Deuteronomy 15

The Word Made Fresh

1“Debts must be cancelled after seven years. 2This is how it works: if another Israelite owes you, in the seventh year that debt is automatically cancelled because the LORD has proclaimed it. 3This does not apply to foreigners.

4“Furthermore, don’t allow anyone among you to be in need. The LORD your God is giving the land to you and wishes to bless you. 5All you have to do is obey the LORD. Follow all the rules I’m giving you today, says Moses. 6When you have benefited from the LORD’s promise you will be able to lend to other nations, but do not borrow from them. You will have control over other nations, but do not let other nations control you.

7“If anyone among you in the land the LORD your God is giving you is in need, don’t turn your back on them. 8Be generous and lend them whatever they need. 9But do not let your generosity be strained by thinking the seventh year is close at hand and then decide not to help your neighbor. Your neighbor may cry out to the LORD and you will be held guilty in the LORD’s eyes. 10Give freely and without resentment, and the LORD your God will reward you in everything you endeavor to do. 11There will always be someone in need somewhere, so don’t refuse to help those who are poor and needy.

12“If a Hebrew man or woman sells himself or herself to you, they may work for you for six years, but let them go free in the seventh year. 13When they go free, don’t send them away empty-handed. 14Give them some of the wealth the LORD has given you – some of your animals, your grain, your wine. 15Never forget that you were once slaves in Egypt, and the LORD set you free; that is why I am giving you these instructions now. 16However, if your slave does not wish to go free because he or she loves you and your family and has been enriched by serving you, 17then stand him or her against a doorpost and use an awl to put a hole through the earlobe, and they will continue to be your slave from then on.

18“But don’t begrudge setting them free. For six years they have worked for you and you have saved the wages you would have had to pay hired workers. Treat them fairly, and the LORD will reward you in all you do.

19“Every firstborn male of your flocks and herds is to be dedicated to the LORD your God. The firstborn ox must not be used for labor, and you must not shear the firstborn sheep. 20Instead, they are given to you and your family as food, and you are to eat it in the LORD’s presence at whatever place the LORD chooses. 21If it is lame or blind or has other defects don’t sacrifice it to the LORD your God, 22but eat it in your own hometown as you would a gazelle or deer or other wild game, and even those of you who are not ‘clean’ at the time may eat it. 23But don’t forget that you must not consume the blood. Pour it on the ground like water.”

Commentary

1-6: Here’s a rule that would frighten every lender these days – every seventh year all debts must be remitted! This was to apply only to loans given to other Hebrews, of course. Debts to foreigners could continue. Beyond the local community, it was okay to lend to foreign nations, but not to borrow! Would that work today?

7-11: Moses tells them to tend to the poor in their midst. They must not let anyone go hungry. There will always be “some in need on the earth,” so be charitable, he says. Jesus also reminded us that there will always be the poor among us (Matthew 26:11)

12-18: This section has to do with the treatment of slaves. They must be released in the seventh year and sent out with enough provisions to enable them to survive and start a life of their own unless they choose to remain slaves. The kind of slavery practiced here was nothing like the slave trade prevalent around the world just a couple of hundred years ago.

19-23: Firstborn animals from the flock or herd must be butchered, drained of blood, and eaten in a designated “sacred place.” The act of eating the meat in a designated place may have been for the purpose of reminding them that they were God’s people – sort of like our Holy Communion.

Takeaway

While the practice of slavery is abhorrent to us today, the way it is described here is not too different from forms of contractual labor used today. There are three key differences between what is described here, and the kind of slavery practiced around the world not that long ago: 1) the slave is the one who initiates the agreement to be a slave; 2) the purpose of slavery here is to rescue someone from poverty; and 3) it is not a permanent condition, but the slave is granted the option of freedom after the specified length of time.

Even so, it is unthinkable that such a practice would be approved among Jewish or Christian communities today. If a person doesn’t have the option to resign whenever they wish, they are being abused. Period.