Exodus 21:2 (HCSB)
2 “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for six years; then in the seventh he is to leave as a free man without paying anything.
Slave… the appearance of the word alone makes this a sensitive passage in modern culture. One common attack on Christianity, and on God, is the accusation that God is all for slavery. This is an interesting passage, since it is law that God is giving His people, to examine that idea. Let’s look at four points that rise out of this pericope, concerned with the purchasing of Hebrew slaves:
- Not chattel property
When we, in the West, hear the word “slave” we immediately think of slavery in the early US. That was chattel slavery, meaning people were not considered people at all, but solely property. Hence the lack of any kind of rights, or even compassion, for the slave. But what is described here in Exodus 21 is not chattel slavery, the “slave” here is most certainly a person as well. We see in Exodus 21:3-4 the rules regarding a wife and family, which marriage obviously is reserved for people, not property. And in Exodus 21:5 we read how the slave has the ability to make decisions, which certainly is not an ability of chattel property.
- Limits of abuse
The first verse in this pericope tells us that the time of “enslavement” is limited to 6 years, then the slave is free. Not only that, but almost every point in the entire passage is concerned with protecting the slave, not the slave owner. This is in stark contrast to our modern sense of slavery, in which the slave was the object of abuse, with no limits placed upon the slave owner.
- Contractual agreement
The very nature of being a slave in this context is fundamentally different than our modern notion of the word. The slave described here in scripture is one who has entered into a contract, seemingly willingly, or at least via the will of a guardian. Certainly this system was a construct that allowed for those facing financial woes to sell their service to another in exchange for money and survival.
- Rights for the vulnerable
Those who would be slaves, who would choose to enter into these agreements, would most certainly be the one most susceptible to abuses and discrimination. Yet God’s word here steps in and provides rights to those most likely to be abused and unheard. Isn’t this the hope of the gospel message as well: that God forgets none, and in fact He seeks out the meek and wretched, lifting them up to Himself? This is just a shadow of His love.
This passage is not the comprehensive discussion on the topic of slavery in scripture, and it gets much muddier and more confusing for sure. But we can see that, at least as far as God’s people are concerned, God is concerned with all people being cared for, retaining their personage, and having rights.
The bigger question of enslavement is, of course, should passages such as this be considered God’s stamp of approval of such systems? I’m not sure that is what occurs here, as much as it is God’s oversight of a man-made system, to ensure man does not abuse and corrupt it into something purely evil.
Lord, thank You for caring enough about Your people to come down and address confusing topics, and ensure that we retain our human-ness. Ultimately we belong to You Lord, and there is no fear of abuse in that relationship. Help us to see through charged topics, to tease out the truth that You have embedded throughout Your word, and use it to draw closer to You, and be molded more in Your image. Amen.