In Leviticus 25 God puts His finishing touches on the way the economy was to function in Israel by establishing the Sabbath Year and Year of Jubilee. Upon entering the Promised Land the people were first instructed to work the land for a period of six years allowing it to lay fallow on the seventh. In fact, God was so serious about this Sabbath Year He promises to yield for them a threefold increase on year six to cover the seventh, eighth, and ninth.
As we noted last Sunday there were four fundamental reasons for the Sabbath Year: God wanted the land to a have a chance to reset. He wanted the livestock to have an opportunity to recharge. He wanted the workers to enjoy a year in which they could relax. And finally, God wanted the owner to always remember he was only a steward of the land.
Aside from this Sabbath Year occurring once in every seven, God also structured things so that a one-part economic two-parts social justice tsunami would ensue once in a generation. On the 50th year following a seven set of Sabbath Years, “on the tenth day of the seventh month” or the Day of Atonement, from the Tabernacle “the trumpet” or the shofar was “to sound” officially ushering in a Year of Jubilee “throughout all the land.”
During Jubilee all debts were forgiven, loans canceled out, lands returned to their original owner, and those in servitude for financial reasons liberated. As we discussed last Sunday, Jubilee gave everyone one big due-over at some point during their lifetime. As a result…
It safeguarded against the development of generational wealth and debt. It prohibited the formation of economic classes. It forbade the consolidation of affluence or development of land barons. In the end, Jubilee was God’s way of keeping Israel from becoming Egypt.
Because of this generational resetting of the entire economy taking place every 50th year, there is no question the amount you loaned someone had to be determined by their ability or willingness to pay you back before Jubilee. If you purchased land to expand your farming operation, the term had to be in proportion to the number of years remaining before Jubilee.
The brilliance of Jubilee was not that it eliminated everyone’s debt, but that it deterred the accumulation of debt to begin with. Jubilee was a large safety net aimed at protecting social order and fairness. It was a check on greed and our sinful human condition! It maintained equality. It stopped the oppression of people. Jubilee was important because it fostered an economy that preferred human beings over material possessions.
Continuing this revolutionary exposé on the way the economy of Israel was designed to operate, in the remaining portion of Leviticus 25, God now tackles three additional topics: (1) The redemption of property — verses 23-34, (2) Their attitude towards poverty — verses 35-38, and (3) The efficacy of slavery — verses 39-55.
Before we dive into this section there is one additional pillar to the way Israel’s economy was to function we need to discuss. Aside from Jubilee being this gigantic rest button, there was also this idea of the Goel or what was known as a Kinsman-Redeemer. In verse 25 this official family position will be referred to as the “redeeming relative.”
Within each family the Goel was sanctioned to intercede on behalf of a family member on a wide array of legal issues. As we’ll soon see the Goel was responsible for family property. If you were about to loose the farm, the Goel had the legal standing to pay the balance free of interest or penalty. Additionally, if you found yourself in the terrible situation where you had to sell yourself into slavery to pay off a debt, the Goel had the licit authority to satisfy your outstanding obligations thereby redeeming a person or persons.
While not specifically addressed in the chapter, according to Deuteronomy 25 the Goel was also responsible for a family’s posterity. Best illustrated in the story of Ruth and Boaz the Kinsman-Redeemer was free to redeem a childless widow by marrying her in order to provide the deceased husband an heir. This was known as the Levirate Marriage.
According to the Law the requirements for a person to be a Goel was as follows. Clearly, they had to be a near-kinsman or related by blood. Understandably, to fill such a function the Goel had to be in good legal and financial standing himself (he couldn’t be in debt). Logically, a Goel had to be able to redeem (have the means). And finally, the Goel had to be willing. We’ll come back to these things towards the end of our study.
The LORD continuing this conversation with Moses from Mount Sinai… Leviticus 25:23-25, “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. And in all the land of your possession you shall grant redemption of the land. (As I mentioned last Sunday, because of the Year of Jubilee, at best family land could only be offered as a 49-year lease.) If one of your brethren becomes poor, and has sold some of his possession (in this situation the motivation for the sale was one of necessity not opportunity), and if his redeeming relative (the Goel of the family) comes to redeem it, then he may redeem what his brother sold.”
It’s worth pointing out this is the first mention of this legal term “redemption, redeem, or redeeming” in the Book of Leviticus, and it’s not an accident the concept is introduced in the context of a Goel or “redeeming relative.” Legally, redemption was a threefold process.
It necessitated the incurring of an un-payable debt. By definition the debtor couldn’t redeem themself. Redemption required a Goel in legal standing, willing, and able to intervene and satisfy the debt. Which, in the end, led to the complete restoration of the debtor by the creditor as if the debt never existed in the first place.
Leviticus 25:26-27, “Or if the man has no one to redeem it (there is no official Goel), but he himself becomes able to redeem it (the idea is that he finds some other means beyond himself), then let him count the years since its sale, and restore the remainder to the man to whom he sold it, that he may return to his possession.” (In this dynamic the price for redemption was based upon the original debt owed minus the amount the creditor was able to make over the years the land was in their possession.)
Leviticus 25:28, “But if he is not able to have it restored to himself, then what was sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until the Year of Jubilee; and in the Jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his possession.” (As mentioned, if there was no Goel to redeem the land and no other options emerged, upon the trumpet blast of the Year of Jubilee the land was redeemed no matter the balance remaining.)
Shifting the topic at hand ever so slightly… Leviticus 25:29-30, “If a man sells a house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year he may redeem it. But if it is not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to him who bought it, throughout his generations. It shall not be released in the Jubilee.”
In this ancient dynamic the vast majority of people lived and worked on the land in which they owned. That said, “walled cities” would often be built in centralized locations as places whereby commerce would occur or to provide protection in the case of the invasion of a foreign enemy. Because of the high value of real-estate within these cities and since these locals were not tethered to the land itself, a sale was final and permanent after one year.
Leviticus 25:31, “However (so there was one exception to this larger rule) the houses of villages which have no wall around them shall be counted as the fields of the country. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the Jubilee.”
Leviticus 25:32-34, “Nevertheless the cities of the Levites, and the houses in the cities of their possession, the Levites may redeem at any time. (The Tribe of Levi was unique of the Twelve because they didn’t receive any land and instead dwelt in 48 cities. Because of this dynamic God carves out special exemptions specifically to protect them.)
If a man purchases a house from the Levites, then the house that was sold in the city of his possession shall be released in the Jubilee; for the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the children of Israel. But the field of the common-land of their cities may not be sold, for it is their perpetual possession.”
Following this section dealing with the redemption of property God now addresses the attitude His people were to have towards poverty and specifically the impoverished.
Leviticus 25:35, “If one of your brethren becomes poor (so the topic at hand addresses the way the nation was to handle Hebrew citizens), and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.”
Back in Leviticus 19 God had already gone on the record concerning how the people were to treat “a stranger or sojourner.” Whether it be a refugee or person desiring to immigrate to the land kindness and care was to be demonstrated. Since this was the case it was only appropriate a similar compassion be shown towards citizens down on their luck.
The goal of God’s approach towards the poor was to “help” the person get back on their feet. Every policy intended to create the conditions where an individual had the opportunity to get themselves out of poverty. It makes sense then that the first consideration centered upon a person’s living situation. You see within Israel homelessness was forbidden.
Continuing… Leviticus 25:35-38, “Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. 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.”
Again, God’s instructions in these verses focused on the people’s heart towards the impoverished. Not only were they to help by opening up their homes to lodge their fellow brethren who’d fallen on hard times, but they weren’t to take advantage of their desperation.
While God is not mandating money be loaned to anyone and in Deuteronomy 23 He’s also clear lending money with interest to Gentiles was permissible, when it came to their fellow Israelites God says any such advance should be made without “usury” or interest free.
In God’s economy the poor were not to be preyed upon or their situations taken advantage of. You see in Israel practices we find marketed to the poor in America such as high interest lending, payday advances, title loans, or vulture capitalism were totally outlawed. In truth America would go a long way to a more equitable system if we decided to do the same.
It’s interesting that within our New Testament context Jesus takes this entire idea one step further than what we find here in Leviticus. In Luke 6:34-35 He says, “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.”
Here’s a good rule of thumb for the economy within a church… If a brother is in a tough spot and God lays it on your heart to help, you should absolutely do so with the following two conditions. First, the loan should be interest free. And secondly, you should lend the money not expecting a remittance of any kind. If you’re unable or unwilling to act with these two considerations, it’s better you not lend the money in the first place.
Because I’ve seen money issues, joint business ventures, and investments destroy more Christian relationships than virtually anything else, I should add… Before you partner with a brother in any of these ways, consider the worst case scenario and then determine if the potential money to be gained is worth loosing a relationship if the deal falls apart.
After dealing with the redemption of property and the attitude His people were to have towards poverty, God now turns to the efficacy of slavery. Admittedly, since this section of Leviticus is one of the more controversial passages in the entire Bible, most would prefer to avoid it altogether. For us that isn’t exactly an option so let’s get awkward!
Leviticus 25:39-41, “And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you — he and his children with him — and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers.”
The situation being described in these three verses present a Hebrew man who’s “become poor” owing a debt to a fellow Hebrew he simply cannot satisfy. Examples of these type of occasions could be a business deal that went south, a contract for services you were unable to make good on, an unlikely accident or intentional crime whereby you caused another person a material loss you didn’t have the resources to fully restore.
In these circumstances, because restitution was mandatory and bankruptcy a foreign idea, it was legally permissible for you to “sell yourself” or literally exchange labor to pay off what you owed. If this was the case an agreement was reached between parties that determined the length of servitude required in proximity to the number of years until Jubilee. Note: According to Exodus 21 the number of years was ultimately capped at six.
In the dynamic where only Hebrews were involved in the arrangement, God was clear the man and his family were to be treated by the owner “as hired servants” and not “slaves.” In Leviticus 25:42-43 God explains the reason for this particular distinction, “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.”
It’s worth pointing out in Exodus 21 a stipulation was added to these instructions whereby someone could choose to become a bond-slave even after receiving their freedom. In such a case where the freedman decided to remain in the master’s home, the matter would be brought before a judge who’d preside over a ceremony solidifying the lifelong commitment.
Leviticus 25:44-46, “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have — from the nations that are around you (Gentile slaves), from them you may buy male and female slaves. You may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.”
Moving right along… Leviticus 25:47-49, “Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after he is sold he may be redeemed again. One of his brothers may redeem him; or his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him; or anyone who is near of kin to him in his family may redeem him; or if he is able he may redeem himself.”
Leviticus 25:50-55, “Thus he shall reckon with him who bought him: The price of his release shall be according to the number of years, from the year that he was sold to him until the Year of Jubilee; it shall be according to the time of a hired servant for him. If there are still many years remaining, according to them he shall repay the price of his redemption from the money with which he was bought. And if there remain but a few years until the Year of Jubilee, then he shall reckon with him, and according to his years he shall repay him the price of his redemption.
He shall be as a yearly hired servant, and he shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight. If he is not redeemed in these years, he shall be released in the Year of Jubilee — he and his children with him. For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Right from the jump let’s be completely honest about what’s being said here… In a book in which God is structuring the way His nation was to operate, He did not outlaw nor condemn slavery. In Israel it was entirely permissible for the Hebrew people to “buy male and female slaves” even “children” as long as the people in question were Gentiles.
Furthermore, slaves were considered to be “property,” could be inherited by “your children after you,” with the arrangement being “permanent” meaning Jubilee wouldn’t apply. The only exception for this would be if a Gentile slave made the decision to become a Jew. In that unique dynamic the Year of Jubilee would liberate that person from their servitude.
When discussing slavery Christians make two big mistakes. The first is excusing away the plain reading of the text. You’ll hear commentators argue that since slavery was such a common practice in the ancient world there was no way God could abolish it so He acted to rule over it. In effect the juxtaposition central to the argument itself is that while God wasn’t exactly condoning slavery in the Scriptures, He was seeking to contrast the Hebrew model with the worldly system in order to make the practice more humane.
Additionally, Bible teachers will try to soften the blunt reality of these things by arguing that seismic changes to bedrock human institutions like slavery don’t happen overnight. In more extreme circles this idea leads to what’s known as trajectory hermeneutics. For a softer approach men like G. Campbell Morgan have argued that, in addition to the radical nature of the Bible classifying slaves as being humans, the “condition of slaves among the Hebrew people would be in marked distinction to slavery as existing among other peoples.” He and others will make the case God’s approach “was the beginning of a great moral movement.”
My problem with these arguments is that they’re disingenuous at best and intellectually stupid at worst. If God was deliberately initiating “the beginning of a great moral movement” in Leviticus that would ultimately climax some 3500 years later when William Wilberforce abolished the slave trade in 1833 AD, we can safely say God’s strategy took to long!
Aside from this in no other moral matter addressed in Leviticus has God presented anything less than His perfect ideal! God is ordering His people to be a direct and deliberate contrast to this worldly system and never once has He cared what the normal practice happened to be. Don’t sugar coat it! God could have abolished slavery right here, but He didn’t!
The second big mistake Christians make when discussing such a topic of controversy is to allow a moral equivalency be made between the type of slavery the Bible addresses and what took place in the Antebellum South. Sadly, what occurred in America and the fact both the master and minister alike used the Bible to justify the enslavement and brutalization of black Africans, undoubtedly complicates our perspective.
According to Brandon Cleaver when considering the topic of slavery two things are central to the subject: The motivation for slavery and the treatment of the slave. For example in the Antebellum South and across Europe at the time the motivation was free labor through the involuntary enslavement of minority blacks with the terrible treatment of those slaves being rooted in the sub-human ideology of racial inferiority to an Anglo superiority.
You see when you take into account the motivation and treatment there is no question our experience with slavery is much different than a Biblical view on the subject. First, the motivation for slavery was never involuntary. In contrast, in Exodus 21:16 God says, “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.” The forced enslavement of another person has no basis anywhere in Scripture.
If we can speak honestly about the subject, there is no doubt life in the ancient world was really hard. People had a daily fight just to survive. Aside from those who chose to sell themselves for financial reasons, the prospects of dependable shelter, an ample supply of food, and the protection found in numbers led many into voluntary servitude.
Secondly, according to Scripture the treatment of the slave was something God took very seriously. Not only does the Bible affirm the idea all men are created by God and are therefore equal in value to the Lord, but the Hebrews were instructed to treat everyone in their home as if they were family. As a group of former slaves recently liberated from Egypt this was a topic they were quite sensitive too. The mistreatment of slaves was forbidden.
The fact of history is that slavery as a manifestation of racial prejudice like we witness in America between whites and blacks didn’t emerge until the 16th-century. Justifying slavery on a twisted notion one race is superior to another is not only an abomination, but it spits in the face of the Biblical view that every human being is created in the image of God!
With the important caveat that our perspective on slavery is much different than the Biblical ideal and that what took place in the South to blacks was not only a terrible blight on humanity but also a stain on the Christian leaders of that time, let me say something controversial… I have no problems saying God intentionally allowed slavery!
Not only does God NOT abolish the practice when He had the chance here in Leviticus, but in five different places in the New Testament (Ephesians 6, Colossians 3-4, 1 Timothy 6, Titus 2, 1 Peter 2) the relationship between slave and master is addressed with no mention of it being immoral. Once more the Apostle Paul goes so far as to pen an entire letter to a master named Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave he encouraged to return home.
Here’s why God didn’t abolish slavery… Everyone is a slave! Andy Warhol once said, “Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.” An inescapable reality of life is that everyone serves someone or something. Every human has a master!
Ironically, the myth of the American experiment is that somehow we’re free. At best our system only affords people a greater liberty to choose who or what to serve. Let’s be honest about this… Everyone finds themselves enslaved in some way whether it be debt, a job they hate, an addiction they can’t kick, a sexual proclivity, insecurities, etc. There is a reason the Bible refers to life in sin as being a form of bondage and captivity!
Even the Gospel affirms this! You see the great message of Christianity isn’t a freedom from slavery, but the opportunity to choose a better Master to serve. Men like Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and Epaphras describe themselves as being “bondservants of Jesus Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 7:22 Paul writes, “He who is called while free is Christ’s slave.”
Aside for this seven different times in Romans 6 Paul refers to slavery before ultimately declaring, “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” When discussing the topic of slavery I make no excuses for what the Bible says. God allowed it! Slavery is and will always be central to being human! Since everyone serves someone or something, the pressing question ultimately centers on who’s your master going to be?
Operating under the premise this chapter along with 26 and 27 was moved from Exodus when God spoke from Sinai to the end of Leviticus by Ezra to be read by a group of Jews returning to the land following their Babylonian captivity, an interesting application emerges.
The Sabbath Year was first addressed in order to explain why the people had been exiled for 70 years. The passage then transitions to the Year of Jubilee to encourage the people they served a God of second chances. The chapter then closes with these three subjects: the redemption of land, aiding the poor, and the efficacy of slavery in God’s economy.
This is what I find amazing… It’s not an accident that within the final section of this chapter we also find the consistent mention of a Kinsman-Redeemer who legally possessed the right of their redemption over property, posterity, and persons!
I mentioned last week how Jubilee could only be found in Jesus. What then makes Leviticus 25 so astounding is the transition to the Goel for it now explains how Jesus was able to bring about the results of Jubilee. First, redemption necessitated the incurring of an un-payable debt one could repay on their own. The Children of Israel could check that box. Because of their failure to obey the Sabbath Year they experienced the judgment of God.
But then, while Jubilee may have cancelled out their debt, the total redemption of their inheritance (property or land), posterity (life in contrast to poverty), and persons (serving an equitable Master) demanded the intervention of a Goel of blood relation (Jesus was a near-kinsman), who was Himself in legal standing (Jesus owned no debt of Himself), able to intervene (Jesus possessed the means to redeem), and most importantly He was willing!
In closing… Consider the Gospel message presented in Leviticus 25 — A just judgment on account of our rebellion and a God of Jubilee who gives second chances, because He sent to this earth our Goel who has since redeemed us for a glorious inheritance, provided His poor brethren the abundance of life, so that we might in turn finally serve a Good Master.
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