Deuteronomy 15:12
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.
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(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.

Deuteronomy 15:12. If thy brother be sold — Either by himself or his parents, or as a criminal. Six years — To be computed from the beginning of his servitude, which is everywhere limited to the space of six years.

15:12-18 Here the law concerning Hebrew servants is repeated. There is an addition, requiring the masters to put some small stock into their servants' hands to set up with for themselves, when sent out of their servitude, wherein they had received no wages. We may expect family blessings, the springs of family prosperity, when we make conscience of our duty to our family relations. We are to remember that we are debtors to Divine justice, and have nothing to pay with. That we are slaves, poor, and perishing. But the Lord Jesus Christ, by becoming poor, and by shedding his blood, has made a full and free provision for the payment of our debts, the ransom of our souls, and the supply of all our wants. When the gospel is clearly preached, the acceptable year of the Lord is proclaimed; the year of release of our debts, of the deliverance of our souls, and of obtaining rest in him. And as faith in Christ and love to him prevail, they will triumph over the selfishness of the heart, and over the unkindness of the world, doing away the excuses that rise from unbelief, distrust, and covetousness.literally: "Beware that there be not in thy heart a word which is worthlessness" (compare Deuteronomy 13:13 note). De 15:12-19. Hebrew Servants' Freedom.

12. if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee—The last extremity of an insolvent debtor, when his house or land was not sufficient to cancel his debt, was to be sold as a slave with his family (Le 25:39; 2Ki 4:1; Ne 5:1-13; Job 24:9; Mt 18:25). The term of servitude could not last beyond six years. They obtained their freedom either after six years from the time of their sale or before the end of the seventh year. At the year of jubilee, such slaves were emancipated even if their six years of service were not completed [see on [142]Le 25:39].

If thy brother be sold unto thee. See Poole "Exodus 22:3".

Six years; to be computed, either,

1. From the year of release; as they gather from hence that personal and real debts were both released together. But that seems to be supposed rather than proved; nay, there is a manifest difference between them, for the release of real debts is expressly mentioned and required in the year of release, but so is not the release of the personal debt of servitude, either here or elsewhere. Or rather,

2. From the beginning of this servitude, which is every where limited unto the space of six years, as here and below, Deu 15:18 Exodus 21:2 Jeremiah 34:14. And it seems a strange and forced exposition, to take these six years for so much of the six years as remains until the year of release, which possibly might not be one quarter of a year, whereas a hired servant serves for a far longer time, and this is said to be worth a double-hired servant, in regard of the longer time of his service, Deu 15:18. Add to this, that it is mentioned as the peculiar privilege of the year of jubilee, that such servants were then freed, though their six years of service were not expired.

And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee,.... By others, as by the sanhedrim for theft, for which a man might be sold, but not a woman, as Jarchi observes; but then a father might sell his daughter for an handmaid, if little and under age; and to such cases this law is supposed to refer; see Exodus 21:2 though a man on account of poverty might sell himself:

and serve thee six years; as he was bound to do, if his master lived so long; if he died before the six years were out, he was obliged to serve his son, but not his daughter, nor his brother, nor his heirs, as the Jewish writers affirm (g): then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee; that is, at the end of the sixth, and beginning of the seventh year; see Exodus 21:2.

(g) Maimon. & Bartenora in Misn. Kiddushin. c. 1. sect. 2.

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. thy brother] See on Deuteronomy 15:2.

an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman] E, Exodus 21:2, an Hebrew slave. In O.T. Hebrew is used either when foreigners are speaking of Israelites, or in order to distinguish Israelites from foreigners. Here the Heb. gives only the adj. masc. and fem., Hebrew and Hebrewess, without adding man (so Jeremiah 34:9; Jeremiah 34:14; cp. Genesis 14:13, Abram the Hebrew and Genesis 39:17 (J) the Hebrew slave). The fuller phrase Hebrew man occurs in J and E (Genesis 39:14; Exodus 2:11), also the plur. Hebrews (Genesis 40:15; Exodus 2:6; Exodus 2:13, etc.). Fem. sing. only here and Jeremiah 34:9, plur. in E (Exodus 1:15, etc.). Not found in P. On the addition Hebrew woman, see Introd. § 3.

be sold unto thee] Leviticus 25:39 A.V.: but the vb. equally means sell himself. E, Exodus 21:2, has if thou buy.

and serve] more probably he shall serve (cp. Exodus 21:2).

in the seventh year thou shalt let him go] send or dismiss him. Neither in E nor D is there any hint of this number being suggested by the weekly sabbath; this association first appears in H’s law of the seventh fallow year, Leviticus 25:2 ff.

free] the same adj. in Exodus 21:2; Exodus 21:5, and elsewhere of freedom from slavery.

12–18. The Year of Remission: (2) of Slaves

If a Hebrew, man or woman, serves as a slave for six years, in the seventh he shall not only go free but be liberally equipped from his owner’s property; as Israel was a slave and redeemed by God (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). If, however, the slave elects to remain with his owner because he loves him, then he shall be bound to his service for ever (Deuteronomy 15:16 f.). Nor must his emancipation seem hard to the owner: six years’ profit from a slave is double the hire of a hireling (Deuteronomy 15:18).—Sg. throughout. Whether there are any editorial additions is uncertain: the prevailing use of the masc. for slave seems to some to point to the phrase or an Hebrew woman (Deuteronomy 15:12; Deuteronomy 15:17 b) as such [Holzinger, Einleitung, 313, n. 1; cp. Steuern.).

The corresponding law in E, Exodus 21:1-6 (see Driver’s notes), also directs the emancipation of a Hebrew bondman after six years’ service, does not mention bondwoman (for the slave-concubine he has a further law, Deuteronomy 15:7-11) but provides (as D does not) for the bondman’s wife: if he has entered service married he takes his wife out; if his master has given him a wife she and their children remain his master’s property; and to his love for his master E adds that for his wife and children as a motive for his electing to remain. The ceremony of binding him to the service is the same as in D with an addition (see on Deuteronomy 15:17). E does not provide equipment for the freed slave.

The law in Leviticus 25:39-55 (H expanded by P) deals with both the Hebrew and the foreign bondman. The former is not to serve as slave but as a hired servant, up to the year of jubile (when all land returns to its original owners), and then go free with his children to his own family and his father’s possession; nothing, therefore, is said of a provision for him from his master’s goods, nor of manumission in the seventh year. Thus practically no Israelite is to be a slave: one Israelite shall not rule over another with rigour. But slaves of foreign birth or from among the gçrîm are their purchaser’s possession for ever and heritable property. If a poor Hebrew sell himself to a foreigner, he may be redeemed by himself or his family, and a scale is fixed for his price, but if he be not redeemed by the year of jubile, he and his children shall then go free. Throughout nothing is said as to the bondman’s wife.

The gradation of these laws, though not so marked as in the case of some others, is sufficiently clear. E’s is the most primitive; D’s dependence on E is probable but not so evident as in other cases; it might be a different codification of the same consuetudinary law. Besides stating the law in his own phraseology (more particularly that of the Sg. address) and pleading motives for it which are characteristic of him (e.g. Deuteronomy 15:15; Deuteronomy 15:18), D has the equally characteristic addition about the equipment of the freed slave. Leviticus 25:39-55, with its addition upon Hebrew slaves sold to foreigners, reflects conditions which may sometimes have happened before the Exile, but were more prevalent only after it.

Besides, the postponement of the emancipation from the 7th year to that of the jubile seems to imply that E’s and D’s laws which fixed it for the former had been found impracticable; P (or H?) therefore prolongs the period of service, but compensates for this by commanding that the Hebrew slave shall be treated as a free man (Driver, Deut. 185). Calvin’s explanation—that the term jubile is extended to mean every seventh year; or that the slaves to be freed at the jubile were those who refused enfranchisement in the seventh year and being so fully in their owner’s power needed the Levitical directions for their humane treatment—is impossible.

On the neglect of the law see Jeremiah 34:8 ff.; Nehemiah 5:5.

Two other things need to be noted:—(1) The causes by which Israelites fell into slavery were mainly poverty and crime. A man unable to pay the mohar or purchase money for a bride might serve for her a term of years, like Jacob (Genesis 29:18); a father might sell his children, especially his daughters (Exodus 21:7), either for poverty or from the wish to connect his house with that of an influential neighbour; the insolvent debtor might be sold (2 Kings 4:1; Amos 2:6; Amos 8:6; Nehemiah 5:5; Nehemiah 5:8), or, though not a debtor, might be driven by sheer want to sell himself (Leviticus 25:39); or a man might be sold for theft, which he could not make good (Exodus 22:2 f.; Josephus, iv. Antt. viii. 2); and there were born slaves (Genesis 14:14). Stealing and selling a slave was punishable by death (Exodus 21:16). (2) The condition of slaves was good. The slave of an Israelite was a member of the family, who enjoyed its religious fellowship and took part in the rites and benefits of this, e.g. the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12, Deuteronomy 12:18, Deuteronomy 16:11; Exodus 23:12) and must therefore have been circumcised (P expressly commands this, Genesis 17:12). He had sometimes great influence and authority in the household and might marry his master’s daughter, or even become his heir (Genesis 15:2 ff; Genesis 24:1 ff.; 1 Samuel 25:14 ff.; 1 Chronicles 2:34 f.). Even the oldest law, though it considers slaves to be their master’s property (Exodus 21:21; Exodus 21:32), does not allow him to kill them (id. 20), and if he destroy the eye or tooth of a slave he must set him free (Exodus 21:26 f.).

Similarly in Arabia to-day, where the condition of slaves well illustrates their condition in Israel and especially their religious standing. The treatment of course varies according to the character of the master, and in particular slaves seem less well-treated in the large towns. But on the whole the conditions of service in Arabia are good. Snouck-Hurgronje, Mekka, ii. 12 ff., 18 f.: ‘even the “slave of all work” has no hard time and all are members of the family they serve’: ‘take it all in all the condition of the Moslem slaves is one only technically different from that of the European servant and workman.’ Doughty (Ar. Des. i. 554): ‘the condition of a slave is always tolerable and often happy in Arabia; bred up as poor brothers of the sons of the household, they are a manner of God’s wards of the pious Mohammedan householder, who is ammy, the “eme” of their servitude and abûy “my father.” … The patrons who paid their price have adopted them into their households, the males are circumcised and—that which enfranchises their souls, even in the long passion of home-sickness—God has visited them in their mishap; they can say, “it was His grace” since they be thereby entered into the saving religion. This therefore they think is the better country where they are the Lord’s free men, etc.’ Musil (Ethn. Ber. 224): ‘Among the Ṣḥûr and Ḥwêṭât the slave is almost always married to a slave-girl and serves his lord, sleeps in his tent and accompanies him to war and on forays. Also he guards his flocks and enjoys almost perfect freedom; therefore only the very few run away. My escort, the slave ‘Abdallah, told me that he had several times visited his relatives in Egypt, but had always returned to his master, since it was better for him with the latter than at home.’ See further the notes below.

The Code of Ḫammurabi has this law (§ 117):—If a man owes a debt and he has given his wife, his son or his daughter [as hostage] for the money, or has handed some one over to work it off, the hostage shall do the work of the creditor’s house; but in the fourth year he shall set them free (C. H. W. Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, etc. 52).

Verses 12-18. - From injunctions regarding the treatment of the poor and of debtors the transition is easy to the law concerning slaves, inasmuch as it was through the stress of poverty that any became such from among their brethren. The law, as here laid down, is the same as that in Exodus 21:2-6, somewhat expanded; the most important addition being that the slave is not only to go free after six years of service, but is to be furnished by his master with the means of setting up a home for himself. The six years here specified are not to be confounded with the years ending at the sabbatical year; they are any six years during which the individual has been in bondage. Deuteronomy 15:12These provisions in favour of the poor are followed very naturally by the rules which the Israelites were to be urged to observe with reference to the manumission of Hebrew slaves. It is not the reference to the sabbatical year in the foregoing precepts which forms the introduction to the laws which follow respecting the manumission of Hebrews who had become slaves, but the poverty and want which compelled Hebrew men and women to sell themselves as slaves. The seventh year, in which they were to be set free, is not the same as the sabbatical year, therefore, but the seventh year of bondage. Manumission in the seventh year of service had already been commanded in Exodus 21:2-6, in the rights laid down for the nation, with special reference to the conclusion of the covenant. This command is not repeated here for the purpose of extending the law to Hebrew women, who are not expressly mentioned in Exodus 21; for that would follow as a matter of course, in the case of a law which was quite as applicable to women as to men, and was given without any reserve to the whole congregation. It is rather repeated here as a law which already existed as a right, for the purpose of explaining the true mode of fulfilling it, viz., that it was not sufficient to give a man-servant and maid-servant their liberty after six years of service, which would not be sufficient relief to those who had been obliged to enter into slavery on account of poverty, if they had nothing with which to set up a home of their own; but love to the poor was required to do more than this, namely, to make some provision for the continued prosperity of those who were set at liberty. "If thou let him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go (send him away) empty:" this was the new feature which Moses added here to the previous law. "Thou shalt load (העניק, lit., put upon the neck) of thy flock, and of thy floor (corn), and of thy press (oil and wine); wherewith thy God hath blessed thee, of that thou shalt give to him."
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