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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Leviticus 25

 

 

Verse 8

8.And thou shalt number seven. The third kind of Sabbath follows, which was composed of forty-nine, or seven times seven years. This was the most illustrious Sabbath, since the state of the people, both as to their persons and their houses and property, was renewed; and although in this way God had regard to the public good, gave relief to the poor, so that their liberty should not be destroyed, and preserved also the order laid down by Himself; still there is no question but that He thus added an additional stimulus to incite the Jews to honor the Sabbath. For it was a kind of imposing memorial of the sacred rest, to see slaves emancipated and become suddenly free; houses and lands returning to their former possessors who had sold them; and in fine all things assuming a new face. They called this year Jobel, from the sound of the ram’s horn, whereby liberty and the restitution of property were proclaimed; but as I have said, its main feature was the solemnity which shewed them to be separated from other nations to be a peculiar and holy nation to God; nay, the renewal of all things had reference to this, that being redeemed anew in the great Sabbath, they might entirely devote themselves to God their Deliverer.


Verse 20

20.And if ye shall say. Men will never be obedient to God’s precepts, unless their distrust of Him is corrected, and will be always ingenious in laying hold of pretexts for disobedience. The difficulty, however, in this matter was a specious excuse for the Jews; for famine might have destroyed them in these two years, since in the seventh year they neither sowed nor reaped; and for reaping they were obliged to wait till the end of the eighth year. Now, whence were they to get seed enough to sow after the land had rested for a whole year? It is not without reason, then, that God delivers them from this doubt, promising them that He will give such abundance in the sixth year as shall suffice for the two following ones. The phrase must be observed, that God would “command His blessing” in an especial manner, and beyond the usual course, so that the land should be twice or thrice more fertile. Hence is suggested to us no ordinary ground of confidence in asking for our daily bread. But this was a special promise, that food should not fail the Jews on account of the Sabbatical year; a manifestation of which God had already given in the desert, when supplied a double portion of manna to those who gathered it on the day before the Sabbath. Now-a-days this inconvenience is avoided by the industry of farmers, who so divide their acres that the land should never lie fallow altogether, but that one part should supply the deficiency of another. This distribution did not obtain with the Jews. Therefore God relieved them from the fear of famine down to the harvest of the eighth year; although He seems at the same time to accustom them to frugality, lest they should waste in intemperance and luxury what He afforded in sufficient abundance to last for two years. To this precept He alludes, when He declares by the Prophets that the land “enjoyed her Sabbaths,” when it had vomited forth its inhabitants, (2 Chronicles 36:21;) for since they had polluted it by violating the Sabbath, so that it groaned as if under a heavy burden, He says that it shall rest for a long continuous period, so as to compensate for the labor of many years.


Verse 23

23.The land shall not be sold for ever. Since the reason for this law was peculiar to the children of Abraham, its provisions can hardly be applied to other nations; for so equal a partition of the land was made under Joshua, that the inheritance was distributed amongst the several tribes and families; nay, in order that each man’s possession should be more sacred, the land had been divided by lot, as if God by His own hand located them in their separate stations. In fact, that allotment was, as it were, an inviolable decree of God Himself, whereby the memory of the covenant should be maintained, by which the inheritance of the land had been promised to Abraham and his posterity; and thus the land of Canaan was an earnest, or symbol, or mirror, of the adoption on which their salvation was founded. Wherefore it is not to be wondered at that God was unwilling that this inestimable benefit should ever be lost; and, lest this should be the case, like a provident father of a family, He laid a restraint on His children, to prevent them from being too prodigal; for, when a man has any suspicions of his heir, he forbids him to alienate the patrimony he leaves him. Such, therefore, was the condition of the ancient people; yet it cannot be indiscriminately transferred to other nations who have had no common inheritance given them. Some vestige of it appears in the right of redemption; (156) but, because that depends on the consent of the parties, and is also a special mode of contract, it has nothing to do with the law of Moses, which entirely restored both men and lands, (in the year of jubilee, (157)) That God should call the land of Canaan His, is, as it were, to assert His direct Lordship (158) (dominium,) as they call it, over it; as He immediately afterwards more clearly expresses His meaning, where He says that the children of Israel sojourn in it as His guests. (159) For although their condition was the best in which just and perpetual owners can be placed, still, as respected God, they were but His tenants (coloni,) only living there at His will. In fine, God claims the freehold (fundum) for Himself, lest the recollection of tits having granted it to them should ever escape them.


Verse 24

24.And in all the land of your possession. Before the jubilee came, He permits not only the relations to redeem land sold by a poor man, but the seller also, if no other redeemer interposed. The same power was also given to relations amongst other nations, though with a different object, viz., the preservation of the family name; still, the seller was never allowed to redeem, unless a special clause to that effect was contained in the contract. But God desired that the lands should be retained by their legal possessor, in order that the people might deviate as little as possible from the division made by Joshua. Meanwhile, He had in view the private advantage of individuals; but in the perpetual succession to the land He considered Himself rather than men, in order that the recollection of His kindness should never be lost. Finally, He orders all lands to return in the year of jubilee to their original owners; and all sales to be cancelled, as if, in the fiftieth year, he renewed the lot for the division of the land.


Verse 29

29.And if a man sell a dwelling-house. He here distinguishes houses from lands, providing that the power of redemption should not extend beyond a year; and also, that the purchase should hold good even in the jubilee. A second distinction, however, is also added between different kinds of houses, viz., that houses in towns might be altogether alienated, whilst the condition of those in the country should be the same as that of the lands themselves, as being annexed so as to form part of them. As regarded houses fix towns, because they were sometimes burdensome to their owners, it was an advantage that they might pass into the hands of the rich who were competent to bear the expenses of building. Besides, a house does not supply daily food like a field, and it is more tolerable to be without a house than a field, in which you may work, and from the cultivation of which you may support yourself and family. But it was necessary to except houses in the country, because they were appendages to the land; for what use would there be in harvesting the fruits, if you had no place to store them in? Nay, what would it profit to possess a farm which you could not cultivate? for how could oxen plough without any stalls in its vicinity? Since, then, lands without farm-buildings or cottages are almost useless, and they cannot be conveniently separated, justly did God appoint that, in the year of Jubilee, every rural possession should revert to its former owner.


Verse 32

32.Notwithstanding the cities of the Levites. Another exception, that the Levites should recover the houses they had sold, either by the right of redemption, or gratuitously in the year of jubilee. And this is not only appointed out of favor to them, but because it concerned the whole people, that they should be posted like sentries in the place which God had assigned to them. As to the suburbs, or the lands destined for the support of their cattle, God forbids their alienation, because thus they would have forsaken their proper station and removed elsewhere; whereas it was of importance to the whole people that such a dispersion should not occur.


Verse 39

39.And if thy brother. He now proceeds further, i e. , that one who has bought his brother should treat him with humanity, and not otherwise than a hired servant. We have seen, indeed, just above, that the labor of a slave is estimated at twice as much, because the humanity of his master will never go so far as to indulge or spare his slave as if he were a hireling. It is not, therefore, without reason that God puts a restraint upon that rule, which experience shows to have been often tyrannical. Still He prescribes no more than heathen philosophers did, (150) viz., that masters should treat their slaves like hired servants. And this principle of justice ought to prevail towards all without exception; but since it was difficult to prescribe the same rule respecting strangers as respecting their brethren, a special law is enacted, that at least they should observe moderation towards their brethren, with whom they had a common inheritance and condition. First:. therefore, it is provided as to Hebrew slaves that they should not be treated harshly and contemptuously like captives ( mancipia;) and then that their slavery should come to an end in the year of jubilee. But here the question arises, since their liberty was before accorded to them in the, seventh year, why it is now postponed to the fiftieth? Some get over the difficulty by supposing that (151) if the jubilee occurred during the six years, they must then be set free, although they had not completed the whole term; but this is too forced a conjecture. The view that most approves itself to me is, that the word יבל, yobel, is extended to mean every seventh year, or, at any rate, that moderation towards those slaves is specially prescribed who were most exposed to violence and other injurious treatment. For they would not have dared to oppress at pleasure their slaves, who were soon afterwards to be free; but those who, by having their ears bored, had subjected themselves to the longer period of slavery, would have been more outrageously harassed, unless God had interposed. And this opinion I freely adopt, that although their slavery lasted to the jubilee, yet flint their masters were to treat them with moderation and humanity. This too is confirmed by what immediately follows, where it is enjoined that the children should be set free with their fathers, which did not take place in the seventh year.


Verse 42

42.For they are my servants. God here declares that His own right is invaded when those, whom He claims as His property, are taken into subjection by another; for He says that He acquired the people as His own when He redeemed them from Egypt. Whence He infers that His right is violated if any should usurp perpetual dominion over a Hebrew. If any object that this is of equal force, when they only serve for a time, I reply, that though God might have justly asserted His sole ownership, yet He was satisfied with this symbol of it; and therefore that He suffered by indulgence that they should be enslaved for a fixed period, provided some trace of His deliverance of them should remain. In a word, He simply chose to apply this preventative lest slavery should altogether extinguish the recollection of His grace, although He allowed it to be thus smothered as it were. Lest, therefore, cruel masters should trust that their tyranny would be exercised with impunity, Moses reminds them that they had to do with God, who will at length appear as its avenger. Although the political laws of Moses are not now in operation, still the analogy is to be preserved, lest the condition of those who have been redeemed by Christ’s blood should be worse amongst us, than that of old of tits ancient people. To whom Paul’s exhortation refers:

“Ye masters, forbear threatening your slaves, knowing that both your and their Master is in heaven.” (152) (Ephesians 6:9.)


Verse 44

44.Both thy bond-men, and thy bond-maids. What God here permits as regards strangers was everywhere customary among the Gentiles, viz., that their power over their slaves should exist not only until their death, but should continue in perpetual succession to their children; for this is the force of the expression, “ye shall possess them for your children,” that the right of ownership should pass to their heir’s also; nor is there a distinction made only as to perpetuity, (153) but also as to the mode of their treatment. For we must observe the antithesis, “ye shall make use of their service, but over his brother no man shall rule with rigor;” (154) whence it appears that a restraint was imposed upon them lest they should imperiously rule the children of Abraham, and not leave them half their liberty in comparison with the Gentiles. Not that a tyrannical or cruel exercise of power oyer strangers was allowed, but that God would have the race of Abraham, whose liberator lie was, exempted by certain privileges from the common lot.


Verse 47

47.And if a sojourner or a stranger. A caution is here introduced as to the Israelites who had enslaved themselves to strangers. But by strangers understand only those who inhabited the land of Canaan; for, if any one ]lad been carried away into other countries, God would have enacted this law as to their redemption in vain. A power, therefore, of redeeming the slave is granted to his relatives, or, if he had himself obtained sufficient to pay his price, the same permission is accorded to himself. The mode and the form of this are then expressed: that a calculation of the time which remained before the jubilee should be made, and the period which had already elapsed should be subtracted from the sum, viz., if he had been sold for fifty shekels he should only pay ten shekels in the fortieth year, because only a fifth part of the time remained. But if none of his family aided him, and the unhappy man’s hope of redemption was frustrated, He commands that he should be set free in the jubilee year, in which a general enfranchisement took place as regarded the children of Abraham. The object of the law was, that none of those whom God had adopted, should be alienated from their race, and thus should depart from the true worship of God Himself. The whole of this is comprehended in the last verse, where God declares that the children of Abraham were His property, inasmuch as He had led them forth from the land of Egypt, and, on the other hand, that He is their peculiar God. For, whilst it was just that they should enjoy His blessing, so also it behooved that they should be kept sound in His pure and undivided worship; whereas, if they had been the slaves of Gentiles, not only would the elect people have been diminished in numbers, but circumcision would have been corrupted and a door opened to impious perversions. Yet God so mitigates His law as to lay no unjust burden upon sojourners, since He concedes more to them, with respect to Hebrew slaves, than to the natives of the land; for if they had sold themselves to their brethren, they went forth free in the seventh year, whilst their slavery under sojourners was extended to the fiftieth year. This exception only was introduced that the stranger who had bought slaves should enfranchise them on the payment of their value. Since God had previously promised to His people a large and manifold abundance of all good things, the poverty here adverted to could only occur from the curse of God; (155) we see, therefore, that of His incomparable loving-kindness He stretches forth His hand to the transgressors of His law; and, whilst He chastises them with poverty, still looks upon them, unworthy as they are, and provides a remedy for the ills which their own guilt had brought upon them.

 


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Bibliography Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Leviticus 25:4". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/leviticus-25.html. 1840-57.

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