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The Egyptians overworked the Israelites in the beginning of Exodus.

For most people reading this today, the world ‘slavery’ would probably trigger thoughts of forced labor, inequality on the most basic level (think ‘black people are three-fifths of a person’, a view held by some in the early 19th-century America), families ripped apart, and other human rights abuses. For us, that is our conception of slavery, and unfortunately it still affects the world today to some extent. Child and sex trafficking goes on in the shadows, even in countries that have outlawed it. Because of this understanding of slavery, though, reading that the Old Testament law had provisions for slavery produces something almost like an involuntary reflex in many people today. ‘If God cares for people,’ the reader asks, ‘why does He allow this? And come to think of it, didn’t people in the 19th century use the Bible to defend slavery?’

And then they quit reading the Bible 70 pages in.

The overwhelmingly negative meaning of slavery IS prominent in the beginning of the book of Exodus. In there, the Israelite people serve the Egyptians. They have no choice in the matter, and the Egyptians keep them oppressed out of fear of their great numbers (Exodus 1:8-14). We see the Israelites groaning because of the labor (Exodus 2:23). The story of Exodus is how God brings the Israelites out of slavery. In Exodus 21 and at various other points through Deuteronomy, though, God lays out laws on how the Israelites are supposed to keep slaves. The thoughtful reader will, at this point, notice that if the slavery in Exodus 21 means the same as the slavery in Exodus 1-2, that would mean God is a hypocrite by making a big deal of slavery being bad just to put the Israelites back in, so the reader would have to ask: is that interpretation really true? The law of Moses actually paints a picture that treats slaves with far more dignity than most other past and present uses of the term would suggest.

The ESV has a footnote for the first instance of the word ‘slave’ in Exodus 21. The word, ebed, can also be translated as ‘servant’, and notes that it is used in a variety of social and economic roles. Ebed occurs 800 times in the Old Testament, and 707 of those appear in the ESV as ‘servant’, not ‘slave’. Attaching the modern definition of slavery to Exodus 21 is therefore a bit hasty, though understandable given the Israelite’s cruel experience of slavery under the Egyptians earlier in the book.

God realizes the unfortunate reality that sometimes befalls a person: there will be people who are poor. In fact, this will always be the case, as Deuteronomy 15:11 illustrates, also echoed by Jesus over a thousand years later in Matthew 26:11. We can and should certainly reduce the occurrence of poverty, but as long as there is sin in the world, we can never fully eradicate it. Recognizing this, God allowed for slavery, not in the form that the Egyptians oppressed Israel with, but as a VOLUNTARY system of working oneself out of poverty—Exodus 21:16 forbids stealing and selling humans. Slavery as it is revealed in the Mosaic law has more in common with a modern contracted boss/employee work relationship—after all, we essentially sell ourselves (in a way) to our employers. Slavery was still not the most ideal condition for a person, and the slave lost SOME status in society while they worked, but the situation was temporary and allowed for several legal ways to exit the arrangement, as we shall discover. ‘Modern’ slavery, in contrast, often is involuntary, yields a far heavier loss in status under insufferable conditions, and escape tends to be futile.

The laws in Exodus 21 and elsewhere tell us how this ‘version’ of ebed looks in practice. Let’s go into some of these verses:

Exodus 21:2-3 (and Deuteronomy 15:12-18) says that when a slave sells themselves into slavery voluntarily, they will serve for only six years. In the seventh, they are to go free, FOR free, as well as going with any family that they had when they were bought. Jeremiah 34:14-16 contains a stern reprimand from God for those who broke this rule.

Exodus 21:20-21 prohibits harming slaves. If the slave dies because of the master, the slave would be avenged. If the slave is hurt, but survives, there is no such avenging. This is because the slave works for the master. It may seem cruel at first blush, but consider that if the master hurts his slave in such a way that the slave could not work as much, the master effectively hurts himself because he would suffer the consequences via the slave’s decrease in wellbeing (and as a result, productivity). In fact, Exodus 21:26-27 goes even further in prohibiting harm to slaves. If a master harms the eye of a slave and destroys it, the slave is to go free instantly. If a tooth is knocked out, the slave will also go free! Also, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says that a slave who escapes from their master is to be granted asylum (for example, if they were horribly mistreated). This elevates the status of the slave while in Israel to a position far above that of slaves in other countries, including the 19th-century U.S.

Exodus 20:10 makes explicit the application of the Sabbath rest day to the slave/servant, both male and female.

Already, we are looking at an institution that values the servant/slave way more than our preconceptions tell us to think. In Part 2, we’ll take a closer look at some of the tougher verses that tend to trip up first-time Bible readers.

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Recommended resources:

The Image of God Shines Through‘, a locally-given sermon that discusses the inherent value of all people under the Mosaic law, focusing on Exodus 21-23.
The three chapters on slavery in ‘Is God a Moral Monster? Making sense of the Old Testament God’ by Paul Copan
Our Philemon article discusses slavery in the New Testament.

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Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0