Deuteronomy 15:12-17

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Delivered 7 October 2023


Freedom from Slavery

12 "If your kinsman, a Hebrew, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed. 14 You shall supply him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine-press; from what ADONAI has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and ADONAI your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today. 16 And if it happens he says, 'I will not go away from you,' because he loves you and your household, since he prospers with you; 17 then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also you shall do likewise to your maidservant." (Deut 15:12-17 BR)


Devarim or Deuteronomy Fifteen begins with instruction about observing Shemitah, or the canceling of debts in the Sabbatical year, which occurs every seven years. The slavery mentioned in verse 12 is of a particular type, because it involves a fellow Israelite. While there were some occasions when defeated enemies were enslaved by Israel [Num 31:7-9; Deut 20:10-12], slavery was most often a form of indentured servitude as a result of owing a debt [Ex 21:7; Lev 25:39, 47; Matt 5:25-26]. There was no such thing as bankruptcy in ancient times.

The instruction in today's passage directs that a Hebrew slave was to be released after six years of service in accordance with the principle of Shemitah. This principle treated the six years of service as equivalent to the wages of a hired man, and the free labor paid the debt which caused the servitude [cf. Lev 25:50; Deut 15:18]. Not only was the servant to be set free, but released with significant compensation to insure that he did not fall into poverty. The freed slave was also given the choice of job security by remaining with the family. An ear piercing sealed the contract. This instruction was to apply equally to both male and female slaves.

The Torah repeatedly calls the Israelites to remember how they were treated as slaves in Egypt [Deut 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22] and to treat their slaves with justice [Lev 25:43; Deut 5:14]. In fact God made Israelites personally responsible for the health and welfare of their slaves. Yet, there is only one mention in the Tanakh of the rule for releasing slaves being carried out. In the time of Jeremiah King Zedekiah proclaimed a release of slaves during the Sabbatical year, but after the release the owners reneged and took back their slaves [Jer 34:8]. That year was also the year that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.

In the first century slavery was still practiced in Israel. Yeshua represented slaves in his parables as trusted employees with significant stewardship responsibility who were rewarded for faithful service [Matt 10:24; 13:27; 18:23; 20:27; 21:34; 22:3; 24:45; 25:14]. Sha'ul, writing to congregations in the Diaspora where slavery was commonplace exhorted slaves to render good service as if for the Lord [Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25] and masters to treat slaves with justice and fairness [Eph 6:9; Col 4:1]. He also advised disciples who were slaves to seek freedom if possible [1Cor 7:21].

Slavery is a sensitive subject due to its history in America and the fact that professing Christians at the time justified its existence based on the Bible. It is rather ironic that those who quoted the Bible to justify enslaving Africans ignored the Torah requirement to release slaves after six years of service and provide compensation. Maybe if the owners had done that there might not have been a Civil War to end slavery.

To the average person freedom is the right to manage one's own life as one chooses. Slavery is the loss of personal independence. You might point out that since we don't allow people to be the legal property of others, what difference does this Torah instruction make? Sha'ul said that since all Scripture is inspired it is suitable for practical and spiritual application. The immediate practical application of this chapter is to do everything you can to get out of debt. Solomon pointed out the reality, "the borrower is a slave to the lender" [Prov 22:7].

Let's consider the spiritual application. Scripture often speaks of slavery in a spiritual sense, whether negative or positive. On the negative side Yeshua said very plainly "He that keeps on sinning is a slave of sin." So whatever sin you keep on doing and refuse to quit has become your master. The Rabbis had a similar saying, "First the evil inclination is called a passer-by, then he is called a guest, and finally he is called the occupier of the house." (Sukkah 52b)

To be clear sin is defined as behavior that violates one of God's commandments in Scripture. Violating a man-made custom or tradition was not what Yeshua was talking about. The outcome of habitual sin is death. Receiving forgiveness of sins is not enough. We must break the slavery relationship with sin and then actively resist the devil to remain victorious.

Yet, the offensive term "slave" is used in a positive sense to represent devoted service to God [Rom 1:1; 6:19; 1Cor 7:22; Gal 1:10; Eph 6:6; Php 1:1; Col 4:12; Titus 1:1; Jas 1:1; 1Pet 2:16; 2Pet 1:1; Jude 1:1; Rev 1:1]. In Scripture there is no higher compliment than to be called a "servant of ADONAI." You don't have to pierce your ear to symbolize your devotion, since Yeshua's hands and feet were pierced for you. Thus, the one who accepts salvation through Yeshua and follows him is bound to him in lifetime service, from which there is no release. The slave or servant of the Messiah has found true freedom.

Barukh Hashem.

Copyright 2023 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.