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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Deuteronomy 15

B. An exposition of selected covenant laws Chs. 12-25

Moses’ continuing homiletical exposition of the Law of Israel that follows explains reasons for the covenant laws that arose from the Ten Commandments. This address concludes with directions for celebrating and confirming the covenant (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The section contains a mixture of laws previously revealed to the Israelites and other laws not previously revealed in the code given at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:19). This is instruction preached rather than codified as comprehensive legislation.

"The specific laws in this section were given to help the people subordinate every area of their lives to the LORD, and to help them eradicate whatever might threaten that pure devotion." [Note: Deere, p. 283.]

"Placement of the instruction about worship at the sanctuary in first position indicates clearly its priority for Deuteronomy, which assumes that the starting point for the proper, full, and exclusive love of the Lord (the primary demand of the first and second commandments and the Shema) is found in the way Israel carries out the activities of worship." [Note: Miller, p. 129.]

There is an obvious general movement from laws dealing with Israel’s religious life (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) to those affecting her civil life (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 22:8) and finally to those touching personal life (Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 26:15).

Two insightful writers suggested the following outlines for these chapters. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 218-331; and Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARAV 1 (1978-79):105-58.]

CommandmentMerrillKaufmanDescription
1Deuteronomy 12:1-31ch. 12Fidelity
2Deuteronomy 12:32 to Deuteronomy 13:18ch. 12Worship
3Deuteronomy 14:1-21Deuteronomy 13:1 to Deuteronomy 14:27Name of God
4Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 16:17Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 16:17Sabbath
5Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Authority
6Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Murder
7Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:18Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:19Adultery
8Deuteronomy 23:19 to Deuteronomy 24:7Deuteronomy 23:20 to Deuteronomy 24:7Theft
9Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4False witness
10Deuteronomy 25:5-19Deuteronomy 25:5-16Coveting

". . . the entire second discourse of Moses (Deuteronomy 5-26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments . . . and commands of God." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 129.]

In contrast with the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), the Deuteronomic Code, as some scholars prefer to call this section (chs. 12-26), is a popular exposition rather than a formal legal code. Its purpose was to explain to the generation entering the land all the laws that needed clarification, emphasis, and application, in view of Israel’s imminent entrance into Canaan. These laws reflect a centralized, monarchical society.

The value of this section of Scripture to the Christian today lies primarily in its revelation of the heart, mind, and will of God. The modern student of these chapters should look for this kind of insight here. This is the revelatory value of the Law.

Verses 1-11

"It is appropriate to deal with the law of release at this point, since it is best interpreted as an extension of the agrarian principles of the fallow year for the land, rather than a slave release law, linked in some way to the Hebrew slave release laws of Exodus 21:1-7 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18." [Note: Christopher Wright, "What Happened Every Seven Years in Israel?" Evangelical Quarterly 56:3 (July 1984):132.]

"At the end of every seven years" is an idiom meaning "during the seventh year." [Note: Deere, p. 290.] There is some debate among interpreters whether God wanted the Israelites to terminate debts permanently [Note: Thompson, pp. 186-87; Payne, p. 93; Schultz, p. 56; A. D. H. Mayes, Deuteronomy, p. 247; Deere, p. 290; Miller, p. 135; Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 242; Kalland, p. 104; and Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 175.] or only suspend them for a year, as the following quotation argues.

"The present passage is a further exposition of the Sabbath year release recorded in Exodus 23:10 and Leviticus 25:2-7. The premise of the exposition offered here is that if the land was left unused in the Sabbath year, the landowner would not have money to pay his debts. To alleviate this hardship on the landowner, the debts were to be released for one year during this time. The sense of the word release is not ’to cancel,’ as may be suggested in some English translations (e.g., NIV), but rather ’to postpone.’ The debt was postponed for a year. This provision was not intended for the ’foreigner’ (Deuteronomy 15:3); it applied only to those who lived permanently in the land. The ’foreigner’ was one who stayed only temporarily in the land. Such a one was not a ’sojourner,’ that is, a non-Israelite who had come to live permanently in the land." [Note: Sailhamer, pp. 449-50. Cf. Driver, p. 175; Keil and Delitzsch, 3:369-70; and Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 236.]

I tend to favor the complete cancellation view.

God values each person equally as an individual. This perspective comes out clearly in this section. God instructed His people to show concern for the welfare of every individual regardless of his or her economic or social position (Deuteronomy 15:7; cf. Proverbs 11:24).

"Elsewhere in the ancient Near East men were treated in terms of their status in the community rather than as individuals." [Note: Thompson, p. 185.]

The apparent contradiction between Deuteronomy 15:4; Deuteronomy 15:11 is explainable as follows. The statement that "there shall be no poor among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4) rests on the condition that the Israelites would be completely obedient to God (Deuteronomy 15:5). The promise of blessing for obedience appears four times in this chapter (Deuteronomy 15:4; Deuteronomy 15:6; Deuteronomy 15:10; Deuteronomy 15:18). The statement that "the poor will never cease to be in the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11) expresses what would really exist since Israel would not be completely obedient. It also represents what would exist among Israel’s neighbor nations even if Israel was completely obedient.

"In Deuteronomy, poverty did not just happen. It was the result of conscious decisions that people made to ignore the divine will for Israel as expressed in the covenant." [Note: Leslie J. Hoppe, "Deuteronomy and the Poor," The Bible Today 24:6 (November 1986):371.]

". . . poverty among Yahweh’s vassals was a disgrace . . ." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 80.]

Verses 1-18

The rights of the poor and vulnerable in Israel 15:1-18

The Israelites were not only to care for the Levites (Deuteronomy 14:27; Deuteronomy 14:29) and the aliens, orphans, and widows (Deuteronomy 14:29), but also other individuals in the nation who needed help (Deuteronomy 15:1-18). This concern was to mark them as the people of Yahweh. [Note: See Peter T. Vogt, "Social Justice and the Vision of Deuteronomy," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:1 (March 2008):35-44.]

Verses 12-18

Moses turned now from the poor to slaves. These people also had rights in Israel. God did not condemn slavery as an institution. He permitted it in Israel. However slavery in Israel amounted to voluntary servitude. God strongly forbade the enslavement and oppression of individuals. Israelites could sell themselves as slaves as well as hired men and women (Deuteronomy 15:18). [Note: See idem, Deuteronomy, pp. 247-48.] All slaves went free at the beginning of each sabbatical year. [Note: See N. P. Lemche, "The Manumission of Slaves-The Fallow Year-The Sabbatical Year-The Jobel Year," Vetus Testamentum 26 (January 1976):38-59.] Another view is that slaves went free at the end of seven years irrespective of the sabbatical year. [Note: Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 175.]

"The humanitarian spirit of Mosaic legislation permeates these civic and religious aspects of the Israelite society. It stands in contrast to the lack of dignity accorded to the common man in contemporary cultures of the Mosaic age." [Note: Schultz, p. 57.]

For more detailed information concerning the year of release, see Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:1-7. In Deuteronomy, Moses emphasized the importance of love for God and man, principles more than procedures.

The year of release was a provision of the Mosaic Covenant that God has not carried over into the present dispensation. However as Christians we have revelation concerning how to deal with our debtors. We should settle our disputes with our brethren out of court privately or in the church if necessary (1 Corinthians 6:1-6). We may take unbelievers to court, but if we cannot resolve our conflicts with our brethren out of court we should take the loss (1 Corinthians 6:7) and forgive (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14-15). We should also be compassionate and share with others, believers and unbelievers, who may be in need (Matthew 25:34-40; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 6:10; Hebrews 13:16).

Verses 19-23

The sanctification of first-born cattle 15:19-23

Moses had finished what he had to say about provisions for the needy (the Levites, aliens, orphans, widows, the poor, and slaves; Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 15:18). Here his thoughts turned back to the subject of the first-born of animals that he mentioned previously when he addressed the sacrificial meals (Deuteronomy 12:6; Deuteronomy 12:17; Deuteronomy 14:23).

The Israelites were not to use their first-born male animals for personal gain but were to offer them to God as sacrifices. The Law taught them to regard them as God’s possessions (cf. Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:12). They could eat defective first-born animals at their homes rather than offering them at the tabernacle and eating them there. In all cases they were to set aside first-born oxen and sheep for God as sacrifices because God had blessed the herd or flock with fertility. The Israelites were to offer God as near a perfect specimen as possible. This taught them that God deserves the very best, which would have cost them the most. [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 249; Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 250.]

As Christians we too should acknowledge God’s goodness if He increases our possessions. Our sacrifices need not be the first-born animals of our herds or flocks, but they might be verbal thanksgiving (Hebrews 13:15), our labor, our money, indeed our very lives (Romans 12:1-2).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 15". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-15.html. 2012.