THE SABBATICAL DEBT AND INDENTURED SERVANT RELEASES GRANT A NEW START FOR ISRAELITES WHO HAVE FALLEN ON HARD TIMES
Gerald Gerbrandt: The distinctive thrust of the Deuteronomic release provisions becomes more striking when read within its larger setting. As a way of meeting their responsibility to ensure justice for the weak and disadvantaged, kings throughout the ancient Near East would issue royal decrees of release. These edicts “were royal proclamations intended to release private debts and some form of public taxes” (Hamilton: 48). Not uncommonly a king might issue such a release proclamation at the beginning of his reign, although it could also happen at other times. Kings considered such an act to be a sign of their commitment to justice, one of their important achievements.
Israel thus lived in a world in which the occasional canceling of debts and freeing of slaves was known, in which this was considered a significant act of justice, and in which the king was the authority with the responsibility to make it happen. That the Old Testament includes reference to debt and slave release is not unique or especially radical within the world of the day. What distinguishes the Deuteronomic release from the occasional royal decrees of kings is their regular nature (every seven years) and their separation from the king. Their implementation is to be independent of the will or political calculations of the king. Release is at the heart of life in the community of Israel.
Daniel Block: This chapter continues the appeal for soft hearts and open hands begun in 14:22 by appealing for generosity toward the poor in one’s own family (vv. 1–11) and toward those enslaved (vv. 12–18). Although on first sight, verses 1–3 seem to have a legal flavor, Moses the pastor spends more than 80 percent of his time trying to motivate the people to adopt the policy. These are practical instructions for the congregation on the life of godliness. . .
Moses addresses both the interior and the exterior dimension of ethics. When he speaks of the “heart”/“mind” of the rich, his concern is their disposition toward the poor; when he speaks of the “hand,” his concern is their action.
Michael Grisanti: Throughout the OT, Israel’s treatment of the poor, fatherless, and widows served as a barometer of the nation’s conformity to Yahweh’s covenantal expectations. Treating these needy people with compassion, justice, and equity was a fundamental part of being able to lift up God’s name before the surrounding nations. The health of the covenantal nation was often measured by the quality of their care for these needy people, not by its accumulation of wealth (Hall, 257; Wright, Deuteronomy, 195).
Eugene Merrill: Through poor judgment, wrong advice, or circumstances beyond human control, there are always persons who become destitute and who must therefore cast themselves upon the merciful beneficence of others. Such contingencies in ancient Israel could be addressed by interest-free loans that could be repaid either by goods or by labor.
I. (:1-11) THE SABBATICAL DEBT RELEASE
A. (:1) The Mandate
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts.”
John Currid: The foundational unit of the Hebrew calendar is the observance of the weekly Sabbath (5:12–15). One application of that principle from the Decalogue is the institution of the sabbatical year. Its primary purpose is to demonstrate that Israel is fully dependent on God for her existence. A secondary purpose is to care for the disadvantaged in Israel. It is what Kaufman calls ‘a welfare system for the poor’.
Bruce Hurt: This practice tends to facilitate socio-economic balance. It does not make the poor rich, but does help them to get a new start in their economic life. The word remission is shemittah and is used only 4x (Dt 15:1, 2, 9, 31:10) which has the primary sense of letting drop and simply means the cancellation of a debt that was owed to another person. In other words, in a normal business setting this was a loan that the person would have been expected to and even be obligated to repay. In Ex. 23:10–11 shemittah is used for the land lying fallow every seven years. There is a type of fishing called “catch and release,” which in a sense pictures this practice. The debtor is caught in the net of the creditor, but the creditor has to release him at 7 years! At that time the debtor has absolutely no obligation to pay back what had been loaned to him.
B. (:2-3) The Manner of Release
1. (:2a) Relates to the Full Obligation of the Loan
“And this is the manner of remission:
every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor;”
2. (:2b) Remission Demanded by the Lord
“he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother,
because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed.”
3. (:3) Restricted to the Israelite Community (not applicable to foreigners)
“From a foreigner you may exact it,
but your hand shall release whatever of yours is with your brother.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: vv. 2-3 — chiastic structure
A1 Every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against the neighbor,
B1 not exacting it of the neighbor who is a member of the community,
C because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed.
B2 Of a foreigner you may exact it,
A2 but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community
C. (:4-6) The Motivation for Obedience
1. (:4) Blessing without Poverty Is the Ideal Situation
“However, there shall be no poor among you,
since the LORD will surely bless you in the land
which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess,”
Eugene Merrill: The matter of borrowing and lending ought to be a moot point anyway, Moses argued, for poverty ought not to exist in the rich land the Lord would give them.
Warren Wiersbe: The blessing of God ought to motivate us to be a blessing and a help to others. Note how often Moses mentions the blessing of God (Dt 15:4, 6, 10, 14, 18). God has opened His hand generously to us, and we should open our hands widely to others (Dt 15:8). He blesses us so that we might be a blessing (Gen. 12:2). Not only must we have generous hands, but we should cultivate glad hearts as we share (v. 10). Giving is an occasion not for shrewd calculation (v. 9) but for jubilation! Paul may have had this verse in mind when he wrote “not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7)
2. (:5) Blessing Depends on Obedience
“if only you listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God,
to observe carefully all this commandment
which I am commanding you today.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: In this idealistic depiction, obedience leads to blessing, which leads to no needy people, which leads to a wealthy corporate reality, which leads to national influence. Here is the crux: If only Israel will obey… (v. 5)!
3. (:6) Blessing Results in the Power of Prosperity
“For the LORD your God shall bless you as He has promised you,
and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow;
and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.”
Daniel Block: In verse 6 Moses’ attention shifts from personal economics to corporate implications of Yahweh’s blessing. For rhetorical effect he repeats the divine blessing formula, adding “as he has promised,” a reference to a previous ordinance outside the book. Moses summarizes the evidence of Yahweh’s blessing for Israel as a nation with four statements declaring Israel’s economic and political hegemony over the rest of the world, cast in symmetrical and chiastic parallelism.
Michael Grisanti: The two areas [of blessing] specified in this passage are financial abundance (they will lend to many and not need to borrow from any) and sovereignty over the nations (cf. Dt 28:12–13). Chapter 28 specifies that disobedience will occasion covenantal curses, including financial disaster (they will not lend but will have to borrow; 28:44) and rule by other nations (28:25, 43, 49–52).
D. (:7-11) The Magnanimity of Providing Release
Gerald Gerbrandt: The middle verses (7–11) are a general exhortation for generosity, but their reference to the seventh-year release (v. 9) clearly connect them to the debt release.
Daniel Block: Based on the syntax and the flow of ideas, this paragraph divides into three parts arranged in an ABA pattern as follows:
– instructions on how to treat the poor (vv. 7–8);
o a warning, signaled by “be careful” (v. 9);
– more instructions on how to treat the poor (vv. 10–11).
Eugene Merrill: Having addressed the matter of debt cancellation and the theoretical possibility of there being no poverty in the land of promise, Moses shifted the emphasis to the practical reality of poverty and how the more affluent in society must deal with it.
1. (:7-8) Instructions Regarding Generosity toward the Poor
a. (:7a) Generic Case Study
“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers,
in any of your towns in your land
which the LORD your God is giving you,”
b. (:7b) Generosity Commanded Negatively
“you shall not harden your heart,
nor close your hand from your poor brother;”
Daniel Block: Israelites are to be softhearted and openhanded.
Gerald Gerbrandt: The heart, the place of decision making, is named thrice in the exhortation, each time with an ominous tone: Do not be hard-hearted (v. 7). Do not entertain a mean thought (v. 9; RSV, Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart). Give… and be ungrudging (v. 10; RSV, your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him). Each is a “warning against a malicious will.… Deuteronomy is well aware of the self-interest of those who wield economic power and dictate economic policy and realizes that justice for the poor requires a wholly different mind-set translated into personal and political willpower” (C. Wright 1996: 191).
c. (:8) Generosity Commanded Positively
“but you shall freely open your hand to him,
and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need
in whatever he lacks.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: the hand owns the loan (v. 2), it can release the loan (v. 3), it can refuse the loan (v. 7), and it can be generous (vv. 8, 11). The hand reflects and represents the power the wealthy have over the poor.
Gerald Gerbrandt: Deuteronomy employs a Hebrew grammatical style that intensifies the force of a verb through the use of the imperfect followed by the infinitive absolute of the same verb. An example of this appears in a literal translation of verse 8: But opening, you shall open your hand to him; lending, you shall lend enough to him for his needs that he needs (AT). . . . Deuteronomy uses this technique more in this chapter than anywhere else in the book, thereby heightening the intensity of the exhortation.
2. (:9) Warning against Selfish Scheming to Beat the System
a. Selfish Scheme
“Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying,
‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’”
Michael Grisanti: Knowing that this mandate might cause some Israelites to refuse making loans to needy fellow Israelites as the sabbatical year approaches, Moses demands that they do not allow this divine requirement to limit their lending practices.
b. Stingy Scrooge Mentality
“and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother,
and you give him nothing;”
c. Sin Issue
“then he may cry to the LORD against you,
and it will be a sin in you.”
Daniel Block: The text identifies three pathological dispositions that plague those who are economically well-off.
(1) The first malady is a twisted mind.
(2) The second malady is an evil eye (NIV “ill will”).
(3) The third pathology is tightfisted hands.
Earl Kalland: A warning is appended: the brother can appeal to the Lord, and the grudging-hearted will be found guilty of sin. How the appeal is made is not indicated – whether it be an informal prayer or a formal petition through a priest. Likewise, the indictment “You will be found guilty of sin” (v. 9) may be either one made directly by the Lord to the conscience or a formal one made by a priest (23:21-22; 24:15; cf. Lev 20:20; Num 9:13; 18:22).
3. (:10-11) Instructions Regarding Generosity towards the Poor
a. (:10) Key to Divine Blessing
“You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings.”
b. (:11) Key to Addressing the Inevitable Economic Bondage
“For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”
Daniel Block: In verse 11 Moses ends this paragraph with another realistic reminder that the poor will always be around. Although the utopia he described in verses 4–6 may never be achieved, it is an ideal for which to strive.
Duane Christensen: It is most unfortunate that this law and its citation in the NT have been misinterpreted through the centuries as license for neglect of the poor. “The sense of the passage in this view is that among an ideal people, obedient and blessed, there will be no poor, but should reality not attain the heights of the ideal, there is a specific attitude which one should have toward the poor (unbegrudging charity) and a certain act which one should do (freely give)” (Hamilton, VT 42  222).
II. (:12-18) THE SABBATICAL INDENTURED SERVANT RELEASE
A. The Mandate
“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you,
then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free.”
Michael Grisanti: Since poverty can lead to slavery or servanthood, this section provides an appropriate sequel to the forgiveness of loans (15:1–11; cf. Ex 21:2–11). Being unable to provide for oneself (or experiencing some other financial distress) could lead a person voluntarily to become a slave (an “indentured” servant) to obtain basic needs or to pay off a debt (cf. Lev 25:39–55; Ne 5:4–5).
Duane Christensen: Two types of servitude are dealt with in biblical law: full slavery and indentured servants. The law here in 15:12–18 concerns indentured servants and is based on the recognition that Israel’s ancestors were slaves in Egypt (v 15). Consequently the people should show empathy to those who have been forced into servitude by the vicissitudes of life. . .
According to the book of Deuteronomy, servants had certain legal rights including rest on the Sabbath (5:14), inclusion in the celebration of the pilgrimage festivals (12:18 and 16:11, 14), and protection from abuse on the part of their masters (23:16–17). Moreover, full slavery was limited to foreigners. Though Israelites might become indentured servants, they could not be held indefinitely against their will (15:12–18). On self-sale into indentured servitude, see Mendelsohn, Slavery, 18–19 and 88–90.
B. (:13-14) The Manner of Release
1. (:13) Release not Intended Repeat the Cycle of Poverty
“And when you set him free,
you shall not send him away empty-handed.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: it exhorts the slave owner not to send out the newly freed person empty-handed. A person in debt slavery would have lost all personal resources, including access to the land, the source of the blessing. A freed slave then would have virtually no alternative but to once more sell oneself into a new cycle of slavery. Simply implementing the law in a legalistic manner achieves little. Deuteronomy follows up the basic law with a challenge to the slave owner to make it possible for the newly freed person to really start over, with the potential of being successful.
2. (:14a) Release Provided with Generous Provision
“You shall furnish him liberally
from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat;”
3. (:14b) Release Proportionate to How the Lord Has Blessed You
“you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you.”
Michael Grisanti: The master must “supply him liberally” from every category of his resources (flock, threshing floor, and winepress) for at least two reasons. Because all the master has is a direct blessing from Yahweh, he will simply be sharing what God has given him. Also, since the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and experienced a unique provision of their needs from the Egyptians (pagans non-Israelites; Ex 12:35–36) they left behind, the Israelites should be more than willing to treat their fellow Israelites with abundant generosity.
C. (:15) The Memory Lesson
“And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,
and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: Release is grounded in the nature of God and in God’s relationship to Israel, a relationship shaped by Israel having been released from Egyptian slavery by that God.
David Thompson: At the root core of the word “redemption” is the idea of paying the price that is required to possess something that was once owned or lost. In the Greek Septuagint, the verb “redeemed” (lutrow) is one that means to pay the price and set one free. That is what God did for Israel and that is what He has done for us. That should prompt us to be generous to others.
D. (:16-17) The Master-Servant Exceptional Case
1. (:16) Relationship Working Well
“And it shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you;”
Eugene Merrill: It was altogether possible, however, that some persons who had entered into this arrangement were content to remain in it for whatever reason. The text itself suggests at least two such motives:
(1) a bond of affection that had developed between the debtor and his patron and
(2) his or her greatly improved standard of life under the arrangement (v. 16).
2. (:17) Relationship Made Permanent
“then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever.
And also you shall do likewise to your maidservant.”
Net Note: When the bondslave’s ear was drilled through to the door, the door in question was that of the master’s house. In effect, the bondslave is declaring his undying and lifelong loyalty to his creditor. The scar (or even hole) in the earlobe would testify to the community that the slave had surrendered independence and personal rights. This may be what Paul had in mind when he said “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17).
Warren Wiersbe: Certainly there’s a spiritual message here for God’s people today. We should love our Lord so much that we should want to serve Him willingly and gladly all our lives. We must never look upon our service as “slavery” but as privilege. “I love my master and don’t want to go free” is a wonderful confession of faith and love (Ex. 21:5). Granted, the servant’s love for his wife and children entered into the picture, but even those blessings came because of his master’s kindness, and the master was caring for them as well as his servant. What we all need is the open ear to hear God’s will (Ps. 40:6–8; Isa. 50:4–5) and a pierced ear that announces we love Him and are ready to obey His every command. The emphasis in this section is on faith that produces generosity. If we are “hardhearted or tightfisted” (Deut. 15:7, NIV), it’s evidence that we don’t really believe that God keeps His promises and provides for those who give to the needy. Jesus became poor that He might make us rich (2 Cor. 8:9) and He blesses us that we might be a blessing to others.
E. (:18) The Motivation for Obedience
1. Appreciative of the Service You Have Enjoyed
“It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free,
for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man;”
2. Anticipating the Lord’s Future Blessing
“so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do.”
Daniel Block: As in verses 4, 6, and 10, Moses ends with a motive clause: the reward for this gracious disposition toward persons who are granted their freedom will be the blessing of Yahweh on all that the creditor sets his hands to do.