Deuteronomy 15:12-18 – The Passage That Has Been Sitting Out There Waiting On Me To Deal With It

Posted: February 8, 2017 in 05-Deuteronomy
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Deuteronomy 15:12-18

Release for Hebrew Slaves


There is one thing about going through the Bible sequentially book by book and passage by passage rather than taking a topical approach is that it makes it unavoidable for you to deal with the tough parts of the Bible. When you take a topical approach is you that controls the subject matter. You can find biblical support for what you want to write about or in the opposite you can demonstrate how the Bible differs from a common, worldly position on a subject. Topical approaches are good and necessary and I am not condemning the approach. However, going totally topical, can allow you to avoid those sticky, thorny, controversial subjects that we find in the Bible. Today, we find ourselves at one of those places. If I were taking a topical approach to my blogs, I could avoid Deuteronomy 15:12-18 altogether, because it might, in some way, offend people. It is one of those passages that the non-believer, the atheist, the modern humanist, the modern new age blenders of faiths, and others point to and say that the Bible is ancient and out of date and out of step with modern streams of thought. It is passages like this one that some Christians want to avoid so they discard the Old Testament altogether. They call themselves New Testament Christians so that they can avoid what they consider the distasteful nature of God in the Old Testament especially what seems to be support of slavery. When you are writing your blogs about each passage in each book of the Bible, it would be hypocritical to avoid passages that are “political hot potatoes” or demonstrates something that is roundly denounced in today’s world. Deuteronomy 15:12-18 has been waiting for me out there ever since I started writing my way through Deuteronomy back on November 23, 2016. It has been waiting for me to deal with it and now I must.


This situation reminds me of the times in US History class back in high school where we were forced to have in-class debates on court cases from the past. We were split into teams and we were to argue both sides of the class. It did not matter what my personal feelings about the subject of a court case were, it only mattered that we argue our side and present it as best we could in a way that would win over the “judges” from our class that our teacher had appointed. They were not allowed to read any of the material so that the actual result of the court case would not affect how they rendered their decision. Even though they got off scot free from studying in the class for two weeks. They would have two weeks were they were required to collectively come up with a decision in the case (and we did not have to study). It was a unique approach to learning. After the month was up, the teacher would then teach us about what the actual court ruling was and where we may have differed in our conclusion. Sometimes, there were subjects of court cases where I was involved on the opposite of an issue than my personal convictions. Those were tough ones to argue. Sometimes, it even changed my opinion on a subject. Today, with this passage, it is like those days in high school where I had to argue a case where on the surface I did not see how I could ever agree with that position. The Bible is talking about slavery in this passage.


This situation today conjures up our American conceptions of slavery. I am from the South and it is part of the legacy of our region. I am very much proud of my Southern roots and how Southerners are so different from the rest of the country. I love being a Southerner now in this part of our country’s history. I am ashamed of slavery in our past. It was race-based slavery. It was not slavery by choice. I often avoid the subject by saying that it was only a select few who owned slaves in the South. It was the upper crust, landed gentry, the plantation owners that were slave owners. The majority of Southerners were too poor to own slaves. There was a vast chasm between the landed gentry and others in the South. There was a tiny sliver of a middle class and the rest were dirt poor. Although only a select few had slaves, they had slaves aplenty and those who did not have slaves tolerated and supported the practice. There are so many positive things about being Southern that I celebrate but slavery was just wrong and it is the great shame of our region. We talk about our heritage now but we avoid the dark secret of race-based slavery. It was morally wrong to consider another human being less than human, to treat them as property to do with as one pleased, and have the court systems back that up – all the way to the Supreme Court of our land. Yankees cannot wash their hands of this issue either. They stood by and ignored the issue because it did not affect their everyday lives. The Constitution was ratified by our entire nation with its erroneous view of blacks when it came to the value of their votes. The civil war was an unpopular war in the north until Lincoln made it a moral war with the emancipation proclamation. Northerners tolerated slavery though they may have disdained it because the South supplied raw materials, mainly cotton (which accounted for 65% of US exports prior to the civil war), for Northern factories. The civil war was an interruption to the economy to Northerners and it was not until Lincoln made it a war of moral outrage that majority of Northerners embraced the civil war and its cause. So, we as a nation have a horrible history when it comes to slavery – the race-based, non-voluntary, property rights driven slavery that we know.


It is with that backdrop of America’s sordid history of slavery, in the terms, connotations and the effects that the history of slavery has had on our nation that we come to this passage in the Bible:


12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.


16 But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant.


18 Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.


The first thing that we have to do here is completely separate our thoughts and connotations of American slavery from ancient slavery. Slavery is the United States was its own peculiar institution: its own horrid evil, but often Americans write as if slavery in the ancient world is equivalent to the American slave disaster that ended in a Civil War and even was an institutional horror of our nation all the way until school desegregation in the 1970s began to dissipate the effects of long standing ignorance about one another in our entire nation not just the South. Even now there are flames of racial misunderstanding today that flare up today. This institutionalized and culturally accepted racism traces its roots back to slavery of the most sinister kind – race based involuntary slavery. It was and continues to be a moral issue of which we continue to deal with hundreds of years after the 13th amendment to the constitution of our country eliminated slavery and gave blacks the same standing before the courts of our nation as a white person.


The question then arises, what was the biblical view of slavery. The Bible’s mentions of slavery were often used as justification for the American institution of slavery. How can the Bible support what was a heinous institution?


The difference is that Hebrew slavery in the Old Testament was totally different from what we know as slavery in the United States. It was voluntary servitude in the Hebrew society. If you could not pay a debt that you owed, you voluntarily gave yourself over to the person to whom you owed the debt. You would be that person’s servant until the debt was repaid or until 7 years was up whichever came first. Here, in Israelite society of the ancient world, it was one of the options of repaying debts in the day. Israelites were called to treat their slaves as people worthy of dignity. Ancient slaves were human beings and some ancient cultures gave them rights. A man or woman who was a slave was not “inferior” by nature, but unfortunate. Given how little wealth existed in the ancient world compared to the modern, the lifestyle and liberty of urban slaves could be superior to that of a “free” barbarian. Slaves were often better educated. More than one Greek slave taught future Roman senators Greek culture.


Therefore, we must separate our connotations of slavery from the ugly heinous, human rights sapping thing that it was and see Hebrew voluntarily servitude as a totally separate thing. What we must do is look at the Hebrew requirements for the management of voluntarily servitude and see what we can learn and apply to our daily lives in our world today. Here the Israelites were to release their servants and would supply them with what they needed to be independent again once they left their service. This act recognizes that God created each person with dignity and worth. It also reminded the Israelites too that they were once slaves in Egypt and were released from it through a gift from God, His direction and His miracles. They did not earn their freedom on their own. It was a gift. We do not have servants today but these instructions are instructive to us. We must be sure that we treat all people with dignity and honor that they deserve. No one is less than or subhuman in God’s economy. We all deserve respect. No matter our color. No matter our station in life. No matter if you are a server at McDonalds or the CEO of McDonalds. We are all deserving to be treated like the equal images of God that we all are. Even when they don’t look like us, act like us, or have the same opinions as us.


We are all God’s children, red and yellow, black and white, all the children of the world deserve the respect and dignity of someone made in the image of God. We are no better and no worse than anyone else. We are made by God. Each of us.


Amen and Amen.

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