35 “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. 38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.
39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.” – Leviticus 25:35-46 ESV
In this section, God deals with the issue of poverty among the people of Israel. It was an inevitable and unavoidable reality that some within the Israelite community would end up impoverished and in need of assistance. God has already addressed the future scenario of someone having to sell their land to pay off debts. Now, He deals with how the community was to respond to the less fortunate among them. The poor were to be treated fairly and with compassion.
“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident and allow him to live with you.” – Leviticus 25:35 NLT
The Hebrew word that is translated as “brother” in the ESV is (‘āḥ), which can refer to a brother of the same parents, a half-brother, a member of the same clan or tribe, or, more broadly, a fellow Israelite. Since God’s focus throughout this chapter has been on the national celebration of the Year of Jubilee, it would seem that He is dealing with the much broader level of the Israelite community and not just a familial relationship. The same terminology is used in the book of Deuteronomy where God prohibits the Israelites from charging of interest to a “brother.”
““You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. 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.” – Deuteronomy 23:19-20 ESV
It makes more sense to view this from the much broader perspective of the brotherhood that existed between all Israelites. As the chosen people of God, they were to care for their own. God expected His people to show mercy and extend grace to one another. The poor were never to be treated as second-class citizens or to be taken advantage of because of their unfortunate circumstances. Instead, the Israelites were to provide them with assistance which include food and shelter, as well as interest-free loans. God commanded that they treat these individuals like family.
“…show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative.” – Leviticus 25:36 NLT
God reminds His people that there was a time when they were poor and enslaved, but He had shown them mercy and graciously provided for all their needs.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.” – Leviticus 25:38 NLT
When they were living as nothing more than slaves in Egypt, God treated them like family and provided them with freedom, food, and the promise of a land to call their own. He welcomed them with open arms and guaranteed them a part of His inheritance. Now, He was asking the Israelites to do the same with one another.
When the Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan, they would each receive their portion of the inheritance. But despite the graciousness and goodness of God, some would still end up in poverty. Human nature and sin would combine to create less-than-ideal outcomes that left some among the people of God destitute and desperate. Financial ruin would drive some to take drastic measures, such as selling themselves as servants to their wealthier Israelite neighbors. But God had already made provision for such circumstances in His diving of the Book of the Covenant.
“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. If he was single when he became your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him.” – Exodus 21:2-3 NLT
And God would later reiterate this command and provide further conditions concerning the release of these indentured servants.
“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.
“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. Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you! That is why I am giving you this command.” – Deuteronomy 15:12-15 NLT
The Israelites were never to exploit the less fortunate among them. They were to recognize that the rich and the poor were all equal in the eyes of God. He showed no partiality but treated all His children fairly and justly, and expected them to do the same.
“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 10:17-19 NLT
God wanted the Israelites to remember that He considered each of them His servants and, as such, they were not to enslave one another. Pharaoh had attempted to enslave God’s people and suffered deadly consequences for his actions, and the people of Israel were not to avoid repeating his mistake. An indentured servant was never to be treated as a slave, and they could not be sold like property. While an individual was paying off his debt in the employment of a fellow Israelite, he was to be treated fairly and justly. And when the sabbatical year came, he was to be set free and provided with a generous gift to assist him in rebuilding his life within the community.
But in verses 44-46, God deals with the highly uncomfortable and unpopular topic of slavery. And, in this case, He is not talking about Israelites paying off their debts as indentured servants; He is dealing with foreign slaves.
“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way.” – Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT
Passages like this one are difficult to reconcile and explain. They seem to fly in the face of our more modern and enlightened sensibilities. They appear to paint God in a negative light, portraying Him as supportive of the institution of slavery. But is God actually sanctioning the enslavement of human beings or is He attempting to regulate what had become a ubiquitous and inevitable part of the fallen world?
“Because men and women are sinners and live in a fallen world, such things as divorce, and we can add for our purposes, slavery, occur. It is sadly a part of the human experience, and the Bible sets out to first regulate treatment of slaves and the to set the grounds for slavery’s elimination. The Bible makes is clear that slaves were not mere chattel but had God-given protections and certain rights (e.g., Exodus 21:7-11). For example, a runaway slave from a foreign country was not to be returned to his master (Deuteronomy 23:15, 16). The motivation for gentler treatment of slaves was theological: The Israelites had once been slaves in Egypt whom God had delivered. The cruelty that they experienced in Egypt was not tolerated in Israel.” – Kenneth A. Matthew, Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People
Over the centuries, many have expressed disappointment and even disdain for the Bible’s lack of an outright ban on the institution of slavery. After all, in His declaration of the Decalogue, God clearly outlawed murder. But consider the fact that He did not prohibit war. In fact, God would later sanction and even participate in the battles between His people and the nations of the earth. God also declared the marriage union to be indissoluble and binding (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 9:5-6). Yet, despite God’s hatred for divorce (Malachi 2:16), He made concessions for it because He knew that, because of sin, it was inevitable (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). God, who never changes, did not alter His view on divorce but made provisions for its inevitable presence among His people. Because of their sinful natures, they would follow the ways of the world and choose to disobey His commands regarding everything from divorce, murder, sexual immorality, and slavery. And when these egregious activities showed up among His people, God provided guidelines for dealing with them. He did not eradicate all sin among His people but provided them with wise and righteous laws to regulate how they were to live in a fallen world filled with all kinds of ungodly temptations.
Fast forward to the New Testament and the apostle Paul provides a new perspective on the issue of slavery based on the death and resurrection of Jesus. With Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, He leveled the playing field, making salvation available to any and all, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or social standing.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 ESV
Paul did not call for the elimination of all slavery. It was an accepted part of the social fabric of his day. But Paul was not an advocate of the institution of slavery. Instead, he was a proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which was accessible to all people from every walk of life.
It is interesting to note that God had allowed His own people to live as slaves for centuries before He released them from their captivity. And even after their miraculous deliverance from the evils of slavery, the Israelites would find it tempting to enslave others. Their release did not naturally create a revulsion for the institution of slavery. Just as they were predisposed to lying, cheating, sexual immorality, and idolatry, they would be drawn to the allure of slavery as a form of power and control. God knew His people would follow the ways of the world, so He provided them with stringent guidelines that were intended to separate them from all the other nations.
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.