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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 15

 

 

Introduction

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28).

I. INSTRUCTION WITH REGARD TO WORSHIP AND RIGHTNESS BEFORE YAHWEH (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17).

In this first group of regulations in Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:7 emphasis is laid on proper worship and rightness before Yahweh, looked at from the people’s point of view. They include:

· Regulations with regard to the Central Sanctuary as the one place where Yahweh is to be officially worshipped with emphasis on the people’s side of things and their participation. They are to worship there joyfully (Deuteronomy 12).

· Regulations with regard to avoidance of idolatry as it affects the people lest they lose their cause for joy (Deuteronomy 13).

· Regulations for the people with regard to ritual wholeness and cleanness so that they might reveal themselves as suited to worship joyfully in the place which Yahweh would choose (Deuteronomy 14:1-21).

· Regulations for the people with regard to tithing mainly ignoring levitical aspects (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). Here they were to share their joy with others who would thus be able to rejoice with them.

· Regulations with regard to poverty as a slur on Yahweh (Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 15:11). This was to be allayed by a special use of the tithe every third year and a release from debt every seventh year. To allow unrelieved poverty in the land would prevent their being able to approach Yahweh with joy and to enjoy His prosperity.

· Regulations with regard to Israelite Habiru bondsmen and bondswomen and how they were to be their treated (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Again the emphasis is on generosity towards those whose need was greatest.

· Regulations with regard to firstlings, who represented their own relief from bondage, with the emphasis on their being Yahweh’s and thus to be royally treated, and to be eaten joyfully in the place which Yahweh would choose. The emphasis is on the people’s participation (Deuteronomy 15:19-23).

· Regulations with regard to the three main feasts, with emphasis on the fact that they must be eaten at the place which Yahweh will choose and that the last two of them must be celebrated joyfully, again with the emphasis on the people’s participation throughout (Deuteronomy 16:1-17).

But central to it all is the Central Sanctuary, the place where Yahweh sets His name. The place where He meets with His people, and they with Him, and the need for them to be in the right spirit so as to do so joyfully.

Chapter 15 The Generosity Required To Those In Extreme Poverty and to Bondsmen Being Released, and The Requirement For Compassion In All Relationships.

Moses would expect that his reference to this three year cycle in Deuteronomy 14:28 would bring to mind the Israelite way of considering the passage of time and therefore the provisions of the sabbath of rest for the land in the seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-7), and with this in mind he continues with the theme of helping the poorest in the land (Deuteronomy 14:28). In Deuteronomy 14:28 he had declared that in the third year and the sixth year provision would be made through the tithe for the poor and needy, as symbolised by the fatherless, the widow and the resident alien (the last of whom would often be a refugee and in poverty, compare Deuteronomy 23:15). Here he declares that in the seventh year, in the general year of release when the land was released from needing to be economically productive so that the poor may benefit from it (Exodus 23:11), there was also to be a ‘year of release’ for those who were in debt. The two go together. We must not read this reference to debt in the light of modern conditions. The expectation would be that when the people had entered the land and had been given land by Yahweh they would only need to borrow long term in cases of extreme need. Such borrowing would thus indicate real poverty. It is not thinking of someone borrowing in a commercial world.

And the main aim behind the provision was the relief of poverty, not in order to be a means of avoiding what was in honour due. It would be expected that most creditors would, in honour, honour their debts. It was those who could not do so who are in mind here. Thus not only was the seventh year to be a year in which the land could rest, and in which all could enjoy the fruits of the land because it was Yahweh’s land and Yahweh’s dispensation, but it was also to be a year of release for all in extreme poverty who were burdened with debt.

There is, in fact, a dispute as to whether the ‘release’ (‘a letting go’) mentioned here is a permanent release or simply a postponement, covering the seventh year. Some argue that during the seventh year, due to the rest given to the land (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7) there would be no produce from the land and no wages for working on other people’s land. They therefore suggest that the point here is that to have to repay a loan in that year would be difficult. Therefore postponement would be required. They point out that it would be different for a foreigner (in contrast with the resident alien) for he was not affected by the year of rest for the land. Thus a postponement was to be allowed to fellow-Israelites.

However in our view that is to miss the whole point of the passage which is to deal with extreme poverty. The mention of such a delay would have made sense in the midst of a general discussion of the seven year rest, or in a context dealing specifically with debt and how to deal with it, but not as such a forthright statement, standing on its own, as we have here in a context where poverty is stressed. The major point being dealt with here is the incompatibility of poverty with Yahweh’s giving of the land. A slight delay in repayment would hardly have much impact on that. But either way it is provided that lenders must not allow it to affect their attitude to needy borrowers (Deuteronomy 15:7).

He next goes on to deal with the special need for generosity to ‘Hebrew bondsmen and women’ when they come to the end of their seven year contracts. There is the twofold connection here with what has gone before in the chapter, of generosity to the needy and a period of seven years in the seventh year of which would come release, although the seven year period is on a different basis. And he then finishes the chapter dealing with the question of the firstlings. This helps to bring his previous points home by reminding them how they themselves had been delivered from such poverty and bondage in Egypt, for their firstlings were Yahweh’s precisely because He had delivered them from bondage and spared their firstborn sons - Exodus 13:11-16). At the same time it puts all in the context of chapter 12 where their rejoicing before Yahweh in the place where he had chosen to dwell, because all was going well with them, included the consumption of the firstlings.

Thus it was because of their own deliverance from poverty and bondage that they were to consider those more unfortunate than themselves, and treat them well. Reference is also made to the fact that the firstlings too must be well treated and not put to labour prior to their being dedicated to Yahweh and passed over to the priests, although the major reason for that was really so that nothing could be taken from them prior to their presentation to Yahweh.

So the chapter reveals that the Israelite must show compassion to the needy debtor, to the Hebrew bondsman and woman, and to the firstlings, although as we have said the latter provision possibly more has in mind that the firstling shall be at its best for Yahweh, with nothing taken from it.

This reference to firstlings connects back to the reference to tithes in Deuteronomy 14, which with the firstlings are connected with the feasting before Yahweh at the place which He has chosen for Himself in Deuteronomy 12, thus connecting all in Deuteronomy 14-15 to Deuteronomy 12 and the worship at the sanctuary. These provisions are thus to be seen as sacred and necessary of fulfilment so that they can feast before Yahweh in His presence with a clear conscience.


Verse 1

Chapter 15 The Generosity Required To Those In Extreme Poverty and to Bondsmen Being Released, and The Requirement For Compassion In All Relationships.

Moses would expect that his reference to this three year cycle in Deuteronomy 14:28 would bring to mind the Israelite way of considering the passage of time and therefore the provisions of the sabbath of rest for the land in the seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-7), and with this in mind he continues with the theme of helping the poorest in the land (Deuteronomy 14:28). In Deuteronomy 14:28 he had declared that in the third year and the sixth year provision would be made through the tithe for the poor and needy, as symbolised by the fatherless, the widow and the resident alien (the last of whom would often be a refugee and in poverty, compare Deuteronomy 23:15). Here he declares that in the seventh year, in the general year of release when the land was released from needing to be economically productive so that the poor may benefit from it (Exodus 23:11), there was also to be a ‘year of release’ for those who were in debt. The two go together. We must not read this reference to debt in the light of modern conditions. The expectation would be that when the people had entered the land and had been given land by Yahweh they would only need to borrow long term in cases of extreme need. Such borrowing would thus indicate real poverty. It is not thinking of someone borrowing in a commercial world.

And the main aim behind the provision was the relief of poverty, not in order to be a means of avoiding what was in honour due. It would be expected that most creditors would, in honour, honour their debts. It was those who could not do so who are in mind here. Thus not only was the seventh year to be a year in which the land could rest, and in which all could enjoy the fruits of the land because it was Yahweh’s land and Yahweh’s dispensation, but it was also to be a year of release for all in extreme poverty who were burdened with debt.

There is, in fact, a dispute as to whether the ‘release’ (‘a letting go’) mentioned here is a permanent release or simply a postponement, covering the seventh year. Some argue that during the seventh year, due to the rest given to the land (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7) there would be no produce from the land and no wages for working on other people’s land. They therefore suggest that the point here is that to have to repay a loan in that year would be difficult. Therefore postponement would be required. They point out that it would be different for a foreigner (in contrast with the resident alien) for he was not affected by the year of rest for the land. Thus a postponement was to be allowed to fellow-Israelites.

However in our view that is to miss the whole point of the passage which is to deal with extreme poverty. The mention of such a delay would have made sense in the midst of a general discussion of the seven year rest, or in a context dealing specifically with debt and how to deal with it, but not as such a forthright statement, standing on its own, as we have here in a context where poverty is stressed. The major point being dealt with here is the incompatibility of poverty with Yahweh’s giving of the land. A slight delay in repayment would hardly have much impact on that. But either way it is provided that lenders must not allow it to affect their attitude to needy borrowers (Deuteronomy 15:7).

He next goes on to deal with the special need for generosity to ‘Hebrew bondsmen and women’ when they come to the end of their seven year contracts. There is the twofold connection here with what has gone before in the chapter, of generosity to the needy and a period of seven years in the seventh year of which would come release, although the seven year period is on a different basis. And he then finishes the chapter dealing with the question of the firstlings. This helps to bring his previous points home by reminding them how they themselves had been delivered from such poverty and bondage in Egypt, for their firstlings were Yahweh’s precisely because He had delivered them from bondage and spared their firstborn sons - Exodus 13:11-16). At the same time it puts all in the context of chapter 12 where their rejoicing before Yahweh in the place where he had chosen to dwell, because all was going well with them, included the consumption of the firstlings.

Thus it was because of their own deliverance from poverty and bondage that they were to consider those more unfortunate than themselves, and treat them well. Reference is also made to the fact that the firstlings too must be well treated and not put to labour prior to their being dedicated to Yahweh and passed over to the priests, although the major reason for that was really so that nothing could be taken from them prior to their presentation to Yahweh.

So the chapter reveals that the Israelite must show compassion to the needy debtor, to the Hebrew bondsman and woman, and to the firstlings, although as we have said the latter provision possibly more has in mind that the firstling shall be at its best for Yahweh, with nothing taken from it.

This reference to firstlings connects back to the reference to tithes in Deuteronomy 14, which with the firstlings are connected with the feasting before Yahweh at the place which He has chosen for Himself in Deuteronomy 12, thus connecting all in Deuteronomy 14-15 to Deuteronomy 12 and the worship at the sanctuary. These provisions are thus to be seen as sacred and necessary of fulfilment so that they can feast before Yahweh in His presence with a clear conscience.

Release From Debt For The Poor Of The Land (Deuteronomy 15:1-11).

(This whole chapter is ‘thou’).

Deuteronomy 15:1

At the end of every seven years you (thou) shall make a release (literally ‘a letting go’; some translate ‘a postponement’).’

It is unfortunate that our chapter divisions hide the full sequence in which this verse comes. It is not the opening sentence to a new concept, but a continuation from Deuteronomy 14:28. ‘At the end of every three years you shall --- at the end of every seven years you shall ---.’

So the provision for the poor and needy every three years is now added to. It should be noted that this verse is not primarily an attempt to refer to the legislation about the seven year sabbath, as though this was some new announcement of something previously unheard of. The stress is not on the seventh year as such, but on relief available to the poor in that seventh year, which is on top of the provision available to the poor in the third and sixth year. That is why the detail of the seven year sabbath is not gone into, it is assumed. As we have pointed out already, the problem with commencing a new chapter here is that we tend to see it as commencing a new subject. But Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 15:1 should be read together. It should be seen as reading, ‘at the end of three years you shall -- at the end of every seven years you shall --.’ (And the chiasmus confirms it). It is the idea of looking after the poor and needy which is being spoken of and continued.

It was not even intended to deal with general debt. Rather it was seeking to deal with the problem of debt for the poorest in the land. As with the three years it was a new announcement made on the verge of entering the land, making provision for the poor to be released from debt, for it was only when they had entered the land that men might find themselves in real hardship through debt. In the wilderness it was probably not such a problem.

But Moses recognised that the ownership of land, and the obligations and necessities connected with it, could bring problems with them, especially in times of shortage, which could put people into debt simply in trying to deal with them. So in the seventh year there was to be a ‘release’ (a ‘letting go’) from debt for those who were finding it hard to cope. Such freeing from debt and from debt-slavery at the behest of a king was known elsewhere and Hammurabi for one appears to have sought to legalise such freedom after three years service.

“At the end of seven years.” That is in the seventh year of the seven year cycle into which time for Israel was divided (as with the seven day cycle ending in the Sabbath, all was in sevens).

(It is clear that each ‘third year’ has to take the seventh year into account or there could have come a seventh year which coincided with a third year resulting in no tithes of grain for the poor. It is unlikely that that was intended. Thus ‘at the end of the third year’ probably signifies that the third and sixth year in each seven year cycle is in mind).

“You shall make a release.” There are a number of arguments for seeing this as indicating a permanent release.

1) In Deuteronomy 31:10 ‘the year of release’ is considered to be a sufficiently distinctive occasion to be referred to, whereas postponement of a debt for one year was hardly that, however much it might seem so to the debtor. It was simply a minor disadvantage to the creditor.

2) In Deuteronomy 15:9 it is seen as a disincentive to lending. But a year’s postponement could be taken into the reckoning from the start, and would surely not be seen to be quite such a disincentive to lending as the impression given here.

3) Consider also the words of Jesus, ‘if you lend hoping to receive, what desert have you?’ (Luke 6:34). It is quite likely that there He has this year of release in mind, especially as His statement was intended to distinguish those who were true sons of the Most High. For in this context in Deuteronomy reference has been made to Israel as the sons of Yahweh in Deuteronomy 14:1.

4) Further support may be seen in the total release of land without cost back to its original owner in the year of Yubile. There the position in mind was of an irreversible situation. The same principle may be seen as occurring here. It was permanent release. The situation would be taken into account in agreements.

5) In the example that follows here in Deuteronomy 15:12-18 the Hebrew bondsman was being completely set free in the seventh year. That would parallel a seven year full release here.

6) The fact that the statement stands starkly on its own would point to a significant release, rather than a temporary one. Had it been in a context of the seven year rest for the land, as an added feature, it might have been different. But the context here is one of extreme poverty and the need for relief.

It must be recognised at once that this coming release did not signify that no loans need ever be repaid. Most honest borrowers would in honour wish to repay their loan regardless of this Law. No doubt the poor man would wish he could repay it. It was more a provision for the extreme hardship of someone who through misfortune could not possibly repay it, whom Yahweh did not want burdened with it until it destroyed him.

In support of a reference to ‘postponement only’ is the significance of the seventh year elsewhere. There it was a year of rest from something (Leviticus 25:3-7; Exodus 23:10-11) which would recommence again in the following year. But that is a very different thing from the situation of a man in poverty. There the land would be properly rested and start again afresh. The debtor would not start again afresh, he would simply dread the end of the seventh year. Against the idea of postponement is the better parallel of the year of Yubile where the land was completely released back to its original owner.

It could be argued that reference to a mere postponement would also make more commercial sense. However the latter is no strong argument for in Israel borrowing and lending was not to be seen as commercial. No interest was to be charged. It was to be a goodwill gesture to those in need. And the attitude of commercialism is specifically guarded against (Deuteronomy 15:9).

The unwillingness of people to lend if they knew that they would not receive it back might be a better argument, but that is actually what Deuteronomy 15:9 is all about. It declares that Israelites must be willing to lend even in spite of this release and the danger of losing their silver, because of what Yahweh would otherwise think about a man in destitution, left unaided, a position that would be a major slight on Him. It is difficult to see how a mere year’s delay could cause such unwillingness to lend. (Someone who felt such reluctance about a mere delay would be doing their best not to have to lend it anyway).

Nor was the release necessarily of the full debt. It could well be that the borrower had already provided some service to the lender for the privilege of borrowing, such as free part time labour or a portion of produce or some other service. That would be at least some recompense. And the idea is then that the remainder was to be cancelled out of charitable considerations and because Yahweh would be pleased. They were to be satisfied with receiving but a part rather than the whole.

However, the context clearly does suggest that this is a major concession, and is made because of unexpected poverty in the land, which should not be there, and that the lender therefore has the assurance that God will recompense him as the debtor cannot. This points beyond a mere postponement. It would seem to point to full release. The stress is really on the eradication of poverty rather than mere release from debt.


Verse 2-3

And this is the manner of the release. Every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother, because Yahweh’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release.’

The release is to be granted to neighbours and brothers, not to foreigners. Again we must recognise that such borrowing between Israelites would only take place under circumstances of real need. It was not in that sense a ‘borrowing’ society. Thus the probability is that if the person had been unable to pay it back by the seventh year it would indicate deep poverty. That is why Yahweh in His goodness proclaims freedom from the debt. It was not a rogue’s charter, and the creditor, who was presumably himself doing well, was to willingly forego the debt, recognising the great need of the debtor, because he was grateful for what Yahweh had given to him.


Verse 4-5

Howbeit there shall be no poor with you, (for Yahweh will surely bless you in the land which Yahweh your God is giving to you for an inheritance to possess it), if only you diligently listen to the voice of Yahweh your God, to observe to do all this commandment which I command you this day.’

A further reason for the release is that the need for it would only arise if Israel had been disobedient to Yahweh. For if they listened diligently to His voice, to observe all the commandments given by Moses, there would be no poor, and therefore no borrowers, among them, for Yahweh would then bless the land, which He had given them as an inheritance that they could possess, to such an extent that poverty would be ruled out. Thus the fact that there was a debtor would indicate Israel’s failure, and release of the debtor would be a kind of partial atonement for that failure.

However, the chiasmus clearly brings out that the reason that there will be no poor will be because of God’s blessing of the land so that the third year tithe will be of such munificence that there will be sufficient for all, and none will be poor. But this will only be so if they are faithful to the covenant so that God blesses the land.


Verse 6

For Yahweh your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.’

Indeed if they were truly faithful to Him and His covenant, and laid up their tithes as Yahweh decreed, Yahweh would so bless them that as a nation they would never need to borrow, while at the same time having so much in abundance that they would be in a position to lend to other nations. They would store up abundance of wealth for themselves. They would be creditors not debtors. Furthermore because of their wealth they would rule over many nations, for wealth brings power, but none would ever rule over them. This was the glittering future promised under the kingly rule of Yahweh that would follow true response and obedience.

Such statements could only have been made by someone looking forward to such a glorious future as a possible reality in response to obedience. It would have required cynicism indeed for someone to have made them once the land had sunk into its later low level existence, with a miserable record behind it, a cynicism that could never have produced the book of Deuteronomy with its strong morality, its vibrancy and its glorious awareness of Yahweh. And there is no suggestion here that it will arise from Yahweh’s cataclysmic intervention. This is in contrast with the later prophets. It positively demands that Moses is speaking prior to entry into the land.


Verses 7-11

The Poverty-stricken Debtor Is Not To Be Despised (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

Having laid down the law for the relief of debtors the question of those who might seek to avoid it is now raised. They are not to seek to avoid their responsibility, otherwise Yahweh will be displeased and will act accordingly.

Analysis in the words of Moses:

a If there be with you a poor man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates in your land which Yahweh your God gives you (Deuteronomy 15:7).

b You shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wants.

c Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,” and your eye be evil against your poor brother

c And you give him nothing, and he cry to Yahweh against you, and it be sin to you.

b You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because that for this thing Yahweh your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand to

a For the poor will never cease out of the land. Therefore I command you, saying, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Note than it ‘a’ a poor man is posited ‘in your land’ and in the parallel the poor will never cease out of the land, but they are to be generous to them ‘in your land’. In ‘b’ they are not to harden their hearts to such but must lend them all they need, and in the parallel they must give without grieving because for this very reason Yahweh will bless the work of their hands. In ‘c’ they must not view the seventh year with a cynical eye, and thus in the parallel avoid assisting the poor creditor, for Yahweh will see it and count it as a covenant sin against them.

Deuteronomy 15:7-10

If there be with you a poor man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates in your land which Yahweh your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wants. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,” and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to Yahweh against you, and it be sin to you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because that for this thing Yahweh your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand to.’

This is a powerful demand. While looking at it only theoretically, and as a mental exercise away from the real world, this could be seen as having in mind postponement of a debt for one year as being something that hindered the lender from lending. But the realities of life and the depth of argument in fact demand that the sacrifice required is seen as something much greater. Postponement of a debt for one year would quite frankly hardly have such an influence as this. It would be shrugged off as slightly unfortunate but not too much of a problem.

The whole point here is that the creditor is required to face up to something more extreme, to go beyond what would seem reasonable, and is required to make a financial loss, because his ‘brother’ is poor, and because Yahweh is watching and may be appealed to, and because Yahweh Himself will reward him for willingly doing so. It is to be an exercise in loyalty and in compassion.

Once again we must reiterate that the reference is to a would be borrower who is in desperate straits. He is a ‘poor man’, a ‘poor brother’, who comes and appeals to the heart. And the point being made is that no godly Israelite could possibly close his heart to such a person, even though it involved real loss, for that would be un-Yahwehlike. To such they must not be tight-fisted but must be open-handed and lend whatever is needed at whatever reasonable cost. To do otherwise would put them in the wrong with Yahweh. Indeed to make such a refusal would be seen as a response to someone’s desperation that could only be made by someone utterly callous and totally ungodly. It would count before Yahweh as a sin against the covenant. Yet if the only thing against making the loan was that repayment would only be delayed for a year, it would hardly be seen as so big a matter. It is not seriously likely that any reasonable and serious lender would suggest a refusal for that reason.

The point of the proximity of the seven year release being seen as affecting the would be creditor in this way is precisely because of the likelihood that the loan will still be outstanding at that time, and that therefore the silver will be lost. But to take that into account, says Moses, would, in God’s eyes, be evil. It would reveal a hardened heart and a mean spirit. And Moses warns that the man himself may cry to Yahweh against such a person because he has proved himself unwilling to obey the covenant, and it will be counted as a breach of covenant, a ‘sin’. He will be revealed for what he is. Thus he will lose the blessing of Yahweh. Rather he must be willing to suffer loss, aware that Yahweh knows, and aware that because of it Yahweh will bless all he puts his hand to. He will recover it a hundredfold. It is a response of faith and loyalty.

Deuteronomy 15:11

For the poor will never cease out of the land. Therefore I command you, saying, “You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor, in your land.’

Again it is emphasised that we are dealing with a loan to the poor. For the practical truth is that the poor will never cease out of the land. The promise of verse 4 was very true, but it was dependent on a condition that would never be fulfilled, and was to be alleviated by the third year tithe. Moses, and God, knew the heart of man too well. Moses was no dewy-eyed optimist. He had already made clear his opinion of those he was speaking to. They were ‘stiff-necked’ (Deuteronomy 9:6). But at least, he says, let them not be stiffnecked in this.

Thus the command came that they must be open-handed to their fellow-countrymen, both to the needy, and to the poor, and that at the end of every seven year period all debt owed by the poor should be cancelled. This was to be out of compassion for them, out of loyalty to Yahweh, and because the poverty was in the end the fault of all Israel.

The result of these provisions in Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 15:11 would be that no one in Israel would be left destitute, neither the helpless resident aliens, the fatherless and widows, nor the families hit by extreme poverty through circumstance not of their own choosing. There would be no ‘poor’, for all would be provided for.

The lesson for us is clear. We are to be concerned at the poverty of others and be willing to do what we can to help to alleviate that poverty, even making sacrifices in order to be able to do so. Indeed in many countries the laws of bankruptcy result in someone unable to repay a debt being finally released from it.

This glowing picture of a land where the poor were fully provided for (Deut. 13:28-29), and where debtors were treated with such compassion, fits neatly into their looking to the place which Yahweh Himself will choose. The third (and sixth) year, together with the seventh year will be a manifestation of the glorious covenant between Yahweh and the people who have received His inheritance. What a contrast it would be with the ways of the Canaanites who were to be destroyed.


Verses 12-18

Release Of Hebrew Bondsmen and Bondswomen (Deuteronomy 15:12-18).

Similar generosity must be shown to ‘Hebrew bondsmen and bondswomen’ when they are released after their seven year contract. What follows is not simply the law relating to such as in Exodus 21:1 onwards, most of which is ignored, it is rather an emphasising of attitudes of heart, both the generous attitude which must be shown to the bondspeople when they leave service, and the wonderful relationship that could have been built up between maser and servant which went even beyond that. And while Exodus 21 has in mind a foreign Habiru, here Moses is speaking of a ‘brother or sister’, an Israelite or circumcised proselyte. The emphasis is all on the generosity and love which will be pleasing to Yahweh when they come to Him in worship.

The phrase ‘Hebrew bondsman’ is an unusual one in the context of the Pentateuch so firstly we must consider what is meant by a Hebrew bondsman. Early Israel never thought of themselves as Hebrews. That idea came very much later. They were called Hebrews by outsiders and would refer to themselves as Hebrews when speaking to outsiders, but it was not a name they ordinarily applied to themselves (see Genesis 14:13; Genesis 39:14; Genesis 39:17; Genesis 41:12; Exodus 1:15 to Exodus 2:13). Abram was ‘the Hebrew’ to the people who composed the covenant described in Genesis 14. Joseph was ‘a Hebrew’ in Potiphar’s house and to the chief butler. The children of Israel were ‘Hebrews’ to Pharaoh. The Philistines described the Israelites as ‘Hebrews’ (1 Samuel 4:6; 1 Samuel 4:9; etc.). But in all cases the description related to the view of outsiders. It was not a name that Yahweh would apply to them or that they would apply to themselves in internal affairs. Why then is it used in this Law?

In fact it is probable that the reason foreigners saw Israel as ‘Hebrews’ was because they linked them with the landless and stateless peoples known as ‘Habiru’. The term Habiru had a long history but in all cases it referred to those who were perceived as landless and stateless, (or were insultingly to be described as such), until at some stage some settled down just as Israel did. They could be mercenaries, slaves, shepherds, miners etc. but they stood out as belonging to no country, and as being ‘have-nots’. This was why Israel were seen as Habiru by others, (although it is possible that they themselves much later took the name and altered it to ‘Hebrew’ in their writings to connect back to their ancestor Eber, making it respectable. There is, however, a slight difference etymologically even then. But the ‘coincidence’ is too striking to be ignored in the light of the Scripture we have considered).

This being so this would suggest that the Hebrew bondsman or bondswoman who are in mind in Exodus 21 are such persons, landless and stateless persons who have been bought into bondage by an Israelite, either through purchase or through a slave contract. They are persons of no status. It is quite probable that there were many such ‘Hebrew’ bondspeople who escaped among the children of Israel, for they had been in Egypt where such bondspeople were available. Here in Deuteronomy the idea is expanded to recognising that there might be Israelite ‘Hebrews’, or the idea may be of Habiru who have been circumcised and thus have become ‘brothers’.

Note first that they could only be enslaved for six years. This was stated to be because the children of Israel had been slaves in Egypt and should therefore remember and be merciful as they have received mercy (Deuteronomy 15:12). But it is significant in this regard that at Nuzi we learn that ‘Hapiru’ there similarly entered into limited servitude, limited to seven years, after which their obligation ended. Thus there seems to have been a general custom that Habiru/Hapiru contracts were for seven years. The point therefore being stressed here is that the seventh year of service must not be required of them in view of Israel’s own deliverance from bondage.

So Israel were to be more generous. While theirs was also a seven year contract, they were to give him the seventh year free so that his obligation finished after six years, by this mean taking into account the principles of the Sabbath.

Thus the seven year contract for Hapiru/Habiru seems to have been a general custom of the time. As is pointed out in Deuteronomy 15:18 this was double the normal length of service for an Israelite. Three years are the years of a hired servant (Isaiah 16:14).

However here in Deuteronomy Moses is looking at a slightly different situation than that in Exodus 21 for in contrast this man or woman are seen as a ‘brother/sister’, and are not described as ‘slaves’. It is not the six years or the seven years that is in mind here but the attitude when the persons are released.

Analysis in the words of Moses:

a If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, and serve you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you (Deuteronomy 15:12).

b And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty, you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, and out of your threshing-floor, and out of your winepress: as Yahweh your God has blessed you, you shall give to him (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).

c And you will remember that you were a bondsman in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 15:15 a)

c And Yahweh your God redeemed you, therefore I command you this thing today (Deuteronomy 15:15).

b And it shall be, if he say to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your house, because he is well with you, then you shall take an awl, and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant for ever. And also to your maidservant you shall do likewise. (Deuteronomy 15:16-17).

a It shall not seem hard to you, when you let him go free from you, for to the double (or ‘equivalence’) of the hire of a hireling has he served you six years, and Yahweh your God will bless you in all that you do (Deuteronomy 15:18).

Note that in ‘a’ the Hebrew servant is to be released after only six years of the seven, and in the parallel the master must not be annoyed about this for he has had a good six years of service from him and he can know that Yahweh his God will bless him for it. In ‘b’ he must let him go well provided for, and in the parallel if the servant does not wish to go free because he loves the household he may be indentured ‘for ever’, and that will be equal to him as being well provided for. In ‘c’ and its parallel this will be because they remember that they were bondsmen in the land of Egypt and were redeemed by Yahweh from it. That is why Yahweh feels that He can justly demand this ‘favour’.

Deuteronomy 15:12

If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, and serve you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.’

“Brother” need not always indicate an Israelite. The term can be used of any close relationship such as there would be here. But in Deuteronomy ‘brother’ does almost always refer to an Israelite, (although Edom is called a brother - Deuteronomy 23:7), and especially in this chapter, sometimes even being contrasted with the ‘foreigner’. Thus it would seem that we have here the unfortunate example of an Israelite man or woman (or a proselyte) who had fallen on such hard times that they had become the equivalent of a Habiru even in Israelite eyes, and were being treated as such. They had lost their land and were seen as a kind of refugee, having had to sell themselves into bondage under a seven year bond.

We should note that there were a variety of different forms of service in Israel (and among their neighbours). Putting it simply these included hired servants, debt slaves who had to work off a debt by a period of service, and people who entered into a bond to perform service for a certain period in return for an initial payment or a guarantee of a livelihood or some other basis of obligation (bondsmen). The Habiru often survived in this way so that ‘a Hebrew man’ probably means that this man was taken on on the same basis as a Habiru. Then there were foreign slaves who were purchased or captured, and so on. The position of these last was permanent. But Leviticus 25:39-41 says that no Israelite must be enslaved by another Israelite. He may be purchased but he must be treated as though he were a hired servant and released in the year of Yubile. There the idea was of a permanent ‘slavery’ situation, but somewhat ameliorated because the person was an Israelite. That is different from here.

This person is seen as under a typical Habiru seven year contract, but because he/she is an Israelite (either trueborn or proselyte) they are not called slaves (in contrast with Exodus 21), while still having the same responsibilities. They presumably had to be treated as a hired servant as in the provision in Leviticus 25. But this was a different type of obligation from that in Leviticus. It was simply a seven year bond, although as in Leviticus the word ‘slave’ was not used. The fact that he/she was an Israelite (including proselytes) would explain why nothing needed to be said about wife and children on his departure. They would, as a family, already be within the covenant (contrast the position in Exodus 21), and therefore would not need to be divided. They would be released with him/her, for when they went out it would not be outside the covenant situation. In Exodus a non-member of the covenant was in mind, which was why the issue of what happened to his wife and children became important.

But the point is that here this Israelite is being bound by a standard Habiru contract to serve for seven years, although in fact because of the sabbath laws he/she will only be required to serve six years. He/she is to be let free in the seventh year.

Deuteronomy 15:13-14

And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty, you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, and out of your threshing-floor, and out of your winepress: as Yahweh your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.’

But because he is a brother/sister, when he is released he must be amply provided for with food of all kinds, on a level consonant with the wealth of the master who releases him. The master must give as Yahweh has blessed him and provide for him liberally with ample food and wine to take with him. He must not go away empty.

Deuteronomy 15:15

And you will remember that you were a bondsman in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God redeemed you, therefore I command you this thing today.’

And the master will do this generously because he will remember that he himself had been a bondsman in the land of Egypt, and that he himself had been delivered by Yahweh Who had bought him out of his bondage. In gratitude he will be as generous as Yahweh has been to him. It is this generosity to his bondsman that is the major emphasis here. It will bring pleasure to Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 15:16

And it shall be, if he say to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your house, because he is well with you,’

However, even an Israelite bondsman/woman may prefer such service to being released and having to face the world. We must not compare this with slavery as known in the last few hundred years. In those days such people could hold high and privileged positions and be seen as one of the family. They may well prefer to remain in their cosy sinecure. In that case they could request to become an ‘ebed ‘olam (a perpetual henchman), regularly someone of value and importance. Such slaves were known from elsewhere and are mentioned at Ugarit. This might especially appeal to an older person without family, or someone who might find it difficult to build a life on the ‘outside’. They would have a place for life in a satisfactory environment, loving and being loved.

Note here that in contrast with Exodus 21 the reason for wanting to stay is love for the master. It is totally amicable and with no constraint. There was no danger in this case (in the case of the bondsman) of him not being able to take his wife with him, for both would continue within the covenant (see for this our commentary on Exodus). But he does not want to go out because he loves his master.

Deuteronomy 15:17

Then you shall take an awl, and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant for ever. And also to your maidservant you shall do likewise.’

This ceremony is paralleled in Exodus 21 but there it is an official one before justices. It may in fact also be so here, but if it is Moses does not mention it. It may, however, be that because he/she is an Israelite it could be more informal. The fastening of the ear to the door represented him/her as becoming a member of the household for ever. He/she had been permanently adopted into the household. All would recognise their ‘attachment’ to the household.

Deuteronomy 15:18

It shall not seem hard to you, when you let him go free from you, for to the double (or ‘equivalence’) of the hire of a hireling has he served you six years, and Yahweh your God will bless you in all that you do.’

On the other hand if the person opts for freedom, the contract being ended, the master must not be grudging about it. He has after all performed double the service of a hired servant (three years - Isaiah 16:14). Or it may mean ‘the equivalent service of a hired servant’. And the master is promised that Yahweh will see his generous attitude and bless him in all he does.

The point behind all this is the generosity of spirit that must be shown, especially to fellow-members of the covenant, which will be pleasing to Yahweh, especially when worshipping at the Central Sanctuary, a matter which Moses now returns to. It goes along with their having been chosen by Yahweh and redeemed from bondage.

Not many of us have Habiru bondsmen whom we have to release. But many do release people who have been working for them for years, and all of us are sometimes obliged to people for service performed. The principle is that we too should be generous when the situation ceases.


Verses 19-23

The Consumption of the Firstborn Males in Worship Before Yahweh (Deuteronomy 15:19-23).

Moses now reintroduces the firstborn males. These are Yahweh’s because He spared them on the night of the Passover and they must therefore be sacrificed to Him, with the meat originally going to the priests. They can therefore actually represent poor people and bondsmen before Yahweh, for they represented the firstborn who were spared in Egypt who were in such a situation (Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:11-16), thus they fit very suitably here in a context of ‘the poor’. And in eating them before Yahweh, along with their servants and bondservants, the people will be assuring Him that they are being generous to the poor and to those of their brothers who experience bondage, as well as rejoicing in their own deliverance.

For fuller details with respect to firstborn males see also Exodus 34:19-20; Numbers 18:15-18; Leviticus 27:26-27. A ‘firstborn’ (bechor) from this point of view is the first male young ‘that opened the womb’ born to cattle, sheep or goats. Other ‘firstling’ males, born first in a new season but not firstborn, together with firstling females born first in a new season, or being actually firstborn but females, could be firstfruits (Exodus 22:30). Still others would be included within the tithing system whereby one out of ten who went under the rod were Yahweh’s (Leviticus 27:32-33). How these three interrelated is not made clear, but would have been well known to the priests and Levites. (Deuteronomy 12:6; Deuteronomy 12:17 are feminine and presumably refer to firstlings and not male firstborn).

Analysis in the words of Moses:

a All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and of your flock you shall sanctify to Yahweh your God (Deuteronomy 15:19 a).

b You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstling of your flock, you shall eat it before Yahweh your God year by year in the place which Yahweh shall choose, you and your household (Deuteronomy 15:19-20).

b And if it have any blemish, as if it be lame or blind, any ill blemish whatsoever, you shall not sacrifice it to Yahweh your God, you shall eat it within your gates, the unclean and the clean shall eat it alike, as the gazelle, and as the hart (Deuteronomy 15:21-22).

a Only you shall not eat its blood, you shall pour it out on the ground as water (Deuteronomy 15:23).

Note that in ‘a’ the firstborn males are set apart in holiness to Yahweh, and in the parallel the blood is especially set apart to Yahweh. In ‘b’ its ‘unblemished state’ must be preserved by not working with it or shearing it and it must be eaten before Yahweh their God in the place which He chooses, and in the parallel if it is blemished they may eat it in their cities and not sacrifice it to Yahweh their God.

Deuteronomy 15:19

All the firstborn males that are born of your herd and of your flock you shall sanctify to Yahweh your God. You shall do no work with the firstborn of your herd, nor shear the firstling of your flock.’

The recognised responsibility is reasserted here. All the firstborn males born to herd or flock, that is the first male young that opened their womb, were to be seen as holy to Yahweh, being separated off for Him so that they could be taken to the place where Yahweh had chosen to dwell, to be presented to Him. And they were so seriously ‘holy’ (separated off to Yahweh as His) that no personal advantage was to be taken of them. No work must be done with them and they were not to be sheared. They must be kept pure from earthly activity. They were Yahweh’s right from the start and were to be treated as such. They were in total contrast with the poor and the bondspeople who both had to work, and metaphorically could be ‘fleeced’. But those who ate the firstborn would remember what they themselves had been and how Yahweh had spared their firstborns and would behave rightly to the poor.

Exodus 22:30 says that the firstborn must be given to Yahweh on the eighth day as soon as they were weaned. They were then ‘made holy’. From that point on they were separated off as Yahweh’s. That is why they were not to be worked or sheared. Leviticus 27:26-27 stresses that they could not be sanctified by man. This was because as they already belonged to Yahweh and were therefore already sanctified they could not be further sanctified so as to make them a freewill gift or in respect of an oath. They were already Yahweh’s. Numbers 18:15-18 declares that when offered on the altar the flesh was to be the priests. They were at their disposal. It was thus probably due to expanding herds and flocks and their subsequent fruitfulness that the level of meat available became so large that the priests made much of it available to those households which brought them to the Central Sanctuary, for none who were clean and were there to worship ‘before Yahweh’ were anywhere forbidden to eat of the firstborns. As Yahweh’s people they were holy and could thus partake of holy things of this level of holiness.

Deuteronomy 15:20

You shall eat it before Yahweh your God year by year in the place which Yahweh shall choose, you and your household.’

So the firstborns were to be taken to the Sanctuary year by year, in the year that they were born, by a household representative, and presented to Yahweh in the place which Yahweh would choose, there to be offered as a sacrifice (although that is not mentioned in Deuteronomy. It is the eating that is the emphasis in Deuteronomy), after which they and their household could receive a share of them from the priests and consume them before Yahweh in a joyous religious feast in the place to which Yahweh had chosen to welcome them. And they could do it with a clear conscience because they had treated the poor well.

Deuteronomy 15:21-22

And if it have any blemish, as if it be lame or blind, any ill blemish whatsoever, you shall not sacrifice it to Yahweh your God, you shall eat it within your gates, the unclean and the clean shall eat it alike, as the gazelle, and as the hart.’

However, if the firstborn turned out to be blemished prior to this, whether through lameness, or blindness, or any other blemish whatsoever, it must not be taken to the sanctuary and presented before Yahweh, or be sacrificed to Him, it must be eaten at home (within their gates), and in this case both clean and unclean could partake of it for it is like the gazelle and the hart, clean, eatable but no longer sacred. The impression given, however, is that there was not the alternative of it being retained. It must be eaten. For it had at one stage been set apart to Yahweh.

The reason why something blemished could not be offered to Yahweh is the same as that which excludes the ‘unclean’. It was because they came short of perfection. To offer them to Yahweh or bring them to Yahweh would thus be an insult, for He is deserving of the very best. It is not that God looks with disfavour on the blemished, it is that man should not even consider offering such. The principle stresses to all men the perfection of God, and that only the best should be offered to Him.

Deuteronomy 15:23

Only you shall not eat its blood, you shall pour it out on the ground as water.’

But as always the blood must not be eaten or drunk. It must be poured out on the ground to Yahweh like an offering of water.

The lesson for us from the firstlings is that just as Israel gave of the first of all they received to God because He had delivered them from Egypt, only to receive some back again, so must we give the first of all we receive in gratitude to God, looking to Him to discover what we should do with it. The practise may need to be worked out, but the principle is clear, gratitude for what He gives us, and gratitude especially for His great Deliverance in Jesus Christ for which we should be willing to give Him all things.

We should note now that there has been a constant theme which has been running through the last four chapters. In Deuteronomy 12 the thought was of coming to the place which Yahweh would choose where they would joyfully worship Him. Deuteronomy 13 gave the warning against turning from this joyous situation by listening to deviant voices. Deuteronomy 14 warned against those who enjoyed such joyful worship spoiling themselves by contact with what was unwholesome, and then stressed the need for provision to all the needy. Deuteronomy 15 has warned against allowing the land to be defiled by wrong attitudes to the poor, and by allowing the poor to suffer. All this has then been summed up by their partaking of the firstlings in joyous worship, the firstlings which in themselves represented those who had themselves been in bondage. They can partake of such with joy because in their lives they are revealing the true spirit of Yahweh.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 15:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-15.html. 2013.

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