12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 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. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. 18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-18 ESV
The people of God were supposed to stand out from all the rest of the nations living in and around the land of Canaan. Their unique status as God’s chosen people placed upon them an obligation to live according to His will for them and that will was all-inclusive, covering every aspect of their lives. God made no allowance for compartmentalization. In other words, He left no area of daily life untouched or outside the pervue of His divine decrees. Everything about them was to reflect their unparalleled relationship with Him. From God’s perspective they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV) and “a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV).
In this passage, we see Moses dealing with a topic that causes some unease and uncertainty for our modern and more enlightened sensibilities. He addresses the issue of slavery. But it’s important that we grasp the cultural context and understand the true nature of the kind of slavery being discussed. It’s easy for us to read this text and use our contemporary understandings of slavery to define what Moses is talking about. We conjure up images of slave ships and innocent people being ripped from their homes and forced into servitude and bondage against their wills. And while that form of slavery was widespread during the time in which the book of Deuteronomy was written, Moses is dealing with something different altogether.
As was seen in the previous verses, God had made provision for the needy among the Israelites. He had given the nation a series of commands designed to provide ongiong care for those who were suffering from any form of physical or financial need. And Moses had told them, “there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV).
One of the primary means by which a destitute individual could seek relief was by willingly offering themselves as a servant to one of their fellow Hebrews. It was a matter of economics and a question of survival. The individual in need took the initiative, offering their services in exchange for food and shelter. That’s how Moses describes it:
“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant…” – Deuteronomy 15:12 NLT
This was not a case of forced slavery, but voluntary servitude. This system provided an opportunity for the financially prosperous to help their less-fortunate brothers and sisters. But, like all well-intentioned welfare programs, this one could easily be abused. So, God set up conditions and parameters to guide the Israelites in their practice of this essential community assistance program. Moses informed the people that this servant/master relationship was to be governed by the sabbatical year. After six years of continual service, the one who had sold themselves into slavery was to be released.
“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free.” – Deuteronomy 15:12 NLT
The covenant or agreement made between the two parties was absolved by the sabbatical year. For six years they had enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby the destitute individual was able to live in relative comfort while their benefactor enjoyed the benefit of relatively low-cost labor. And this business-like arrangement helped to curtail the number of needy families within the Israelite community.
Even when the time of release came, the master was to bless his servant with a gift. They were not to simply cancel the contract and send their former servant out on their own. To do so would have forced the servant back into their original condition of poverty. So, to prevent that from happening, God required the master to “bless” their departing servant with a gift.
“When you release a male servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” – Deuteronomy 15:13-14 NLT
They were to bless their former servant as they had been blessed by God: graciously and generously. And Moses reminded them that they were still on the upside in this exchange because they had enjoyed six years of drastically reduced labor costs while the servant had been in their employ.
“You must not consider it a hardship when you release your servants. Remember that for six years they have given you services worth double the wages of hired workers…” – Deuteronomy 15:18 NLT
And God provided another vital condition to this master/servant relationship. If the sabbatical year arrived, the servant could voluntarily choose to remain with his master. After six years, they could determine that the arrangement they had was preferable to starting out on their own and, as a result, they could offer to extend the original agreement.
“But suppose your servant says, ‘I will not leave you,’ because he loves you and your family, and he has done well with you. In that case, take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door. After that, he will be your servant for life. And do the same for your female servants.” – Deuteronomy 15:16-17 NLT
Again, it is essential that we understand that voluntary nature of this transaction. No one is being forced into slavery. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement based on love and the well-being of both parties.
Ultimately, God was concerned about the integrity of His name. He had set apart the entire nation of Israel – including every man, woman, and child. His call was not based on economic status, gender, age, or social standing. The entire nation belonged to Him and thåe manner in which they treated one another was going to reflect on Him – either positively or negatively. So, He provided a range of regulations and rules to govern their corporate behavior. Nothing was left out. There was no secular-sacred split. God refused to turn a blind eye to any area of their lives. He expected and demanded complete dedication from His people. Their actions and attitudes mattered. And each and every Israelite was to be considered as a vital part of the family of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.