15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.
17 “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute. 18 You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.
19 “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
21 “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. 22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. 23 You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth.
24 “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.” – Deuteronomy 23:15-25 ESV
Moses now moves his point of emphasis from times of war to the everyday affairs of life. There would be periods of peace in Israel and during these times the men of war would return home to the normal circumstances of life. These occasions would call for an additional set of regulations to govern a wide range of situations, and Moses left nothing up to chance.
The first scenario involves an escaped slave. The context seems to indicate that this fugitive slave has arrived in Israel from a distant land. This does not appear to be a reference to an indentured servant. There were slaves in Israel, but many of these individuals were fellow Israelites whose financial circumstances had obligated them to take on the role of a household servant in order to pay a debt they owed. And there were very strict rules regarding the treatment of these fellow Israelites, including the Year of Jubilee, when theses servants were to be set free and their debt wiped clean.
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. – Exodus 21:2 NLT
The reference to an escaped slave found in verses 15-16 would appear to be dealing with a foreign slave who has shown up in Israel seeking refuge. In this case, there would be no obligation to return the slave to his master, because the master would be considered a pagan. Any rules concerning Hebrew slaves would not apply in this case. But if an escaped slave showed up in Israel seeking asylum, they were to be treated with compassion and given the right to settle anywhere within the borders of Israel. These individuals were not be oppressed or treated like property. Instead, they were to be extended every courtesy and considered as a guest of the nation.
The very fact that the Bible deals with the topic of slavery yet never explicitly demands its abolition, leaves many modern-day Christians confused. Non-Christians have used the Bible’s seeming silence regarding the issue of slavery as a reason for rejecting the faith. But it is important to remember that the Bible is to be read and observed in its entirety. As a book, it covers a great stretch of time and deals with a wide range of social issues. The Bible neither condemns or condones slavery. Slavery, like so many other social aberrations, was the direct result of the fall. When sin entered the scene, not only was man’s relationship with God damanged, but the interpersonal dynamic between individuals changed for the worse. Not long after Adam and Eve rebelled against God, one of their own sons murdered his brother. And it goes downhill from there. The Bible is not about God telling man how to restore everything back to the way it was before the fall. It is about God revealing just how bad man’s spiritual condition had become because of the fall.
All of these laws given to the Israelites were designed to reveal man’s inherent sinfulness. The apostle Paul answers the age-old question, “Why, then, was the law given?” by stating, “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins” (Galatians 19 NLT). He wrote the very same thing to the believers in Rome.
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT
The Mosaic Law was not intended to rectify all of man’s sinful inclinations. But it was meant to regulate behavior. Without the law, men would not even be aware that what they were doing was sin. Again, Paul provides us with a clarification on the purpose of the law.
I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” – Romans 7:7 NIV
Murder, slavery, adultery, lust, rape, incest – all of these things are the sad and inevitable outcomes of the fall. Everything has been perverted. The entire creation has been marred by sin. And the Scriptures provides an overview of mankind’s relationship with God ever since the entrance of sin into His creation. The answer to the problem of slavery is not its abolition, but the redemption of mankind from slavery to sin. Telling sinful human beings not to enslave one another would be no more effective then demanding that they not lust after one another. The underlying problem is the heart.
So, all of these scenarios deal with what were everyday issues confronting the Israelites. Slavery was an everyday part of life because mankind was plagued by sin. And the second scenario deals with an other common problem during that day: Cult prostitution. We don’t react to this quite like we could slavery, but it was just as egregious a problem. The pagan nations surrounding Israel had incorporated sexual immorality into the worship of their false gods. But God prohibited Israel from emulating these pagan practices. They were forbidden from allowing their sons and daughters to serve as cult prostitutes. This kind of immoral practice was off-limits for the Israelites. And they were not allowed to use any money earned through this activity as a form of tithe or offering. In essense, Moses was preventing the Israelites from rationalizing their immoral behavior through apparent acts of righteousness.
The final set of regulations seem disconnected and dissimilar. But they all have to do with the interpersonal relationships between members of the covenant community of Israel. God placed a high priority on these relationships, providing the Israelites with very specific regulations regarding their actions toward one another. They were not allowed to charge one another interest. They could loan one another money, but they were not to do so in order to make a profit. This was really intended as a kind of social welfare system, designed to ensure that no Israelite was ever in need. But God allowed the charging of interest to non-Jews.
If an Israelite made a vow, he was expected to keep it. Vowing to do something in God’s name was to be taken seriously. It was a promise that was guaranteed by the holiness and integrity of God. To fail to keep that commitment was a grave sin. So, it was better not to vow at all, since the making of a vow was totally voluntary. Failing to keep your commitments was to be seen as unacceptable behavior among the Israelites. Jesus provided an important clarification on this matter in His Sermon on the Mount.
“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows!…
“Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-34, 37 NLT
The final verses in this section deal with the sharing of one’s resources. If an Israelite was passing through another man’s vineyard or field of grain, he was free to gather enough food to sustain him on his journey. In other words, he could meet his immediate need for food, but he was not allowed to harvest the crops belonging to another man. To do so would be theft. But as long as he was taking just enough grapes to satisfy his hunger, he was free to do so. The Israelites were expected to care for the needs of one another, but they were also respect one another’s rights.
All of these regulations were intended to govern the everyday lives of the people of Israel. They cover with a wide range of topics, but they all deal with the daily interactions between the people of God. The nation of Israel had been set apart by God and were expected to glorify His name through the way they lived their lives. While the nations around them were operating according to their sin natures, Israel had been provided with the Mosaic Law, a gracious gift from God designed to expose their own sinful dispositions and remind them of the holiness of their 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.