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Vayikra/Leviticus 25:40 Like a hired man, like a settler, he shall be with you; until the year of the jubilee he shall work with you.
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The Torah is now moving on to talk about Israelite slaves. These are Israelites who are forced to sell themselves into slavery in order to settle their debts and address extremes of poverty. This step only comes after the community have already offered both support and interest-free credit, but the situation is so bad that the only asset remaining to them is themselves: their labour over the next block of years. The text describes the way that such a person is to be cared for. Richard Elliott Friedman's translation of the verse is typical: "He shall be like an employee, like a visitor, with you. He shall work with you until the jubilee year." Baruch Levine explains a key understanding of the halacha: "the legal status of the indentured Israelite is that of an employee."Nachmanides adds, "he shall not be with you as a slave, but as a hired labourer or a sojourner, not over-worked or mistreated, you proving his food, drink and clean garments, etc."
The ancient rabbis were very concerned about the dignity and self-esteem of an Israelite who had been reduced to such circumstances. Such 'sales' could not take place in an open market, for example, where anyone might buy, but needed to be negotiated delicately in private. The indentured Israelite should not be asked to do menial or personal care work, which would be the place of a slave; the 'owner' was forbidden from making the servant carry his towel to the bath-house or tie up his shoes, for this would be demeaning. Instead, if the Israelite had a trade or artisan skill - such as being a potter or a weaver - then they were allowed and encouraged to continue in that trade while working for their master.Rashi comments that whether the indentured Israelite provides "labour of land and work of a craft", he should be treated "like other hired workers."
There is disagreement over the exact meaning and implication of the last phrase in the verse. Some hold that an indenture always lasts for six years, ignoring any sabbatical years, so Rashi says, "if the jubilee encounters him before six years, the jubilee takes him out." TheSforno reports instead that "he who is purchased for six years will have the status of a servant hired annually, and he who is purchased until the Jubilee will have the status of a servant who has settled with you for many years." This reflects the names given in the text: the - from the root , to hire or to bribe (Davidson) - the "hired man", being someone who is hired or employed only for short period; a - from the root , one who is hired for many years. Following the JPS translation - "A hired or bound labourer" - David Kimchi supports this idea, positing that "the 'hired' labourer is the Hebrew slave who serves for six years; the 'bound' one is the slave who had his ear pierced (Shemot 21:6)". Chizkuni offers another alternative: "Both of them are 'hired'; the 'hired' labourer is hired by the day, the 'bound' labourer by the year." The Ralbag tries to find a middle pathway, suggesting that, "he falls in between the two categories. He can be asked to do more than the labourer hired for a specific task, who need not do any other kind of work, but not as much as the bound labourer, who is bound to do whatever the master requires of him."
Taking a different approach, theBaal HaTurim explains a different connection. In the margin of the Masoretic text a little letter , used as a number two, lets the reader know that the word only appears twice in the Tanakh. The Ba'al HaTurim finds its partner - "Until, like a hireling, he finishes out his day" (Job 14:6, JPS) - and points out that "this is an allusion to that which our sages, of blessed memory, have stated: A hired worker has the right to retract his commitment, even in the middle of the day. Thus, 'like a hired man ... shall he be with you', until he desires otherwise." The conversation to which he refers is found in the Talmud (b. Bava Metzia 77a), where the sages elaborate on the various conditions and criteria that apply when a man who has been hired under a range of different premises or conditions lays down his tools and walks off the job half-way through the day. After discussions about the liabilities involved and who does or doesn't get paid or compensated, the sages agree that a hired worker nevertheless always has the right - albeit with potential financial consequences - to withdraw his labour at any time during the contract. The conclusion for our text is that even an indentured servant must be treated with respect and courtesy, otherwise he may simply change his mind and walk away from his master and the indenture.
The Greek Scriptures use the word for both 'servant' and 'slave'; giving Bible translators some difficulty in deciding which English word to use in each context where it occurs. Unlike the word , which can also be translated 'servant' but can also be 'waiter' and is the word from which the English 'deacon' is derived, has much firmer roots in slavery and slave culture - it is sometimes translated 'bond-slave' or 'bond-servant' to show the lack of freedom involved. No walking out on the job half-way through the day here!
Rav Sha'ul frequently describes himself as a bond-servant - "Sha'ul, a bond-servant of Messiah Yeshua, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of G-d" (Romans 1:1, NASB) - to describe the relationship he has with Yeshua. He uses the same terminology for others in his group of helpers, assistants and co-workers: "Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Messiah on our behalf" (Colossians 1:7, NASB). This must be significant - what does it tell us about the way they saw themselves and how does it inform how we should see ourselves today?
Sha'ul points out that before we came to know Yeshua, we were all slaves to sin. Sin controlled us: our thoughts, impulses and desires. In one sense, we knew no better, but at the same time our consciences chafed at our bondage because we kept on doing the same things again and again. But then there was a change: "Thanks be to G-d that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:17-18, NASB). Sha'ul is here using the image of slave ownership: one master has sold a slave to another master. We have been released from slavery or bondage to sin but have now become slaves to righteousness because our 'ownership' has been transferred to the kingdom of G-d: "You are not your own, for you have been bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). This sounds strange in a western culture where, although trafficking or modern-day slavery is one of the elephants in the room that we don't usually talk about, we have not had slaves since the Abolition in the early 1800s. But it applies as much to those who are free as those who are in slavery: "For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Messiah" (1 Corinthians 7:22, ESV). The gospel is freely available to either slave or free, and brings freedom from our slavery to sin but makes us willing slaves - bond-servants, bound over in obedience to serve Him - to Messiah.
And yet, while that is clearly true - we are the bond-servants of Messiah - there is more to the picture than that. At the start of His ministry, Yeshua read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue at Nazareth, announcing that part of His role was: "to proclaim the favourable year of the L-rd" (Luke 4:19 from Isaiah 61:2). This is a proclamation of the Jubilee, the year of release: the captives were to be released, the down-trodden were to be set free. We have already seen how our text legislates that Israelite slaves must be released in the year of Jubilee. So let's take that to inform Yeshua's words to the disciples towards the end of the Last Supper: "You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:14-15, ESV). The word the ESV translates 'servant' here is again: slave. Yeshua tells the the disciples that they are no longer 'slaves' but friends, if they obey His instructions. They have been set free so that they can choose to obey. Just as slavery is a two-way relationship - there is a 'slave' and a 'master' or 'owner' - so friendship is also a two-way relationship, only it is a relationship based on mutual trust, respect and care. If you care for and respect someone and they ask you to do something for you, trusting that they can rely on you, why wouldn't you make every effort to do it? Yeshua calls us friends because He has shared everything from the Father with us: now we know the Father's heart, we too can be as motivated (and equipped) as He is and respond to others as He would.
Further Study: Shemot 21:2-6; John 8:31-36; Ephesians 6:5-8
Application: Do you see yourself as a free man or a slave? How does the tension between being a slave and friend work out in your life? Why not explore that with Yeshua today!
Comment - 11:39 23May16 Tom: I may have missed the point, but I am happy to be regarded as both bondservant and friend of Jesus, and thus free. There is less chance of sinning or being a slave to sin in that case. I have always thought that Jesus WANTS us to be friends not slaves.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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