One of the more unusual aspects of the Sabbath year is the requirement of Deuteronomy 31:9-13 that the whole law be read during the Feast of Tabernacles of that year. In general, as the Sabbath year is not a law that is obeyed even by those who most strenuously proclaim their obedience to God’s laws, it is likewise also not surprising that this commandment to read the law during the Feast of Tabernacles during the Sabbath year is also not kept either.
The law concerning the reading of the law is very straightforward. It reads, in Deuteronomy 31:9-13, as follows: “So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, saying: “At the end of every seven years, at the appointed time in the year of release, at the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He chooses, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess.”
There are a few purposes to this law, and all of them are very straightforwardly understood. Let us examine them now. For one, it was the responsibility of the religious and civil leaders of Israel to make sure that the whole law (at the very least, the whole law of Deuteronomy) was read every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles. Since many of these laws (see, for example, Deuteronomy 17:14-20) deal with the behavior of leaders and judgment and protection of the rights of the poor and strangers, it was important for there to be periodic reminders to everyone, since all were commanded to appear before God at the Feast of Tabernacles.
This particular law connects the law and liberty. The fact that the law was to be read in the Sabbath year (a clear relation to the Bible’s fourth commandment), the year of release from debts, was intended on creating a link in the minds of the hearers of the law between obedience to God’s laws and freedom and liberty. Far from law and liberty being opposed to each other, as those libertarian anarchists among us tend to falsely assume, we see in the Bible a clear connection between a godly legal and social order and the liberty of Israel from slavery, as well as their freedom from debt and oppression. Sadly, we do not ourselves have this connection today, as all too many religious people assume the law of God has no bearing on our social or economic or political behavior, and we do not preach the law as leading to and preserving freedom either in our politics or from our pulpits. Not surprisingly, for this reason our nation is lurching toward serfdom and captivity.
Of particular interest are the social purposes of the law. The law is to be read out to strangers (foreigners) who dwell among Israel, as well as to men, women, and children. No one was exempted from learning about God’s laws. No one was considered too young or too obscure to know about them and be able to enforce them against others in Israel. Hearing the law every seven years was enough for the children of Israel to get the hint that their freedom depended on being obedient to God’s law. The fact that this law is included ought to be enough for us to get the same hint, but sadly we never do.
It seems as if this law was very seldom enforced. The reading out of God’s law, just like the Sabbath year, is only rarely referred to (most of the time, when godly leaders like Josiah or Ezra read out the law, there is weeping and the assumption that God will be harsh to judge). Why was it that the Sabbath year, debt release, and reading of the law were so rarely done? Was it not because those who were elites wished to exploit their brethren as well as foreigners, to deny them the comfort of knowing God’s laws and being able to hold them accountable to them? Was it not because Israel did not realize the importance of teaching the law to future generations or to all social classes?
There are many questions concerning why this law was not kept in the past. However, the biggest questions are why don’t we keep this law. Do we think that we no longer need to be reminded of God’s laws? Do we think that God’s laws no longer apply to us? Do we think we know and understand God’s laws well enough that we don’t need periodic reminders? I would hope we are not so foolish as to believe any of these things. Since our ignorance of the law is profound, is it any surprise that we so often neglect the importance between obedience and liberty? How can we obey God’s laws if we do not understand them. How can we understand the way that God’s laws reveal his character if we do not bother to read them? And how can we understand God’s ways if no one teaches them to us?