Deuteronomy 15:1-18 – The Sabbatical Year


Deuteronomy 15:1-18


Every seventh year was to be a time of canceling of debts and freedom for Hebrew indentured servants and slaves.


Every seventh year, the Israelites were to forgive any remaining debts owed by fellow Israelites. After an initial introduction in which the Israelites were told that they would not be poor, and only ever be creditors and never borrowers, if they obeyed the Lord, the passage goes on to assume that some Israelites will sometimes find themselves in positions of destitution and borrowing. 

Israelites were instructed that if they found an Israelite in a position of poverty, they should generously loan whatever that person needed without regard to length of time until the Sabbatical year. Thus, they should loan in the sixth year, just as they might have in the first year, otherwise the poor person might cry out to God against them. If the person only repaid part of their debt before the Sabbatical year, the rest of the debt was to be erased. 

In the same way, Hebrew slaves were to be set free after [at the most] six years’ service. They were to be sent away with ample provisions of animals, food, and drink for their free life, to make sure that they did not fall into debt-bondage again. God reminds the people how God freed them from slavery in Egypt and provided reparations for them (Exodus 12:35-36).

The Israelite slave who does not wish to be freed is to have his or her ear pierced by an awl against a doorway. This was a symbolic act to put the blood of an Israelite in place of the blood of a Passover lamb. In essence, the Israelite slave, in choosing to reject freedom and remain as a slave, was rejecting the implications of God’s Passover redemption. The ear that heard the announcement of freedom and rejected it was to be pierced publicly.

The rabbis held that even intentional slaves were to be liberated, even against their will, at the Jubilee, and everyone was to be returned (not merely allowed to return) to their family (Leviticus 25:10).   

Here we have the passage that Jesus quotes in Matthew 26:11, after receiving the expensive gift of perfume “The poor will always be with you” (Deuteronomy 15:11). A contextualized reading of this verse indicates that Jesus was not simply dismissing the needs of the poor, but reaffirming God’s commandment that God’s people should fully open their hands to the needy and the poor of the land.