Exodus 21:1-11~ 20111009 ~ Pastor Rodney Zedicher ~ Ephraim Church of the Bible ~ www.ephraimbible.org
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.
God heard their cry and rescued his people from bondage. He introduces his ten commandments by reminding his people that
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.
But I think that if we take the time to understand what God is saying here, we might say with the Psalmist:
Let's start with verse 1.
A Written Code
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
Jesus came to effect the ultimate exodus. Jesus said:
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,
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.
Jesus bought us with his life. He paid the ultimate ransom price.
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.
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: