Does an ancient Jewish practice point us today towards a “3,000-Year-Old Mystery That Holds the Secret of America’s Future, the World’s Future, and Your Future?” So reads the subtitle to a book written by messianic Jewish pastor, Jonathan Cahn, The Mystery of the Shemitah.
Here is a one minute, partial interview with the author:
My first encounter with Jonathan Cahn’s first book, The Harbinger, was when I was on my way out of a restaurant, where a very nice yet persistent couple proceeded to talk my ear off about the supposed “revelations” discussed in that book. That one-time New York Times bestseller has made its way onto coffee tables across America over the past few years. As American culture continues to become more biblically illiterate, books like The Harbinger demonstrate a growing interest to better understand the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. What better way to learn about some of the teachings in ancient Judaism and its relevance for today than from a man who grew up ethnically Jewish, embracing atheism as a child, only to finally encounter Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth as the true Messiah? Admittedly, it peaked my curiosity.
In this follow-up to The Harbinger, Jonathan Cahn suggests that he is revealing to the reader The Mystery of the Shemitah and its contemporary implications. The shemitah, transliterated from the Hebrew, refers to the early Jewish practice taught within the first five books of the Bible regarding a command about observing the “sabbath.” Just as the Jews were commanded to work six days and then take a day of rest on the seventh to focus on worshipping God, the same logic was extended towards a sabbath of years. The shemitah principle, particularly in an agricultural context, teaches that the people in covenant with God are commanded to work the land for six years and then give the farm land a rest on the seventh.
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard (Exodus 23:10-11 ESV).
Furthermore, the shemitah, literally meaning “release,” also calls for the cancellation of debts in that seventh year:
At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release.And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed (Deuteronomy 15:1-2 ESV).
The Mystery of the Shemitah, a concept first mentioned in a chapter in Cahn’s fictional work, The Harbinger, now takes on a “non-fictional” literary approach, exploring how this ancient observance of the Sabbath every seven years has direct implications for today’s world. But is what Cahn laying out for the reader a “revelation” of mysteries… or is he playing mischief with his handling of the God’s Word?
The Shemitah Pattern?
As the subtitle suggests, Jonathan Cahn believes that this “mystery of the Shemitah” gives us prophetic insight into contemporary affairs, particular for America (listen to the Michael Brown podcast interview with Cahn for a detailed explanation). By first explaining how the ancient Jewish sabbatarian laws worked, which also are now being practiced in a modified way in modern day Israel, Cahn helps to direct the reader to study the neglected parts of the Bible.
For example, the ancient concept of the Hebrew sabbath in general is not very well understood nor practiced in principle today. In our “go-go-go” society, the idea of setting aside an extended period of time for rest and worship of the living God has been sadly forgotten. We do not value the concept of the sabbath, partly because we have not bothered to study what God has to say about it. In particular, many Christians never venture to seriously read the “Hebrew Bible,” commonly known as the “Old Testament,” where the sabbatarian principles are laid out, so Jonathan Cahn’s attempt to correct that deficiency is to be welcomed (though sometimes believers can go overboard in this area).
However, Cahn goes on to discuss how the sabbatarian principles in the Old Testament have an impact in terms of prophecy and future judgment. Critics of Cahn’s work say that his “revelation” of the mysteries of the Shemitah are instead “revealing” a misunderstood picture of how prophecy works within the Bible, a misunderstood view of America’s “covenant” with God, and a good amount of misunderstood detail regarding American economic history.
Author David James, an associate with the Berean Call ministries (listen to the podcasts #1 and #2 or read the transcripts), who originally wrote a counterpoint book entitled The Harbinger: Fact or Fiction?, wrote a critical essay addressing the issues raised by Jonathan Cahn in The Mystery of the Shemitah. David James critiques Jonathan’s Cahn “revelation” process as essentially a matter of the ends justifying the means that tries to demonstrate the validity of Cahn’s approach to biblical prophecy:
It’s not a lot different than saying somebody who’s living in sin is eating an apple and he chokes on it, and then somebody goes to Genesis 3 and says, “Because on the day that you eat of this fruit, you will surely die,” somebody tries to say, “Okay, this was a warning to that person.” It’s really not any different than that (from the Berean Call podcast #1 linked above).
Jonathan Cahn claims that the ancient practice of the shemitah directs us towards a prophetic “pattern” of how God not only worked in the past, but also how God is working today. For example, the shemitah principle also carried with it a warning of God’s judgment for ancient Israel. If the people fail to be obedient to God’s command to keep the shemitah sabbath, God will force the land to become desolate as punishment:
I myself will devastate the land…I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it (Leviticus 26:32-35 ESV).
This warning became a reality of this judgment when Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. to her enemies. Jonathan Cahn goes onto say that this same principle of judgment applies today regarding the recent economic crises of our world, particularly for America. So before the end of the next shemitah in 2015, Cahn suggests that there “could be(???)” yet another economic crisis coming.
Really? I am still trying to recover from the last financial crisis!
But before you rush to pull all of your stocks out of the stock market, consider this: David James argues that since the specific command to observe shemitah was originally given to God’s people specifically in ancient Israel, it is a misplaced application of God’s Word to say that the shemitah applies towards people today who are not part of that specific ancient covenant.
Yet here is where there is an interesting twist: Jonathan Cahn claims that America has a special covenant with God, so therefore the shemitah principle also applies to the modern nation of the United States. But this is very odd, since as a dispensationalist, Jonathan Cahn believes that the covenant established by God with Israel can not be “replaced” by another covenant, neither with the church nor any contemporary nation. So Jonathan Cahn avoids this difficulty by proposing that America is a “second” Israel, suggesting that God has made multiple covenants with multiple nations across history. In counterpoint, David James responds that this is pure speculation. Where is the Scriptural support to defend the idea that the American nation is some type of “second” Israel, thus inheriting the same sabbatarian principles and judgments as the first Israel?
Jonathan Cahn also floods the reader with facts, figures and graphs demonstrating how recent economic history lines up with the timing of the seven years of the shemitah, indicating signs of God’s judgment. For example, the timing of the “Great Recession” of 2008 and the stock market falls following 9/11 in 2001 line up with modern calculations of shemitah observance according to the lunar calendar. But as David James observes, nowhere does Cahn footnote or cite references for his data to support his argument. David James counters that Cahn is simply “cherry picking” the facts to support his thesis.
The Thorny Problem of Original Context
Defenders of Jonathan Cahn’s thesis might protest and say that applying biblical prophecy originally meant for ancient Israel and linking it with modern America is consistent with how many of the New Testament writers treated the Old Testament. Lest anyone reject this defense out of hand, we should be willing to recognize the evidence for such an argument.
It must be conceded that a New Testament writer will, at times, take an Old Testament passage out of its original, particular context and apply it within a broader context towards some New Testament truth. A classic case is where the apostle in the Gospel of Matthew takes a particular reference to Israel’s history, not even a prophecy originally (!!), from the book of Hosea, and then applies it towards Jesus. The problem is that the immediate context of the verse quoted from Hosea does not directly support Matthew’s argument. Mmmm.. Rabbi Cahn might find himself right at home with this.
However, elsewhere on Veracity, we have examined this puzzle where in Hosea 11:1 Israel, God’s “son,” is taken out of Egypt. In Matthew 2:13-15, the infant Jesus and his family are led down to Egypt and eventually back to the promised land, which is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus, as God’s “son,” is also living out the very same type of exodus experience that the people of Israel went through (see this summary by Andrew Wilson of an involved yet fascinating analysis by G. K. Beale to substantiate the view that Matthew is appealing to a broader context within the whole of the Book of Hosea).
However, two questions come to mind in response to this, and really they bear repeating:
(1) The writers of the New Testament, such as with the Gospel of Matthew, carried with them apostolic authority given by the Lord Jesus Himself and his immediate followers. On what basis can such apostolic authority be carried forward two thousand years to a messianic pastor from New Jersey?
(2) The theme of linking the story of ancient Israel with the story of Jesus of Nazareth is a central idea for the writers of the New Testament. In contrast, nowhere in either the Old or New Testaments is the story of ancient Israel applied prophetically towards any known modern nation or state. The focus on the New Testament is always on Jesus, along with the community of believers who seek to follow Him. What then is the Scriptural basis for linking ancient Israel with modern America?
Check Both Sides in the Light of Scripture
So, what does one make of Jonathan Cahn’s shemitah story versus the response of the critics, such as David James?
The Berean Call ministry that David James represents is not without controversy itself. Not every Christian is going to agree with the basic dispensationalist outlook regarding biblical prophecy that Berean Call endorses. But the principle of the Berean’s in the Book of Acts is an important one that all Christians should uphold, by “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so“ (Acts 17:11).
So if you do decide to consider Jonathan Cahn’s The Mystery of the Shemitah, it will be worth your time to read David James’s review, bringing everything under the light of Scripture.
My own view is that while Jonathan Cahn has enough disclaimers saying that he is not a prophet and that he is not trying to “set dates,” this only confuses the reader with his various claims of “revelation” extrapolated from the Bible while giving you numerous dates with facts and figures to consider….Huh??
A less speculative approach by Jonathan Cahn would have been sufficient. It would have been better if Rabbi Cahn had just focused on helping Christians, and fellow Jews, to better understand the Jewish roots of the Christian faith without going the more sensational route he ended up traveling. Christians do not need to be chasing after the latest biblical prophecy “patterns,” whether they be Jewish sabbatical years or blood moons. Instead, we have enough clear teaching in the Bible warning the peoples of all of the nations of the earth, not just Americans, Jews as well as Gentiles, of God’s judgments and calling them to turn from their present ways and instead turn towards the only Hope, the one and only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.