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Really! Leviticus 25:35-55 (Part 3)

May 8, 2009

In this third installment on Leviticus 25:35-55, we will look at the actual passage. I know. Three days just to get to the passage. Tomorrow, I’ll try to post the last section. it deals with how this relates to us today. Thanks for reading. I hope these posts are beneficial to you. Please comment and let me, and everyone else, know what you think.

If Leviticus 25:13-34 deals with the effects of the year of jubilee on the Israelites possession of property, verses 35-55 deals with its effects on the personal freedom of the Israelites. This passage is where we will focus most of the rest of our attention. There are three levels of poverty which are dealt with in the last half of Leviticus chapter 25. The three sections of this passage deal with each level of poverty, prescribe certain obligations with regard to the poor, inform the reader of God’s purpose for requiring these obligations, and give a reason which should motivate the Israelite to obey.

The first type of poverty, addressed in verses 35-38, is a temporary and less serious one. Today we would call this a “cash flow problem”. In farming terms, it would be the result of a bad year, or at least of a bad crop. The Israelite is short of funds and may not have the means to provide for his family until the next crop can be harvested. He may not even have the means to purchase seed so that he can sow his fields. What is needed is enough food and provisions to get by until the next crop or enough finances to plant the next season’s crop. God’s solution is a “no-interest loan”. This solves the current shortfall, provides for future income, and does this in a way that does not punish the individual. Harris (citing E. A. Speiser, Oriental and Biblical Studies, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967) seems to hold the view that this is not simply a loan without interest. The borrower could be charged interest, just not beyond the usual regulations. If the borrower was unable to repay the loan and put himself into servant-hood, he could not be charged additional interest. (Harris, p. 639) In my opinion, a plain reading of the text does not justify this conclusion. Verses 36-37 say, “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.” According to Currid,

This interdiction against usury is unique in the ancient Near East. In all other cultures of the time, usury was allowed with some restrictions. The reason that Israel’s laws on usury are unique is that they are a people freed from the bondage of Egypt by the hand of a merciful and gracious God. (Currid, p. 337)

An interest bearing loan is highly undesirable, and for good reason. First, it is not good for the recipient of the loan. To charge him interest in his hour of need is to further handicap him. Interest would tend to promote and perpetuate poverty, not solve it. Neither is loaning money at interest good for the lender. When a brother is in distress, charging interest is not showing compassion, but it is taking advantage of his weakness and vulnerability. The loan becomes not an act of charity, but a business activity. The lender is not demonstrating the grace of God, of which he is the recipient. There are other factors which assure that this loan is an act of charity, rather than a business loan. In Deuteronomy 15:1-2, God instructed the Israelites that they must cancel all unpaid debts on the seventh year. Additionally, when loaning a brother money, no consideration could be as to how soon the cancellation year was (Deuteronomy 15:9-10). Not only was the generous Israelite not able to make money on the loan, he was not even assured that he would be paid back. The temporarily distressed Israelite brother should be helped toward recovery with a no interest loan which avoids placing him in greater bondage.

The next two categories of poverty are much more serious and long-term. These categories of poverty would result in the debtor being forced to sell himself, either to a fellow Israelite (vv. 39-46) or to a stranger or sojourner among them (vv. 47-55). One instance in the Old Testament where this kind of slavery was threatened or occurred is found in 2 Kings 4.

Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” (2 Kings 4:1)

This sad story ends well, as Elisha had the woman and her sons gather vessels and pour into them from her little jar of oil. This paid her debt and provided her income.

Verses 39-43 give instructions to the Israelites on how to deal with another Israelite brother who became their slave due to dire poverty. He is not to be treated as a slave, but as a hired servant or a day laborer. Hartley says:

The master thus is to treat his Israelite servant as… “a hired servant.” [This] does not mean that he will receive regular wages, though he might receive some remuneration in addition to shelter and food, but that he will be treated with the respect shown a hired worker and his tasks will be similar to those of a hired worker. In Jewish tradition, a Jewish slave is to be employed at his own trade. (Hartley)

The reason Israelite slaves were to be treated this way is found in verses 42-43: “For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.” Israelites of Moses’ day did not need to be told about being ruled over ruthlessly. They had experienced this at the hands of the Egyptians, who were cruel taskmasters (Exodus 1:8-14). Currid adds this:

The theological foundation for the way in which the Hebrews deal with servants si set out here. The Hebrews are God’s “servants”, or “slaves”; they are his property. He took them out of slavery in Egypt to become his servants / slaves. That is an important concept – the only permanent and true master that a Hebrew has is God. (Currid, 338-339)

Verses 44-46 give the instructions for Israelite treatment of non-Israelite slaves. These slaves were not to be treated harshly, but they could be owned and passed from generation to generation. A major distinction between Israelite servants and non-Israelite slaves is that the Israelite had to be released at the year of Jubilee. It appears from the text that it is permissible for Hebrews to take as true slaves from non-Hebrew people. Stedman explains it like this:

No Israelite was to be a slave. They were permitted to make slaves of the people around them, because those people hadn’t yet discovered the principle which makes for liberty – atonement and redemption – and until a person learns that, there is no freedom from slavery. But when they did learn that and became part of Israel they were never to be make slaves. They could be servants but never slaves. (Stedman)

The third level of poverty is described in verses 47-55. These verses assume that a foreigner sojourning among them could prosper, just as it assumes that a Hebrew can become impoverished. The rules for treating the Hebrew servant are the same as if he were in the employ of another Israelite. He was not to be treated ruthlessly and he was to be released at the year of Jubilee. The major difference is the right of redemption. A family member could redeem this Israelite servant. If he were able to accumulate enough wealth, he could redeem himself. The cost of this redemption was calculated based on the number of years until the next year of jubilee (vv. 50-52). Constable describes it like this:

Israelites could also buy back (redeem) their countrymen who had sold themselves as slaves to non-Israelites who were living in the land (vv. 47-55). An Israelite slave could also buy back his own freedom. In these cases the Israelites were to calculate the cost of redemption in view of the approaching year of jubilee when all slaves in the land went free anyway. (Constable, p. 98)

The basis of the treatment and release at jubilee of the Hebrew servant was the same whether he was the servant of another Hebrew or a non-Hebrew. As verse 55 says, “They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

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