Question: Leviticus 19:23-25 -The Lord commands Israel that all planted fruit is forbidden for 3 years, to be given to the Lord in rejoicing on the fourth, and eaten on the fifth. This seems like an obscure and arbitrary command. Why were the fruits “forbidden” and why did the Lord command this so specifically?
Text: When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Lord your God.
Answer: The book of Leviticus is filled with propositional commands that pertain to ceremonies, rituals, regulations for worship, prescriptions to not sin and to do good, punishments, curses and consequences, so this verse ought to be read in the context of God’s holiness, the sinfulness of all humans, and the necessity for purification and obedience. So much of Hebrew culture revolves around covenant in all its fullness, and so there are things prescribed to be obeyed and things forbidden. The term “forbidden” could be equated with the idea of being uncircumcised. Here, the law of the land, being in a sense symbolic of the commandments of Sinai, is compared to circumcision. Since the tree is part of the land, it is being treated as a possession of God although for the people to enjoy as well. Some commentators suggest that just as an 8 day old male infant is to be circumcised, a fruit of a tree is not to be taken off it until after three years. But wouldn’t it take less time for a fruit to grow?
From a “natural” standpoint, young trees need to keep their strength to preserve themselves instead of garnering said strength for the purpose of fruit-bearing. A person in charge of a tree would maybe have snapped off the blossoms that would bear fruit for the first three years so that the tree would not bear fruit in the same way that a parent would prevent a child from being circumcised until the 8th day, as prescribed. Just like in the account of Cain and Abel, there was a need to give one’s firstfruits to God, here there is the requirement that since God was the true owner of the tree and to be honored and revered, He would receive the fruits grown during the fourth year. But the Lord does not need to eat, so this is more of an act of love and obedience, such as how one would offer the first and best animal to be sacrificed for whatever reason. God, then, being the sustainer of the tree, would reward the people with a fifth year of good fruit in turn for their obedience to this Levitical stipulation. The idea of this is to respect the created order (God, trees, and then humans). God would naturally receive the fruit of the tree He caused to bear fruit on, and then His people would enjoy it.
The true laborer, Yahweh, would receive the first instance of provision, and then He would Sovereignly provide for the people whom He sustained and gave the energy to tend the trees. No autonomous credit is given to humans, but there is a reward by God’s common providence to His covenant people. Perhaps the heathen would have taken the fruit for themselves the first year, not thanking God for their produce, but rather bowing down to idols. Not so for God’s people! They are to be set apart from the gentiles, set to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, where the fruits were very large. Not so the wicked! They would undoubtedly have given part of the first year’s produce to Molech or Astaroth, probably taking the best for themselves.
The tree belongs to the Lord, therefore the firstfruits belong to the Lord. Yahweh, to test the people’s patience, often makes them wait. It took Him at least 400 years to deliver the people from Egypt, and now it will take them several years before any of their trees would bear fruit. This is a difficult test, and the temptations to take the firstfruits of the fourth year probably ran high, especially after such a delicious produce was seen to grow over time to be ripe for the Lord. This is very sacrificial, but not nearly as much as God’s sacrifice to forgive the people’s sins.
Felipe Diez III