By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When you enter the land I am giving you, the land will observe a Sabbath to the Lord. You may sow your field for six years, and you may prune your vineyard and gather its produce for six years. But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to the Lord: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard. You are not to reap what grows by itself from your crop, or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. It must be a year of complete rest for the land. 6 Whatever the land produces during the Sabbath year can be food for you—for yourself, your male or female slave, and the hired hand or foreigner who stays with you. All of its growth may serve as food for your livestock and the wild animals in your land.” -Leviticus 25:1-7
Here we see how every seven years all slaves were to get rest from their labors. Indeed, the Sabbath years (every 7th year of national Israel’s history) was noted as a time for the land to replenish itself and to become rejuvenated. Indeed, even the Sabbath day rest extended to all persons and even the animals, see Exodus 20:8-11. The Israelites could only survive from what they had planted the year before, and they could not harvest crops from fields that they had not planted previously. So if a random crop of barley were to start growing in an adjunct field to an owner’s garden, the owner could not harvest that barley but had to rely upon his own sown field from the years before.
Many will also notice that this six-year service and seven year of rest mirrors the slavery laws given in Exodus 21:2. But many will also notice that Exodus 21 talks about Hebrew slaves– specifically denoting the Israelite ethnic group directly descended from Jacob/Israel. We learned the last time that the Israelite community left Egypt with a mixed multitude of people and that the national identity of Israel applied to all and any who would join the national ranks of Israel’s comunity and worship. So then, God also liberated other peoples from bondage from Egypt along with the Hebrews who were descended from Jacob…and they all would later become the first nation of Israel and the first to have the distinctive priestly covenantal laws from Mt. Horeb. We also learned that very much for the most part, the same laws that worked for the ethnic Hebrew also worked for the Israelite.
So why this delineation from laws before? Well…we can ask that, and then we can ask, “Does it even matter?”
In the same passage of Exodus 21 we see the laws for how a slave was to become a permanent slave. If the slave decided that life while working under his master was favorable, then the slave would be brought before the community before the elders who judged the local community. The slave would then declare his intention to stay with his master voluntarily for life at the doorpost of his master’s home. An awl or earring would be placed in his ear formally marking him, and that slave would have to serve his master for the rest of his life, Exodus 21:5-6. Hebrew slaves could be bought and could be made permanent slaves according to their will. The same laws and rituals for slavery applied to slaves purchased from foreigners, see Leviticus 25:35-46.
Symbolism abounds in this ritual. First, the slave was to declare his loyalty at the threshold of his master’s house. The house is notably the seat of the family, the most intimate location of human habitation. By signing on completely as his master’s slave, the slaves has formally entered into the family of his master. This is why throughout the entire Bible, the household/family of persons includes the slaves of the head of the family (see Genesis 17:9-27, Exodus 12:43-51…even the foreign slaves becomes as the native Hebrew is, and 2 Samuel 9…which is an interesting narrative I will hit upon later). But notice…the circumcision is what primarily identified the Hebrew community from Abraham such that even Abraham’s own slaves were circumcised (meaning that many of the original people who crossed into Egypt with Jacob/Israel were even descended from foreign slaves adopted into the family). You will see immediately how the slave-owner distinguishing markers became dissolved as the generations moved forward…indeed, a good deal of Jacob/Israel’s sons were themselves descended from mothers who were the slaves of Jacob’s wives. So then, slavery was an occupational status, but not necessarily or even implicitly a caste status.
And since circumcision identified the Israelite community and even the Hebrew community beforehand, and since all slaves and inhabitants of national Israel had to be circumcised…then the delineation is really just a concretization of Israel’s national identity. Yes, the inhabitants had and could come from any region from the map. But at the end of the day their participation in the unique covenant purpose of Ancient Israel was one which honored the Hebrew roots of the people. We can see this even in the common language used in Ancient Israel’s Torah and spoken dialect…Ancient Hebrew.
But…quite conveniently…we get a repetition of Exodus 21‘s slave code in Deuteronomy 15:12-18. But this text also gives us the reason for why the slave could be “purchased” in the first place…and also how it squares up with the laws that we learned from Part 1 of this series. The Israelites only bought slaves when the person being bought voluntarily put themselves up for auction in order to pay off debts or to make an honest living out of being impoverished. And the slavery was only to last 6 years, after which the person was given provisions so that they would not immediately end up impoverished or in debt again. But if the enslaved person loves the family and his master so much, then he may become a permanent slave to their family and hence become a family member serving for generation after generation and enjoying the wealth of his new family until he dies– just like any foreign slave likewise purchased.
Sometimes a person did far better when he was enslaved than when he came into slavery. Sometimes a single person went into slavery but acquired a wife and a family. But since the purpose of slavery was to cancel and pay for debts, or to find work while the man was unable to support himself, to send him away with his new familial burdens would almost certainly send him on a hamster wheel of being perpetually enslaved because of recurring debts. That is why if a man acquired a family during his venture as a slave, he could not automatically leave with them. Instead, he would have to purchase their freedom by his new earning in the process of redemption (which I will also touch upon later). Exodus 21:2-4 handles this by placing this safety net in place, that way the perpetual cycles of poverty that we see even in prosperous America would never legally arise in Ancient Israel. In any case, the man’s family and the man himself would be provided for by the fruit of their own labors and by the goodwill of the entire national community of Israel.
But what if their debt was so great that they could not work it off at the end of the six-year term?
Glad that you asked.
At the end of the six-year term, all unpaid debts were formally forgiven and done away with. In fact, with this system God says that the Israelites will never have poor people in their midst. Now this does not mean that there would not be poor people living in Israel, indeed God explicitly says that He gave Israel this system because the poor will always be with them (sounds familiar to what God said yet again to a different crowd).
So in short, all of the forms of normative and legal slavery in Ancient Israel by result of commerce were done voluntarily, with the enslaved person even deciding upon leaving from the master’s service voluntarily with the necessary provisions to begin a NEW LIFE.
But where can we find this law about cancelling the debts every Sabbath year of Israel…along with the freeing of slaves every 7 years?
Why, it is just above the repetition of the slave laws that are found in Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 15 verses 1 through 11.