How could it be, that leading up to the American Civil War, people used the Bible both arguing for and against slavery? We should consider that an accomplished lawyer can argue a case either way although they may not present the facts accurately or according to their intended meaning. I remember a Bible study from almost twenty years ago, when one individual who had attended Cambridge University carried out a so-called Bible study that was more akin to a multi-choice pub quiz and he concluded that slavery was in the Bible and it seems wrong but he didn’t know why it was in the Bible. We should take great caution when reading the Bible to ensure that we have read the whole of the passage and understood the context.
I responded by saying that we needed to establish the context and whether ‘slavery’ was the same then as it is now and that simply because slavery is mentioned in the Bible we must be careful not to assume that the Bible condones it. After all, it was the likes of Lord Shaftesbury and Livingstone that were instrumental in abolishing slavery in terms of making it illegal, although sadly it still continues. In my previous occupation I worked for a charity that had an anti-trafficking unit with a safe house for potential victims or trafficking and modern-day slavery. This organisation originally had Christian roots.
In Exodus 21 and in the Ancient World, slavery was sadly a widespread phenomenon and in this unit Chizkuni helpfully notes that the reason why the Torah commences with these particular laws was because the Israelites had recently been redeemed from slavery themselves so had good reason not to treat their own as they had been treated in Egypt.[i] Additionally Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers. In the Roman Empire approximately a third of its individuals were slaves though the conditions varied tremendously from being stolen and abused and exploited to those from highly trained professions who lived in relatively comfortable surroundings and had entered into a legal contract to pay off their debts. Across the years slavery has been a worldwide issue reaching continents and countries enslaving their own countrypeople and others.
Some will notice that in Exodus 21:1-11, in various translations the word ‘servant’ is used, whilst in others, it is rendered ‘slave’. The word is ‘eved’, which means a labourer, a servant, a slave, a man in bonds, a subject or a worshipper’.[ii] Obviously this word encompasses a variety of applications and can relate to someone labouring in the form of a contract, a servant, a slave or someone kidnapped and forced to perform tasks for another person.
The rights of the servant
Interestingly from the very outset the rights of the servant are given. This is in direct contrast to slavery at the same time from other cultures. If you have any doubt concerning that, then compare how the Egyptians treated the Israelites with this passage. MacArthur notes that the combination of case law and commandments as a detailed enlargement of the decalogue maintained the uniqueness of Israel’s law compared with other Near Eastern law codes.[iii]
Verse 2 tells us that when a Hebrew slave is bought they would serve six years and in the seventh they would go free for nothing. On initial reading the idea of being ‘bought’ concerns us, so we need to consider how an Israelite would become an ‘eved’ , a servant. The Stone Edition notes that a Jewish person could become a bondsman either by selling himself to escape extreme poverty or a thief sold to the court to raise funds for the victims.[iv] Rashi believes this relates to someone who has been sold by a court because of theft and destitution.[v]
Consider though how Jacob worked for Laban to acquire Rachel. Their contract was that he would marry her after seven years labour. We all know how Laban tricked him and gave him Leah instead though gave him Jacob shortly afterwards on the condition that he worked another seven years for him. That example is especially apt as verses 3 and 4 describe the terms if a man comes in single, he shall go out single and if he comes in married then his wife will go with him. However if his master gave him his wife or daughter then he would go out alone.
That may seem puzzling to us, though we must consider that many laws in Exodus 21 make sense in the context of a dowry and also helps to explain the difference between the laws given for male and female servants. Nonetheless having been to South Africa, one friend was a Zulu and he explained to me that if he wanted to marry a certain person he would need to raise a lot of money to pay her father. Similarly, I had Ugandan friends who had a person who lived with them and was in a contract to do various tasks and they were offended when some of my other friends suggested that that person was being used subserviently since they treated that particular person as family.
The above sheds much light on the living conditions of the servant. We must bear in mind that there was no welfare state and that if you had no money, one way out was to work for someone for a set time to improve your conditions. Furthermore if your master provided you with a wife, you could then work, of your own accord, to redeem her and your children and pay your former master.
A vital question demands an answer. In view of the above, does the Bible condemn or condone slavery? Notice that in the same chapter in verse 16, someone kidnapping and selling a man would be put to death and in 1 Timothy 1:10 kidnapping is condemned. If that was applied in this country and the United States would there have been the slave trade or the civil war? It would have sunk the slave trade! In verse 26 and 27 if someone struck a slave’s eye and destroyed it or knocked out their tooth he would let the slave go free. Do you think if that law was applied, the abominable abuse in the slave trade would have continued?
Also Deuteronomy 23:15 explains that a fugitive slave would not be returned to their master but would dwell in their midst in the place that suited them and no wrong was done to them.
When a Hebrew servant left they would not do so empty handed. Rather they would be furnished liberally out of their flock, out of the threshing floor and the winepress (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). Does that sound like the equivalent of the modern slave trade?
There were two exceptions in that those who the Israelites were to drive out could be kept as slaves (Leviticus 25:44-46). Since the order to drive them out was not fully obeyed, the Lord permitted them to take slaves from that population. However, we must remember that slavery was well established before the law was instituted and again we must keep in mind that Exodus 21 regulated slavery with conditions that contrasted greatly with the other nations. Moreover, Colossians 4:1 in recognition of the system in the Roman Empire states, “Masters give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”
Also, strangers dwelling with them that were in extreme poverty could be bought as a slave and enter a contract with the chance to be redeemed and would be set free in the year of Jubilee.
Unger helpfully writes, “The Mosaic economy did not outlaw slavery, which was a universal institution at the time. It did, however, regulate and elevate it, imbuing it with kindness and mercy and, like Christianity, announcing principles that would ultimately abolish it (cf. Lev. 25:39-40; Deut. 15:12-18).[vi]
MacDonald similarly observes, “The fact that God gave legislation concerning slavery does not mean that He approved it. He was only protecting the civil rights of the enslaved.”[vii]
The anti-slave trade campaigners
Lord Shaftesbury changed the law so that children would not work more than ten hours daily. In this country, children were forced to work from 6am to 7pm on the Yorkshire Mills with a 30-minute break in the day. Some walked miles to get to work and were employed in the mines. Others made bricks. Does that remind you of Egypt? That was two hundred years ago. Shaftesbury and Yorkshire evangelicals managed to reduce that to ten hours a day since if they tried to reduce it further, they would have been unlikely to have been able to start reducing the number of hours and working age of children in increments.
Slavery was and sadly is still a universal phenomenon. Slavery is mentioned in the Bible. The question we need to ask is who was it that in our country, enabled slavery to be made illegal? The likes of Shaftesbury and Livingstone helped to do so. Why? They believed that humans are created in the image of God and have value and that we should not treat either our own or someone from another as sub-human and we are answerable to God and we should love God first and foremost and love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
We have considered biblical justice in this passage and rightly so. I say biblical justice since if we limited ourselves to social justice without a biblical framework I fear that slavery would still be legalised such is the abhorrent condition of the human heart. What does this passage have to do with the Messiah and redemption?
The Messiah and redemption
We see in Exodus 21:4-5 that some servants were so well treated by their masters that they would continue serving them permanently. “But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.”
This practise of being earmarked is a picture of something far greater. Jesus the Messiah so loved us that rather then ‘going out free’ He died on our behalf at Calvary.[viii]We are reminded of a key verse in Mark’s Gospel concerning the Saviour in that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In view of how He willingly gave up His life to redeem us, how much more should we serve Him who we could never repay and who purchased the soul of the believer forever?
We were all enslaved to sin. The moralist would think of the book of Exodus as an inspiring story of freedom from slavery but a greater reality is that in the life of a believer they are no longer a slave to sin but a servant of the Lord (Leviticus 25:55). A transaction has taken place, not simply from slavery to freedom but from the kingdom of darkness into light.
The way we treat our neighbour
Does this have any bearing on how we love our neighbour? In the Brit Hadasha (New Testament), Onesimus was a runaway slave who stole money (Philemon 18) whilst not a believer and met Paul in Rome. He became a believer and Paul sent him back to his master Philemon. Philemon himself had been saved under Paul’s ministry. Remember that at the time probably a third of the Roman empire were slaves and it was institutionalised. Paul knew what it was like to be imprisoned and under the control of others, yet was able to send him back to Philemon no longer as a bondservant but as a beloved brother.
Do you see how this affects the way believers are to treat others. If someone wants to be great in the sight of the Lord they need to be willing to serve. When we recognise that the Son of God came not to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many we have both the perfect example and motivation to serve others out of love for God and our neighbour.
We might have authority as a parent, a teacher, carer, manager, civil servant, or as an elder. In each case we have an opportunity to serve others to the glory of God. When we recognise that we are made in God’s image we value others and we treat them as we want them to be treated. Even in a corrupt world with abominable institutional practices we can still serve God and our neighbour.
The Hebrew maidservant
Again Exodus 21:7-11 make no sense unless we consider the context of the dowry and the ancient world. If a man sold his daughter as a slave, she would not go out as the male slaves did? Firstly, why would any man sell his daughter? In extreme poverty if she worked or married another, she would have the chance to have a much-improved life and would be free from poverty. Some Hebrew fathers thought this would be a better option for their daughters.[ix] We sometimes hear about arranged marriages and this was the case including a contract that also protected the daughter as well as the master.
Or the daughter might marry the son of her master. The Targum Onkelos states, “If he has designated her as a wife for his son, he must grant her exactly the same rights as daughters (of Yisrael).[x]
If the arrangement did not work out in the interests of the master, he could not sell her to a foreign people as Joseph’s brothers’ did so with him. She could be redeemed and she was not to be treated as mere ‘property’. If she were not pleasing to her master, she would be redeemed by a near kinsman (Leviticus 25:47-54). She could also redeem herself. [xi]This contrasted with the practices of other nations. Furthermore, if her master chose another wife, he could neither diminish her food, clothing or marital rights. This is not encouraging polygamy but rather for those that did practise it, at least some protection was provided for the original daughter of the father who was in extreme poverty. Not surprisingly when polygamy was practised it always caused conflict and was never God’s intention in the first place (Genesis 2:24). If the master, refused to make provision then she could leave.
The wisdom, redemption and grace of the Messiah
What we see from this passage is God’s great wisdom in regulating conduct because of the wickedness of the human heart and the provision of the grace of God. Jesus the Messiah took the form of a servant and humbled Himself to death on a cross that we might live and one day we will bow to Him to the glory of God the Father. There are only two masters. You can either be a slave to sin and serve Pharoah or you can be freed to serve the living God who gave Himself for us. Joshua said “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. Who are you serving?
[i] Chizkuni on Exodus 21 https://www.sefaria.org/Chizkuni%2C_Exodus.21.2.1?lang=bi
[ii] Hebrew-Greek Study Bible Executive Editor Spiros Zodhiates King James Version (AMG, Chattanooga; 1991), p1642
[iii] John MacArthur The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 2005; Nashville), p116
[iv] Tanach The Stone Edition Edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Mesorah Publications, 2000; Brooklyn), p186
[v] Rashi on Exodus 21 https://www.sefaria.org/Rashi_on_Exodus.21.2.2?lang=bi
[vi] Merrill F. Unger Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (AMG, 2002; Chattanooga), p130
[vii] William MacDonald Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1995; Nashville), p110
[ix] John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Victor, 1985; USA), p141
[x] Targum Onkelos on Exodus 21 https://www.sefaria.org/Onkelos_Exodus.21.9?lang=bi