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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 25

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



The distinction between the sabbatical days and years seems to be that the latter were in no way connected with religious observances, but were secular in their character. For this reason they were not described in chap. xxiii among the great religious festivals, since they aim at moral rather than spiritual ends. Extraordinary facilities for acquiring a knowledge of the law were afforded, inasmuch as the whole law was to be read every sabbatical year to the people assembled at the feast of tabernacles. The spirit of this law is the same as that of the weekly sabbath. Both have a good effect in limiting the rights and checking the accumulation of property; the one puts God’s claims on time, and the other on property. In the estimation of political economists the entire wealth of the world is equal to seven harvests. This law subtracts a sum equal to the entire wealth of the nation once in every forty-nine years. Ewald observes that Leviticus 25:17-22 should be read immediately after Leviticus 25:7, since they are germane to the sabbatical year and not to the jubilee. In this assertion Ewald is slightly in error. See Leviticus 25:21, note. Thus the chapter comprises two themes the sabbatical year, 1-7 and 17-22, and the jubilee, 8-16 and 23-55. The bearing of the jubilee on lands dedicated to Jehovah is stated as a supplement in Leviticus 27:16-25. The laws of this chapter were delivered proleptically, as were all pertaining to agriculture.


(1.) The verdict of Jehovah against chattelism, and in favor of freedom as the natural inheritance of all men, is found in the sentence of capital punishment inflicted on him who steals and sells a man, or retains him in his hand. Exodus 21:16. This statute lays the axe at the very root of chattel slavery by destroying its very germ, “the wild and guilty phantasy of property in man.” For both stealing and selling assume the fact of a property value. It is to be observed that this law is universal. Stealing a man is a crime. Exodus 21:7, is not a limitation of this universal prohibition to persons of Hebrew blood. The toleration and regulation of the system of servitude in Mosaism are by no means an endorsement of its abstract rightfulness, but rather a concession to the depravity of the times. “Servitude existed before Moses. It was no part of the mission of the Hebrew code to create it. Let it be forever admitted that the laws given of God through Moses cannot be held responsible for its existence. They found it existing, and proceeded, therefore, to modify it; to soften its more rigid features; to extract its carnivorous teeth; to ordain that the slave had rights which the master and the nation were bound to respect in short, to tone down the severities of the system from unendurable slavery to very tolerable servitude.” Cowles.

We are certainly safe in following the inspired prophets in their interpretation of the spirit of Mosaism. Isaiah says that the acceptable fast consists in letting “the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke,” and that the work of the Messiah will be to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound. “No candid reader of the New Testament can doubt that if the principles of Christianity were universally followed the last shackle would soon fall from the slave. Be the following facts remembered: 1.) No man ever made another originally a slave under the influence of Christian principle. No man ever kidnapped another or sold another BECAUSE it was done in obedience to the laws of Christ. 2.) No Christian ever manumitted a slave who did not feel that in doing it he was obeying the spirit of Christianity, and who did not have a more quiet conscience on that account. 3.) To man doubts that if freedom were to prevail everywhere, and all men were to be regarded as of equal civil rights, it would be in accordance with the mind of the Redeemer. 4.) Slaves are made in violation of all the precepts of the Saviour. The work of kidnapping and selling men, women, and children, of tearing them from their homes… is not the work to which the Lord Jesus calls his disciples. 5 . ) Slavery, in fact, cannot be maintained without an incessant violation of the principles of the New Testament. To keep man in ignorance, to withhold the Bible, to render the marriage contract nugatory, or to make it subject to the will of a master, to deprive a man of the avails of his labour without his consent; to prevent parents from training up their children according to their own views of what is right, to fetter and bind the intellect as a means of continuing the system, and to make men wholly dependent on others whether they shall hear the Gospel or be permitted publicly to embrace it, is everywhere deemed essential to the existence of slavery, and is demanded by all the laws which rule over a country cursed with this institution.” Albert Barnes.

(2.) Among the ameliorations of their condition were admission into covenant with God, (Deuteronomy 29:10; Deuteronomy 29:13,) participation in all family and national festivals, (Exodus 12:43-44; Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 16:10-16,) appeal to the laws, (Deuteronomy 1:16; Deuteronomy 27:19,) instruction in morals and religion, (Deuteronomy 31:10-13; Joshua 8:33-35; Nehemiah 8:7-8,) exemption from labour nearly half the time; namely, every seventh day and year, twenty-two days at the three annual festivals, also on the new moon, feast of trumpets, the day of atonement, local festivals, family feasts, as marriages, circumcisions, child-weanings, sheep-shearings, and making covenants. The servant might wholly or jointly inherit his master’s estates, (Genesis 15:3; Proverbs 17:2,) and aspire to the hand of his daughter in marriage. 1 Chronicles 2:35. He was shielded against personal injury by the requirement to set him free when the master’s smiting had knocked out a tooth or an eye. He might become naturalized, a step which sooner or later resulted in the independence of his offspring, and their complete fusion with Israel. There are no traces of prejudice among the Hebrews, as among other nations, against the servile class as inferior beings. Caste was unknown. The free spirit of Mosaism continually softened down the contrast between the condition of the master and that of the servant. Hence, in the history of the Hebrew state during fifteen centuries, there is not the first intimation of a servile war or insurrection, or dissatisfaction on the part of the servants. A great mitigation of the hardships of his condition was the right to run away from a cruel master, whether Hebrew or pagan, and to be protected in his refuge by a law not only positively forbidding his rendition, but also protecting him in his chosen abode. Deuteronomy 23:15-16. The slave found a protecting asylum the moment he set his foot on the soil of Palestine. Hence, no better fortune could befall one destined to slavery than that he should be sold into Palestine, where the mildest lot awaited him in Hebrew servitude, the furthest possible from chattel slavery. From Abraham down there is no instance of any man or master selling a servant as merchandise. Such buying, selling, or holding, against the will of the servant, or without his voluntary contract, was an oppression threatened with the wrath of God. Amos 2:6; Amos 8:6; Joel 3:2-8. Nor is there an instance of the purchase of a servant from a third person, or of his sale to a third person, or of his being put away from the family of the master, except as free. A daughter sold for a wife regained her freedom when defrauded of her rights. Exodus 21:10-11. There were also various methods of emancipation. The rabbins specify five: 1.) Will; 2.) Money payment; 3.) Gift of free papers; 4.) Adoption; and 5.) The master dying, leaving no male heir. The Jewish Essenes and Therapeutae went so far as to abolish servitude in their own sects as inconsistent with the common brotherhood of mankind. The powerful sect of the Pharisees, by their hostility to the system, must have softened its asperities and limited its spread. But the grand amelioration was the system of periodical emancipation for the Hebrew every seventh and fiftieth year, and for the non-Hebrew every year of jubilee. “To one who should read this law, ‘Ye shall proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof’ if there were no other to conflict with it, or that made it necessary to seek a different interpretation, the plain meaning of the statute would appear to be, that all who resided in the land, from whatever motive, or whatever were their relations or employments, were from that moment to be regarded as freemen.” Albert Barnes. Not an instance can be found in Mosaism where “all the inhabitants of the land” is a phrase restrictively used of the Hebrews alone.

The various regulations with reference to the rights of servants constitute one of the chief difficulties in the harmony of the books of the Pentateuch. It is respecting them in particular that Rationalism asserts that the legislation in Leviticus stands in absolute contradiction to that in Deuteronomy; forgetting that the discrepancies might all vanish if we had the vast volume of details of which the Mosaic books are only the synopsis. To the Pentateuch, as to the Gospel of John, may well be appended, “that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” if every one of the sayings and doings of Moses should be written.

It has been said by sceptical anti-slavery doctrinaires that the Old Testament is a millstone upon the neck of the slave. But a candid examination of its code of servitude proves that it is so much more humane than any other that it is almost freedom itself. Professor Goldwin Smith has given the most lucid discussion of this subject in his tract, “Does the Bible Sanction American Slavery?” He justly characterizes the Old Testament legislation as “a code of laws, the beneficence of which is equally unapproached by any code, and least of all by any Oriental code, not produced under the influence of Christianity.” The purpose was not to transform society by a miracle. That is not God’s method, which aims to limit, reform, and finally sweep away the evil usages already existing. When Moses was born slavery was universal. All wars ended either in the wholesale butchery of captured cities or in wholesale slavery. Bible servitude was of the very mildest type. It was domestic; the servant was one of the family, a companion of his master, armed for his defence (Genesis 14:14) and sharing his religious privileges, worshipping his God, and resting on his sabbath. Life and limb were protected by Mosaic statutes, which forbade the master’s rigorous rule. The periodic interruptions of this servitude by years of jubilee and seventh year releases kept the servant from hopeless chattelism. The marriage code, though to us seemingly harsh, was merciful indeed when compared with the ordinary codes and customs of slavery. There were no slave markets in Palestine, nor auction blocks, nor bloodhounds. Kidnapping, and the surrender of the fugitive fleeing from his heathen master, were punished as crimes. The Hebrew is most emphatically commanded to be kind to the stranger, which generally means the slave, and not maltreat or oppress him. When his term of servitude ended he was not to go away empty.

Verse 1

1 . ) Their peculiar relationship to Jehovah; 2.) Their deliverance from Egypt; 3.) The promise of Canaan; and 4.) The continued future regards of God.

Verse 2

THE SABBATICAL YEAR, Leviticus 25:1-7.

2. The land keep a sabbath Literally, rest a sabbath. The soil was to lie untilled. Hence this law was not applicable to Israel’s wilderness life, where there was no tillage. We are not to be restricted to the literalism of the text, and to insist that the first year in Canaan must be sabbatical. The land was not properly given till it was conquered. Hence the best Jewish authorities teach that this law became obligatory fourteen years after the first entrance into the Promised Land, seven years being consumed in the conquest, and seven more in the allotment.

Verse 3

3. Vineyard Garden-land or fruit-land. Kerem, literally a noble plantation, includes both oliveyards and vineyards. Deuteronomy 24:20-21, and Judges 15:5, notes.

Verse 4

4. A sabbath for the Lord This was Jehovah’s sabbath, because it rested solely on his authority, and not because it was to be devoted to acts of worship, sacrifices, and holy convocations. The ground of this requirement is not revealed. It may have been for the benefit of the soil, which uninterrupted cultivation with little manuring would have exhausted, or it may have had regard to moral ends only.

Neither sow thy field It is evident that the sabbatical year must have been conterminous with the civil year, when the land was cleared of the crops. The sacred year, beginning seven months earlier, would have been inconvenient to observe as a sabbatical year, inasmuch as there must have been either sowing or reaping, else there would be a loss of the crops of two years.

Verse 5

5. Vine undressed Hebrew, consecrated or Nazarite, because he left his hair unshorn. Numbers 6:5. The Roman poets speak of the viridis coma, the green hair of the vine.

Shalt not reap This prohibits reaping to garner or to sell, but not for immediate eating. It will be observed that in Leviticus 25:3-5 all labor is not forbidden, but only that which is strictly agricultural. Mechanical pursuits, such as tool-making, carpentry, the manufacture of cloth and of clothing, and the making and repair of furniture, were admissible, as well as certain semi-agricultural labors, as ditching, fence-building, terrace-making, sheep-shearing, care of bees and flocks, to which may be added hunting, fishing, and trafficking.

Verse 6

6. The sabbath of the land The spontaneous products of the soil during the sabbatical year shall be meat, or common food, for all classes indiscriminately, lords and servants, natives and foreigners, rich and poor, cattle and game. The assignment of the produce of this year to the poor in Exodus 23:11, does not exclude the landowner from equal participation also. The quantity of this self-sown harvest is sometimes fiftyfold, according to Strabo, when the previous harvest was over ripe and there was not careful gleaning. This may have been the designed character of the sixth harvest.

Thy stranger The thoshabh is one who lives permanently in the country, but without the rights of a citizen; different from a ger, who may live there for a time.

Verse 8

8. Seven sabbaths of years The jubilee occurred immediately after the seventh sabbatical year. Hence, as will be seen in Leviticus 25:11, there were two successive years in which the land kept a sabbath. Ewald and others quote Isaiah 37:30 in proof of the jubilee succeeding the sabbath year, from which reference Gesenius dissents.

Verses 8-55

THE YEAR OF JUBILEE, Leviticus 25:8-55.

Twice in each century occurred a year of renewal and restoration, in which all lands which had been alienated reverted to the families of those to whom they had been originally allotted by Joshua; all bondmen of Hebrew blood were liberated, and, according to Josephus, all debts due from one Israelite to another were remitted, as were all debts due from one Israelite to another in the sabbatical year, (Deuteronomy 15:1-2,) an item omitted in the full account of the jubilee by Philo, and positively negatived by Maimonides and the Mishna, though the reference of the latter to the jubilee is denied by Kitto’s Cyclopaedia. There were no special sacrifices appointed, nor even the reading of the law to the people, as in the sabbatical year. It is impossible for us to conceive the general outburst of joy that gladdened all the land when the bondmen tasted again the sweets of liberty, and returned to their ancestral possessions, their families, and the graves of their sires. “In vain would sleep invite them to repose their hearts would be too full to feel the lassitude of nature; and the night would be spent in gratitude and praise. What a lively emblem of the Gospel of Christ, which is peculiarly addressed to the poor!” Bush. There is no mention of the jubilee in the book of Deuteronomy, and the only other reference to it in the Pentateuch is quite incidental, in the appeal of the tribe of Manasseh for some legal enactment against the alienation of their lands by heiresses marrying out of their tribe. Numbers 36:4.

Verse 9

9. Cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound Literally, thou shalt cause a horn of loud clangor to pass through the land: R.V., “Send abroad the loud trumpet.” The trumpets used in the proclamation of the jubilee appear to have been curved horns, not the long, straight trumpets represented on the arch of Titus, (see illustration, Numbers 4:7, note,) and which, according to Hengstenberg, are the only ones represented in Egyptian sculptures and paintings. See Joshua 6:4, note.

Day of atonement See chap. 16. It does not seem likely that this great fast was disturbed by the joyful sound which, probably, burst forth in the afternoon when the high priest had concluded the solemn services of atonement. This view gives a deep significance to the jubilee, as a type of that era of gospel grace which follows the propitiatory death of the Lamb of God, the great sin offering. To avoid the incongruity of the jubilee and the great national fast on the same day, Hupfield would emend the text, so as to make the jubilee occur ten days earlier, at the feast of trumpets. See chap. xxiii, 24, note. According to Maimonides the interval of eight days between the feast of trumpets and the jubilee was a sort of saturnalia or carnival to all servants. On the tenth day the great Sanhedrin directed the trumpets to be sounded, and at that instant the bondmen became free and the lands reverted to their original owners.

All your land We are not to suppose that one trumpet passed from place to place, sounding through all the land, but many trumpets were simultaneously sounded by the priests in all their cities, in accordance with Numbers 10:8. All the Jewish writers assert that trumpets were sounded extensively all over the land in the mountains, in the streets, and at nearly every door when the signal was given by the proper authorities, called the “House of Judgment,” or the Great Sanhedrin. The design was to reach the ear of every Hebrew who had alienated his inheritance or divested himself of liberty.

Verse 10

10. The fiftieth year was to be set apart for specific purposes, to be not only a year of rest but of release and restoration. To obviate the difficulty of two successive years of rest for the soil and idleness for the people, much ingenuity has been exhibited in trying to prove that the fiftieth means the forty-ninth! We prefer to let a clear, unequivocal statement, involving no inconsistency nor physical impossibility, stand as written by Moses. Thus the jubilee was strictly a pentecostal year, holding the same relation to the preceding seven sabbatical years as the pentecost day did to the seven sabbath days; substantially the same formula is used in each case. See Leviticus 23:15-16.

Proclaim liberty… unto all Not to all Hebrews only, but “to all sitting in her,” that is, in the land. The only exception may have been those sold for theft, but even this class is not excepted in the law. See concluding note, (2.)

Jubilee The term yobhel, primarily signifies a ram or ram’s horn, and secondarily, a cry of joy, as if from the verb yabhel, to shout joyfully. Others derive it from the causative form of the same verb, with the signification to make go, hence, to restore. We cannot speak with certainty on this obscure question. See Joshua 6:4, note.

His possession The land originally allotted to his ancestor by Joshua and the land commission. See Numbers 34:17-28; Joshua 14:1, notes.

His family From this he may have been separated either by selling himself, on account of poverty, (Leviticus 25:39; Leviticus 25:47,) or by being sold by judicial decree to compensate for a theft. Exodus 22:2-3.

Verse 11

11. Ye shall not sow, neither reap This prohibition makes the fiftieth year sabbatic, like the forty-ninth: the land being untilled two successive years. The sustenance of the people in this case is provided for by the threefold productiveness of the last secular year. See Leviticus 25:21.

Nor gather the grapes It is probable that this applied only to the fields, and not to the gardens attached to the houses.

Verse 12

12. Ye shall eat the increase See Leviticus 25:6, note.

Verse 14

RULES FOR THE SALE OF LAND, Leviticus 25:14-17.

14. If thou sell aught This relates to real estate.

Ye shall not oppress R.V., not wrong one another. The capitalist shall not make his brother’s necessity his opportunity to drive a sharp bargain and buy his field “for a song,” but he shall observe the following sliding scale in reference to the approach of the next jubilee.

Verse 15

15. The number of years of the fruits The price of the usufruct of the land, not of the fee simple, was calculated on the years of tillage, exclusive of the years of rest, which would deprive the purchaser of a number of crops before the jubilee. Josephus describes the terms on which the buyer resigned the field in the year of jubilee to the original proprietor. The former produced a statement of the value of the crops and of his expenses. If the expenses exceeded in value the income, the balance was paid by the proprietor before the field was restored. But if the balance was on the other side, the proprietor simply took back the field, and the purchaser retained the profit. This arrangement would remove the objection to permanent improvements on the part of the purchaser, while it kept estates from deterioration.

Verse 17

17. Thou shalt fear thy God The Hebrew religion was eminently ethical as well as devotional; it was designed for the market and the forum, to preside over trade and social intercourse, to restrain avarice and protect poverty. This element of Mosaism is incorporated by Jesus Christ into his Gospel in the golden rule.

For I am the Lord This is the perpetual watchword of the old covenant, and the ground of its obligation.

Verses 18-22


These verses should be read in connexion with vers. 1-7, since they chiefly relate to the same topic. They seem to be misplaced in their present position, amid precepts relating to the jubilee, though they are not in reality. The purport of Leviticus 25:18-19 is, that safety and temporal prosperity in the land of promise hinge on obedience to the declared will of Jehovah.

Verse 20

20. What shall we eat the seventh year This question is kindly anticipated and answered by God, lest the strain upon their faith might be too great if the people were left with no special promise. He knoweth our frame.

Verse 21

21. Fruit for three years The fact that three years are here provided for instead of two, which the sabbath year required, is evidence that the jubilee succeeds the seventh sabbath year and is not identical with it, as some suppose. No merely human legislator would have ventured to enact a law forbidding seed sowing from the sixth to the eighth year, and harvesting from the sixth to the ninth year, omitting two successive harvests and thereby sinking two sevenths of the entire national wealth. Nor would any people have received such a law except on an unwavering faith in its divine origin. We regard obedience to this law the highest proof of Moses’s divine legation. The evident provision here made for the year of jubilee accounts for the apparent but not real displacement of this paragraph. We have only two passages of Scripture where this promise is alluded to, namely, 2 Kings 19:29, Isaiah 37:30.

Verse 23


23. The land shall not be sold for ever The usufruct only could be sold. In their deeds of conveyance the phrase “to him and to his heirs forever” had no place. After an equal allotment of the land at the start this is a merciful safeguard against oppressive monopolies, and a provision to secure to the family a perpetual inheritance. To effect the restoration of all lands twice each century to the family to which it was originally allotted by Joshua required the utmost care in the preservation of the genealogical records of every tribe and family. By this means evidence was afforded of the exact lineage of the Messiah in fulfilment of the prophecies, evidence which has been unavailable to every Jew since the destruction of these records in the destruction of Jerusalem.

For the land is mine Jehovah held the fee simple of Canaan. Hence he is justified in the ejection of non-paying tenants, first the Canaanites, then the Israelites. For further justification of the extermination of the Canaanites, see Joshua 6:21, note.

For ye are strangers This implies that foreigners, resident in the land, could not acquire even a temporary title to the soil. See Leviticus 23:22, note.

Verse 24

24. Ye shall grant a redemption The original proprietor, or his next of kin ( goel, one who redeems,) could at any time recover the possession of an alienated field by paying for its redemption according to an equitable rule, or sliding scale, graduated by the number of years before the jubilee.

Verse 25

25. Any of his kin Kranold observes that there is no record of the goel ever exercising his right till after the death of him who sold the field. But this does not disprove his right to redeem it during the life of the impoverished seller. “The person sustaining this office was a lively figure of Christ, who assumed our nature that he might be our kinsman-redeemer, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and in reference to whom it is said, ‘The Redeemer shall come out of Zion.’ He has by his sufferings and death brought back to man that inheritance which had been forfeited by sin.” Bush. How this deepens the significance of those words of Isaiah, the evangelical prophet, quoted by our Saviour in the synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears.”

Verse 27

27. Count the years The fruit-bearing years. Thus a possession sold in the twentieth year before the jubilee would have seventeen fruit-bearing years. If redeemed in the tenth year there are eight such years, which the redeemer must pay for in equity as the overplus.

Verse 29

THE REDEMPTION OF HOUSES, Leviticus 25:29-34.

29. A dwellinghouse in a walled city The redemption of this is limited to a year, after which it belongs to the purchaser forever, undisturbed by the jubilee. Such property used for mercantile purposes is of special value to the merchant who has built up a lucrative trade therein. Again, city property is liable to greater fluctuations in value in fifty years than country estates, and it is just that the present holder should have the benefit of the increased valuation. The fact that city property was permanently alienable would tend to keep the poor from flocking to the great cities, twice each century, to starve in poverty and to fester in vice. “This provision was made to encourage strangers and proselytes to come and settle among them. Though they could not purchase land in Canaan, yet they might purchase houses in walled cities, which would be most convenient for them who were supposed to live by trade.” Bush. It is the opinion of some that this law applied only to such cities as were walled in the days of Joshua, and conquered by him. This would exclude Jerusalem.

Verse 32

32. The Levites may redeem Here is the first hint of the mode of maintaining the Levites in cities. This exception to the statute concerning walled cities is grounded on the fact that the Levites, if their houses could be irredeemably sold, might become utterly homeless, since they had no landed inheritance, but only city houses. Jehovah is not honored by a mendicant ministry.

Verse 33

33. And if a man purchase of the Levites The Hebrew is “redeem” instead of “purchase.” Ewald, with others, inserts a negative from the Vulgate, which makes better sense “si redemptae non fuerint, in jubilaeo revertentur ad dominos.” If the houses shall not have been redeemed, they shall revert to their owners in the jubilee.

Verse 34

34. The field of the suburbs The extent of these is given in Numbers 35:4-5, which see.

Verse 35

MERCY TO THE POOR ENJOINED, Leviticus 25:35-43.

35. Thy brother Of the seed of Abraham.

Thou shalt relieve him The singular number here seems to signify an individual obligation to relieve the poor, though systematic relief by the commonwealth is by no means excluded.

That he may live Bare existence is not here intended, but a happy life. This explains the significance of the terms “life” and “eternal life.” The more abundant life which Jesus Christ came to inspire in the believer, (John 10:10, note,) is fulness of joy. The annihilationists, whose fundamental error is that immortality is a gift of grace and not inherent in human nature, take their first false step in their definition of life as mere animate being, and not a blissful existence.

Verse 36

36. Take no usury This word in the original signifies interest on money loaned, but in modern English it has come to designate excessive interest, either formally illegal or at least oppressive. When our Authorized Version was made, the term usury was the exact equivalent of the Hebrew neshek, interest.

Thy brother The prohibition of interest extended only to a brother Hebrew. At first only the poor Hebrew was exempted from interest, (Exodus 22:25,) but Jahn thinks that it was found difficult to define the term poor person; hence the prohibition was extended to all Hebrews, so that henceforth interest could be taken only of foreigners.

Deuteronomy 23:20. We cannot agree with Davidson, that this would limit their commerce with other nations, and thus conserve their religious faith. This prohibition was flagrantly transgressed by Hebrew capitalists after the return from the captivity, when one per cent. per month was exacted from their brethren. See Nehemiah 5:11, in which “the hundredth” is one per cent. a month, a ruinous rate.

Verse 37

37. Victuals In Deuteronomy 23:19, there is added the prohibition of “usury of anything that is lent upon usury.” Thus in all the means of life the poor are mercifully guarded against the oppression of avarice.

Verse 38

38. I am the Lord In this verse there are four reasons for obedience:

Verse 39

39. Be sold This is more correctly rendered reflexively, SELL HIMSELF. Ewald maintains that the reflexive and not the passive was the primary force of the niphal form of the Hebrew. See Gesen. Thes., p. 787. There is granted here no authority for the creditor to seize the debtor and sell him into slavery. He may enter into voluntary servitude under the pressure of poverty, but not of debt. The instances in 2 Kings 4:1 and Nehemiah 5:5 were outrages of the Mosaic law, and the case in Matthew 18:25 is a parable founded on Roman usages. Isaiah 50:1, applies to one already a slave. The only cases of the legal involuntary sale of a Hebrew are for theft, (Exodus 22:1; Exodus 22:3,) and of a daughter for the matrimonial estate. Exodus 21:7-11. According to Jewish writers, it was not lawful for a Hebrew to sell himself except in extreme poverty.

Says Maimonides: “A man might not sell himself to lay up the money which was given for him; nor to buy goods, nor to pay his debts, but merely that he might get bread to eat. Neither was it lawful for him to sell himself as long as he had so much as a garment left.”

Bondservant The Hebrew is, thou shalt not impose upon him the service of a servant. This language has no word to signify distinctively what we mean by slave, bondman, or bondservant. Many glaring misstatements have proceeded from the false assumption that all the servitude in the Old Testament was slavery, and that the word עבד , servant, wherever it occurs, means slave. It is to be regretted that our English translators did not use the term apprenticed servant of all work as distinctive from the servant, like a mechanic hired to do specific work by the day or year. The Israelites were oppressed servants in Egypt, but never bondmen or slaves, the property of the Egyptians. The Septuagint frequently and more accurately uses παις where the English Version uses bondman. The poor Hebrew who contracted to serve until the jubilee must be exempted from the rough work of the apprenticed non-Hebrew servant of all work. In Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12, the Hebrew servant is to go out free after serving six years, while in Leviticus he is to serve till the year of jubilee. These apparent discrepancies harmonize in this way, “His servitude would cease at the end of the six years or at the end of the jubilee period, whichever was nearest. For example, a man sold under ordinary circumstances must serve six full years; but a man sold in the forty-sixth, would go out in the fiftieth year of the jubilee period, thus serving less than six years’ time.” Haley. This is the rabbinic view. We cannot agree with Ewald and others that we have here legal provisions of different dates; that after emancipation in the seventh year had fallen out of use through the avarice of the masters, the later legislation in the interest of the oppressor extended the service to the fiftieth year; “which would indeed,” says Oehler, “have been a very sorry surrogate, since numberless servants did not survive to the year of jubilee.” The first legislation in Exodus harmonizes with the last in Deuteronomy, both limiting the service to six years. Saalschutz, who thinks “this is getting over the difficulty in a superficial way,” harmonizes the discrepancy in these two classes of laws by “the pretty clear intimations contained in them that they treat of entirely different classes of persons.” 1.) Hebrew servants born in a state of servitude. 2.) Impoverished Israelites, free landholders, who are never called servants, but brethren. See Leviticus 25:39; Leviticus 25:47. These, having sold their lands till the jubilee, are allowed, as a favour to them, to borrow money on the pledge of a long term of service, extending to the jubilee. But in the case of the purchase of a servant already in bondage, on the contrary, his master set his price in view of the requirement to release him at the end of six years. See Bib. Sac., Jan., 1862.

Verse 41

41. Unto the possession of his fathers These words afford a key to the difficulty which we have just discussed. The release here spoken of is that which restores the servant to his landed inheritance. This in no way is in conflict with the release of servants occurring every seventh year after their respective terms of six years, a release unattended by the restoration of their ancestral lands.

Verse 42

42. For they are my servants Their first allegiance is to me. I have the prior claim to their service, which is inconsistent with chattelism.

They shall not be sold as bondmen Literally, “they shall not sell themselves the selling of a servant,” that is, as a servant is sold.

Verse 43

43. Not rule… with rigour Literally, thou shalt not tread on him. The rabbins specified a variety of duties as coming under these general precepts; as compensation for personal injury, exemption from such menial duties as unbinding the master’s sandals or carrying him on a litter, while he was shielded from serious abusive words. The master was also obliged to maintain the servant’s wife and children, though, if they were free, he could exact no work from them. At the end of his term of service the master was forbidden “to let him go away empty.” Deuteronomy 15:13-14.

Fear thy God Genuine piety always bears good will towards man as its first fruit. Acts 16:33; Ephesians 6:9.

Verse 44

NON-HEBREW SERVANTS, Leviticus 25:44-46.

44. Of the heathen… shall ye buy bondmen Literally, man-servants and maid-servants. The “shall” is not mandatory but permissive. “Such purchase and adoption into Hebrew families was an appointed redemption from a worse state. There could not, consequently, be any sentiment of injustice, under this revealed will of God, in regard to the purchase from heathen masters of servants possessed by them as slaves, and treated as such, since they were brought from an irresponsible, unlimited slavery into a system of guardianship, protection, religious instruction, and family and national privileges. The children of such would be circumcised, adopted, and become sons of the house. In no other way than by purchase could the Hebrews redeem them, even if they had started on the emancipation of the nations. If they had been forbidden to buy, and had been restricted to hired servants of their own race alone, they could not have gotten possession of heathen slaves, even to redeem them, except as runaways; and thus multitudes would have been kept in heathen bondage, who, the moment they passed into Hebrew bondage, passed into a state of comparative freedom.” Dr. Cheever. The Hebrew construction of these words is not “ye shall purchase of the nations,” but of the servants that have come to you from among those nations. A slave-market was never known in Palestine, nor a slave-trader.

Heathen… round about These words exclude the Canaanite tribes in the land, who had been doomed to complete extermination. Deuteronomy 20:16-19. But since this sentence was not executed, the remnants were subjected to compulsory service. Judges 1:28; Judges 1:30, note.

Verse 45

45. Children of the strangers… shall ye buy It is very natural that the institution which originated in war, should be perpetuated in peace, and that the offspring of the first captives should follow the status of their parents, and that the system should embrace the children of foreigners who should offer them for sale. This often prevented the crime of infanticide, widely prevalent among the heathen. Thus was formed in the Hebrew state a sort of helot-class, mentioned especially under David (2 Chronicles 2:17, compare with 2 Samuel 20:24, note, and Solomon, 1 Kings 9:20; 2 Chronicles 8:7.) This class, which was employed on the public works, is estimated at one hundred and fifty-three thousand six hundred persons. As the Old Testament never mentions the importation of slaves as chattels, nor alludes to slave-markets, it is to be supposed that no slaves proper were bought in foreign lands. The Hebrews came in contact with the Phoenician slave-trade only as sufferers. Joel 3:4-6; Amos 1:9. Among the Jews the number of servants was comparatively much smaller than the number of slaves among other nations of antiquity. In Athens the proportion of slaves to citizens at one time was as high as four to one; but among the Israelites immediately after the Babylonian captivity the servants were to the masters as one to six. Ezra 2:64-65; Nehemiah 7:66-67. We have reason to believe that the number subsequently decreased, the influential sect of the Pharisees in particular being opposed to the system.

Verse 46

46. Take… as an inheritance Rather, leave as an inheritance.

Bondmen forever Albert Barnes thus explains this: “The permanent provision for servants was not that they were to enslave or employ their brethren, the Hebrews, but that they were to employ foreigners.” In other words, olam, forever, refers not to the persons bought and their children, but to the ordinance. But in case it did refer to persons there must be the following limitations: 1.) The law required the emancipation of a servant organically injured by the violence of the master. Exodus 21:26; Exodus 27:2.) Though the ear-bored servant was to be in bondage forever, the rabbins understand that he went out free at the jubilee. Hence we see no objection to this limitation of olam in the case of all servants, Gentile as well as Hebrew, to the year of jubilee. It is certainly limited to the term of life, which is often less than the jubilee period. See Leviticus 25:10, note.

Verse 47


47. If a stranger wax rich For his rights, see Leviticus 23:22, note. The ancient Hebrew master did not have a monopoly of money-making. His servant, “the stranger,” often amassed wealth. Foreigners and servants among them were in a much more privileged condition than they are at present in the same country under Mohammedan rule. A resident foreigner was allowed to purchase any pauper Hebrew who, in his distress, offered himself for sale. But no Christian or Jew in any land beneath the scepter of Islam is allowed to own a slave of any nationality, much less a Mohammedan. The latter only can enjoy the luxury of slave-holding, with the exception of some who are permitted to hold as slaves non-Mohammedan negroes.

Stock of the stranger’s family His heirs. The person sold might become a fixture of the household.

Verse 48

48. He may be redeemed again At any time.

Verse 49

49. Nigh of kin The Jews hold that the kindred of the enslaved Hebrew are bound, if in their power, to redeem him, lest he should be paganized, and we find that this was done on their return from the Babylonish captivity. Christians in the early centuries regarded themselves bound to ransom fellow-Christians in slavery.

He may redeem himself This indicates that the servitude was not of that rigorous kind which absorbs all the energies, and precludes all accumulation of property for the servant.

Verse 50

50. Unto the year of jubilee We apply the same principles of interpretation here as in the note to Leviticus 25:36; Leviticus 25:40. It is unreasonable to suppose that the Hebrew master was required to lift the yoke from his brother at the end of six years or of the jubilee period, whichever was nearest, and that the heathen master, under Hebrew jurisdiction, could hold the poor Israelite in servitude forty-nine years.

The price of his sale Lest the master might exact an exorbitant ransom the price was fixed by an equitable law. The yearly current wages of a hired servant were to be multiplied by the number of years of service due.

Verse 53

53. As a yearly hired servant He shall be treated mercifully, and all his rights shall be respected as if serving for wages. It was the duty of an Israelite when he saw his brother Hebrew abused by a Jew or by a stranger to give information to the magistrate, and it was incumbent on this officer to call the oppressor to account.

Verse 54

54. And his children No child in the land of Judea, whether Hebrew or heathen, was born to involuntary servitude because the father, or mother, or both, were servants; but every child of the house was born a member of the family, dependent on the master (not owner) for education and subsistence.

Verse 55

55. They are my servants The term servant here implies property. Hence the Hebrews could never rightfully sell themselves to others as merchandise. No Hebrew had a right to enslave himself. He could only sell his labour till the jubilee. This limit was fixed as a safeguard against involuntary and unlimited slavery. “This is a remarkable expression as connected with the fact of which God is always reminding the children of Israel, namely, that he brought them out of the house of bondage and out of the land of Egypt. He appears to acquire his hold upon their confidence by continually reminding them that at one period of their history they were bondmen. Now he insists that the men whom he has brought into liberty have been brought only into another kind of service. This is the necessity of finite life. Every liberty is in some sense a bondage.” Joseph Parker.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Leviticus 25". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/leviticus-25.html. 1874-1909.
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