If You Buy a Hebrew Servant

21: 1-11

    DIG: How does God’s commandment about Hebrews serving Hebrews differ from their days serving Pharaoh? What freedoms, rights and needs is the LORD protecting? By freeing slaves every seventh year, how would that affect class barriers?

    REFLECT: Do you think these commandments condone slavery? Why or why not? Other than God to whom or to what do you feel indebted, perhaps even enslaved? How does this passage help you to free yourself of that situation? How does your treatment of employees and fellow workers fit the LORD's ideal?

    God said to Moses: And these are the rulings you are to set before them (21:1). The force of the conjunction and, is to emphasize that although the section on civil law is separated from the Ten Commandments by an intervening passage, both were given on Mount Sinai. These rulings concern the fundamental rights of the Israelites, and what punishments were expected when their rights were violated. They included civil and social rights. This first section describes the rulings involving Hebrew masters and slaves. They were not abusive, but very protective.

    These rulings were to be set before all the people of Isra'el. No one was to be excluded from the knowledge of the Torah. That was important because in Egypt, as far as we can tell, there was no codified law. The word of Pharaoh was the law there – and he could change his mind at any time. Here the God of the Hebrews revealed His rulings in writing to all of the people.409 This section regulates that sale and treatment of slaves, or servants.

    While slavery was a common phenomenon in all countries of the ancient Near East, the treatment accorded slaves differed from one land to another. In some land, Babylonia for example, the demand for slaves was greater than in others. This was due, perhaps, to a lack of free laborers. In order to meet the demand for slaves, large numbers were imported to the country or were captured in warfare. The economic conditions in Babylon as contrasted with Isra'el also had some influence on the manner in which slaves were treated. As far as the Israelite was concerned, it was unique because God was the source of the Torah and those commandments were based on unchanging moral and ethical norms, whereas other law systems were produced out of social and economic necessities.410

    First, the rights of Hebrew male slaves are dealt with: 21:2-6 describe the rights of a Hebrew forced to sell himself into slavery because of a debt. The Torah said he was to be released after six years of labor. If you buy a Hebrew servant because he was sold as to make restitution for his theft, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone without a wife, he is to go free alone (21:2-3a). If both he and his wife were both sold into slavery, they were both to be set free after six years. But if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him (21:3b).

    However, if the Hebrew became a slave as a single man and then he was given a wife by his master, and the wife bore him children, after six years his wife and children would continue to be slaves of the master who provided them in the first place. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children belong to the master, and only the man shall go free (21:4).

    But after six years he did not want to be separated from his family he had the option of becoming a bond slave. If the slave declares, “I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,” then his master must take him before the judges who met in the gate of the city that had doorposts. He shall take him to the doorpost and in an upright position, pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his bond slave for life (21:5-6). There was a difference between a slave and a bond slave. Circumstances beyond one’s control made someone a slave. But a bond slave chose to remain a permanent slave. In that case his ear was to be pierced with a permanent mark, symbolizing his new status.

    As a follower of Yeshua, the Apostle Paul called himself a bondservant throughout his letters. Because when the Messiah redeems us from the slavery of sin, He sets us free. Then as believers, we can make the decision to become a bond slave to Jesus Christ. The means by which we do this is recorded by Paul: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2). When we realize, as did the Hebrew slave, all that the Master has to offer us, then we choose to become bond slaves to Yeshua the Messiah by making a lifetime commitment to Him.

    Secondly, the rights of Hebrew female slaves are discussed. If a man sells his minor daughter who is under twelve years old as a slave, she is not to go free for six years as men slaves do (21:7). But if she, in her slavery, was engaged to be married to the master, but during the period of the betrothal she did not please her master, she could be released early. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to Gentiles, or foreigners, because he has broken faith with her (21:8).

    Concubines were permitted under the Torah and were not considered sinful. If she was engaged to the master’s son, who had other wives, she was to be treated equally with all the other women in that household. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter (21:9). If the son of the master subsequently took another wife after marrying the slave girl, he was still obligated to the female slave for three things. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights sexually. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free because of his failure, without any payment of money (21:10-11).

    We may ask, “Does the fact that God gives rulings regarding slavery mean that He condones it?” In other words, are we seeing here the divine appointment of slavery? I don’t think so. Would we use a similar argument for 21:12-14? That is, because the LORD gives regulations regarding murder, would we suggest that he somehow condones its practice? Never! The fact is that ADONAI gives these regulations because of the sinfulness of mankind and their hardened hearts. Mankind lives in a fallen world where people murder one another, where one man enslaves one another, and so forth. God is simply providing controls that regulate sin, and help to lessen it. Ideally there would be no murder, theft, slavery, adultery, divorce, assault, and so on. But that isn’t realistic in this fallen world.

    In addition, we must understand that the slavery spoken of here is very different from what we normally think of when we hear the term. We conjure up visions of slave ships, beatings and maimings. Such things were not allowed in the system of slavery given to the Hebrews by the LORD. It was compassionate and caring, especially to women.411


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