I have come to Deuteronomy 15:1-16:17 in Stephen Cook’s Reading Deuteronomy.
This divides into four sections that seem quite different. In 15:1-11 the topic is debt relief. In 15:12-18 it is the release of indentured servants. These at least have debt as a common factor. But 15:19-23 is about sacrifices of firstborn animals. And 16:1-17 is about religious festivals.
Cook insists that, in spite of the varied topics, these passages all hang together with the Sabbath commandment. They all, he says, promote the practice of “sacred interuptions”. This goes back to what Deuteronomy has previously said about the land being a place of rest, a place where he provides breathing room for beleaguered Israel (12:10).
In regard to the release of indentured servants 15:15 echoes the fourth commandment in the form Deuteronomy gives it:
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you to do this thing today (NET Bible).
A saying “no” to the Egyptian notion that it is Okay to treat God’s people as though they did not share in their God’s freedom is part of the point of all these provisions.
First, there is the sacred interruption of the debt cycle. In God’s new land people have to let go of debt every seven years. In practical terms what this protected was the passing on of land in families and clans. The original inheritances had to be reset at intervals. These kinship groups included people who would otherwise be landless like Levites, foreigners settled in the villages, widows, orphans, and distant relatives.
Cook claims that this law in Deuteronomy abrogates the previous law in the Covenant Code (Exodus 23:10-11). Nehemiah 10:31 tried to harmonize the two. But Cook thinks Deuteronomy addresses a new situation by superseding the older law. The new situation would be the one we see Micah railing against where Jerusalem officials and an Iron Age version of crony capitalists were using debt laws to claim old clan estates.
Second, the worst effect of the selfishness of the creditor elites was that some Israelites got sold into compulsory labor to satisfy unpaid debts. People were not only losing their land. They were losing their freedom.
Cook takes the position that Deuteronomy is totally against slavery. It has a Utopian view of society (15:4). However, it tempers this with knowledge of the hard reality of life (15:11). One of the ways it accommodates to this hard reality is by accepting limited, temporary bond servitude. Yet by treating women and men equally (v. 12) and insisting on generous provision for the released servants (v. 14), it goes beyond the older law of Exodus 21:2-11.
The release of bond slaves at seven-year intervals aims at extending the rest of the Sabbath commandment so that God’s people share in the rest and freedom of God.
Third, Cook sees the instruction not to work firstborn oxen in verse 19 as meaning that the sacrifice of the firstborn also connects to the fourth commandment.
Deuteronomy 15 effectively expands Sabbath virtue to include reverence for the God’s ownership of all life, all creation. Limits on human economic exploitation, the text adjures, must be interconnected with limits on human exploitation of natural life.
Finally, Cook sees the repeated use of the number 7 (7 times) in 16:1-17 as another pointer to Deuteronomy’s extension of the Sabbath law. The Passover reminds Israelites that they do not belong to themselves. The position of these laws right after the firstborn sacrifices, reminds Israel of the death of the Egyptian first born that they escaped by God’s mercy. So now they have to make a new pilgrimage to the new Horeb where they celebrate Passover as a kind of super Sabbath:
You must eat bread made without yeast for six days. The seventh day you are to hold an assembly for the Lord your God; you must not do any work on that day (16:8 NET Bible).
Cook’s application of this to modern society takes the Liberation Theology perspective in regard to third world debt and environmentalism. To me this is disappointing, but expected. Academics operate in a kind of progressive echo chamber these days. It would be startling for scholars to acknowledge that using the State to promote social justice is problematic and subject to unintended consequences.
After all, the Sabbath theology of Deuteronomy is about limits. Possibly that applies even to government. It was the Egyptian government that enslaved Israel. Part of the problem in Micah was corrupt government officials.
What laws, taxes and regulations ought to expire every seven years?
But the political application is only a few paragraphs amidst much very valuable material.