Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release.XV.
(1) At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release.—The Law in this place is an extension of that which we find in Exodus 21:2, &c, and Leviticus 25:3, &c., There was not only to be a manumission of Hebrew slaves and a Sabbath for the land in the seventh year, but also a release of debts, of which all the Israelites must have the benefit.
Save when there shall be no poor among you; for the LORD shall greatly bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it:(4) Save when there shall be no poor (man) among you.—This clause is the source of a very interesting passage in the Acts of the Apostles, Deuteronomy 4:34, “Great grace was upon them all, for neither was there among them any (one) that lacked” The words at the beginning of the verse in Hebrew, “save when” may also be rendered (as in the Margin) “to the end that,” or “to such an extent that there shall be no poor man among you.” Those who can well afford to pay need not be excused from their obligations.
For the Lord thy God shall greatly bless thee.—So in Acts 4:33, “Great grace was upon them all.” The blessing need not be equal and universal prosperity, if those who have the good things of this world will always remember the poor to such an extent that no member of the community shall be left in want.
Only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all these commandments which I command thee this day.(5) Only if thou carefully hearken.—“Then there will be none among thee in want.” So Rashi expounds, in the very spirit of the passage in Acts 4.
For the LORD thy God blesseth thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over thee.(6) As he promised thee.—“1 will bless thee” was said to Abram (Genesis 12:2).
Thou Shalt lend.—The root of the word in Hebrew is closely connected with the word for “slave.” “The borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7).
If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:(7) A poor man.-”That needeth anything.”
Within any of thy gates.—“The poor of thine own city come before the poor of another city.”
Thou Shalt not harden.—“There are some men who ‘grieve’ (grudge) whether they give or not;” therefore it is said, “Thou shalt not harden thy heart; there are some who stretch out the hand (to give), and yet close it; therefore it is said, Thou shalt not shut thine hand.”
But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.(8) Thou shalt open thine hand wide.—“Even many times.”
And shalt surely lend.—“If he does not like to take it as a gift, grant it to him as a loan.”
Sufficient for his need.—“But it is not thy duty to make him rich.”
In that which he wanteth.—“Even ahorse to ride on, and a slave to run before him.”
Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto.(10) Thou shalt surely give.—“Even a hundred times.”
Him.—“Between thee and him alone.” (Comp. “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” in Matthew 6:3). I have thought it worth while to borrow the comments of Rashi on these verses (Deuteronomy 15:7-10) almost entire, to show how well the Jews have understood the true principles of Christian charity from the law of Moses. That people has always been remarkable for kindness to its own poor.
For this thing.—Literally, this word, or this promise. And Rashi observes, “Even when thou hast promised to give, thou wilt receive the reward of the promise as well as the reward of the deed;” and we may compare St. Paul. “If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not.” (2Corinthians 8:12.)
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.(11) For the poor shall never cease.—There is no contradiction between this verse and Deuteronomy 15:4 above. There will always be some men falling into poverty; but it is our business to see that they do not remain in want. The poor will never cease, except by the provision made for them by their brethren. God will never make all men absolutely equal in this world.
Thy brother, thy poor, and thy needy.-According to Rashi, the word translated “needy” is stronger than the word for “poor.” The “poor” are in humble circumstances; the “needy” are actually in want. In commenting on this verse, Rashi asks a similar question to that of the lawyer in Luke 10:29, “Who is this brother? Thy poor man.” He might have added that “thy poor” and “thy needy” are expressions teaching the truth that we are “members one of another.” We may not pass by our poorer brethren, and say we have nothing to do with them. Jehovah calls them ours—“thy poor man,” and “thy needy man.” The words are both in the singular number in the Hebrew. We cannot shake off the relationship or the responsibility in any one case.
And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.(12) If thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee.—This law is expressly referred to in Jeremiah 34:9; Jeremiah 34:13-14, as given in the time of the Exodus, and as applicable both to men and women. It first appears in Exodus 21:2-11, where it occupies the first section of the Sinaitic code. There is no need to suppose that anything enacted here is contradictory to the Law as given there; but there are certain peculiarities about the case of the female slave which create exceptions. (See below on Deuteronomy 15:17.) Rashi notes two fresh points in the Law as given in Deuteronomy: one concerning the Hebrew woman (an Hebrew “or an Hebrewess”—Deuteronomy 15:12; Jeremiah 34:9) and another concerning the “furnishing” (Deuteronomy 15:14).
(12) In the seventh year.—This is to be understood of the Sabbatical year whenever it came. It would rarely happen that the Hebrew slave would serve for the full period of six years.
Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him.(14) Thou shalt furnish him liberally.—The beneficence of this provision is noticeable. Those who had fallen into poverty, when they had served their time, must be provided with means for a fresh start in life. And since the Jewish commentator regards the slavery of Hebrew men as chiefly a consequence of theft (If he be sold unto thee, “when the supreme court has sold him for his theft “), it would seem that, under Jewish law, even convicted thieves, when the term of their servitude was over, were to be provided with the means of obtaining an honest livelihood. This state of things is above the attainments of Christian England at the present date.
And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.(15) Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt.—“And that I furnished and adorned thee from the spoils of Egypt and the spoils of the sea” (Rashi).
Therefore I command thee·—In Leviticus 25:42 the reason is given thus: “They are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen” (i.e., not for ever). The land was under the same restriction—it “shall not be sold for ever; for the land is mine” (Leviticus 25:16-17; Leviticus 25:23.
Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise.(17) And unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise—i.e., “in furnishing her liberally” (Rashi), and “possibly also in retaining her if she will.”
It must not be supposed that this contradicts Exodus 21:7, “She shall not go out as the menservants do.” She shall not go out according to the going of the men-servants (i.e., on the same principle). It is not said, She shall not go out at all. The exceptions are given in Exodus 21:8-11, which see. The general right of release is stated here. One difference (as stated by Rashi) is that women were not liable to be sold for theft like men, but might be sold by their parents in infancy. If the girl were not marriageable when the first Sabbatical year arrived, she would obtain her freedom absolutely, because the case contemplated in Exodus 21:8-10 could not possibly arise. And, generally, we may suppose that the rights of an unmarried female slave would be the same as those of a man, to go out free in the seventh year. (See Jeremiah 34:9.)
All the firstling males that come of thy herd and of thy flock thou shalt sanctify unto the LORD thy God: thou shalt do no work with the firstling of thy bullock, nor shear the firstling of thy sheep.(19) All the firstling males. . . . thou shalt sanctify—i.e., recognise them as the property of Jehovah by not using them for ordinary purposes. In Leviticus 27:26 we read, “No man shall sanctify it”—i.e., shall make it the subject of a special vow or dedication, because it already belongs to Jehovah. This is the only interpretation consistent with the context in Leviticus; for Deuteronomy 27 deals entirely with “voluntary” offerings, which are in a sense outside the Law. (See Notes at the commencement of Deuteronomy 28, 29).
Thou shalt eat it before the LORD thy God year by year in the place which the LORD shall choose, thou and thy household.(20) Thou shalt eat it before the Lord thy God year by year.—This connects the eating of the firstlings with the “second” tithe (Deuteronomy 14:23), There is some difficulty in understanding the exact relation between this precept and that which assigns the firstlings to the priests (Numbers 18:15) with the first tithe. The practical solution is to be sought in the practice of the Jews. One suggestion is (that of Rashi), that “thou shalt eat” in this place refers to the priest; another is, that the firstlings without blemish were for the priest; those that were not fit for sacrifice were for the household of the owner. But it is perfectly conceivable that there was a collection of firstlings at one time of the year for the first tithe, and these were given to the priests. At the time of the collection of the second tithe, there might, and generally would, be other firstlings born since, and these, with the second tithe, would be disposed of in the manner indicated in these verses. And this, upon the whole, seems the most probable explanation. If two tithes were a regular institution, they must have been regularly collected at fixed times. And there might easily be firstlings in both of them; in fact, there almost certainly would be. At any rate, no contradiction can be maintained as between laws which were both observed in practice by the Jews. It appears from the Talmud, that tithes and offerings might be presented, more or less, at any of the three great feasts. They would not all be presented at one time. The tithes and first-fruits in some cases were liable to be delayed. The rule was, that everything due for three years last past must be cleared out of the establishment, and paid over to the proper authorities at the Feast of the Passover in the fourth and eighth years reckoned by the Sabbatical system. (See Deuteronomy 26:12-13, for more on this head.)