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In Jeremiah 34:14, we read that a Hebrew slave which has served six years must be let go at the end of the seventh year:

Jer 34:14: מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים תְּֽשַׁלְּחוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו הָעִבְרִי אֲשֶֽׁר־יִמָּכֵר לְךָ וַעֲבָֽדְךָ שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁלַּחְתֹּו חָפְשִׁי מֵֽעִמָּךְ
'At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.' (ESV)

It is odd that someone who has worked six years must be let go after the end (קץ) of the seventh year. This is a reference to a rule from Exodus 21:2 and Deuteronomy 15:12, both of which are clear about the time: the slave serves six years and must be let go in the seventh year.

Exod 21:2: כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד וּבַשְּׁבִעִת יֵצֵא לַֽחָפְשִׁי חִנָּֽם
When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. (ESV)

Deut 15:12: כִּֽי־יִמָּכֵר לְךָ אָחִיךָ הָֽעִבְרִי אֹו הָֽעִבְרִיָּה וַעֲבָֽדְךָ שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת תְּשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּֽךְ
If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. (ESV)

Gesenius 18th ed. lists Jer 34:14 under temporal meanings of קץ, i.e. "Ablauf", that is "ending". The only way I see to reconcile Jer 34:14 with that meaning is to understand the law as: "you may let the Hebrew slave work for six years for you and then let him go after at most one year — i.e., before the end of the seventh year he must have gone free." But such an understanding would be odd, why would the owner get the right to keep the slave for a whole year after his time of service?

Are there other possible readings for קץ, or is there cultural-historical data that makes the above suggested rule seem less odd?

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Deuteronomy 15:1 also uses the words מִקֵּץ שֶֽׁבַע שָׁנִים "at the end of seven years." The next verses (15:9) discuss someone who doesn't want to give a loan because "the seventh year is approaching." A simple reading of these verses seems to be saying that what is discussed happens at the beginning of the seventh year, similar to the seventh year of Exodus 23:11.

While this verse is usually interpreted (at least in Jewish contexts) to mean that the relinquishing of debts happens at the end of seven years, I have seen pointed out that the Mishna (Shevi'it 10:8-9) also seems to assume a relinquishing of debts at the beginning of the year.

Ibn Ezra on the verse in Deuteronomy also shares this understanding, and brings Deuteronomy 31:10 as a proof, which refers to "the end of seven years" and specifies the holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which was at the beginning of the year. Interestingly, though, that holiday (if you identify Asif with Sukkot) is in fact described as "the end of the year" in Exodus 23:16.

While the two verses above aren't an absolute proof, if this interpretation is true, "the end of seven years" in Jeremiah doesn't necessarily mean the end of the year, but could refer to the beginning of the seventh year, which is consistent with the laws regarding a Hebrew slave in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

  • +1 Another factor can be the potential conflict over an individual slave working six years before their release and the national requirement, which would apply to all slaves. IOW at the start of the 7th year some slaves may not have worked six years. Nevertheless, at the end of the seventh year they must be released. – Revelation Lad Feb 5 '18 at 16:02
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It is my understanding that the Hebrew slave does not choose to work 6 years. Slaves were generally in place to pay a debt or to provide for the slaves family if they could not provide for themselves. You could set time limits on how long you would be willing to be a slave. However, the above referenced rules seem to indicate that, for example, if your fellow Israelite owed you 10 years of service, you were not allowed to keep him beyond the 7th year. All Hebrew slaves had to be released regardless of what was left on your agreement/sentence if that makes sense. It was to safeguard the poor. It is also interesting that many of these old Testament slaves might choose to remain a slave for life by boring their ear to the same doorpost of the Passover. Generally this was done in order for them to keep a bride that they obtained from their master during their slavery.

  • I understand the reason for the rule, but it is unclear why someone who has to work for six years must be released after the seventh year. What does the slave do in the seventh year? – user2672 Feb 4 '18 at 16:32
  • Correct, the seventh year, if following God's law, was a year of rest, where no work was done. That literally would mean a year of living under the provision of the master, without any of the duties of a slave. It was a benefit to the slave because being freshly freed, He/she could do no work to provide themselves in the 7th year. – user23164 Feb 4 '18 at 16:41
  • interesting idea - do you have any references, biblical or scholarly, that back that up? – user2672 Feb 4 '18 at 18:31
  • Lev 25:4 references the year of rest as does Exodus 23:11. Logic dictates that you would not hire a 6 year slave and provide for him for 7 years for 5 years of work. Of course, this may have happened from time to time, but I doubt this was a norm. – user23164 Feb 4 '18 at 19:02
  • Yes, but that does not explain why you should still feed the slave the entire seventh year instead of firing him at the end of the sixth. – user2672 Feb 4 '18 at 22:47

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