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An Option for the Poor

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An Option for the Poor

Slavery in ancient Israel could be a way of escaping poverty.

Leviticus 25:47-55

“If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself. He shall calculate with his buyer from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his sale shall vary with the number of years. The time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired servant. If there are still many years left, he shall pay proportionately for his redemption some of his sale price. If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall calculate and pay for his redemption in proportion to his years of service. He shall treat him as a servant hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee. For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Slavery—here, probably something like indentured servitude—was an option for the poor. They could “sell” themselves, even to someone sojourning in Israel from another country, and thus escape destitution. In such a situation a slave could also be redeemed, or he could redeem himself (again, note that slaves could accumulate property and even wealth). The redemption price was to be calculated according to the number of years remaining before the Jubilee, and would be adjusted up or down accordingly.

Again we note that masters could not rule ruthlessly over their slaves, and slaves were allowed to marry and have children, who remained their own. All slave owners were to remember that, ultimately, all the people of Israel were God’s servants, even those entrusted to human owners for a season, and thus were to be treated with the love that God showed His people when He redeemed them from Egypt.

It’s difficult for us, from the perspective of our own American experience, to understand the institution of slavery as it was practiced in ancient Israel. Our idea of the word, “slavery,” is tainted by what we know to have been the practice here. But to see slavery in Israel as another way of averting the fatal consequences of war, escaping poverty, preserving human dignity, contributing to the well-being of the community, and beginning a marriage and family and the accumulation of property within a protected environment—well, that’s just rather difficult for us to envision.

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In the Gates is a devotional series on the Law of God by Rev. T. M. Moore, editor of the Worldview Church. He serves as dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet).

Scripture quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (c) copyright 2001, 2007 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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