:6-7, where the Hebrew is forbidden to take both a mother bird and her young. We can add Deut 25:4: “Do not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” We can add the story of Jonah, where God says at the end that he cares not only about the 120,000 human beings in Nineveh but also about their animals. We see it in the story of Noah – no other flood story from back then pictures gods or humans trying to save animals from the flood. We can add Psalm 36:7: “Man and beast thou savest, O Lord.” The classic memory verse is Prov 12:10: “The righteous cares about the life of his beast.”

So how do we reconcile God’s care for animals with the fact that God allows us to kill and eat them? Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom offers an interesting perspective. He points out that the kosher food laws drastically reduce the number of animals that Jews are allowed to eat. And even these must be killed in the most humane way possible, and the life (that is, the blood) must be properly drained, with the blood offered back to God.

God clearly gives permission for humans to eat animals in his words to Noah in Gen 9:4. Non-Jews like Noah were permitted to eat any kind of meat. And those who claim that Jesus was a vegetarian ignore the fact that he eats fish after the resurrection in Luke 24, and serves fish to crowds of 5000 and 4000 people.

God clearly puts human life in a protected category, because it is created in the image of God (Gen 9:6). But that does not give us permission to kill, stomp on, and bulldoze the rest of God’s creation. That is a misunderstanding we need to correct. That brings us to the fourth category that God cares for in the sabbatical year law, which is the earth itself. Who or what is more vulnerable to exploitation than the earth itself?

God has charged us to manage the earth faithfully. The term “subdue” in Gen 1:28 is used a total of 15 times in the OT; its basic meaning is to bring hostile forces under control. The term “have dominion” is used a total of 22 times in the OT; its basic meaning is to manage with authority, like Solomon ruling his empire.

These two verbs in the Gen 1 teach that we are not to let nature tyrannize us, but that we must exercise faithful management thereof for the good of humankind. We are not given license to squash whatever threatens the comfort or convenience of our lifestyle, but the Bible teaches that we must subdue threats to human life, because we care for those who are made in God’s image. We must care for the animal world like a benevolent royal sovereign, which does not mean abusing those under our care.

We must care, not only for the animal world, but for the earth itself. As the sabbatical year law teaches, we must not work the land to death. We must preserve its health. We must treat it with respect. The earth is God’s masterpiece. There is no excuse for us to trash God’s masterpiece. We are free to use its plant, animal, and mineral resources, but we don’t have to trash the whole planet to do so. To trash God’s creation is an insult to the Creator.

Here in the Law of Moses, God cares about the poor, aliens, animals, and even the earth itself, all of whom need extra measures of care and protection. God wants us to share his care for all the above: the poor, the alien, animals, and the earth.

But God cares about more than our kitchen table needs. God cares about our souls, and that goes for both rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. God sees that all of us desperately need a Savior. We live in a messed up world, and we are all part of the problem. Our lives are piled full of hostility, selfishness, greed, and broken relationships, the worst one being our relationship with God.

Sin creates a barrier that separates us from God. It creates a Grand Canyon between us and God, and none of us can cross that canyon by our own goodness. Jesus Christ is the only one who can bridge that Grand Canyon of sin. He lived the life we should have lived; he died the death we should have died. He died in our place, for each and every one of us, to take away the mountain of sin that stands between us and God.

What can we do to be reconciled with God? We can’t earn what he has done; that was our whole problem to begin with. All we can do is reach out and receive what Christ has done for us. That is the act of faith that turns you into a born-again child of God. If you’ve never done so before, let today be the day when you place your faith in what Christ has done to restore your broken relationship with God.