A Comparison of Sabbatical Year Traditions in Exodus and Deuteronomy

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George Washington University
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The sabbatical year comes from the word (Sabbath) meaning seventh (Bergsma, 2005, 121)1. Back in Genesis, many events have taken place on the seventh day or year. The event planning observed in the seventh year is also evident in the book of Genesis chapter 6-9. There is a transition between the first five books of the Old Testament. The sabbatical year is also referred to as the Jubilee year after every forty-nine years in the book of Leviticus, 25:12-25 (Bergsma, 2005, 121). Just like the sabbatical year, the jubilee year was also observed accordingly. The sabbatical year, therefore, is the seventh year which comes after every six years. The sabbatical is marked with different celebrations as seen in Exodus 31:15 where God prescribed some rules and penalties to those who failed to obey and act as required by his command concerning the sabbatical year (Bergsma, 2005, 121)1. The sabbatical year, therefore, is a tradition culture belonging to the Israelites where they celebrated every seventh year after six years. The sabbatical year was marked with different events that have been described in the book of Exodus and Deuteronomy (NKJV). Among the Pentateuch, there are much of the Israelites traditions. In this discussion, I will compare the traditions concerning the sabbatical year in the book of Exodus and that of Deuteronomy.

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The sabbatical year in Exodus is characterized by some events including the rules that are followed during the sabbatical year. This is what describes the traditions of Israelites during the sabbatical year events which were implemented as the Israelites moved to the Promised Land. According to the commands, they were supposed to work on their land for six years and then leave it fallow Exodus 20:10-11(NKJV) 2. During the six years, they were supposed to work on the land and collect the produce within the six years. After the six years of work, the traditions obligated them to rest in the seventh year as well as letting the land to rest in the seventh year. The resting year was to ensure that the poor have a chance to celebrate what had been gathered from the land within the six years (Exodus 20:10-11)2. Again that which had been left in the land after the six years of sowing was for the beasts to feed on. This tradition is a reflection of the Sabbath day where one "is supposed to work for six days in the yard, and on the seventh day, you shall rest so that your donkey and ox may also rest including the servants" Exodus 23:12. During the sabbatical year, that which God had blessed in the fields belonged to everyone and mostly the poor including the wild animals (Exodus 20:10-11)2.

The sabbatical year traditions in the book of Exodus are reflective of how the Israelites were supposed to carry out their duties on the land. When comparing this tradition to the Sabbath day rules in the book of Genesis, it is a tradition of how the Israelites were supposed to work particularly on their land. This tradition of the Israelites was meant to provide sustainability based on four aspects namely culture, economics, ecology, and politics. Concerning the culture aspect, the sabbatical year reflected on the restoration of freedom for the servants who worked in the fields for the six years. On economics, this tradition also settled the debts. Also, this tradition also focused on the ecological aspect of sustainability by letting the land to rest for a year. On the political aspects, the sabbatical year tradition was meant to remember the Gods' commandments and who provided their grace, mercy and all things that they requested while in the wildness.

On the other hand, in the book of Deuteronomy the Israelites practiced a release of debts tradition during the sabbatical year. For this tradition, at the sabbatical year, they were required to release all debts that one had for their neighbors and friends (Deuteronomy 15:2). In the Lord's release practice, all those creditors who had lent anything to their friends or neighbors were supposed to release, and they were not supposed to demand it again (Deuteronomy 15:2). This tradition was applied for the Israelites only, and therefore foreigners were never let to go free of debts they acquired from their neighbors. The practice applied for brothers only and by this, it means Israelites because the belonged to one lineage.

Another comparison concerning the sabbatical year tradition between Exodus and Deuteronomy is on the six-year slave rules. In Exodus 21:2, a Hebrew slave was supposed to serve for only six years, and in the seventh year, the slave was allowed to leave freely without paying any money. Another custom for the slaves is that if they came by themselves they were allowed to go by themselves and they came with their wives, they were allowed to leave with their wives in the seventh year (Exodus, 21:3). The traditions also included another rule whereby if the slave was given a wife by his master, after the six years, he was to leave all alone since the children, and the wife belonged to the master (Exodus, 21:4). After the seven years of service, another tradition applied whereby, if by any chance the slave claimed to love his master together with the wife and children. He was supposed to be taken to the judges for his master to pierce his ear that marked for the slave to serve him forever (Exodus, 21:5-6).

"A Hebrew slave was supposed to serve the master for six years and then be let free in the seventh year. In the seventh year, they left without payments and a wife if only the slave was captured along with her, but they were not supposed to leave with a slave wives and children. The slaves had a chance to volunteer to serve the master forever" (Dozeman and Shectman, 2016,137)

Concerning the sabbatical tradition on maidservants, they were not allowed to go after the six just like the men did Exodus, (21:7). During the sabbatical year, if the maidservant was not pleasing according to her master's needs, she was redeemed with the homestead by letting his sons to marry her. She was not sold to any outsider because this was against the sabbatical law (Exodus, 21:9. In the sabbatical year, if the master decided to marry another, he was then obligated to provide all the basic needs to the other maidservant, but if the basic needs were not available on her offer, she then left freely without payments in the seventh year.

The master had no right to free a slave-wife, but if he didn't want her anymore, the slave-wife was redeemed or given to one of his sons as a wife. At the sabbatical year, the master had a chance of marrying another slave-wife but still supporting the other one. The wife-slaves left at their will when their rights were violated.

In comparison, the book of Deuteronomy has another collection of slave law that was applied in the sabbatical year. In Deuteronomy, and just like it was in Exodus, the Hebrew man slave was supposed to serve for six years, and on the sabbatical year, he was set free Deuteronomy, 15:13. Unlike in the book of Exodus, here the slave didn't walk away empty-handed, but he was awarded shares of the flock, winepress and all that the master had been blessed with within the six years Deuteronomy, 15:13. In Deuteronomy, the sabbatical rule of dismissing a slave who has been referred to as a brother in Deuteronomy are different from those used in Exodus. The book of Deuteronomy has redirected the masters to focus on what they went through in the land of Egypt, and so they should reward their brothers for the work done just like how the Lord redeemed their slavery (Dozeman, 2017, 475).

In Deuteronomy, if the slave doesn't want to leave after the six years of slavery with the claim that he loves his servant, an awl was taken and put through his ear into the door after then he became his slave forever. Similarly, female slaves were also taken to be slaves without limitation if they persisted not to leave. In Deuteronomy 15:18, the masters have been advised not to feel aggrieved for letting their slaves free instead they should appreciate what the slaves had done for them in the six years. There is an overlap between the sabbatical tradition rules used in Deuteronomy and those in Egypt. The two laws share a common structure and language.

The differences between the sabbatical traditions in Exodus and Deuteronomy is that in Exodus the have used a slave, but in Deuteronomy, he is referred to as a brother. In the exodus, the master treasured the wife-slave and the kids while in Deuteronomy the slave loves the master's house and everything that was practiced in the compound. In Exodus, the slave left after the six years without any payment or even reward, but as described in Deuteronomy, the slave was given rewards of grains, wine, and flocks of livestock. Additionally, the slaves were both released after six years of service. The traditions in Exodus have equalized both female and male slaves regarding treatment, and how they were freed. They served for six years, and then they were freed in the seventh year. Another similarity in the traditions is that the slaves who claimed to stay were marked at the ears. When focusing on the differences, the two traditions have followed what the book of Leviticus suggested concerning the sabbatical traditions. In Exodus, the plight of women has not been taken into consideration, but in Deuteronomy, the plight of a woman has been improved.

In conclusion, the sabbatical traditions discussed in the book of Exodus and those in Deuteronomy have a lot of similarities. The key sabbatical traditions missing in the Deuteronomy is the six days of sowing the land and the seventh day they were supposed to rest and to leave the land fallow. Additionally, both traditions had focused on Israelites practices and their rituals with a reflection of what they asked to do when they reached the Promised Land.

Work cited

Bergsma, John S. Once Again, the Jubilee, Every 49 or 50 Years? Vetus Testamentum, vol. 55,

no. 1, 2005, pp. 121125.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Deuteronomy. The Pentateuch: Introducing the Torah, Augsburg

Fortress, Publishers, Minneapolis, 2017, pp. 475522

Dozeman, Thomas B., and Sarah Shectman. Exodus. The Pentateuch: Fortress Commentary

on the Bible Study Edition, edited by Gale A. Yee et al., Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, Minneapolis, 2016, pp. 137178.

The Holy Bible: New King James Version. , 2013. Print

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