I want to clarify regarding this episode, that I am not a proponent of "slavery". My goal today is simply to show you what the Bible, particularly the book of Exodus specifically outlines as to the law of slavery in the Old Testament. Slavery is a reality in our modern world as much as it was in biblical times. As such, it is important for us to understand the limitations God puts in servatude and the dignity and freedom He demands under the law as He provided the Israelites.
In the United States, we a very different understanding of “slavery” as compared to what the Bible says about Slavery. In Exodus, chapter 21, God provides us with specific laws that pertain to and describe God’s position on Slavery (21:1-11). After reading Exodus 21, I found it intersting as to what God says about slavery. I will leave it for you to read God's Word and decide for yourself.
In Exodus 21:1-11, we find that slavery during the biblical times was a fact of life; as it has been for more cultures and societies in history than not. In that time period, culture generally speaking, and for the Israelite culture more specifically, it was not the same thing or “institution” as the forced servitude and limited bondage as a slave that we associate much of our modern day understanding of slavery. The Hebrew word embed meant much more than simply “servant”. You see, in biblical times, when people fell into bad economic circumstances, there were no “bail outs” for political advancement. Instead, those who fell into bad economic circumstances might engage into the role of “indentured servitude”, becoming the slave of another in exchange for the basic necessities of life, such as food, water and shelter. Elimination of this system was literally impossible, as it offered no other option regarding payment of debt. As a result, regulation of “slavery” or “indentured servitude” was necessary.
Looking more closely as to why one might become a slave in biblical times, the reasons are not much different from today in that one might become a slave for a number of reasons, including: A captive of war (Num. 31:26; Duet. 20:10). A foreigner acquired through a literal purchase (Lev. 22:11; 25:44-45). Sadly, it may be a child sold by parents in hard times (Nehemiah. 5:5). We see this today with some seriously perverted parents who sell their children for money, drugs or as a sexual slave for payment. While this is appalling, it was regulated in a ways that would have invoked a violation of the law as compared to child slavery in today’s world. It might also be a person who sells himself as a form of “indentured servitude” (Lev. 25:39). In this case, the slave is most likely a “debt-slave”, a person who had to become a slave because they had “fallen on hard times” or perhaps, had to serve a term of slavery as restitution for a crime they committed (Exodus 22:3c).
In verses 1-6, Exodus provides the guidelines for “male slaves” in particular. There were a number of stipulations regarding male slaves, such as: A limited length of servitude to six years (21:2). This was a unique feature of the institution of slavery in Israelite society. The second stipulation had to do with the complication of marital status. While the man had the right to keep his wife (21:3), the master had the right to keep his slaves (21:4). It’s not clear exactly how this would have been worked out, but it clearly provided the latitude necessary for individual cases to be worked out equitably between both parties. The bottom line is that the law as provided by God struck a balance between the personal rights of the slave and the economic and prosperity rights of the owner. The third stipulation had to do with the slave who voluntarily wished to remain with his master (21:5-6). Often, masters treated their slaves well and provided nicely for them; more like an employee than as a slave. This is was very frequent scenario which leads us to the understanding that the institution was not the harsh bondage normally associated with pre-Civil War American slavery. While it was technically “slavery”, it was often congenial. Furthermore, in order to formalize this relationship, it had to be done in public, as “public testimony”. This provided accountability to the law and general public; providing testimony as a permanent sign that this is for the life of the individual.
There were also guidelines and limitation specific to female slaves (21:7-11). This included the stipulation that allowed for a father to put his own daughter up as “debt slavery” instead of himself for payment of his own debt. There was also the legal stipulation that she could be redeemed back by her family (21:8). The law also stipulated that she could NOT be sold to a foreigner or non-Israelite (21:8b). If she had been designated for a son she was to be treated as a daughter with full familial rights (21:9), and she retained her status even in other wives were brought into the family (21:10). Lastly, if the woman’s rights and status were not maintained she was free to leave this family, without payment; more likely going back to her family. At that point, she was free to be attached or designated to another (21:11).
In the end, the point of these laws were to ensure the rights of the individual person. Those rights were to be respected while also taking the rights of who the Bible calls the master into account. It’s important to note that perpetual slavery was not an acceptable (21:2). Male and famale servants had rights, which was a remarkable point of law in the culture at that time. If she was purchased as a wife or concubinage she could not simply be thrown out (21:7) and within the family she had rights, even rights to her own personal possessions and property (21:10).
In conclusion, God makes clear in Exodus that God cares about individual rights and personal dignity. In reality-in all economies there may be, or better yet, will be “haves and have nots”. Efforts to even that out equates to socialism. God makes clear that the individual’s personal dignity and rights under God’s authority and before others must be respected. Finally, it’s clear that in short, people are to be treated as people, not things, objects, or possessions. Christians are better than any other people group, equipped to dispense dignity, respect, and freedom to the our employees and those who fall under the authority of others. Please read Exodus 21 for yourself in light of being better informed as to the truth about God’s biblical view of slavery.