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Vayikra/Leviticus 25:34 And the field of pasture of their cities shall not be sold, because it is an everlasting possession for them.
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Concluding a section of rules governing the selling and redemption of ancestral land-holdings and houses in walled cities, in order to pay off debts, this particular rule applies to the forty-eight cities allocated throughout the Land of Israel to the Levites: "Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities" (B'Midbar 35:2, ESV). The word 'pasturelands' there translates the Hebrew word used in our text. That in turn comes from the root , to drive out, as a place where cattle may be driven out to feed. David Clines suggests "land outside city walls", claimed as territory of the city.1
RabbiHirsch provides the background: "Surrounding the forty-eight cities given to the Levites, were 2,000 cubits in every direction, of which the inner 1,000 cubits (according to B'Midbar 35:4) were called (b. Nedarim 81a). This 'common', the immediate surround of the city was an open space for animals, moveable possessions and public amenities such public laundries. The outer 1,000 cubits were fields and vineyards (b. Sotah 27b). So that the whole domain of a city consisted of , , and ." Following the Sages - in (b. Arachin 33b) - he reports that "these words - not be sold - are meant to be taken as extending the prohibition its the widest sense: not only is the property not to be estranged from its original owner but also from its original status: the field may not be converted into a free open space, the common, by being ploughed and sown from its original status into a field (b. Bava Batra 24b) or by being built on, into the city, and equally so, not the city into a field or open space, because it was given to them as their possession for all time, therefore at no particular contemporary time has anyone the right to make any alteration to it. No present moment has the sole disposition of it, all future times have equal claim to it and in the same condition that it has been received from the past is it to be handed on to the future."
Baruch Levine reports: "The originally designated an area for livestock. Like the term , villages - 'houses in villages that have no encircling walls shall be classed as open country' (Vayikra 25:31, NJPS) - it came to designate an area used primarily for gardening or agriculture, although the Levites may have kept their livestock there. Such areas, immediately outside the towns, could not be sold under any circumstance, no matter how severe the economic situation of the Levites. Held in trust for the Levites, they were effectively removed from the context of indebtedness. Perhaps the reason for this exceptional restriction was related to the sustenance that the Levites derived from such plots of land, the only ones they possessed." John Hartley offers another possibility for the rule: " is land surrounding Levitical cities for the Levites to pasture their own flocks. Since the task of the Levites is to serve the people at the Sanctuary and to teach them the law, they are not to be burdened with farming and shepherding. Their houses then are their primary possession. So the laws of redemption apply to their houses. These houses return to their original owners at Jubilee."2 In order words, says Samuel Balentine, "these houses, together with the land surrounding them, are, by G-d's decree, part of the priestly inheritance."3
The two-word phrase , translated above as "an everlasting possession", by others as "a holding for all time", indicates both the permanency of the gifting of the pasture land and fields to the Levites, and the strength and endurance of the prohibition of sale. The phrase appears in the covenantal promises to the patriarchs and to other leaders of the Israelites; for example Ya'akov's recounting ofHaShem's words to him at Luz before leaving the Land to go down to Egypt, "Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession" (B'resheet 48:4, ESV). Levine notes that, "in such contexts, the sense is that the rights conferred by G-d to the Israelites over the Land are permanent, for all time. Here, it is a way of stating that the plots (migrash) of the Levites are protected from liability and remain continuously the the possession of the Levites."
It is important to see the progression that is hinted at here. This verse talks about Levite pasture lands; a few verses earlier HaShem makes it clear that He regards the whole of the Land of Israel as His, instructing Moshe, "the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Vayikra 25:23, NJPS). Israel may have the head-lease, but they have only a lease on the Land; the freehold, the title absolute, belongs to HaShem. He retains permanent and inalienable rights over the whole Land. The next step in the progression is from the Land to the people. Moshe tells the Israelites, "you are a people consecrated to the L-RD your G-d: of all the peoples on earth the L-RD your G-d chose you to be His treasured people" (D'varim 7:6, NJPS), affirming Israel as HaShem's unique and chosen people. That establishes ownership and then we find David affirming HaShem's choice not only of the people, but for all time: "You have established Your people Israel as Your very own people forever; and You, O L-RD, have become their G-d" (2 Samuel 7:24, NJPS). Israel - despite the ups and downs that Tanakh unashamedly shows us - Israel are HaShem's inalienable people as Rav Sha'ul too confirms: "In this way, all Israel will be saved ... for the gifts and calling of G-d are irrevocable" (Romans 11:26,29, ESV).
But there is one more step in the progression: those who believe in Yeshua, who are classed as His disciples, whether from Israel or called and chosen from the nations. Isaiah hints that this will happen, firstly for eunuchs, "To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who choose the things that please Me and hold fast My covenant ... I will give them an everlasting name" (Isaiah 56:4-5, ESV), then for Gentiles who become part of Israel: "the foreigners who join themselves to the L-RD, to minister to Him, to love the name of the L-RD, and to be His servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant -- these I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar" (vv. 6-7, ESV). Then, in a promise that will later be echoed by Yeshua, HaShem says, "The L-rd G-D, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered" (v. 8, ESV).
Here's the echo: in a dialogue with the Pharisees, in which Yeshua identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd - fulfilling Ezekiel's words, "As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered" (Ezekiel 34:12, ESV) - He says, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16, ESV). There's the statement of ownership: Yeshua has chosen and selected us - "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide" (15:16, ESV) - so that we might bear fruit for Him. What about the time issue? Is this just a temporary assignment or, like Israel, is this forever? Yeshua again: "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (10:28, ESV). That sounds like forever to me, but just to be sure He adds: "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (v. 29, ESV). Father G-d, the Creator of the whole universe, stands behind Yeshua. Yeshua's disciples are inalienable; they are His forever.
From start to finish, we have now come full circle. Man was created by G-d, in His image, "G-d created man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them" (B'resheet 1:27, NJPS), but through mankind's sin the image of G-d has become flawed - still recognisable, but flawed. G-d wanted to restore mankind to full relationship with Himself so, "But when the fullness of time had come, G-d sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5, ESV). This provided the way for for image of G-d in each of us to be restored; when we come to faith in Yeshua, we "put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24, ESV). Yeshua ransomed us; He paid the price to redeem us from slavery to sin. Therefore, as Rav Sha'ul explains, He now owns us: "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV). Yeshua "gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession" (Titus 2:14, ESV).
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 203.
2. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 440.
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 196.
Further Study: Ezekiel 37:21-24; 1 Peter 1:17-19
Application: Have you been recreated in the image of G-d in Yeshua? Do you live your life as His willing bond-servant, owned, redeemed and ransomed by Him? Time to check in with the Divine Property Registry and get a look at your title deeds. Make sure that you know who owns you and where you stand!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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