“on the mountain” and “in My statutes”
Leviticus 25:1-26:2; 26:3-27:34
Jeremiah 32:6-32:27; 16:19-17:14
The issue of slavery is a difficult one for the modern mind, especially in America where its negative effects didn’t cease with the end of the Civil War. In Torah study, the many English translations of the Hebrew word eved into “slave” can confuse even the wisest of readers. “Slave” rips the economic position of the eved out of its Hebrew cultural and Biblical context and leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.
When we consider that all Israel are the ovdim (plural of eved) of the Most High, it’s a step back to the realities of the Israelite covenant. In short, the Torah describes two types of Hebrew eved, and one kind of eved that may be acquired from the nations. Once the eved is understood, it destroys the notion that the Torah establishes, or even condones, slavery. To simplify:
- An Israelite has stolen something or been found negligent in destroying the property of another. He is unable to make restitution for the loss. This is found in the Torah portion Mishpatim. In this case, the court sells his work services to a person who can cover the financial debt. The debt may be worked off, but in no case should the period of service extend into the seventh year, the shmittah, unless the eved desires to remain until the Jubilee year. In the First Century, the Roman method was to throw the debtor in prison until he or his family could raise the money to repay. If the thief is too poor to repay, then he could remain in prison indefinitely. The Torah method allows the thief to remain under a kind of supervised release work program until he’s repaid the loss with his work.
- In this week’s Torah portion, an Israelite has fallen to such a depth of poverty that he must sell his services in order to support himself and his family, and to cover any financial obligations that he can’t meet even with interest-free loans. Again, his service may not exceed six years unless he desires to remain until the Jubilee. An interesting comment in the midrash is that such a person is one who failed to give the Land its shmittah rest, so he “becomes” the earth of which he is made in order to understand the Divine principle of the Sabbath year.
In both cases, the eved must be treated by the “master” as if he were a member of the family. His food, clothing, and shelter must be equal to his benefactor’s. He must be treated as well as other hired laborers, but in reality, he is treated better because the benefactor is commanded that the eved shall be “with you.”
In fact, the only real difference financially is that the paid laborer (also an eved) is working to receive his salary. The eved who has sold his services is working off a sum that has already been paid on his behalf. In that sense, he is not free like a paid laborer. He must finish his term before he is free to change jobs.
The commandments associated with the Jubilee year are parallel to the eved’s. A person who purchases land from another is only renting or leasing the field. It can never be bought in perpetuity because it will return to the original owner in the Jubilee. Likewise, a Hebrew eved cannot be truly purchased with money. He is merely renting or leasing his services until the shmittah or Jubilee.
The key is that there can be no real owner of a field or a person except for the One Who created them both! The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof, whether field or human being. The original inheritance of mankind is the Garden of Eden. Practicing these statutes of the field and the eved remind the Israelite that his ultimate inheritance is a level above the current playing field.
The intention in learning and practicing these statutes is to keep the Israelite constantly conscious of his pilgrimage status on this natural earth. He is no better or worse than his fellow Israelites, but he is responsible to ensure that his fellow Israelite remains “with you.” Israel will eventually return to their own inheritance, the elevated existence of the field above before the most cunning beast caused them to sell themselves to a fallen field from which they are not free to leave until the Seventh.
But what about the eved that is purchased from the nations? Is the stranger’s status somehow different, and is he truly a slave as a first glance at the text implies?
NO! NO! NO!
- Now if a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired worker, as if he were a foreign resident; he shall serve with you up to the year of jubilee. He shall then leave you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, so that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God.
- As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male (eved) and female (amah) slaves from the nations [goyim] that are around you. You may also acquire them from the sons of the foreign residents who reside among you, and from their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. (Le 25:39-45)
It sounds as though an eved acquired from outside the Land or not from the native-born sons of Israel is eligible for real slavery. The two phrases in purple text highlight the message, though, a message given to Israel as far back as Genesis:
- “And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, including a slave who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A slave who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall certainly be circumcised; so My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant.(Ge 17:12-13)
The whole point of “purchasing” a slave was to rescue him and his descendants from his spiritual poverty and to incorporate him or her into a state of freedom. This eved became a servant of the Landowner of the vineyard with the other servants, native-born Israelite. Those purchased were to become circumcised in the Covenant and keep the moedim, starting with Passover, just as was practiced in the first Passover in Egypt. He or she and the children become naturalized citizens of Israel.
In fact, the word for the female to the male “eved” in Leviticus 25 is amah. An amah can be a purchased servant, but the word is also used by free women in the Scriptures. The word is often translated as “handmaiden” in English. The text uses eved, which can mean everything from an indentured servant to a priest who does avodah (service) in the Temple, and amah, a purchased woman from the nations to a free “handmaiden” of Israel.
The Israelite of sufficient spiritual riches is to look for those from the nations who are “with you.” They are of the same mind and kind even if born into a different nation or religious system. They do not stick in those places of their birth because they are actually “with” Israel, whether they’ve managed to pass into the physical land or not. These ovdim seek the covenant with the Elohim of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They seek the appointed times and Sabbaths of their Creator, not those of human creation. These are those who desire and request to be acquired and absorbed into a family, like Ruth!
These ovdim are producing the fruit of the Word, first pictured at Passover:
- But if a stranger resides with you and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, all of his males are to be circumcised, and then he shall come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised male may eat it. (Ex 12:48)
The culmination of this transformation is celebrated at the bookend to Passover, Sukkot, the Feast of the Nations:
- You shall celebrate the Feast of Booths for seven days when you have gathered in from your threshing floor and your wine vat; and you shall rejoice in your feast, you, your son and your daughter, and your male and female slaves, and the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow who are in your towns. (Dt 16: 13-14)
All are servants!
These acquired servants are to assimilate into the families who acquire them, teach them, and put them to work in the field of the Covenant life. They are to be seen as servants of the Most High, fellow Israelites. Their inheritance is indeed in the Land of Israel, and especially in the restored and blessed Land of which Behar and Bechukotai prophesy. They, too, become free like the Hebrew eved.
Ezekiel clarifies the inheritance of servant and servant:
- So you shall divide this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves and among the strangers who stay in your midst, who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. And in the tribe with which the stranger resides, there you shall give him his inheritance,” declares the Lord GOD. (Ezek 47:21-23)
Shabbat shalom to all natural and naturalized citizens of the Kingdom!
For a more in-depth study on the citizenship of the servants and how they are spoken of in Yeshua’s parable of the vineyard, join us on the YouTube live stream tomorrow at 4:00 pm.