The Golden Gate Bridge stretches almost a mile across the San Francisco Bay, with its total length being about 8,500 feet. It is 220 feet tall at its highest point and was completed in 1937 at a cost of 35 million dollars.
Building bridges was a dangerous business in the early part of the twentieth century. Eighty-eight people lost their lives in the construction of the Quebec Bridge. Twenty-seven people died in building the Brooklyn Bridge. With its high winds, turbulent waters, and rocks jutting from the water, the Golden Gate Bridge had the potential to be worse than either of these. As it turned out, nineteen workers fell off the bridge. However, none of them died because a safety net had been installed around the bridge. This was only one of many safety features that was incorporated into the bridge’s construction.
This was during the Depression years when there was no shortage of men available and willing to work—with or without safety precautions. Those in charge could have looked the other way and saved money, but instead they made a conscious decision not to take advantage of their workers and voluntarily implemented safety measures that were innovative and rigorous.
This provides us with a backdrop for the instruction to Israel in Deuteronomy 15:1-11 concerning the poor. Like the Golden Gate Bridge workers, their poverty made them vulnerable and God wanted to see to it that they were protected. This explains the law’s emphasis on concern and care for the needy and also why the prophets later rebuked Israel for their failure follow through on this. The Egyptians had oppressed the Israelites in their poverty, but God’s people were to be different!
We’ve seen in 14:28-29 how the law mandated care for the needy with the a tithe of their crops every three years that was to be stored in their towns. They were also told them to leave the corners of their fields unharvested and the gleanings on the ground so people who were poor could gather them. Their vines were to be picked over once and fruit on the ground was not to be picked up (Leviticus 19:9-10).
We shouldn’t be surprised then that as we get to chapter 15, we find more provisions to help relieve those in poverty. The command is simple: Every seventh year those owing money were to be released from their debts. The Sabbath year meant the land rested from being farmed (Leviticus 25:1-7), servants were released and set up for success (Deuteronomy 15:12-18), and debt was lifted (v. 1-11). It’s not difficult to see the intent of God to provide rest for the land, servants, and the poor.
Suppose you are a farmer in ancient Israel. On year, the rain comes at the wrong time, you have insect infestation issues and crop disease to boot. The result is a skinny harvest that leaves you unable to feed your family the entire year (you have teenagers).
What do you do? Rather than getting a loan from an Israelite bank (there are none), you get a loan from an Israelite brother (there are lots of these). He gives you enough money/food to take care of your family. For collateral you put up the only thing of value you have—some of your land. Until you repay your debt, the land will be his to work. During that period, you’d have to feed your family on the crops from the remaining portion of your land.
But you break your leg in an accident the next year. Other members of your household have sustained illnesses. You are unable to plow, plant or reap what you needed to. You have to get another loan. Now, you’re not sure that in a great year you could feed your family on the land you had remaining (you just had another child enter their teenage years). So, what are you going to do? How are you going to escape the cycle you’re in? That’s where the legislation of Deuteronomy 15:1-11 comes in.
It limits the amount of time you would have to live like this to, at most, seven years. Then your debt was forgiven, and you could start over. It still wasn’t necessarily an easy road—although you were no longer in debt, you now had nothing. You would need to work hard to avoid having the same thing happen again. But you had rest, release, and rescue from the hole you had fallen into.
We can see plenty of wisdom in this arrangement. No one fell into an endless cycle of poverty—there was rest, release, and rescue every seven years. Another benefit was that people learned to look to each other when they had problems. They bore each other’s burdens. It was a great example of brotherhood. Bruggemann (Deuteronomy) notes that, “The primary implication of the text is that the economy must be seen as a subset of a neighborly fabric, and must be made to serve and enhance that neighborly fabric.” Then too, it was a wonderful check against materialism. Rather than viewing life as being about accumulating as much money and stuff as you could, they understood that people were more important than things and life was about being rich toward God (Luke 12:21).
Let’s live with tender hearts and open hands (Deuteronomy 15:7)!