Chapter 18 (Fruit Trees) pages 293-307
North here deals with Lev 19:23-25 - a passage that has no Mosaic Law parallels and which appears to stand alone without context in the midst of the chapter. North uses a translation that renders the RSV’s ‘forbidden’ as ‘uncircumcised’ which is correct.
North begins the chapter with the concluding statement (page 293) that
‘This is another seed law’
referring back to his preceding chapter in which he dealt with Lev 19:19 but he gives the reader no reason to jump to such a conclusion especially as ‘seed’ isn’t mentioned at all. ‘Fruit’ is and the parallels with previous legislation concerning first fruit offerings to God make the natural conclusion to be drawn that this legislation is one specific and unusual aspect of those types of laws, not anything to do with ‘seed’.
The first fruit principle established God’s right to receive the first from every person as His automatic right and entitlement yet it must be pointed out that, strictly speaking, the law here won’t be referring to the first of the fruit produced (the tree would have produced fruit that was edible in each of the first three years - the passage could be taken to mean that after three years’ life the fruit was to be offered but it seems best to interpret it to mean that after three years of fruit bearing the fruit was to be offered as a first fruit. In this way, the actual age of the tree may have been much older than is mentioned in this legislation) but to the first fruit that was allowed to be eaten.
The owner of the tree must forfeit that first fruit, though, to God as an ‘offering of praise’ and only partake of the produce in the fifth year.
This first fruit, therefore, was of the first ‘permissible’ produce of the trees planted after their arrival in Canaan and, as North correctly points out (page 294), it didn’t apply to trees that were already established (whether saplings or fully mature trees) in the land before their conquest.
North will go on to attempt to show that the law had to do with the period of wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel, relying upon the time periods mentioned in certain passages and the phrase ‘uncircumcision’, and he here includes his conclusion (page 294) before proceeding on with his ‘proof’.
North ends his introduction by stating (page 294 - my italics)
‘This law applied to orchards. God marked off the fruit of newly planted trees for His own purposes. He set this fruit outside of covenant-keeping man’s lawful access. That is, He placed a “no trespassing” boundary around the fruit of newly planted trees for three years after they began to bear fruit. Then he announced that the fruit of the fourth year was holy: set aside for him. This was analogous to what He had done in the garden with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: setting it aside for a period, keeping men away from it’
It may come as a surprise to the reader to learn that God’s original intention in forbidding Adam and Eve participation in the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was ‘for a period’ - it certainly can’t be found in the Biblical account of the Creation and, at this present time, I can’t think of a place elsewhere in Scripture where God declared His intention as such.
The prohibition in the Garden of Eden, therefore, was a permanent statute at the time it was given, not even a hint was given that it may have been just for a specific time period. North’s argument that Lev 19:23-25 is a temporary law depends on more than a false analogy, however.
North sees that the prohibition against using the fruit in the first four years of a tree’s life (as noted, it’s probably better interpreted as the first four years of a trees’ fruitfulness) is to do with providing ‘discontinuity’ between the ‘old Canaan’ and the ‘new’. To understand North’s argument here, I need to unfortunately quote an entire paragraph again but it’s better to read it in his own words rather than for me try to paraphrase it. He writes (page 294-5)
‘The seeds or cuttings that would serve as the parents of Israel’s first crop would have come from the existing trees of Canaan. The new trees’ fruit was to be set aside for three seasons and offered to God in the fourth. This indicates that there had to be a discontinuity between the trees and seeds of the old Canaan and the trees and seeds of the new Canaan. Like the leaven of Egypt that had to be purged out during the first Passover, so were the firstfruits of Canaan. The leaven (yeast) of Egypt could not be used as “starter” for the leaven of the conquered Canaan. It was different in the case of Canaan’s trees. They had to be used as “starter” for Israel’s new orchards. Thus, God prohibited access to their fruit for a period, thereby emphasizing the covenantal discontinuity between the old Canaan and the new Canaan’
The problem here is that North only envisages the need for this law to be observed for the first generation of new fruit trees that was to be grown in Israel after the conquest of the land (I’ve put aside the objection that trees and saplings from outside the area could have been imported and planted in the land as the point is unprovable even though likely), not for subsequent generations, but the legislation makes no such condition inherent in the passage.
Why would God command ‘all kinds of trees’ to be dealt with the same if He’d only meant the Israelite to apply it to first generation trees planted that were the direct offspring of the trees that were previously resident in the land before their invasion?
The straightforward interpretation of the passage is, therefore, that all new trees were to be subject to this law.
North is quite correct to note the strange use of the word ‘uncircumcised’ with regard to the concept of fruit (page 295) but, when he goes on to puzzle over the intention of God in prohibiting the fruit’s consumption for the first three years, he’s ignoring the plain and simple meaning of the Scriptural text.
He writes (page 295-6)
‘...why was it prohibited to an Israelite? Why was there a legal boundary placed around it? What did this boundary symbolize?
‘It could be argued that mankind poses a threat to young trees or to the orchard itself. Perhaps the law was ecological in intent rather than ritual. But then why was the new fruit of young trees that had already been planted in Canaan at the time of the conquest not placed under the ban? And why was the covenantal-legal language of circumcision invoked?’
Firstly, the reason for the legislation according to the Scripture is that
‘…[the fruit trees] may yield more richly for you’
In other words, this requirement of God isn’t designed to teach the Israelites any great spiritual Truth (though I’m sure the principle would have in some way or other even if it was only the first fruit principle) but it was a way to make sure that the Israelite allowed the tree to grow strong before it was looked to to produce fruit. In other words, it would be established better after three years of non-pruning and non-excessive cultivation than it could have been had fruit been expected from it in its first fruit-harvest year.
The reason for God’s insistence concerning an offering to Him was to make sure that the Israelites were reminded of the need to give Him the first of everything by right. And, again, North’s pondering over why God didn’t specify why the Israelites had to wait until the fifth year before eating of any pre-planted trees in Canaan was for the very practical reason that they couldn’t have determined either the age of the trees or how long the tree had been bearing fruit. After all, one tree may grow better and stronger than another in the course of a season or fruit better and, especially with the different climates of Israel, it wouldn’t be perfectly possible to determine their absolute ages or period of fruiting.
Finally, the word ‘circumcision’ is used here in the sense of ‘separation’ for the Lord’s use (as even North notes on pages 298-299). The trees aren’t ‘set apart’ to be used for fruit until the third year is over when the Lord receives His first fruit offering. They can’t be considered to be part of the provision for the nation until that fourth year harvest - and note that the tree’s fruit is holy from the fourth year, not the fifth.
Wenham (page 271) notes
‘Old Babylonian law...reckons it takes four years for an orchard to develop its potential’
What this law did, then, was to emphasise to the Israelite that the first three years weren’t ‘first-fruit’ to the Lord, but the first ‘useful harvest’ was obligatory as a sacrifice to God.
North’s question (page 297)
‘...why didn’t the land [vomit out its inhabitants] long before Joshua’s generation...?’
is wrongly answered by
‘Because the cup of iniquity of Canaan...had not been filled up’
North reiterates his point lower down the same page just in case the above quotes read ambiguously.
Actually, the ‘cup’ was already full when, 38 years earlier, the Israelites had been instructed to go in to the land and to begin to take possession of it (Numbers chapters 13-14) otherwise God’s command is meaningless. The real reason for the delay was the disobedience of God’s people to obey the command that they’d been given - had they pushed themselves into the land, they would have experienced God driving out the inhabitants before them.
North makes much of the Israelites’ uncircumcision through their wilderness wanderings. He’s quite right, though, that the new generation of Israelites that stood in the place of the old nation that had died out weren’t circumcised and that they were circumcised as soon as they entered the Promised land (Joshua 5:2-9). However, when he writes (page 297) that
‘The Israelites had been ritually unholy until they were circumcised at Gilgal...Their circumcision anointed them as a nation of priests, and they could then lawfully offer sacrifice...’
it presents a problem. North is saying that the sacrifices previously offered to God in the wilderness were ‘unlawful’ because of their uncircumcision. If that was the case, how does North envisage the commands in the Law that the unclean who offered sacrifice were to be cut off? Does he intend us to understand that the Israelites were not a nation set apart by God until their circumcision in Canaan immediately prior to the taking of Jericho?
Unfortunately, North doesn’t address the issue but, if the nation was ‘unholy’, how could they ever have been blessed by God under the Law? Indeed, North later states (page 300) that
‘...their parents did not incorporate them into the nation’
by ‘refusing’ to circumcise them on the eighth day. This would mean that, in effect, when the Bible refers to the nation of Israel crossing the Jordan river to enter the land, it is, in fact, only referring to Joshua and Caleb who were the only two surviving Israelites who carried on their flesh the mark of the Abramic covenant.
North states (page 298) that
‘The fruit was placed inside a legal boundary for four years. It was declared off-limits’
and (page 302)
‘The fruit of newly planted trees was off-limits to them until the fourth year’
Actually, it was forbidden to be used for just three years. The fourth year it could be used but, as this was the first fruit received from the tree, it naturally belonged to the Lord as His portion.
North goes on to propose that the reason for the fruit being ‘uncircumcised’ is because of (page 299)
‘...the Israelites who did the planting’
and that because of a historical sense (page 299) because of (page 300)
‘...the representative numerical relationship between 40 days (the time the twelve tribal spies spent in the Promised Land: Num 13), 40 years (the time of the wilderness wandering), and four years (the period of the two-fold boundary around the fruit’
Actually, there was only one boundary of ‘uncircumcision’ around the fruit which lasted three years, not four, the second boundary was a first fruit offering and isn’t relevant to North’s argument. I’ve previously noted that North sees the four years as being the period of the fruit’s circumcision or ‘unusefulness’ though this is incorrect.
The fruit was useful to the planter on the fourth year but it had necessarily to be offered to God as the first useful fruit.
North’s statement (page 302) that
‘Jericho was to be cut off completely: a foreskin’
is an interesting turn of phrase and a point that he would have done well to develop. There appears to be an analogy here between entering in to covenant with God through their circumcision in Gilgal previously and their total cutting away of Jericho when they came against it.
However, it shouldn’t be pressed too hard as the command laid upon the Israelites (Deut 20:16-18) concerning every city that was in the land was one of total annihilation.
North sees the first fruit offering of the fourth year’s harvest as needing to be brought to the priest in accordance with the other first fruit offerings. He unfortunately cites Lev 23:10-11 which refers to the festival of first fruits and should instead have quoted Deut 26:1-11 though even this reads more like a command concerning the ‘first ripe fruit’ of each year’s harvest.
But it’s difficult to be certain as to how the first fruits were to be employed in this instance because the text doesn’t specify. North theorises that the person who owned the fruit tree would be allowed to eat of the first fruit but the Mosaic Law specifies (Deut 18:4) that
‘The first fruits of your grain, of your wine and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give [the Levitical priests]’
not that the harvester should participate in them. Because North parallels the produce with the three-yearly tithe is the reason why he opts for this but there’s no indication that it should be regarded as such.
North’s (page 303)
‘Israel wandered for 39 years after the spying incident before entering Canaan’
is incorrect. It was less than 39 years. The nation left Sinai on (Num 10:11)
‘...the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month...’
after having celebrated Passover (Num 9:1 - as North has previously noted, a substantial part of the nation were uncircumcised at this point but it was probably just those under the age that they could participate and understand what they were doing) on
‘...the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt...’
Their march to the edge of the Promised land would have taken some time as they were a large company but it would have occurred after this date.
They arrived on the edge of the Promised Land for a second attempt at entry (Deut 1:3)
‘...in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month...’
and entered the land presumably in the forty-first year (Josh 4:19)
‘...on the tenth day of the first month’
The maximum time period it could considered to be, therefore, would be the date recorded at the crossing of the Jordan (41st year 1st month 10th day) less the time that they left Sinai (2nd year 2nd month 20th day).
However, 39 years fits in with North’s needed six years to conquer Canaan to prove his ‘sabbatical rest’ theory which may be the reason why he opts for it.
In his conclusion (page 307) North states that
‘This law was a negative sanction imposed on Israel by God because of the failure of the exodus generation to invade the land of Canaan after hearing reports and military analysis from Joshua and Caleb’
I don’t believe that Lev 19:23-25 has been inserted by a later scribe as North appears to here. The passage is in the midst of a series of laws that are generally regarded as being given while the Israelites were encamped at Sinai, before they marched to the borders of the Promised Land when Numbers chapters 13 and 14 took place.
The chronological order of this Scripture doesn’t appear to be in doubt.
Finally, because of North’s exposition of the passage, seeing in it reference to the Israelites’ failure to circumcise their children in the wilderness wanderings, he concludes (page 307)
‘This law was never designed as a universal statute...’
The intent of the legislation as far as I understand it, however, is to multiply fruitfulness within the land by allowing fruit trees to be established before fruit is expected from them and to show the Israelite that the first useful fruit of all plants (even if in the fourth year) is to be set apart to God.
As to the former, the law would still apply for mankind’s benefit. As to the latter, it should be summed up along with other first fruit offerings - and God still has the right to receive His share first.
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