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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Deuteronomy 15



Verses 1-11

"It is appropriate to deal with the law of release at this point, since it is best interpreted as an extension of the agrarian principles of the fallow year for the land, rather than a slave release law, linked in some way to the Hebrew slave release laws of Exodus 21:1-7 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18." [Note: Christopher Wright, "What Happened Every Seven Years in Israel?" Evangelical Quarterly56:3 (July1984):132.]

"At the end of every seven years" is an idiom meaning "during the seventh year." [Note: Deere, p290.] There is some debate among interpreters whether God wanted the Israelites to terminate debts permanently [Note: Thompson, pp186-87; Payne, p93; Schultz, p56; A. D. H. Mayes, Deuteronomy , p247; Deere, p290; Miller, p135; Merrill, Deuteronomy , p242; Kalland, p104; and Kline, " Deuteronomy ," p175.] or only suspend them for a year, as the following quotation argues.

"The present passage is a further exposition of the Sabbath year release recorded in Exodus 23:10 and Leviticus 25:2-7. The premise of the exposition offered here is that if the land was left unused in the Sabbath year, the landowner would not have money to pay his debts. To alleviate this hardship on the landowner, the debts were to be released for one year during this time. The sense of the word release is not "to cancel," as may be suggested in some English translations (e.g, NIV), but rather "to postpone." The debt was postponed for a year. This provision was not intended for the "foreigner" ( Deuteronomy 15:3); it applied only to those who lived permanently in the land. The "foreigner" was one who stayed only temporarily in the land. Such a one was not a "sojourner," that Isaiah , a non-Israelite who had come to live permanently in the land." [Note: Sailhamer, pp449-50. Cf. Driver, p175; Keil and Delitzsch, 3:369-70; and Craigie, The Book . . ., p236.]

I tend to favor the complete cancellation view.

God values each person equally as an individual. This perspective comes out clearly in this section. God instructed His people to show concern for the welfare of every individual regardless of his or her economic or social position ( Deuteronomy 15:7; cf. Proverbs 11:24).

"Elsewhere in the ancient Near East men were treated in terms of their status in the community rather than as individuals." [Note: Thompson, p185.]

The apparent contradiction between Deuteronomy 15:4; Deuteronomy 15:11 is explainable as follows. The statement that "there shall be no poor among you" ( Deuteronomy 15:4) rests on the condition that the Israelites would be completely obedient to God ( Deuteronomy 15:5). The promise of blessing for obedience appears four times in this chapter ( Deuteronomy 15:4; Deuteronomy 15:6; Deuteronomy 15:10; Deuteronomy 15:18). The statement that "the poor will never cease to be in the land" ( Deuteronomy 15:11) expresses what would really exist since Israel would not be completely obedient. It also represents what would exist among Israel"s neighbor nations even if Israel was completely obedient.

"In Deuteronomy , poverty did not just happen. It was the result of conscious decisions that people made to ignore the divine will for Israel as expressed in the covenant." [Note: Leslie J. Hoppe, "Deuteronomy and the Poor," The Bible Today24:6 (November1986):371.]

". . . poverty among Yahweh"s vassals was a disgrace . . ." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p80.]

Verses 1-18

The rights of the poor and vulnerable in Israel15:1-18

The Israelites were not only to care for the Levites ( Deuteronomy 14:27; Deuteronomy 14:29) and the aliens, orphans, and widows ( Deuteronomy 14:29), but also other individuals in the nation who needed help ( Deuteronomy 15:1-18). This concern was to mark them as the people of Yahweh. [Note: See Peter T. Vogt, "Social Justice and the Vision of Deuteronomy ," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society51:1 (March2008):35-44.]

Verses 12-18

Moses turned now from the poor to slaves. These people also had rights in Israel. God did not condemn slavery as an institution. He permitted it in Israel. However slavery in Israel amounted to voluntary servitude. God strongly forbade the enslavement and oppression of individuals. Israelites could sell themselves as slaves as well as hired men and women ( Deuteronomy 15:18). [Note: See idem, Deuteronomy , pp247-48.] All slaves went free at the beginning of each sabbatical year. [Note: See N. P. Lemche, "The Manumission of Slaves-The Fallow Year-The Sabbatical Year-The Jobel Year," Vetus Testamentum26 (January1976):38-59.] Another view is that slaves went free at the end of seven years irrespective of the sabbatical year. [Note: Kline, " Deuteronomy ," p175.]

"The humanitarian spirit of Mosaic legislation permeates these civic and religious aspects of the Israelite society. It stands in contrast to the lack of dignity accorded to the common man in contemporary cultures of the Mosaic age." [Note: Schultz, p57.]

For more detailed information concerning the year of release, see Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:1-7. In Deuteronomy , Moses emphasized the importance of love for God and Prayer of Manasseh , principles more than procedures.

The year of release was a provision of the Mosaic Covenant that God has not carried over into the present dispensation. However as Christians we have revelation concerning how to deal with our debtors. We should settle our disputes with our brethren out of court privately or in the church if necessary ( 1 Corinthians 6:1-6). We may take unbelievers to court, but if we cannot resolve our conflicts with our brethren out of court we should take the loss ( 1 Corinthians 6:7) and forgive ( Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14-15). We should also be compassionate and share with others, believers and unbelievers, who may be in need ( Matthew 25:34-40; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 13:16).

Verses 19-23

The sanctification of first-born cattle15:19-23

Moses had finished what he had to say about provisions for the needy (the Levites, aliens, orphans, widows, the poor, and slaves; Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 15:18). Here his thoughts turned back to the subject of the first-born of animals that he mentioned previously when he addressed the sacrificial meals ( Deuteronomy 12:6; Deuteronomy 12:17; Deuteronomy 14:23).

The Israelites were not to use their first-born male animals for personal gain but were to offer them to God as sacrifices. The Law taught them to regard them as God"s possessions (cf. Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:12). They could eat defective first-born animals at their homes rather than offering them at the tabernacle and eating them there. In all cases they were to set aside first-born oxen and sheep for God as sacrifices because God had blessed the herd or flock with fertility. The Israelites were to offer God as near a perfect specimen as possible. This taught them that God deserves the very best, which would have cost them the most. [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p249; Merrill, Deuteronomy , p250.]

As Christians we too should acknowledge God"s goodness if He increases our possessions. Our sacrifices need not be the first-born animals of our herds or flocks, but they might be verbal thanksgiving ( Hebrews 13:15), our labor, our money, indeed our very lives ( Romans 12:1-2).


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 15:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

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