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. 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.” – Exodus 21:1-6 ESV
Beginning with chapter 21 and running through the 19th verse of chapter 23, Moses delivers the expanded version of God’s law to His people. He later refers to it as “the Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:7 ESV. This more comprehensive collection of commands was intended to be an extension of the Decalogue. It is “an application of the Decalogue to the specific social context of Israel as a nation” (John D. Currid, A Study Commentary on Exodus).
The Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant were not given in a complete moral or legal vacuum. By the time of the exodus, various ancient societies had developed legal codes to help regulate human behavior and interaction. Many of these codes contain prohibitions similar to those found in the Book of the Covenant. These include the Laws of Esnunna, created by the Akkadian civilization located in Mesopotamia. The Sumerian civilization had the Code of Lipit-Istar. And centuries later, the Babylonians would come up with the more familiar Code of Hammurabi.
It is important to note that the Israelites had not been living in a lawless state. Even in Egypt, their lives had been governed by a series of written and oral legal codes. God created humanity with a basic understanding of His righteous standards. The apostle Paul wrote about how God has placed within all men an instinctive understanding of His law.
Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. – Romans 2:13-15 NLT
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they violated a clear command of God.
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17 ESV
And their motivation for breaking that command was their desire to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV). As soon as they chose to disobey God’s prohibition, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7 ESV). They gained an immediate awareness of their sinful state. In that moment, their innocence was replaced with guilt, as they considered the ramifications of their actions.
From the very beginning, God’s moral law permeated His creation. And despite the sin of Adam and Eve, mankind maintained a rudimentary understanding of God’s will concerning human behavior. Cain knew murder was wrong, and he understood that there were painful consequences for those who took the life of the innocent.
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” – Exodus 4:13 ESV
But all the legal codes in the world could not correct mankind’s moral spiral into disobedience and decadence. By the time we get to chapter six of Genesis, the moral state of human society had hit an all-time low.
The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:5 NLT
Their problem was not a lack of laws, but a general unwillingness and inability to obey those laws. Things had deteriorated so badly, that the text indicates there was only one righteous man left on the earth.
Noah was a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time, and he walked in close fellowship with God. – Genesis 6:9 NLT
This led God to begin again, providing Noah and his extended family with a means of escaping His judgment against the rest of human society. And post-flood, God’s unwritten law continued to hold sway, dictating the behavior of all those who descended from Noah’s three sons. But the generations that followed proved to be no different than their pre-flood ancestors. They also willingly and regularly violated God’s righteous standards.
This led God to begin again with a man named Abram, an elderly pagan from the land of Ur in Mesopotamia. God chose this obscure individual to carry out His divine plan for restoring sinful mankind to a right relationship with Himself. And long before Abram and his barren wife, Sarai, had ever conceived their first child, God made a covenant with them. This legal agreement was intended to set apart Abram and his descendants as a special people, who would enjoy a one-of-a-kind relationship with God Almighty.
“As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” – Genesis 17:9-11 ESV
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant. It was a legal requirement mandated by God that was intended to signify their unwavering commitment to their newfound status as His chosen people. God had promised to produce from Abram and his barren wife a great and mighty nation. And that promise was passed down from Abram to his son, Isaac, and then from Isaac to Jacob. And the Israelites whom God redeemed out of captivity in Egypt were the direct descendants of Jacob. They were the great nation that God had promised and they were to be His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
But after 400 years of living in Egypt, separated from God and influenced by the idolatry and immorality of that land, the people of Israel needed a more concrete and comprehensive understanding of God’s expectations of them. So, He gave them His law. The Ten Commandments were the summary statement of His moral requirements. The Book of the Covenant provided the application of those “ten words” to everyday life situations. These practical and highly specific laws were given to the people of Israel. They were intended to govern their conduct and set them apart from every other people group on the earth. These laws were not to be universally applied or mandated for all cultures but were designed to differentiate the people of God from everyone else.
In a sense, the Ten Commandments are timeless and universal in their application. But the Book of the Covenant was meant to apply to a specific people group living at a particular time in human history.
“…the Book of the Covenant was never intended to address every possible situation. It was more a guide to cases than a statutory code. Whereas the Ten Commandments were expressed as universal absolutes, the laws in the Book of the Covenant dealt with specific situations. They provided a series of legal precedents that wise elders could use in settling disputes. While these case laws could not possibly cover every new situation that might arise, they illustrated basic legal principles for living in community with the people of God.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory
But why does God begin his Book of the Covenant with laws concerning slavery? The answer is found in the prologue that God gave before delivering the Decalogue to Moses.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” – Exodus 20:1-2 ESV
The Israelites had just been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had spent several centuries under the heavy hand of the Pharaohs, toiling as indentured servants and enduring unrelenting persecution and suffering at the hands of their masters. But now, they were free. And God wanted them to use their newfound freedom as an incentive to treat others with greater dignity and respect.
It can’t be overlooked that, in His giving of the law, God does not abolish the practice of slavery. Instead, He provides moral guidelines for the treatment of those who find themselves enslaved. In a world where slavery was ubiquitous and universal, God provided a new way of regulating this institution that was of human origin. Slavery, like adultery, murder, incest, lying, and idolatry, was never God’s intention. They are all the result of sin’s entrance into the world. And slavery, as an institution and practice, became a symbol of mankind’s relationship with sin.
Jesus understood this undeniable link between mankind and sin. He described its vice-like grip on humanity in a statement He made to the Pharisees.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” – John 8:34 ESV
The apostle Paul would later declare the remarkable significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, which provided the only means of being delivered from slavery to sin.
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. – Romans 6:6-7 ESV
God had delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt. And when they exited that land, they brought with them a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that most likely included their own personal slaves. In fact, when God instituted the Passover, He gave strict instructions concerning those slaves.
“…every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him.” – Exodus 12:44 ESV
God knew that slavery was going to be a permanent part of human society, in one form or another. And it would provide a glaring and ongoing illustration of mankind’s hopeless relationship with sin. Just as there were those who were born into slavery, every human being is born into a state of sin. And just as there were those who sold themselves into slavery to satisfy a debt, there are those who willfully choose a life of sin in the hopes of finding relief from their guilt and shame.
From our current cultural vantage point, it is difficult for us to comprehend these verses. We struggle with the idea of God somehow condoning a practice our society knows to be abhorrent and has worked hard to abolish. But these passages are dealing with a subject that was woven into the social fabric of the times. Indentured servitude was a way of life. Every nation practiced it. And God wanted His people to exhibit a completely different approach to this painful and pervasive part of the human condition. So, He provided His chosen people with binding laws that were to govern their interactions with everyone in their community, including slaves.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.