#209. What is remitted or ceased every 7th year: the sowing of the land OR debt and indentured Hebrew slaves? (Ex 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-7 vs Deut 15:1-15)


Leviticus 25 is devoted to Yahweh’s commandments concerning the 7th year land Sabbath, which is basically a reprint of the older Elohist law preserved in Exodus 23:10-11.

“And in the 7th year the land shall have a Sabbath, a ceasing, a Sabbath for Yahweh: you shall not seed your field, and you shall not prune your vineyard; you shall not reap your harvest’s free growth, and you shall not cut off your untrimmed grapes.” (Lev 25:4-5)

The tradition preserved in Deuteronomy 15, on the other hand, while making no mention of the land Sabbath tradition nevertheless speaks of (or creates?) another tradition: debt-remission every 7th year.

“At the end of 7 years you shall make a remission, and this is the matter of the remission:

  1. Every holder of a loan is to remit what he has lent his neighbor. He shall not demand it of his neighbor and his brother, because a remission for Yahweh has been called. (15:1-2)
  2. When your Hebrew brother or sister will be sold to you, then he shall work for you 6 years, and in the 7th year you shall let him go liberated from you. (15:12)

At first I was inclined to say that the 7th year fallow of the land in Exodus 23, presented as the land Sabbath in Leviticus 25, and the 7th year debt-remission in Deuteronomy 15, where nothing is mentioned of the land Sabbath, were complementary rather than contradictory. But now I am inclined to see the 7th century BCE Deuteronomist as once again (see #194-197, #198-204, and #205-208) altering the Elohist tradition that he inherited and consciously changing the 7th year land-fallow to a 7th year debt-remission—thus in effect contradicting and eliminating the earlier Elohist tradition in Exodus 23. My reasons are as follows:

  1. This shift from land-remission to debt-remission suits the Deuteronomist’s humanitarian agenda in general. This humanitarianism or secularism comes through in various secular laws penned by the Deuteronomist with a view to help the social classes of widows, orphans, the poor, the foreigner in the land, and Levites: remission of all debts every seven years (15:1-11), the tithing of all produce every three years (14:28-29), the setting aside of sacrificial portions for the Levites (18:6-8), giving animals that are dead to the foreigners who live in the land, rather than throwing them to the dogs (#188), no-interest loans (23:20-21), and prohibitions against biased judgements and fully reaping one’s fields (24:17-22). There are even special provisions for warriors who are newly wed, or have recently built a house or planted a vineyard (20:1-9), and laws that require parents to honor the birthrights of the firstborn (21:15-17). Finally, although the treatment of slaves is similar to the Deuteronomist’s source, Exodus 21, the Deuteronomist adds the commandment that provisions must be provided upon a slave’s departure from his master (#139). All this leads me to believe that the Deuteronomist consciously changed Exodus 23:10-11 into a 7 year debt-remission law.
  2. In Exodus 23, it would seem that the 7th year land-fallow was decreed so that the indigent of the land could eat what remained on the land; in other words it was decreed for the poor. Following from #1 above, I see D as understanding this, but pushing it further to its logical conclusion by altering the 7th year land-remission for the indigent to a debt-remission and indentured slave remission and in that respect accomplishing humanitarian aid to the indigent in a manner that the Elohist’s 7th year land-fallow law could not. Moreover, D is silent about this tradition. Nothing is said of the land. That is, rather than restating Exodus 23:10-11, the Deuteronomist suppresses and modifies it so that it is now a 7th year debt remission.
  3. Lastly, we have already noted the contradiction between the Deuteronomist’s (as well as the Elohist’s) 7 year release of the indentured Hebrew and the 50th year release of the same in Leviticus 25:39-46 (#140). In other words, in the Priestly source, the 7 year land Sabbath is retained as it was in Exodus 23:10-11, and nothing is mentioned of a 7 year debt-remission or indentured Hebrew release, but rather of this release on the Jubilee year, the 50th.

All of this leads me to believe that we have 2 contradictory traditions here: a 7th year land Sabbath tradition that makes no mention of debt remission, or does so in the 50th year, versus a 7th year debt-remission tradition that makes no mention of the 7th year land Sabbath.

2 thoughts on “#209. What is remitted or ceased every 7th year: the sowing of the land OR debt and indentured Hebrew slaves? (Ex 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-7 vs Deut 15:1-15)

  1. I agree with you that D revises the laws of Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:1-7. A comparison of the following buttresses your arguments:

    Deuteronomy 14:22-23:
    22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23In the presence of Yahweh your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear Yahweh your God always.

    Leviticus 25:1-4:
    Yahweh spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: 2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for Yahweh. 3For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for Yahweh: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

    It would be rather difficult to yearly make a tithe of what was sown if the land wasn’t being sown every seventh year. It appears that Nehemiah 10:31 attempts to harmonize the laws of debt-remission and land-fallowing: “…and if the peoples of the land bring in merchandise or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy it from them on the sabbath or on a holy day; and we will forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.

    It’s also interesting that “Moses” (speaking for “Yahweh”) can’t decide if the remission of debts will eliminate poverty. If a politician said the following, he/she would be labeled a flip-flopper:

    Deuteronomy 15:1-5; 7, 11
    Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 2And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it from a neighbor who is a member of the community, because Yahweh’s remission has been proclaimed. 3From a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. 4There will, however, be no one in need among you, because Yahweh is sure to bless you in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, 5if only you will obey Yahweh your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today…7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that Yahweh your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour… 11Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’

    1. Thanks for these detailed contributions John. Yes, there are several places where the author of Nehemiah appears to be harmonizing differences between laws in Leviticus and those of Deuteronomy. These have supported scholarly arguments about the completion of the compilation of the Torah by Nehemiah’s time, since he seems to be familiar with both textual traditions, and even refers to them as the “Torah of Moses” (8:1). It’s good to note these harmonizing tendencies in biblical literature written during the Persian period and after the Torah was compiled, since these types of interpretive maneuvers are still employed today. I like it when we actually have objective examples of this process—i.e., we objectively see Nehemiah’s awareness of two competing laws and his attempt to reconcile this via harmonization.

      Yes, I too observed the contradiction you note between Deut 15:4—“there won’t be an indigent among you”—and Deut 15:11—“there won’t stop being an indigent in the land.” The only thing that prevented me from enumerating this political flip-flop is the “only if” of verse 5. This is similar to the “only if”s in the blessings and curses section in chapter 28-30. That is, “if” the Isaelites listen to and obey Yahweh’s commandments they will be blessed, but as many commentators have noticed all of these conditional “ifs” are already closed so to speak from the author’s perspective because the author of these passages lives in an exilic condition where the curses have already happened. The same might be said of this passage: there won’t be any indigent in the land “if you’ll listen to the voice of Yahweh,” but since the empirical evidence of the author’s time period is that there are, this later writer uses this to theologically explain his present historical circumstances—namely there are indigent people in the land because Yahweh’s commandments were not followed (same theological interpretation of the Babylonian invasion, because Yahweh’s laws were forsaken). But in the archaisized narrative this is still presented as an open option.

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