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Vayikra/Leviticus 25:35 And if your brother becomes reduced and his hand fails with you, then you shall take hold of him; sojourner or resident alien, he shall live with you.
This week's verse starts the second of four blocks of text dealing with different degrees of poverty amongHaShem's people when they arrive to live in the Land. The first section (25:25-34) talks about someone who is forced to sell some of their property because they are not making enough on which to live; this second section (vv. 35-38) addresses those whose essential ability to earn a living is impaired; the third section (vv. 39-46) describes what happens when mounting debt forces someone to sell themselves as an indentured servant to an Israelite; and the last section (vv. 47-55) covers the worst case where the sale for slavery must be made to a foreigner or stranger in the Land. This verse contains both unusual vocabulary and idiomatic expressions so that it needs carefully nuanced translation to understand what it is really saying.
The translation provided above is very close to literal and takes no account of idiom. Let's look at the phrases - the verse is split by the accenture both in half and then into quarters so that we can look at the text at a number of levels. The two halves are show in the arrangement above, split by the atnakh accent on the first use of the word , "with you"; the second use of the word brings the verse to an end with the sof passuk accent. Both halves of the verse have six words; the first is split three-three, the second two-four, the quarters being signified by the zakef katan accent in the third and second words respectively. Three of the quarters start with a verb, the normal word ordering for biblical Hebrew, while one - the last - brings the subject of the verb, the noun phrase "sojourner or resident alien" to the front for emphasis.
In the first quarter, the verb is the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , which David Clines lists as "to become poor"1, or possibly the root , "to be brought low, be humiliated, collapse".2 it is unclear which root is actually intended, but both convey the idea that the substance of the man has been diminished.Ibn Ezra suggests that , literally "your brother", but figuratively covering any man within the common community, means "another Jew", but this definition is probably too restrictive. Samuel Balentine explains the larger context: "Israelites who experience crop failure may be forced to default on a loan, thus becoming in effect tenants on their own land while they work off their debt. In such cases, their creditors must amortise the loan (without interest), allow them to work the land and produce what they need to live."3
Baruch Levine comments that the idiom starting the second quarter, "occurs only here. Literally it means 'if his hand stumbles, buckles'. This image is usually applied to stumbling feet. Here, the sense is not physically graphic, but rather situational: 'if he lost his means of dealing with you', that is, if he became indebted to you. It indicates inadequate means." RabbiHirsch agrees, explaining, "the verb , 'to totter, to be about to fall,' does not occur elsewhere applied to [hand], but only to [foot] or to the general condition. This expresses his 'hand' having become shaky, it is only his activity which is tottering, not his existence. Not yet the means of existence. but the means for actively gaining his livelihood begin to fail, assistance would enable him to continue independently gaining his living; up till now, his power to work was 'with you', he was your equal in being able to carry on working." Ibn Ezra confirms that, "When 'his means fail with you', the implication is that when he is with you and you see what is happening you are obligated to help."
The verb for the third quarter, , is the Hif'il 2ms affix form of the root , "to be strong, courageous, firm, powerful"4 with a vav-reversive to render the future tense. In the Hif'il or causitive voice, it carries the sense of strengthening, holding, upholding or maintaining; it is even uses for repairing ships (Ezekiel 27:9), or the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:4). Here it is a vivid picture of the way the brother is to be supported. Hirsch again: "you shall keep him, strengthen him to keep him. You are to make him strong and firm and as long as he totters you have not made him firm."Rashi adds the practical note, "do not allow him to decline and fall, for then it will be difficult to raise him up. Rather, strengthen him from the time of the time of the faltering of his hand", while looking critically at the vav that starts the verb - most often translated 'and' - Ibn Ezra stresses the importance of this command: "Not 'and' you hold him up, but 'then you must hold him up'. You thus counteract 'his hand gives way'."
Finally, the fourth quarter verb - , an apocopated5Qal3ms prefix from the root , to live - may be translated "he shall live" or "let him live". Who is the 'he'? Obviously the man who has been reduced, whose ability to work and earn a living has been impaired, but the text broadens the meaning of 'brother' from Ibn Ezra's reading of a fellow Israelite to specifically include other non-Israelite residents of the Land who are part of the local community. Abravanel says that, "it is more important to take care of one who is 'with you'; the poor of one's own city always take priority", but Gordon Wenham hears possible background dissent of families fearing shame brought on by one of their own who cannot make ends meet: "They must be as generous to members of their own family who are in need as they would be to aliens. Biblical law is most insistent that aliens should be well treated. If the family steps in to help in this way, the man who has sold his land may not have the further disgrace of slavery imposed on him."6
Unsurprisingly, we find the concept of strengthening being mentioned in the apostolic writings. Rav Sha'ul longs to visit the communities in Rome, wanting to be abe to bring "some spiritual gift to strengthen you -- that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine" (Romans 1:11-12, ESV). The process of strengthening, then, appears to benefit both parties: the strength spreads in both directions. He also points to G-d as the source of this strength: "Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Yeshua the Messiah, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages" (16:25, ESV). The writer to the Hebrews encourages his readers to "lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed" (Hebrews 12:12-13, ESV); hands, knees and feet are all involved in this process of healing, restoring strength the body and the soul. Peter paints an inspiring picture of grace through and after suffering, that "G-d of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Messiah, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you" (1 Peter 5:10, ESV).
As followers of Messiah Yeshua, we know that Yeshua Himself is the mainspring of our strength; it is His Spirit within us who stiffens our sinews, lifts our spirits and enables us to serve in His kingdom. He reminds the disciples (and us) that, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28, ESV). Yeshua has delegated some of the practical aspects of helping each us to us; not that He isn't always available, but so that we might work alongside Him to support those who are with us and we see in difficulty - as He charged Simon Peter, "when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32, ESV).
Lastly, talking at the time to the church in Sardis, but perhaps in these days talking very deliberately to us, Yeshua says, "Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of My G-d" (Revelation 3:2, ESV). Perhaps we have failed to be aware of the struggles of our brothers and sisters in the faith, or perhaps we were aware but have failed to support folk so that their life and faith have crumbled. If our commitment to each other is either accidentally or negligently deficient, then we need to hear Yeshua's words before we get into a worse time of trial: Wake up and strengthen what remains!
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 207.
2. - Ibid., page 219;
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 196.
4. - Clines, page 112.
5. - apocopated: a word that has been abbreviated or cut short.
6. - Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), page 321.
Further Study: Isaiah 35:1-8; Romans 8:38-39
Application: Are you observant enough to spot when the members of your congregation or neighbourhood have lost their sparkle and ability to live life to the full? Why not ask Yeshua to open your eyes to see and your heart to find a way to strengthen and encourage them so that the community may live and live together.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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