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Vayikra/Leviticus 25:25 If your brother becomes poor and sells [some] from his ancestral holding ...
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This is the first of four short paragraphs following the laws of the Jubilee that deal with various situations when a man may sell his ancestral holding (v. 25), be so poor as to need charity (v. 35), may sell himself into slavery (v. 39) or may sell himself to a foreigner (v. 47). In the first three cases, the paragraph starts with the phrase , "if your brother becomes poor"; the fourth includes a reference to the foreigner who has become rich, but is essentially . The root is used only in these four verses and 27:8, where it is concerned with the valuation of vows concerning oneself or another person. This makes it difficult to fix a precise meaning, but some scholars propose it is linked to the root , to sink or go down. Levine suggests the root , to collapse, melt, waste away; he notes that "the sense is that of reduction to poverty".Hirsch comments that it "designates the condition of becoming soft and liquid, dissolution. Applied to pecuniary circumstances it describes a dwindling fortune; thereby social power and influence melt away." Ibn Ezra gives the shortest explanation: "he is impoverished".
Looking at the initial phrase,Nechama Leibowitz asks why the words are there: "The words 'if he becomes poor' seem superfluous; the text ought to begin, 'if your brother sell ...'." Why, after all, would a man sell his ancestral holding? It is his basic means of production. Rashi offers a succinct answer: "This teaches that a person is not permitted to sell his field except under the pressure of poverty" - there is no alternative. The ancient rabbis too were of the same opinion: "Whence do we know that a man must not sell his land and keep the money in his purse to buy himself an animal, implements or a house unless he has become poor? From the verse 'If your brother becomes poor and has sold ...' - hence he may not sell it unless he has become poor" (Sifra B'har 41). It seems that these steps to assuage poverty are to be the very last ones, after all other measures have been tried.
Even then, the commentators suggest that only part of the ancestral holding should be sold. They recognise that selling all the land means that the family now has no means of earning money save by working for others. The Hebrew text hints at this by the prefix on the word . This is a contracted form of the preposition , 'from': "from his ancestral holdings" - he sells part but not all. Rashi comments, "The Torah teaches proper conduct, that he should leave a field for himself", while Drazin and Wagner add that "Even in times of need, people should make every reasonable effort not to sell all of their possessions". The second half of verse 25, "his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold" (JPS), places a duty on the man's family, to redeem the land by paying the ransom fee; citing the story of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 3:12-4:6), Gunther Plaut writes, "the closest relative able to redeem the land had a moral obligation to buy back the family holding."
The next two verses - "If a man ... prospers and acquires enough to redeem with, he shall compute the years since its sale, refund the difference to the man to whom he sold it, and return to his holding" (Vayikra 25:26-27, JPS) - explain that a man who has been forced by poverty to sell his ancestral holding, may redeem it himself if he acquires enough money to do so. The buyer must allow the redemption to take place and at the statutory price if the seller has the necessary funds. The ancient rabbis added two caveats: he must have enough money to redeem all of it, not just a part - "'sufficient means to redeem it', i.e., he may redeem it [wholly], but not by halves" (b. Arachin 30b) - and he may not borrow money to achieve the redemption, since that just re-incurs the original debt elsewhere.
Who is to redeem the debt or relieve his poverty if the man or his kinsfolk have no available money? The land is returned to him in the year of Jubilee, but he might not still be alive - in which case it is returned to his descendants. What is to happen to the man and his family, his dependents, in the meantime? The burden of support during times of impoverishment fall upon Israelite society. Knut Heim argues thatHaShem's instructions concerning the type of fasting which pleases Him is directed towards Israelite society - they are to support their neighbours: "This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin" (Isaiah 58:6-7, JPS). Heim suggests that "the wretched poor" does not refer to unknown homeless people, begging on the street, since that could imply significant risk to a family inviting a strange and potentially dysfunctional person into their home and personal space, but to neighbours or others personally know to a family that have fallen on hard-times. Ultimately, through the mechanism of the Israelites, His people, it is HaShem who supports them. Plaut adds that HaShem includes , the Redeemer of Israel, as part of His name: "Thus said the L-RD, the King of Israel, their Redeemer, the L-RD of Hosts: I am the first and I am the last, and there is no god but Me" (44:6, JPS). He is the One who redeems His people.
Every time we sin, we incur a debt obligation: "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23), a debt that we cannot pay. Keeping G-d's commandments does not earn anything, it is simply what G-d's people are called to do because they are His people, so there is no way to repay a debt. Sin debt estranges us from G-d, so He provided a way for us to "cover over" the sin debt - atonement by substituting the life of an animal as a sin offering in our place: "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for yourselves; for it is the blood that makes atonement because of the life" (Vayikra 17:11, CJB) and, as the writer to the Hebrews points out, "according to the Torah, almost everything is purified with blood; indeed, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22, CJB). But, the writer argues, this in itself is not enough, "For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins" (10:4, CJB). Animal sacrifices acted like redemption of the land-holding by borrowing the money - declaring the sinner who offered a sin-offering righteous in faith and putting the sin on hold until G-d provided the permanent solution. That solution was the death of Yeshua, G-d's own Son, on the cross as a once-for-all and final sacrifice for sin. By His death he paid the ransom to redeem all those who believe in Him from sin-debt and death. All the previous sin offerings made in faith from Avraham's time onwards were validated and fully paid up by Yeshua's sacrifice.
But G-d went one huge step further. Israel's sacrificial system was given to Israel and to those from the nations who would become a part of Israel. All Israelites were covered. Here's the extra step: the benefit of Yeshua's death was made available to all of mankind, those from every tribe, nation and tongue, who would believe in Messiah and call on His name. Moshe hints at this when the Torah records him telling the Israelites on the plains of Moab about to enter the Land, "It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the L-RD our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today" (D'varim 29:14-15, ESV); Yeshua says almost the same thing: "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16, ESV). It is worth repeating the words of John the Baptist when he saw Yeshua coming to be baptized: "Behold, the Lamb of G-d who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Although Israel - the physical descendants of Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'acov - always has had and always will have a special place in G-d's heart and plans, the good news of sin-debt relief now apply to everyone, if they will but ask. Rav Sha'ul said that the gospel "is the power of G-d for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of G-d is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith'" (Romans 1:16-17, ESV).
Almost everyone suffers from some form of financial debt in their lives, from a personal loan or a hire-purchase agreement, to a house mortgage. We are being urged to get out of debt as soon as possible to save on interest payments and release our money and time for our families. How much more should we strive to be sin-debt free!
Further Study: Ezekiel 18:5-9; Matthew 25;34-36; 2 Corinthians 8:9
Application: Have you been redeemed by Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel and the Lamb of G-d? No matter what you have or what else you do, He is the only way to redeem your ancestral holding. Don't call the debt-collector, call the debt-redeemer and know the freedom and release of life in the kingdom of G-d today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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