Moses' fourth speech, Part 11
Nov 16, 2012
After addressing the poor and their right to receive a year-long vacation of rest during the Sabbatic year, Moses then returns to that topic. He tells Israel how to ensure a true Sabbath rest for those slaves in Deuteronomy 15:12-15,
12 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. 13 And 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. 15 And 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.
Our interpretation of this passage must be consistent with the rest of the law, which Moses presumes that we already understand. He specifies Hebrew servants in this case, not to contrast them with foreigners who have joined themselves to the covenant of God, but foreigners who were conquered and enslaved against their will.
In either case, of course, the slave master ought to manifest the love of God and the mind of Christ to all men, slave or free. If they did so, it may not be long until life-long slaves became believers as well and might wish to remain in the Kingdom, rather than to return to their original homeland. Moses himself does not tell us what to do in such a case, but the answer is not hard to find in the spirit of the New Covenant.
Moses leaves it to the discretion of the slave master to deal with foreign slaves. Obviously, the slave master has the right to retain the slave or to set him free. His discretion also applies to the Sabbath year release. In a more perfect world, a slave master would teach him the ways of God, both by word and by example, and if he responded by faith in God, the slave master may well be led of the Spirit to set him free.
In other words, there is no law demanding that a foreign slave be kept in perpetual slavery. The law protects the property rights of Kingdom citizens, and also protects their right to set their slaves free. Beyond this, the law protects God’s rights as the ultimate Landlord (Leviticus 25:23), including His ultimate ownership of all men who are made of the dust of the ground. For this reason, God had the right to legislate proper treatment of slaves, and any slave that was abused was to be set free (Exodus 21:26, 27).
Yet the law remains unclear on the distinctions between foreign and domestic slaves. In all such cases, it is the job of later prophets, Jesus, and the apostles to clarify the law. Even Moses himself had to seek clarification when such issues arose in his day—such as the Passover issue that needed clarification in Numbers 9:1-14.
In mandating that a Hebrew slave must be set free in the Sabbatic year, Moses also leaves another point of law unclear. He does not distinguish between those who were merely poor and those who had incurred debt on account of sin. It is clear by the context, however, that Moses had the poor in mind and not those who had been sold into slavery on account of their inability to pay restitution (Exodus 22:3). After all, in the flow of Moses’ fourth speech, he had just talked about the poor of the land. Hence, this was his next point of law regarding their treatment of the poor.
Moses had told the people that they were to be generous with the poor, even if the Sabbatic year was drawing near. In that context, he speaks of the Sabbatic year itself in relation to the poor of the land. The clear implication is that an impoverished Hebrew man or woman in the Kingdom may find it necessary or preferable to contract his/her labor to a more prosperous family and their land inheritance. Such an arrangement was to be limited to six years at a time, followed by a rest year, and afterward the same person is free to contract again if he wishes.
During those six years, the slave would have access to the resources of the master—food, housing, clothing, and whatever else was needed to live normally. In other words, the slave needed—and did not receive—a separate income, unless the master decided to grant him an allowance for discretionary spending.
Moses’ concern in this passage was how the master treated the slave at the end of the six years, when it came time to release the slaves. Such a release meant that the slave was free to go, but it also meant that the slave had to support himself during the following year. Being released from the master’s authority also meant being released from responsibility to care for the slave. If slaves were released with no provisions and no money, their condition could be very serious indeed. Hence, Moses says in Deuteronomy 15:13,
13 And when you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed.
While there is no penalty attached to this law, nor is there a specified amount of provision that must be given, the mind of Christ is set forth in this law very clearly. If the freed slave believes that the master has not sufficiently fulfilled the will of God, but has been too stingy, it is doubtful that he could find relief in the earthly court at the gate of the city. Perhaps the judges might talk to the stingy slave owner, but their authority was limited, because of the lack of penalties associated with the violation of this law.
The freed slave, however, could always appeal to the divine court and allow God to judge his case. The divine court is always available as a final Appeals Court when any man believes that he has been denied justice.
Even so, we are given one particular example of how God expected the slave masters to be generous in releasing their slaves. It is found in Exodus 12:35 and 36, when the Israelites left their Egyptian slave masters:
35 Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; 36 and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.
As many have pointed out, this was their back pay for many decades in which they labored without even being given Sabbatic years. This was God’s example of how to release slaves when the slave masters were reluctant. By the time the tenth plague had struck Egypt, the Egyptians were very generous, and, in fact, many Egyptians came out with the Israelites (Exodus 12:38).
And so, Moses had reason to remind Israel of the manner in which God had released them earlier. The slave masters in Israel were to follow His example that was evident at the time of their exodus from Egypt. Hence, Moses says in Deuteronomy 15:15,
15 And 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.
Many years later we find that the people of Judah had rejected this law of release. In the years leading to their deportation to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah appealed to them to reinstate this law. He said that if they would release their slaves in that final Sabbatic year before the divine judgment was due, God would do the same for them and release them from the impending time of enslavement to Babylon.
It was the year 589-588 B.C., the 35th year of their 17th Jubilee cycle since Israel crossed the Jordan River under Joshua. The final three-year siege of Jerusalem had just begun. At this last minute, God told Jeremiah to go to King Zedekiah and tell him that God would spare the city if the people would just set their slaves free (Jeremiah 34). For all of their violations of the law, if they would just keep this one law as a good faith measure, then God would cancel their entire debt incurred by their sin.
In Jeremiah 34:9 the prophet reminded them of the law of Moses,
9 that each man should set free his male servant and each man his female servant, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, so that no one should keep them, a Jew [Judahite] his brother, in bondage.
Verse 10 says that they agreed to set the slaves free, but verse 11 says that afterward they changed their minds and refused once again to release their slaves. Thus, they foolishly despised their golden opportunity to divert judgment. Slaves were so important to them that they were willing to disobey God and to violate His law in order to keep them. Because they refused to keep even this single law, God allowed the judgment to proceed as scheduled.
Keep in mind that these slave owners were the same people who continued to worship God at the temple in Jerusalem. They worshipped God, but refused to obey any laws of God which interfered with their presumed right to oppress others.
And so, because the people had refused to keep their Sabbath years and Jubilees in years past, God sent them into captivity. In my book, Secrets of Time, I showed how they owed God seventy years which they had refused to observe, and thus God sent them away, giving the land itself the 70-year rest that it had been denied (2 Chronicles 36:21).
This is the eleventh part of a series titled "Moses' Fourth Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.