If You Won’t, God Will

47 “If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, 48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49 or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself. 50 He shall calculate with his buyer from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his sale shall vary with the number of years. The time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired worker. 51 If there are still many years left, he shall pay proportionately for his redemption some of his sale price. 52 If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall calculate and pay for his redemption in proportion to his years of service. 53 He shall treat him as a worker hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight. 54 And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee. 55 For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 25:47-55 ESV

God provides one final example of an Israelite who has hit upon hard times and has been forced to seek recourse by selling himself to a “stranger or sojourner” living among them. This is a reference to a non-Israelite or foreigner. What God describes here would have been considered a travesty because it revealed that this destitute Israelite had no other options. No one within the community of faith had come to his aid (verse 35). There wasn’t even a fellow Israelite willing to make this man his indentured servant. Desperate to alleviate his own debt and care for his family, the man was forced to sell himself to someone outside the family of God.

“This would be on the face of it an embarrassment and the opposite of what God had in mind for his people. Foreigners in God’s economy were not to rule over the covenant people. Foreigners were welcomed and well treated by the Hebrews, but they were to be under the social orbit of the native Israelites. Israelites were permitted to purchase slaves who were foreigners but never fellow covenant members.” – Kenneth A. Matthews, Leviticus: Holy People, Holy God

In the Book of the Covenant, God had given His commands concerning the treatment of strangers and sojourners living among the Israelites.

When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native-born and love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God. – Leviticus 20:33-34 BSB

But while foreigners were welcome to live among the Israelites, these “strangers” were never considered part of the covenant community. Many of them may have been proselytes to the Hebrew religion or what became known as “God-fearers,” but they were never allowed to share in the inheritance of the land of Canaan. These “God-fearing” pagans were Gentiles who had chosen to attach themselves to Yahweh and His people but had not fully converted to Judaism. Many of them may have been Egyptians who chose to accompany the Israelites when they were delivered by God (Exodus 12:38).

These God-fearing foreigners were allowed to dwell among the Israelites, but they were never to possess any of the lands that had been given by God as an inheritance to His covenant people. But if a foreigner had somehow been able to accrue enough wealth to purchase an Israelite as his slave, he might well end up with rights to that man’s property. This would have been unacceptable to God. So, to protect His people and the land He had given them, God made special provisions for this kind of situation.

“If any of your fellow Israelites fall into poverty and are forced to sell themselves to such a foreigner or to a member of his family, they still retain the right to be bought back, even after they have been purchased. They may be bought back by a brother, an uncle, or a cousin. In fact, anyone from the extended family may buy them back. – Leviticus 25:47-49 NLT

Even in this worst-case scenario, God gave His people a second chance to do the right thing. If one of their own became so desperate that they sold themselves to a foreigner, the rest of the Israelite community was expected to step in and rectify the situation. Not only was the land considered sacred, but it also belonged to Yahweh (Leviticus 25:23). The people had no right to sell it in order to profit from it. And they were to do everything in their power to see that the land remained occupied by God’s chosen people. Foreigners were welcome but they were not allowed to possess what rightfully belonged to God. And to ensure that the land of God and the people of God remained His possessions, God provided the Year of Jubilee as a final form of restitution and redemption.

Set this year apart as holy, a time to proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live there. It will be a jubilee year for you, when each of you may return to the land that belonged to your ancestors and return to your own clan. – Leviticus 25:10 NLT

When the Year of Jubilee arrived, any lands that had been leased or mortgaged were returned to their original owners, and all slaves and bonded laborers were provided with their freedom. If the people did not redeem their own, God would do it.

But God did not want His people to treat the Year of Jubilee like some kind of divine lottery system. They were not to wait around until the 50th year, living as slaves to one another or outsiders. Each individual was expected to do whatever was necessary to settle his debts and seek freedom. Redemption was the focus. They were not to bide their time and settle for a life of slavery while waiting for the redemption of God. No, they were to do everything in their power to seek redemption.

“…they still retain the right to be bought back, even after they have been purchased. They may be bought back by a brother, an uncle, or a cousin. In fact, anyone from the extended family may buy them back. They may also redeem themselves if they have prospered.” – Leviticus 25:48-49 NLT

During the 49 years that led up to the Year of Jubilee, the Israelites were to be pursuing their own redemption and that of their neighbors. There were no shortcuts and workarounds. To settle their debts, they were required to calculate the value of their services based on the time remaining until the Year of Jubilee.

If many years still remain until the jubilee, they will repay the proper proportion of what they received when they sold themselves. If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, they will repay a small amount for their redemption. – Leviticus 25:51-52 NLT

Restoration and redemption came with a price. They had to pay back what they owed. And anyone who had purchased the debt of an Israelite was to treat their “servant” with dignity and respect. The debtor, despite his dire circumstances, remained a child of God and deserved to be treated that way. No foreigner was allowed to mistreat an Israelite. No Israelite was permitted to denigrate a brother by taking advantage of his impoverished condition and abusing him like a slave. The people of God were never to forget their former condition as slaves in Egypt.

Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from your slavery. That is why I have given you this command. – Deuteronomy 24:18 NLT

And God reminded His people that each of them belonged to Him. The rich and the poor, the social elite, and the common peasant were all considered God’s possessions.

For the people of Israel belong to me. They are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 25:55 NLT

The land belonged to God and so did the people, and that is why God expected the Israelites to treat both with equal honor and dignity. The land was not theirs to sell, profit from, abuse, or neglect. God had given them the land to provide for their needs and to serve as their permanent homeland. But God had also chosen the entire nation of Israel as His treasured possession (Deuteronomy 14:2). Each of them, from the greatest to the least, was considered holy in the eyes of God.

“…you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

There was to be no hierarchy or caste system within the people of God. The rich were not to lord it over the poor. The destitute were not to be treated as second-class citizens. And God provided His people with plenty of examples of how He expected this to unfold in daily life.

“If your neighbor is poor and gives you his cloak as security for a loan, do not keep the cloak overnight. Return the cloak to its owner by sunset so he can stay warm through the night and bless you, and the Lord your God will count you as righteous.” – Deuteronomy 24:12-13 NLT

Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns.Deuteronomy 24:14 NLT

“True justice must be given to foreigners living among you and to orphans, and you must never accept a widow’s garment as security for her debt.Deuteronomy 24:17 NLT

“When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all you do.Deuteronomy 24:19 NLT

The land and the people belonged to God. They were His possessions and were to be treated as holy. And when His people inevitably failed to honor that which belonged to God, He would see to it that redemption was achieved. The Year of Jubilee was designed to remedy the sins of man and restore that which belonged to God to its rightful place as His possession.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

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