When You Buy a Hebrew Slave
Bible Text: Exodus 21:1-11 | Preacher: The Rev’d William Klock | Series: Exodus | When You Buy a Hebrew Slave
by William Klock
As we begin our study of Exodus 21 this morning I want to remind you of two of the principles I laid out last week that relate to how we should approach the legal material in the torah. If you missed last week’s sermon, I encourage you to go online and read or listen.
First, we need to remember Jesus’ summary of the law: The first and great commandment is to love the Lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves. All of the law (and the prophets) distils down to these two commands. That means that when we come to this legislation—and particularly when it offends our sensibilities or when it’s hard to understand—the failure lies not with the law. Maybe it’s our failure to understand it. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. There are number of reasons a law might seem bad or wrong or questionable to us. But we need to recognise that the fault is not with the law or with the Lord. It’s got to be somewhere else. Jesus himself tells us that the law was given to Israel to show the people how to love God and each other within a certain context.
That’s the second principle: we need to read this legal material in its context. This is the record of how the Lord dealt wisely and lovingly and graciously with his people in the context of their exodus from Egypt.
It’s essential we read the text in that context as we come to these laws. We need to recognise that their world was not our world, their culture was not our culture, their economy was not our economy. Even the way they thought about family and marriage was dramatically different from the way we do. So before we come to this next part of our text, you need to be thinking of a world where the economy was a relatively simple agrarian one. Most people lived in the country and were involved in agriculture. Their land was their wealth. There were no marketing boards controlling agricultural production and prices. A poor decision or a bad season could easily put a man in debt. There were no government bailouts and no bankruptcy courts. You were responsible for your own debts. You could sell your land to pay the debt. The good news was that the law required your land be returned to you (or at least to your family) in the jubilee year, but that was every forty-nine years. What to do until then if you had nothing? The law made some provisions for the poor. For example, the law prohibited harvesters from picking over a field or a vineyard more than once. Whatever was left belonged to the poor. This is what Ruth was doing when she was gleaning in the field of Boaz. She and her mother-in-law were destitute and gleaning was one of the Lord’s provisions for the poor.
But there was no employment or disability insurance. There was no system of public welfare. There was no government housing. There were no food stamps. All of these things are inventions of the modern world. Even if the Lord had somehow implemented policies like ours in the law, the ancient Near Eastern world had no government capable of managing systems of that kind and their economy had no way to support them. Again, it was a very different world. The family was the primary safety net. Multiple generations and extended family were closely knit together and supported each other. When the family failed, the local community was there—often made up of further-extended family. But even these supports would sometimes break down. Again, the book of Ruth is a good example. Naomi husband and sons died. That left her destitute, so Ruth, her daughter-in-law gleaned in the fields to eke out a meagre existence until Boaz stepped in—and that, too, was another part of the support system common to their world and that the Lord regulated through the law.
There’s much more that I could say, but I hope this gives you a sense just how different the world of the Israelites was from our own. It’s essential that we have some grasp of their world if we’re going to understand our passage today. The very first bit of legal material in Exodus addresses the subject of slavery. It’s the only ancient Near Eastern law code that begins this way, but it makes sense for Israel. Consider that the Lord has just delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. That was their new identity: the people redeemed by the Lord. And so the very first thing the Lord addresses is how to deal with, how to treat others who find themselves in the situation from which Israel was just redeemed.
So let’s read the text: Exodus 21:1. And as we read the text, if it strikes you as wrong or unjust or even evil, remember that their world was not our world. We have our own baggage when it comes to how we think of slavery, influenced especially by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery as practised in the Americas. That wasn’t the situation in Israel’s world. We need to set aside our baggage and enter their world. So our text:
Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. (Exodus 21:1-2)
We need to recognise that slavery was an integral part of the world in which the Israelites lived. It was part of the economy, part of the culture, and as we’ll see, it was also an essential part of the safety net for the poor. So the question isn’t whether or not Israel’s going to do away with slavery. The question is whether or not they will treat their slaves with the same justice and mercy the Lord has shown them. Again, remember, the law is about loving God and loving neighbour.
So the Lord says to Moses, these are the rules that will shape the life of my people. Let’s begin with when you buy a “Hebrew slave”. By the time of Deuteronomy, “Hebrew” will be an ethnic identifier synonymous with “Israelite”, but in Genesis and Exodus, it’s more of a class identifier. It’s the derogatory word used by the Egyptians to describe the underclass of foreigners they used as slaves. So as the Lord addresses this issue of slavery, he reminds the Israelites that they were “Hebrew slaves”—they were members of this underclass in Egypt. This is the perspective they need to start with in thinking about slavery. They were once members of this underclass, abused by their masters, but the Lord has delivered them and shown them mercy. The torah shows them how to live this out in their life as the people of God.
Notice, this wasn’t like slavery in the modern world. When we think of slavery, we think of people being kidnapped in Africa and shipped to the Americas to be bought and sold. The Israelites were not to engage in that sort of slavery. Just a few verses further along—in next week’s passage—the Lord says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). Slaves in Israel were typically debtors. Conquered soldiers could become slaves, although we don’t seem to see much of that in ancient Israel. (The fact is, we don’t see slavery in Israel on a scale anything like we see in other ancient Near Easter nations.) A man who owed a debt he couldn’t pay might sell himself or the judges might order him sold. (We saw this in today’s Gospel.) A thief might be sold as a slave to make restitution. Again, we see the difference between their world and ours. Their system of justice was aimed at making the wronged party whole and held people accountable for their debts.
Now, that said, notice that there’s a six-year limit on a term of slavery. It might be less if a debt could be paid off sooner, but six years was the maximum, even there was still a debt owed. Leviticus 25:40 requires that slaves be set free in the jubilee year—every forty-ninth year. So some slaves got lucky. And at least a couple of rabbinic commentators argue that this seventh year bit refers to the sabbatical year that happened every seventh year. At the end of his term of service, the slave is free to go. He owes his master nothing. There is no price to be paid, no freedom to be bought. Deuteronomy takes this a step further:
You shall not let him go empty-handed. 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. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you. (Deuteronomy 15:13b-15)
Again, there’s a reminder that the Israelites are not to treat their slaves the way the Egyptians treated them, but should rather bless them as the Lord has. These are not sub-humans to be abused, but brothers to be blessed.
Now look at verses 3-6:
If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 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. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 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.
Sometimes a man was sold with his wife and children to pay a debt. We see this in our Gospel lesson today in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant. But even if his wife and children weren’t sold with him, the master of the slave had an obligation to the man’s family—to take them in and provide for them during the slave’s term of service. Unlike our system of justice in which a man might be sent to prison and his wife and family left to fend for themselves—often leading to the complete breakdown of a family—and in which the victim is often never made whole, God’s system for Israel not only ensured the debt was paid back, but it kept the family of the debtor intact and cared for during the term of slavery. As much as we might be put off by some of these laws, this is one place where we see the humaneness of the torah and the inhumanity of our own system. God’s system kept families together and ensured they were cared for.
But what if the master provided a wife during a slave’s term of service? He’s free to go at the end of his term, but she and the kids stay with the master. This is one of the harsher aspects of slavery in the ancient world. We know this was a common practise and the institution of slavery probably depended on it in some way. A freed slave could redeem his wife and children from the master, but I suspect that possibility was little comfort to a man just freed and teetering on the verge of poverty.
But the Lord does make a provision: Rather than going free, the man may submit himself to his master in perpetual servitude. He may choose to remain a slave. Again, remember that becoming a slave was a matter of last resort. This man is likely a slave because he was landless and destitute. Being a slave was better than dying. Slavery to most of us conjures up images of brutal masters and slaves whose fingers were worked to the bone and whose backs were covered with scars from beatings. The Lord prohibits that sort of slavery. We’ll see that again a bit later in Exodus. If you injured your slave, you were required to set him free. Again, the law was about showing love to God and neighbour. Slavery wasn’t ideal, but it was better than destitution or death. It was a reality that wasn’t going to go away just because Israel was God’s people, so the Lord gives instructions to his people as to how to love each other, even when slavery is involved. And so the Lord doesn’t just say that when this man loves his wife and children, he might choose to remain a slave. It’s also a situation in which this man loves his master. Notice that. The Lord’s assumption is that the master-slave relationship should be one in which the love of a slave for his master is really possibility. A slave may leave because he desires his freedom, but he should never feel compelled to leave because of the harshness of his master.
When the slave chooses to remain with his master, the two are to go to the sanctuary and—our text says before God, but the sense is probably that this is done before the judges as God’s witnesses—the slave’s ear is to be pierced. There’s symbolism in that act that we don’t have time to get into this morning. That this is done before the judges ensures that the slave isn’t being coerced into this decision. It’s done before witnesses and God himself is invoked as a witness to the act. Again, this was their support system at work. Better a slave with a kind master obligated to care for him and his family than a destitute and landless peasant gleaning in the fields for a few grains of wheat.
Now, let’s look at verses 7-11. The situation with female slaves was different. As we read this our natural inclination is get our hackles up. It offends our sensibilities, but try to think about this in the context of their world and not ours. Here we go:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 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. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
This is still addressing slavery as part of the social safety net. The situation envisioned here is one in which an impoverished father sells his daughter into a family that, if not wealthy, is at least better off than his. Further, the assumption here is that the girl will be married to either the master or his son.
Marriage was a very different sort of thing in those days. We balk at the idea of arranged marriages. We marry for love and we marry whom we want. But our attitudes towards marriage would have been as bewildering to them as theirs are to us. And I think it’s important that we not automatically condemn their approach to marriage. They could easily point out our obscenely high divorce rate as a major failure on our part. To them, our way of doing things would seem very selfish. For them, the family and clan were all-important. Marriages were arranged to keep families together, to keep property and land in the family, and to strengthen the family through alliances. Marriage was also part of their social safety net. A man, for example, was obligated to marry his brother’s widow if she was childless. It ensured that his dead brother would have an heir and that the woman would have family to care for her and to provide support. Polygamy was never the ideal in Israel. It wasn’t even the norm, but it happened sometimes for reasons like this or because a first wife was childless and it was essential that a man have sons.
Because of the nature of marriage, it’s unlikely that there would have been intermarriage between a wealthy family and the impoverished family from which this girl came. But, alternatively, her father could sell her into the wealthy family. And the law then stipulated that as a slave wife, she had certain rights. Her children would not have inheritance rights—which solves what to them would have been an obstacle with these two families intermarrying—but she is otherwise to have the same rights as a wife who was a free woman. She is to be treated as a full member of the family: as a wife or as a daughter-in-law. She’s to be assured not only of her basic necessities, but also her conjugal rights. This rules out the common ancient practice of sex slavery. She could not be used, abused, and abandoned. If she were found displeasing, she could be redeemed by another. If her owner failed to treat her properly, to respect her person, her rights, and her needs, he was obligated to set her free.
Rabbinic tradition, which came later in Israel’s history, interpreted these rules to restrict the sale of a daughter to situations in which her father proved himself to be utterly destitute. A woman could not sell herself into slavery and, if she was a thief, she could not be sold as a slave to pay her debt. The rabbis ruled that she could not be sold to be a wife without her knowledge.
That’s the text today. There’s a lot more that could be said about the historical and cultural context, but I hope I’ve given you enough so that you can understand the nature and purpose of these laws. We’re prone to asking, “Why didn’t God just get rid of slavery amongst his people?” And I hope you can see that the issue isn’t that simple. Slavery was an integral part of their economy. It provided a safety net for the poorest in society. To do away with it would mean providing an alternative that their economy, culture, and society could not support or integrate at that point in time. I think this highlights what I’ve said before: The Lord works with his people where they’re at. When he redeems a people and gives them a law, it’s not a law for an idealistic utopia; it’s a law for the world in which they actually find themselves. I appreciate the words of one commentator who writes, “Israel has been set apart by God, not to a life apart from the world, but to a life of service within the world. To serve God is to serve the world.” Again, the calling of God’s people was and still is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. On this depend on all the law and the prophets.
And this begins by living out in our relationships with others what God has done for us. Again, it’s appropriate that the Lord launches into this legal material by addressing the treatment of slaves. It reaches back to the preamble to the Decalogue in Chapter 20: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Israel had been the impoverished alien who became the abused slave, but the Lord had delivered her. And now Israel is in a position to potentially become the abusive master. The Lord warns his people here: Do not be like the nations. Do not become like Egypt. Be like me. Reflect my character in your dealings with the poor. Live out the reality that I have made in you as you deal with your slaves. Love each other as I have loved you.
I can’t help but think of our Gospel lesson today, the parable of the unforgiving servant. He owed his master an impossible debt. Ten thousand talents is sort of a First Century way of saying he owed a bajillion dollars. But his master had mercy on him and forgave that debt at great cost. But rather than go out into the world to extend that mercy to others, the first thing he does is to hunt down a fellow servant who owed him a debt that was insignificant in comparison, throttle the poor man while demanding payment, and then have him thrown into prison when he didn’t immediately pay up. As the Lord brought the sword against his people and allowed them to be carried off into exile because they abused their slaves and oppressed their poor, the master had his servant seized and thrown into prison.
As Israel was to live out the reality of being a people redeemed by the Lord, not just in an isolated spiritual sphere, but even in the mundane aspects of daily life, so are we. In our baptism, Jesus has led us in a new Exodus and into a new life, redeemed from sin and death, inaugurated and shaped by his death and resurrection. We are the new Israel. The old Israel failed, but in fulfilment of his promises, the Lord has filled his new Israel with his own Spirit. We are without excuse, Brothers and Sisters. We need to be showing the same love and grace and mercy to each other that Jesus has shown to us. If Israel was called to be both generous and just with the poor within her midst, how much more should the Church be generous and just with the poor in our midst? And as we are called to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord to the world around us, what does it look like—or what should it look like—when our gospel proclamation is accompanied by gospel actions and gospel living?
Moving from Israel’s world to our own, we need to ask ourselves what it looks like to seek the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged in our in own midst. What strikes me is just how personally engaged and hands-on God’s people were called to be in the Old Testament. We see this in Jesus’ ministry too and also in the ministry of the apostles in the New Testament. They didn’t just throw money at the poor and consider their work done. They didn’t say, “Let Caesar do it. Feel free to tax me a bit more to pay for it.” They were hands-on. They were engaged. They provided material assistance to the poor from their own resources. They took them into their homes and families. They treated them not only like fellow human beings, but as fellow members of the covenant community. I can’t help but think of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon: “Yes, Onesimus is your slave. Yes, he did you wrong.” From a worldly perspective, Onesimus had two counts against him as far as his master was concerned: he was a lowly slave and a thief. But Paul urges Philemon, “He is repentant. He is in Christ, just as you are. Receive him back as a brother.” There’s another whole sermon there, but it’s striking nevertheless. This is the Christlike attitude that had the early Christians sharing their resources with each other and taking up collections to provide for widows and orphans—so that there was no need for them to sell themselves into slavery. There are biblical arguments for and against applying these principles in our own context such that we provide for the poor through government programmes funded by tax dollars and lobby for just legislation, but however good those things may be, they’re not enough. God’s people are to be personally engaged in works of mercy and justice, we are to be personally invested in that work, because that is who we are. We are the people to whom God himself has shown mercy through the personal investment of his own Son—the Saviour who took up our flesh and died the death that we deserve. The Lord might say to us today: I am the Lord who brought you out of your bondage to sin and death. Brothers and Sisters, we’re now called to live in such a way that who we are in Jesus shapes our relationships and interactions with everyone around us.
Let’s pray: Almighty God and Father, we thank you that as you delivered Israel from her bondage in Egypt, you have delivered us from our bondage to sin and death. You are the God who delights in showing mercy, even when the cost is great. You gave your Son to die that we might live. As we study your word here in Exodus, give us wisdom to apply it in our world and teach us how to live out the reality of being the people you have freed, teach us how to be people of mercy and justice and life so that we can be the salt of the earth and the light in the darkness. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
See Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 120.
Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: Westminster-John Knox, 2010), 247.