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. 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. – Exodus 21:7-11 ESV
As the Israelites stood at the base of Mount Sinai in the middle of the wilderness, they were in a kind of no man’s land between Egypt and Canaan. They were no longer living as the slaves of the descendants of Ham, but they were also far from their future homeland. Their exit from Egypt had been relatively easy but their first few months of travel to the land of promise had been marked by difficulties. They had encountered shortages of water and food, which God miraculously remedied. The days had been long and they had begun to grow weary of the monotonous and unpleasant nature of their journey. But God was preparing them for what lie ahead. He was teaching them to trust Him and to understand that He would provide for all their needs. The conquest of Canaan was not going to be a cakewalk.
The land God promised to Abraham as the homeland for his descendants was heavily occupied and the current residents would not give up their property willingly or easily. Their removal from the land was going to be a non-negotiable requirement for the Israelites because God knew that their pagan practices would have a negative influence on His chosen people. And Moses would later give the people an explanation for God’s extermination policy regarding the land of Canaan.
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-4 ESV
And Moses went on to remind the Israelites of their unique status as God’s chosen people.
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV
The giving of the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant was intended to provide the Israelites with clear guidelines to govern their behavior. God had Canaan in mind when He gave them His legal code of conduct and many of these laws have direct application to the circumstances they will encounter when they enter the land. The greatest temptation they will face will be that of compromise and cultural assimilation. Rather than stand out as God’s treasured possession and live like a holy nation and a royal priesthood, they will be tempted to blend in with the pagan cultures around, adopting their ways and acclimating to their laws and lifestyles.
That is why many of the laws found in Exodus 21-23 sound so foreign to those of us living in the more “enlightened” 21st century. We struggle with God’s commands concerning slavery. We reel at the idea of God condoning a father selling his daughter or son for profit. In these opening verses of chapter 21, people seem to be treated like property rather than those made in the image of God.
The world in which the Israelites lived was far different from the one we occupy. In a way, they lived in a day and age that was similar to the American wild west. Canaan was a place filled with a diverse group of nations that practiced a variety of different religions and lived according to their own set of moral codes. There was no shared “law of the land” and no “sheriff” to help enforce it. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. People were treated like property. Women had no rights or value, except for their child-bearing abilities.
When the Israelites finally entered the land of Canaan, they would find themselves surrounded by people who lived according to their own set of rules. So, long before the people of God arrived at their final destination, God gave them His criteria for navigating life in a fallen and broken world. And the fact that He started with the difficult topic of slavery was intentional. His people knew what it was like to be enslaved. Four generations of Israelites had experienced the devastating reality of this degrading and demoralizing institution. Of all people, they should have had a strong aversion to participating in such a reprehensible practice. But in their world, indentured servanthood was almost unavoidable. In an age when social welfare programs were non-existent, many who found themselves in debt had no other recourse but to use their bodies as collateral, entering into indentured servanthood to escape poverty or possible death.
The Israelites had lived through this sad reality during their days in Egypt. When the seven-year famine that ravaged the land reached its peak, the Egyptians became desperate for food. Having used all their money to purchase grain from the Egyptian government, they were forced to sell their property and possessions. When those things ran out, they were left with nothing else to offer but themselves.
…when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.” – Genesis 47:18-19 ESV
As difficult as it is for us to believe or accept, this was the welfare system Joseph implemented that kept the people of Egypt alive. And rather than seeing Joseph’s actions as punitive or abusive, they expressed their gratefulness.
“You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” – Genesis 47:25 ESV
Yet, as we consider these first few laws, it’s difficult to understand how they could be the work of a holy, righteous, and just God. How could God condone a man selling his daughter as a slave? Why would God make provisions for one man to purchase another man and force him to act as his servant for six years? Our modern sensibilities make it almost impossible to grasp the significance of what was taking place in those days.
“In Israel servitude was voluntary (at least for Israelites). People hired themselves into the service of others. Usually this was because they were poor, and they recognized that the best way to meet their needs while at the same time paying off their debts was to become someone’s servant. Servant is the proper word for it. They were not slaves, as we usually think of the term, but something more like apprentices, hired hands, or indentured laborers. They lived in their master’s home, where they worked hard in exchange for room, board, and an honest wage.” – Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved For God’s Glory
When reading these chapters, it’s essential that we factor in the cultural conditions of the time period in which God’s laws were given. The Israelites were living in a day that was very dissimilar to the one in which we live. Cultural mores were distinctively different than those with which we are familiar. And God was giving His people laws that would make sense within their immediate context.
It is difficult for us to imagine any slave making the statement: “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free” (Exodus 21:5 ESV). But the emphasis of the passage seems to be on the importance of the family unit. Even an Israelite in Moses’ day might have second-guessed the decision to exchange freedom for maintaining family unity. But God wants them to know that freedom is not the end-all. Within God’s economy, there are certain things that are of greater value than freedom itself. For God’s people, love for Him and love for others are to trump everything else. Even a slave can love his family well. But a man who sacrifices his family to achieve personal freedom has given up that which God has deemed of greater value.
God knew that the people of Israel were going to view their status as His treasured possession as some kind of exemption from pain and suffering. They were expecting to enjoy all the perks that come with being the chosen people of God Almighty. But centuries later, the apostle Paul would remind his readers that there are some things more important than status and significance.
Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 7:20-22 NLT
These laws were meant to regulate relationships, including those between men and those between men and God. That is why, when Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, He replied:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40 ESV
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