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15. Cancelling Debts

1At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. 2And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he hath lent unto his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother; because Jehovah's release hath been proclaimed. 3Of a foreigner thou mayest exact it: but whatsoever of thine is with thy brother thy hand shall release. 4Howbeit there shall be no poor with thee; (for Jehovah will surely bless thee in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it;) 5if only thou diligently hearken unto the voice of Jehovah thy God, to observe to do all this commandment which I command thee this day. 6For Jehovah thy God will bless thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over thee.

7If there be with thee a poor man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in thy land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother; 8but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. 9Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou give him nought; and he cry unto Jehovah against thee, and it be sin unto thee. 10Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him; because that for this thing Jehovah thy God will bless thee in all thy work, and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto. 11For the poor will never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy needy, and to thy poor, in thy land.

12If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. 13And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty: 14thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing-floor, and out of thy winepress; as Jehovah thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. 15And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and Jehovah thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to-day. 16And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go out from thee; because he loveth thee and thy house, because he is well with thee; 17then thou shalt take an awl, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maid-servant thou shalt do likewise. 18It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou lettest him go free from thee; for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath he served thee six years: and Jehovah thy God will bless thee in all that thou doest.

19All the firstling males that are born of thy herd and of thy flock thou shalt sanctify unto Jehovah thy God: thou shalt do no work with the firstling of thy herd, nor shear the firstling of thy flock. 20Thou shalt eat it before Jehovah thy God year by year in the place which Jehovah shall choose, thou and thy household. 21And if it have any blemish, as if it be lame or blind, any ill blemish whatsoever, thou shalt not sacrifice it unto Jehovah thy God. 22Thou shalt eat it within thy gates: the unclean and the clean shall eat it alike, as the gazelle, and as the hart. 23Only thou shalt not eat the blood thereof; thou shalt pour it out upon the ground as water.

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1. At the end of every seven years. A special act of humanity towards each other is here prescribed to the Jews, that every seven years, brother should remit to brother whatever was owed him. But, although we are not bound by this law at present, and it would not be even expedient that it should be in use, still the object to which it tended ought still to be maintained, i e., that we should not be too rigid in exacting our debts, especially if we have to do with the needy, who are bowed down by the burden of poverty. The condition of the ancient people, as I have said, was different. They derived their origin from a single race; the land of Canaan was their common inheritance; fraternal association was to be mutually sustained among them, just as if they were one family: and, inasmuch as God had once enfranchised them, the best plan for preserving’ their liberty for ever was to maintain a condition of mediocrity, lest a few persons of immense wealth should oppress the general body. Since, therefore, the rich, if they had been permitted constantly to increase in wealth, would have tyrannized over the rest, God put by this law a restraint on immoderate power. Moreover, when rest was given to the land, and men reposed from its cultivation, it was just that the whole people, for whose sake the Sabbath was instituted, should enjoy some relaxation. Still the remission here spoken of was, in my opinion, merely temporary. Some, indeed, suppose that all debts were then entirely cancelled; 144144     “The Hebrews (says Ainsworth) for the most part hold the remission to be perpetual.” He, however, argues from the word שמטה, an intermission, and its use in that sense in Exodus 23:11, that C.’s interpretation is the correct one. So also Dathe, who quotes Jos. Meyer in his Treatise on the Festivals of the Jews, ch. 17 sec. 20; and Michaelis, in his Laws of Moses, P. 3. sec. 157. as if the Sabbatical year destroyed all debtor and creditor accounts; but this is refuted by the context, for when the Sabbatical year is at hand, God commands them to lend freely, whereas the contract would have been ridiculous, unless it had been lawful to seek repayment in due time. Surely, if no payment had ever followed, it would have been required simply to give: for what would the empty form of lending have availed if the money advanced was never to be returned to its owner? But God required all suits to cease for that year, so that no one should trouble his debtor: and, because in that year of freedom and immunity there was no hope of receiving back the money, God provides against the objection, and forbids them to be niggardly, although the delay might produce some inconvenience. First of all, therefore, He commands them to make a remission in the seventh year, i e., to abstain from exacting their debts, and to concede to the poor, as well as to the land, a truce, or vacation. On which ground Isaiah reproves the Jews for observing the Sabbath amiss, when they exact 145145     A. V., “all your labors;” margin, “things wherewith ye grieve others; Heb., griefs;” C.’s own version, “omnes facultates vestras exigitis.” their debts, and “fast for strife and debate.” (Isaiah 58:3, 4.) The form of remission is added, That no one should vex his neighbor in the year in which the release of God is proclaimed.

3. Of a foreigner thou mayest exact it. An exception follows, that it should be lawful to sue foreigners, and to compel them to pay; and this for a very good reason, because it was by no means just that despisers of the Law should enjoy the Sabbatical benefit, especially when God had conferred the privilege on His elect people alone. What follows in the next verse, “Unless because there shall be no beggar,” interpreters twist into various senses. Some translate it, Nevertheless (veruntamen,) let there be no beggar among thee; as if it were a prohibition, that they should not suffer their poor brethren to be overwhelmed with poverty, without assisting them; and, lest they should object that, if they should be so liberal in giving, they would soon exhaust themselves, God anticipates them, and bids them rely upon his blessing. Others, however, understand it as a promise, and connect it thus, That there should be no beggar among them, if only they keep the Law, since then God would bless them. Nor would this meaning be very unsuitable. What they mean who expound it, Insomuch that there should be no beggar with thee, I know not. Let my readers, however, consider whether 146146     S. M., However. A. V., Save when; or, in its margin, To the end that. S.M. refers to Jewish expositors as saying, “The meaning is, Thou shalt not fear that this law may do you an injury; for, if you be such zealous observers of my precepts, I will so bless you, and make all things needful for you to increase, that there shall be no poor man amongst you, to whom you need give what is lent. And if there be any person needing your assistance, and ye, for my sake, forgive his debt, as I have commanded, the man who doth thus shall not lose what was owed him, but shall receive from me a more abundant blessing.” The learned reader may find this expression further discussed in Noldii Concord. partic. Art., 509 of Annot and Vindic. — W. אפס כי, ephes ci, is not better rendered “unless because,” (nisi quod:) and then this clause would be read parenthetically, as if it were said, Whenever there shall be any poor among your brethren, an opportunity of doing them good is presented to you. Therefore the poverty of your brethren is to be relieved by you, in order that God may bless you. But, that the sentence may be clearer, I take the two words, אפס כי, ephes ci, exclusively, as if it were, On no account let there be a beggar: or, howsoever it. may be, suffer not that by your fault there should be any beggar amongst you; for He would put an end to all vain excuses, and, as necessity arose, would have them disposed to give assistance, lest the poor should sink under the pressure of want and distress, tie does not, therefore, mean generally all poor persons, but only those in extreme indigence; such as the Prophet Amos complains are “sold for a pair of shoes.” (Amos 2:6.) In order, then, that they may more cheerfully assist their distresses, He promises that His blessing shall be productive of greater abundance. And from hence Paul seems to have derived his exhortation to the Corinthians:

“He which soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully. God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.: Now he that ministereth seed to the sower, shall both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness, that, being enriched in every thing, you may abound unto all bountifulness.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-11.)

In short, God would have them without carefulness, since He will abundantly recompense them with His blessing, if they have diminished their own stores by liberality to the poor.

6. For the Lord thy God blesseth thee. He confirms the foregoing declaration, but ascends from the particular to the general; for, after having taught that they might expect from God’s blessing much more than they have bestowed on the poor, he now recalls their attention to the Covenant itself, as much as to say, that whatever they have is derived from that original fountain of God’s grace, when He made them inheritors of the land of Canaan. God reminds them also that He then promised them abundant produce; and thus indicates that, if they were mean and niggardly, they would cause the land to be barren. When He says that they should lend to all nations, he speaks by way of amplification; and also in the next clause, that they should reign over the Gentiles; whence it follows, that if there were any in want among them, it would arise from the wickedness and depravity, of the people themselves.

7. If there be among you a poor man The same word אביון, ebyon, is used, which we have seen just above, verse 4; nor is there any contradiction when He commands them to relieve beggars, whom He had before forbidden to exist among His people; for the object of the prohibition was, that if any were reduced to beggary, they should not be cast out and forsaken. Now, however, He explains the mode of preventing this, viz., that the hands of the rich should be open to assist them. In order to incline them to compassion, he again reminds them of their common brotherhood, and sets before them, as its token and pledge, the land in which by God’s goodness they dwell together. Again, that they may be willing and prompt in their humanity, He forbids them to harden their heart, thereby signifying that avarice is always cruel. Finally, He applies this instruction to the year of release, viz., that they should straightway relieve their poor brethren towards the beginning of that year, just as if they would receive back in a few days the money which the poor man would retain to its end.

11. For the poor shall never cease out of the land. The notion 147147     “I know that ye will not obey me with a perfect heart, and therefore my blessing shall be lessened towards you, and there shall be poor among you.” Hebrew commentators quoted in Munster and Fagius. — Poole’s Syn. of those is far fetched who suppose that there would be always poor men among them, because they would not keep the law, and consequently the land would be barren on account of their unrighteousness. I admit that this is true; but God does not here ascribe it to their sins that there would always be some beggars among them, but only reminds them that there would never be wanting matter for their generosity, because He would prove what was in their hearts by setting the poor before them. For, (as I have observed above,) this is why the rich and poor meet together, and the Lord is maker of them all; because otherwise the duties of charity would not be observed unless they put them into exercise by assisting each other. Wherefore God, to stir up the inactivity of the rich, declares that lie prescribes nothing but what continual necessity will require.

13. And when thou sendest him out free from thee. Here not only is the enfranchisement of slaves enjoined, but an exhortation to liberality is also added, viz., that they should not send away their slaves without their hire; for this is not a civil enactment for the purpose of extorting from the avaricious more than they were willing to give. The rule of Paul here applies:

“Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7.)

But, since the Hebrew slaves were brethren, God would not allow them to be placed in a worse condition than hirelings. That He commands them to be furnished out of the wine-press, and floor, and flock, does not mean that they were to be enriched, or that a large provision should be assigned to them, but He justly lays a constraint on the rich, whose varied abundance supplied them with the means of liberality; as if He would show them from whence they received their gratuitous gifts, which were at the same time a just compensation for the labors of their slaves.

18. It shall not seem hard unto thee. I have lately observed how difficult and inconvenient to the Jews was the observance of this law; wherefore it is not without reason that God reproves their mean and niggardly pride, if they enfranchised their slaves grudgingly. And, indeed, He first urges them to obey on the score of justice, and then from the hope of remuneration. For He reminds them that for six years the slave had earned double the wages of a hireling, either because his life was more laborious, inasmuch as heavier tasks are required from slaves than from free-men, who are paid for their work; or because he had completed twice as long a period as hirelings were wont to be engaged for. For the Jewish (commentators) 149149     “The Chaldee, Vatablus, and other more recent commentators translate it, Since he has served thee for six years for double the wages of a hireling; which the Hebrews thus explain, that the wages of a slave of six years’ standing are called double, because hirelings amongst the Hebrew’s only engaged themselves for three years, whereas the slave served for sir years; therefore he served twice as long, and earned twice as much.” — Corn. a Lapide in loco. infer from this passage, that three years was the term prescribed for hired servants; and thus they suppose the six years were counted. But since this is a mere conjecture, I know not whether my opinion is not more suitable, that for six years their labors had been twice as profitable as would have been those of a free-man who is not under the compulsion of a slave.

19. All the firstling males. Another caution is added, that they should make no profit of the first-born; for they might have used the labor of the ox in plowing, or as a beast of burden; they might also have sheared the lambs, and have afterwards brought a deteriorated animal into the tabernacle. God commands, therefore, that what was due to Him should be honestly and absolutely paid. But, if good laws sprang from evil habits, it hence appears with what audacious greediness men have ever been led away to wicked gains, since it was necessary that they should be prohibited by an express edict from seeking to enrich themselves at God’s expense. Wherefore, it is not to be wondered at that men are acute and sagacious in cheating each other, since they by no means hesitate to deceive God by wicked artifices.