Thinking on Scripture with Dr. Steven R. Cook

Deuteronomy 15:12-18 - Slavery in Israel

August 28, 2021

     In this pericope, Moses addresses the subject of voluntary slavery in Israel, where a man or woman committed themselves to a period of service in order to pay off a debt. In this situation, the master could not require more than six years of service and was directed to release the slave from his/her debt in the seventh year. Furthermore, the wealthy were required to send the servant away with a generous supply of resources—a severance package—to help jumpstart their freedom and personal success.

     Moses opens this section, saying, “If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free” (Deut 15:12). If a person owed a debt to another Israelite that he/she could not pay, the Mosaic Law granted that person the right to commit themselves to six years of contractual servitude in order to pay off what they owed. This allowed for economic integrity in the community in which a person could and should pay off their debts. However, God limited the servitude to six years, and in the seventh year, the servant was required to be set free from the mutual contract agreement. This verse shows that poor slaves had rights under God’s economy. This seven-year agreement is different than the seven years mentioned in Deuteronomy 15:1-11. Here, the seven-year agreement begins when the contract starts.

     Furthermore, God obligates the master to set his servant free with a generous severance package. Moses wrote, “When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you” (Deut 15:13-14). The liberal distribution of resources was a severance package of animals, grain, and wine, all intended to help kickstart the former servant’s own economic independence. Warren Wiersbe states:

  • "Servants were to be released after six years of service, whether the seventh year was the Sabbath Year or not. This law assumes that the man’s six years of service without a salary had adequately repaid the loan. But once again, the Lord commanded generosity, for the masters were to send their servants away bearing gifts that would help them start life over again, including livestock, grain, and wine. After all, when the Jews left Egypt, they received expensive gifts in return for their years of enslavement (Ex 11:2; 12:35-36), so why shouldn’t a Jewish brother be rewarded for six years of faithful labor to a fellow Jew?"[1]

     Here, we see economic integrity being preserved, as a person was given the option to pay off debts by means of selling himself into service to another. But we also see the principle of love and generosity in Moses’ words. Such love and generosity was consistent with the character of God as well as His past actions toward the nation as a whole. Moses wrote, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore, I command you this today” (Deut 15:15). The word remember translates the Hebrew verb זָכַר zakar means to call to mind, and implies intentionality. God’s people were commanded to remember their past servitude in Egypt, as that memory was to have a direct influence on how they treated others who were less fortunate than themselves. God loved them, liberated them, and pulled them out of Egypt with much silver and gold (Ex 12:35-36). This wealth enabled Israel to jumpstart their own economy when they entered into Canaan. Likewise, God’s people were to model God’s generosity and help their fellow Israelite succeed. Eugene Merrill states:

  • "The rationale for this was the comparable situation in which Israel had found itself in Egypt. There they had been pressed into slavery, cruelly mistreated, but at last delivered by the redemptive grace and power of God. But even the Egyptians had sent them away with provisions to tide them over until they could stand on their own feet (Ex 12:35-36). If this mighty act of redemption was carried out by the Lord on Israel’s behalf, how much more should the beneficiaries of that goodness be quick to exercise it on behalf of their financially oppressed brothers and sisters (Deut 15:14b-15)."[2]

     But there was another possibility open to the master and servant. Moses said, “It shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; 17 then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also, you shall do likewise to your maidservant” (Deut 15:16-17). In this situation, the master proves to be a good man who loves the Lord and honors His Word and cares for those in his service. The servant recognizes the one he serves is a good man who cares for him and meets his needs. As a result, the servant feels loved and loves in return. In this relationship, the servant voluntarily offers to remain in service to his master for the remainder of his life, surrendering his independence, believing he will be loved and cared for until the end of his days. If the master agreed, then the two would seal the arrangement with a ceremony in which the servant would have an awl driven through his ear in front of God and others. The hole in the ear—or maybe an earring—served as a public statement that this master and servant saw each other’s value and freely consented to a lifetime of work together. And this would be initiated by the servant because of his love for the one he served. Warren Wiersbe writes:

  • "During those six years of service, the debtor might come to love the host family and want to stay with them. Or, he might have gotten married during that time, have a family, and want to remain with them. If that was the debtor’s choice, he would be taken to the judges where his decision would be officially recognized. Then his master would bore a hole in his ear to mark him as a willing servant for life. A female servant could make the same choice, but see Exodus 21:7-11 for special provisions."[3]

     Moses, returning to the original scenario, in which a servant would be set free with a generous severance package after six years, states, “It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do” (Deut 15:18). When it came time for the master to release his servant after six years of service, he was to be motivated by two factors: first, he had benefitted from the servant’s labor that would have cost him twice as much if he’d hired someone to perform the same work. Second, God promised to bless him for obeying His directive, a theme of blessing God had promised to others if they obeyed (see Deut 15:4, 6, 10).

 

[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Equipped, “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub., 1999), 104.

[2] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 246.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Equipped, “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub., 1999), 104.

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