PastorRodney’s Weblog

Preaching from the Pulpit of Ephraim Church of the Bible

Exodus 21:1-11; Rethinking Slavery

10/09 Exodus 21:1-11 Rethinking Slavery; Israel’s Welfare System and the Least of These

We are in Exodus, studying the Book of the Covenant, God’s expectations for the people that he has redeemed out of slavery and brought into a covenant relationship with himself. These are not rules we must keep in order to get right with God. This is God’s expectations for the people that he has already saved.

These laws were not intended to be imposed on the unbelieving world. These were given directly to God’s people, rules for life in a community consisting of those who are in relationship with God. God gave these rules to his people, not to restrict their freedom and stifle their fun, but to bless them, so that they would get the maximum joy out of life and have a sure hope for the life to come.

The Book of the Covenant begins with the most important thing, our relationship with God, pointing us to the sacrifice that restores us to a right relationship with him, so that we can do the thing we were created to do, worship him.

God’s Care for the Least

The very next thing God addresses is slavery. In contrast, this is the last thing addressed in the code of Hammurabi. God puts it up front because his people had just experienced the horrors of slavery.

Exodus 2:23 … the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.

God heard their cry and rescued his people from bondage. He introduces his ten commandments by reminding his people that

Exodus 20:2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Now he is demanding that his people not oppress others the way they had been oppressed. God is defending the rights of those who were at the very bottom of the social structure. God cares for the least of these, and he demands that we as his people care for the least of these.

Not Far Enough?

Many feel that God didn’t go far enough and abolish slavery altogether, rather than merely regulate the practice. This is possible, because Jesus tells us that the allowance for divorce in the law was not God’s ideal, but God merely regulating a sinful practice because of the hardness of our hearts, and Jesus calls us to a higher standard.

Matthew 19:8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (cf. Mark 10:5)

But I think that if we take the time to understand what God is saying here, we might say with the Psalmist:

Psalm 119:98 Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.

Let’s start with verse 1.

A Written Code

21:1 “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them.

One of the first things to note in this law code, is that it is written. This is part of the Book of the Covenant. And in the first verse, Moses is to ‘set these rules before them’ – before the whole people. This was an objective written standard that could not be changed on the whim of a ruler. Even those on the bottom of the social scale were entitled to know these laws and were empowered to appeal for their rights to fair treatment. God is caring for those that society deems worthless.

A Different Kind of Slavery

The next thing to note when talking about biblical slave laws, is the massive difference between the African slave trade that Wilberforce fought to abolish in Britain and President Lincoln ended here on this continent. If we jump down to verse 16, we see that.

Exodus 21:16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.

So the slave trade that we are familiar with is outlawed biblically on pain of death. Stealing and selling a human being or having a slave that was kidnapped was a capital offense. When we come to any passage in the bible that seems to tolerate or even approve of the practice of slavery, we need to shift our thinking to realize that what the bible is talking about when it addresses slavery is a very different thing from what comes to our minds when we hear the word ‘slave’. In the bible, there was good slavery and bad slavery.

Let’s start by asking how someone could become a slave in the Old Testament. If a person could not be captured and sold against their will, then how would someone become a slave? If we jump ahead just one chapter in Exodus, later in the Book of the Covenant, we see one scenario:

Exodus 22:2 “If a thief is found breaking in… 3 … He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

We will see that the penalty for theft was restitution. If you felt guilty and wanted to return the stolen goods, you had to pay double. If you sold or consumed what you stole, you had to pay back 4-5 times the worth of what you stole. If you stole someone’s ox (or in modern farming terms, a tractor), you had to pay him back with five oxen. Your theft probably indicated that you didn’t have enough resources to buy your own ox, so you certainly wouldn’t have enough to pay back 5 times the value. And there were no bankruptcy laws in ancient Israel. If you couldn’t pay, you had to work off the debt. You lost your freedom, not in prison, but as a slave.

Another scenario is found in Leviticus 25:

Leviticus 25:39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave:

Here the reason for your inability to pay your debts is not specified, but the consequence is the same. Possibly you lost your income due to laziness or natural disaster. Regardless, you were obligated to pay what you owe. Notice, in this scenario, it is voluntary. The seller is the slave. You sold yourself. This is why the proverbs very literally can say:

Proverbs 22:7 The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

If a husband and father got himself in financial trouble, he would not be hauled off alone to leave his wife a widow and his children orphans, which would have been almost equivalent to the death sentence for them. They would be allowed to go together into slavery. This will start to make sense as we look at some of the details of this passage.

21:1 “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone.

Here we see another primary difference between this kind of slavery and what we are familiar with. Biblical slavery was not perpetual ownership of another human being. This was a temporary arrangement with explicit time limits in order to pay off specific, often self-inflicted debts. The term limit for Israelite slavery was six years. It seems, whether the debt had been satisfied or not, when the six years was up, you went free. And we find, in Deuteronomy 15, that the slave owner was required to help his former slave get his feet under him.

Deuteronomy 15:12 “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. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty–handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.

I think it might help our thinking to replace the term ‘slavery’ with something like a ‘correctional internship’ or ‘financial rehabilitation.’ This was really a gracious arrangement. You have handled your finances poorly or simply fallen on hard times. An Israelite family agreed to take you in, provide you with room and board and employment so that you could learn a skill, pay your debts, learn how to manage your money wisely, and be given a fresh start on life. I think we could learn some things from arrangement.

Protection for Families

Three possible scenarios are laid out in dealing with the family of the slave. If the slave comes single, they leave single. If they come with a family, the family leaves together. The master has no right to keep part of the family even though he has provided room and board for all of them. That was understood up front. The more complicated scenario is if the master has another slave working for him and he approves of a marriage between them. This protects the interests of the master. He doesn’t get cheated out of the remainder of the service term of the one when the term of the other is up. This does not mean that the new marriage is broken up. Remember, this is the Book of the Covenant, made know to all the people. So the single slave would know up front what would be involved in entering into a relationship while serving his term. He would have to step up and pay the redemption price for his new wife to get her out of her contract early, or he would have to wait. His other option is spelled out in the next verses:

5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.

The slave who was due to be released could voluntarily choose to remain a slave for life. Notice his attitude: ‘I hate my master but he has left me no other options.’ No, ‘I love my master.’ Here is deep gratitude for the generous and gracious hospitality of the master. This voluntary service is evidence of a healthy happy relationship. The slave was free. But he could choose the safety and security of continuing to serve a good master for the rest of his life. This could not be a rash decision. It had to be thought through carefully and finalized with a public ceremony. This is an indication that this sort of biblical slavery could be a very attractive arrangement with a good master.

Protection for Female Slaves

Verse 7 picks up another thread, with special protection for female slaves when they are mistreated.

7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter.

This addresses the uniquely vulnerable situation of a female slave. Apparently this master/servant relationship was intended to become a husband/wife relationship, and in that case, the marriage was not to be dissolved after the six years of service ended. Marriage is a lifetime commitment. If his intentions were to marry her, but he changes his mind, (and notice, he is in the wrong – he has broken faith with her) then he is to treat her with dignity and allow her family to redeem her. She is not to be sold as mere property. If she is to be the wife of his son, he is to treat her with dignity as he would his own daughter. If he does take her as his wife, he is not to abuse or neglect that relationship.

10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

The issue of multiple wives is addressed and regulated. This is in no way condoning the practice, but protecting the rights of the weakest members of society. This would fall into the category of ‘if a thief is found breaking in, he shall surely pay’. Any man who is foolish enough to take on more than one wife, he shall surely pay. He is going to have to figure out how he is going to meet the needs of each one without diminishing the rights of the other. And this is more than mere subsistence, the word for ‘food’ here is ‘meat,’ probably a luxury item. Ample food, clothing, and conjugal rights are not to be diminished, or he is guilty of neglect and she is immediately and freely released from the situation. The consequences laid out for this action, like the five times restitution for theft, should cause a man to think twice.

Later in this covenant code, we see further protection for the life and health of those who have become slaves. They are persons that cannot be abused or disposed of at the whim of the master without appropriate consequences. A slave who is killed by his master is to be avenged. A master who abuses his slave forfeits the slave. (Ex.21:20-21, 26-27, 32).

God intends to protect and care for the least in society. For those who have gotten themselves into legal or financial trouble, he has provided a way for them to be cared for in a way that enables them to satisfy their obligations with dignity and gets them back on their feet in a relatively short period of time.

A New Master

Exodus is not about freedom from slavery. It is about the transfer out from under a cruel taskmaster and into the service of a kind and generous King who richly rewards his servants. In Leviticus, God says

Leviticus 25:42 For they are my servants [lit. slaves], whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.

Jesus came to effect the ultimate exodus. Jesus said:

John 8:34 … “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.

We are all enslaved to a cruel taskmaster. Often we don’t even realize we are in bondage. We are in over our heads with no hope of escape. Jesus,

Philippians 2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, [lit. slave] being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus came to be the slave to get us all out of our slavery. God became man so that he could die on a cross to pay what our sins cost.

Mark 10:45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus bought us with his life. He paid the ultimate ransom price.

1 Corinthians 6:19 …You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Jesus purchased us for himself. He is a good master. He set us free from bondage to sin and bought us back so we can fulfill the purpose for which he designed us – to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Our glorious redeemer turned everything on its head.

John 13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Luke 22:25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Do you know how the apostles introduced themselves? Paul in Romans, Philippians and Titus calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ; James and Jude the Lord’s brothers in the flesh call themselves slaves of Jesus Christ, Peter in 2 Peter calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ. John, in Revelation, calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ.

We gladly walk to the doorpost of the sanctuary, to the cross, and we gladly confess Jesus as Lord – he is my Master. I will serve him forever. I will be his slave. I love my Master. I will not go out free. I will be his slave forever. We confess our love for our new King Jesus.

And we sing with the Psalmist:

Psalm 84:10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~

October 9, 2011 - Posted by | Exodus, podcast | , , , ,

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