Last week, in Deuteronomy 14:1-21, we read and studied about the food laws God gave the Israelites. We learned that as children of God, a nation He created and called His own, the Israelites were to obey God’s food laws not because they could get sick, but because He said so. When God calls things detestable, His children are to call them detestable, too, even if we do not understand His reasoning. We learned that the food laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 pertaining to clean and unclean food are no longer relevant since Jesus Christ’s time on earth because He came to fulfill the Law and establish a new covenant. He fulfilled the old covenant. The problem from this week’s lesson centers on differing levels of prosperity and poverty in Israel. Let us read this passage of Scripture and then see what God told the Israelites through Moses.
The first thing we must notice is that Moses encapsulated the teaching in this passage with reminders about giving a tithe to the LORD God. What is the purpose for his using this literary technique? Moses used the technique to draw attention to the blessings God bestowed upon the Israelites and therefore have to give to the needs of the poor around them. If you will remember from Deuteronomy 12, God told the Israelites to take a tithe of their wine, grain, oil, herds, and flocks to the temple each year. He told them they were to give a portion of it to Him. The rest they were to eat with their household, servants, and the Levites in their town while rejoicing in their undertakings in which the LORD blessed them (Deuteronomy 12:6-7, 11-12, & 17-18).
How do we know the land of the Canaanites, which God gave to the Israelites, would be profitable? How do we know they would have a tithe to take to the temple and about which they would rejoice? God spoke to the Israelites several times about the land of Canaan. He called it a land flowing with milk and honey in Exodus 3:8 and 33:3. When the twelve spies returned from spying in Canaan, they spoke of a land that flowed with milk and honey as evidenced in the huge fruit (Numbers 13:27). When the Israelites waited at Beth-peor to enter Canaan to receive their inheritance from God, God told them the land would be plentiful as long as they stayed faithful in their covenant with Him. He said, “He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine, and your oil” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). Remember, the Old Testament covenants carried a promise of a blessing and a curse for the people in the covenant. In the Mosaic covenant, if the Israelites were faithful to their covenant, they would receive the blessing of the covenant. If they were not faithful, they would receive the curse of the covenant. God’s promised blessing was life – abundance, the resultant prosperity, and life (Deuteronomy 28:1-15). The promised curse was death – drought, famine, and death (Deuteronomy 28:16-63).
From this, we see why God instituted the tithe as part of the Israelites religious celebrations. God expected them to stay faithful to their covenant with Him. He planned on it and created a law about the tithe. The tithe would be their gift to God for His love and providing for them. They would rejoice and praise Him while taking care of the people around them. So having the teaching of the tithe encapsulate God’s law on caring for other people makes sense since it speaks of sharing in one’s abundance by giving part back to God, sharing in the worship and praise of God for his provision, and providing food for their whole household, servants, and the Levites in their town. Now, let us look at the rest of the teaching in Deuteronomy 14:22-15:23.
Moses reminded the Israelites they were to give a tenth of their produce from what they sow each year, of their new wine, and the firstborn of their herd and flock. This is not a new teaching as noted in the earlier section. Moses reminded them, too, that if the distance was too great between their home and the temple where God set His name, they could sell their tithe, carry the money to the temple, and buy whatever their heart desired. With their purchase they could worship before the LORD and rejoice with their household, servants, and the Levites of their town because of what the LORD’s hand provided for them (Deut. 14:23-27). Moses explained why the people were to give their tithe to the LORD. In verse 23b, he said they were to do this so they may learn to fear/revere the LORD God always. Verse 26b said they were to offer their tithes so they could rejoice together at God’s providing for them.
EXPANSION OF THE LAW
Caring for the Town
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 expand the law of the tithe. It says,
At the end of every third year, you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your town. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town shall come, eat, and be satisfied.
The Hebrew word for our English word “bring” is yatsa. It means to come forth with a purpose. The purpose of the Israelites’ tithe in their town/city in the third year was to rejoice in what God provided for them. They celebrated in their town and provided food for everyone in the town – Israelite and alien. Remember, God made sure the Levites had food because He did not give them land for their tribe. He made them a people who worked for and served Him (Deuteronomy 10:8-9). The Levites in the towns and cities did not receive as much from the Israelites offerings and tithes once God established His temple in Jerusalem. The law God gave the Israelites provided them with their food and other needs. They did not eat the entire tithe that God instructed the Israelites to deposit in their own towns in one day. They used it during the three-year period for the inhabitants of the town/city. God named the inhabitants included to be recipients of the tithe – aliens, orphans, and widows. Aliens were temporary inhabitants of Israel. They were foreigners and non-Israelite. Deuteronomy 16:11 & 14 and 26:12 speak of this. Deuteronomy 24:19-21speaks of assisting these peoples, too. The Jews, over time, consolidated this list to mean “neighbors,” which then meant Israelites in their minds. When Jesus ministered on earth, He redefined “neighbor” for the Jews. He said, in Luke 10, anyone around you is your neighbor. This included the ritually clean and unclean person as Deuteronomy 12:15 says.
In Deuteronomy 15:1-3, Moses taught the Israelites to release debtors from their debt every seven years. He said,
Every creditor shall release what he has loaned his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed. From a foreigner you may exact it, but your hand shall release whatever of yours is with your brother. (Deut. 15:2-3 [NASB])
Notice that “neighbor” does not include foreigners, just Israelites. The word “neighbor” in the Hebrew is rea and means a friend, companion, or fellow citizen. In the Luke 10:25-37 passage mentioned earlier, “neighbor” came from the Greek word plesion. Christ used it to mean any human with whom we meet or live despite his or her religion. For the Jews and for the law in Deuteronomy 15:2-3, neighbor meant an Israelite with whom they lived. Hence, every seven years, the Sabbatic year, God instructed the Israelites to release from debt any Israelite’s debtor. Because God gave land to each Israelite in Canaan according to his tribe and because He considered each of them equal, God commanded the removal of debt they incurred. The incurring debt created levels of society. Verse 3, though, says the Israelites could exact a debt from foreigners.
God re-iterated in 15:4-11 there would be no levels of society with his “poor” law. God’s covenant with the Israelites said He planned to bless each of them in the land they inherited. He noted this when He told them they will possess the land which they inherited from the Abrahamic covenant when they fulfill their part of the Mosaic covenant. All Israelites were equal and shared in the blessings of God from the Mosaic covenant. Moses stated this in verses 15:4-5 when he said,
However, there will be no poor among you since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, if you only listen obediently to the voice of the LORD your God to observe carefully all this commandment which I am commanding you today. [NASB]
Moses stated this truth in earlier chapters of Deuteronomy – Deuteronomy 7:12-26 and 11:13. Later, Moses said this in Deuteronomy 28:1 & 8. He used the now familiar word, shamar, meaning to listen, hear, and obey. Moses emphasized this point when he told them to “listen obediently.” He made sure the Israelites knew what he said about the poor was from God and must be obeyed to stay within their covenant with God. He told them, because God promised to prosper them, other nations would seek loans from them. Yet, they must not take loans from other nations because those nations would rule over them (vs. 6). Because they stayed faithful to their covenant with God, His blessings meant they would not need loans. If they found they needed loans, then they would know they had not kept faithful to their covenant with God. Because God knew they would break covenant, He provided this law about loans and the poor. The Israelites would have poor among their people because of being unfaithful to God (Leviticus 25:35). Moses said, “They will never cease to be in the land” (Deut. 15:11). God told them what to do about their poor kindred. He told them not to harden their hearts or close their hands, but to give freely and generously sufficiently from their supply (Deut. 15:7-8). This hardening of the Israelites’ hearts means being obstinate in sharing and the closed hand shows they were not to shut their hands when their poor brothers needed them. Moses said the Israelites were to open their hands to their poor brothers and lend generously to them. Their lack of faithfulness to God brought on themselves the lack of blessing from God. The poor would be among the Israelites. They must give what they need as gift or loan. Added to giving what the poor needed, God commanded the Israelites to give with a good heart. They were not to consider the number of years before the Sabbatic year of remission to determine if the income was worth giving a loan to someone. The imminence of the Sabbatic year must not keep a person from helping their kinsman. Instead, God commanded them to give generously to the poor brother to keep the giver’s heart from being grieved. The latter is one of the reasons the Israelites should help the poor. Verse 10b is the other place that mentions it. The LORD God will bless them in all their work and undertakings. Moses said this in verse 4b, too, when he said, “The LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess.”
Moses was right, the poor continued to be in Israel. The Israelites were unfaithful to their covenant with God. God wanted to bless them and gave mercy to them often. In the time of Jesus’ ministry, He noted that the poor were from and living in Israel (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8).
The poor continued to arise in Israel. To ease their dire financial straits, some poor sold themselves as bondservants to other people. Becoming a bondservant enabled the repayment of their debt. Verses 12 through 18 speak to this issue. God did not create differing social ranks of people. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes and He treats them that way. God provided relief for the poor by telling Israelites to take care of their brothers via handouts or loans. He provided relief for them by telling creditors to release the debtor from their debts every seven years. In the same way, God gave relief from the debt of servitude by providing the servant’s release every seven years, the Sabbatic year. Notice in verse twelve the bondservant is a kinsman/relative, an Israelite/Hebrew. To pay the debt of a family, families sold men or women of the family into servitude to another Israelite. The length of a person’s servitude must not be longer than six years according to God’s law here. If the Israelites kept their commitment to their covenant with the LORD, God promised them bountiful fruit from their harvest of grain, wine, oil, and animals. Because they proved unfaithful to God, God withheld His blessings. Because of His love and mercy, He had a plan for the release of the servant, debtor, and poor from their situation. God loves all His children equally and provides an equalizing factor every seven years.
Another provision for bondservants in the Sabbatic year release was furnishings from their kinsman/master. The one who paid the debt of the bondservant must not send them away empty-handed according to verse thirteen. God provided a new beginning for the newly released bondservant. He commanded the master give from his flock, threshing, floor, wine vat, to the bond servant upon his or her release just as the LORD gave to the master (vs. 15:14). God’s reasoning to the master is that they must remember that God redeemed Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Because of this, they must release their bondservants.
God gave one exception to the redemption of bondservants. If the bondservant says he or she loves the master and will not go away from him since he fares well with him, then the master could make the bondservant a servant forever. They denoted this relationship by piercing the servant’s ear (vs. 15:16-17). For each of these commands about servants, Deuteronomy 15:18 expresses God’s overarching reason. God commanded through Moses, “It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do.” Again, following God’s command leads to blessing.
Though a reprise of God’s command about the tithe, a noticeable difference appears. In Deuteronomy 14:22-27, God told them what to tithe and what to do if they lived too far away from the temple to take their tithe. In the tithe passage of Deuteronomy 15:19-23, the focus is on the consecration of the firstborn of the herd and flock. Consecration comes from the Hebrew word qadash and means to dedicate, set apart, and make holy for the LORD. By consecrating a male lamb or bull calf, the owner intentionally set aside his offering to the LORD from the bounty the God gave to him. This action provided focus on the visible results of intentionally consecrating a part of the herd and flock. As the owner did not shear or work with the consecrated animal, the animal(s) became visibly obvious to the owner as set apart for God. It was a visible reminder to the owner of his covenant with God. Just as writing on the gates and doors reminded the Israelites of their covenant with God, the consecrated sheep or bull bore the visible effects of not being used or employed and became a reminder of their covenant with God. Remember, this sheep or bull God commanded they set apart for Him and take to the temple every year. They would eat in communion with God, the owner’s family and household, and with the Levite in his city or town. These people would witness to and rejoice at the blessing and bounty of the LORD. It was a cause for celebratory worship of God.
God gave one proviso though. If a firstborn male of a ewe or heifer carried any defect such as lameness or blindness or any other serious defect, the owner was not to sacrifice it to the LORD God. Thank offerings and tithes to the LORD must come from the best of the produce/animals produced during the year. If the animal set apart to God had a defect, the people of the town/city - the ritually clean and unclean – were to eat the animal in the town or city of the owner’s home. This command is like the law God gave to the Israelites about eating meat outside the temple celebration in Deuteronomy 12:15-16, & 22. The clean and unclean persons of the town/city could eat meat whenever they wanted outside the temple celebration as long as they poured the blood of the animal on the ground like water (Deuteronomy 15:23; Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 7:26, 17:10, 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23).
In each of the other sections of today’s study, God gave a reason He commanded what He did. Deuteronomy 15:19-23 does not have an explicit reason. Yet we know the answer why God told the Israelites to consecrate the firstborn males. Moses stated it the first time in Deuteronomy 14:29, “In order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” Faithfulness to your covenant with God brings God’s blessing. Moses stated it in Deuteronomy 14:29, 15:4b, 10b, 14b, & 18b. God wanted the Israelites’ faithfulness to His covenant with them. Along with blessing the Israelites, Moses gave four other reasons for them to do what God commanded – 1) that they may learn to fear the LORD (14:23); 2) to be in the presence of the LORD and rejoice (14:26b); 3) the LORD said so (15:2b, 15:11, & 15:20); and 4) to remember they were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed you (15:15).
RELEVANCE AND CONCLUSION
God was not overbearing with the Israelites. Considering He chose to love them and make them His people, they should have been happy to respond to Him with love. Considering God rescued them from slavery and created a nation from them - a people too small in number to make a nation - they should have been grateful and praising Him. Considering that God promised them a land of unending bounty and prosperity, they should have listened to and obeyed Him. We in the twenty-first century see that from our 3400-year hindsight. How are we doing, though, in our commitment to God? Yes, Jesus changed the way the Israelites interpreted neighbor when he spoke with the Pharisee in Luke 10. Even though God provided for the aliens living in Israel, the Israelites chose not to help them. Jesus confronted the Pharisee with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We should not consider people our kinsman and neighbor just by genetics, but by our Creator. Our genetics come from our Creator. God created each person to be equal with all others. This means that someone who does not live in our country is just as worthy to have enough to live on and with as us. When we see or hear of another human being starving, God commands we, as his or her brother or sister, give, with a grateful heart, from the bounty God bestowed upon us. This applies to shelter, clothing, education, and freedom from the bondage of slavery, too.
What then, faced with these facts, will we do? I hope and God commands we stay faithful to our covenant with Him and do as Jesus taught through His life, words, and ministry on earth. The LORD stated specifically in Matthew 25:31-46 what we are to do. We are to give drink, food, clothing, shelter. Added to this, we are to invite people into our homes and visit them in prison. God will judge us based on our giving and doing for our brothers, even the least of them, just as Christ did. Who are our brothers? Jesus answered that, as did I earlier. They are all people, not just our national citizens, kinsmen, brothers in faith, or biological siblings. Because God is the ultimate Father, all humans are our brothers and sisters. From the first question, what will we do?
We must decide for ourselves. Will we accept God’s provision of redemption from slavery to ourselves and the deception of Satan? If so, we must decide if we will be faithful to our covenant with God through Jesus Christ to live as He taught, lived, and commanded – to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus gave just two commandments. Matthew, the apostle, recorded it in Matthew 22:36-39. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the LORD with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Will you choose to follow God’s command and Jesus’ commandment? Will you choose to give your life to be God’s son or daughter? The choice is yours. What will you decide?