Servants and Slaves

Exodus 21:1-36
The next several chapters of Exodus deal with the laws (separate from the 10 Commandments) that God hands down to His people. We will take these sections an entire chapter at a time. For the purposes of these devotionals that seems to be the best way to handle these legislative admonitions from the Lord to His people. Because the reading is slightly longer I’ve provided a link to the passage instead of inserting it into the devotional. Don’t skip the Bible reading. It’s the most important part.

Last week we dealt with the 10 Commandments. After hearing those Commandments, the people asked that Moses receive the rest of God’s instruction on his own. They were too frightened by the glory and power of God to hear the rest or so they believed.

Exodus 20:18-20
18Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

So as God continues to put forth what it means to be His chosen people, the discourse continues with what has come to be called the Covenant Code, a basic block of laws that guide the behavior of God’s covenant people. Fittingly, the Covenant Code begins with a concentration on the treatment of human beings rather than animals, plants, or other things, and specifically with rules regulating the treatment of those human beings who might be most easily or most often mistreated or exploited, that is, servants/slaves.

Much misunderstanding of Israelite law has arisen from failure to appreciate the analogous distinction that prevailed in ancient Israel. When the law was properly followed, persons who were servants/slaves/workers/employees held their positions by reason of a formal contract that related primarily to the job that they had “signed up” to perform, for a period of time, much as one enlists in the military today. In addition, some of the misunderstanding of biblical laws on service/slavery arises from unconscious analogy to modern Western hemisphere slavery, which involved the stealing of people of a different race from their homelands, transporting them in chains to a new land, selling them to an owner who possessed them for life without obligation to any restrictions and who could resell them to someone else (although such did also occur in the ancient world). Whether one translates the Hebrew as “servant,” “slave,” “employee,” or “worker,” it is clear that the biblical law allowed for no such practices in Israel. Indeed, the law reflects the fact that when obediently practiced by “boss / employer / owner” and “servant / slave / employee / worker” alike, Israelite service could be so beneficial to a worker that he or she would choose to enlist for a lifetime with the same employer.
Stuart, D. K. (2006). Exodus (Vol. 2, p. 475). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

With the above understanding of what the English calls “slave” we find that the passage has a much greater impact upon us in 2015. Most of us are either someone’s employee or employer. Learning the godly way to treat each other is never a negative thing. If you read the text closely you will find that God expects us to treat one another with respect, dignity, and love for the brother or sister. Should this happen, the entire culture befits. God’s way always leads to blessing for those who would be willing to listen to His ways and follow them. When an employee is treated well, of course they would want to stay and work there for a lifetime.

Sometimes we can be guilty (and I speak from personal experience here) of skimming over these parts of the Bible. There isn’t any story in which to become engaged. But there is wisdom and that should never be set aside. Just imagine life where these laws applied rather than the tangled mess we find inside of our own legal system. “Hand for hand” or “eye for eye” might truly cause people to think twice about wronging a neighbor. Personal responsibility that is sorely lacking from our lives today might increase if we were actually held accountable for our decisions. The unintended consequences of personal liberty have taken a toll on all of us.

While God held His people responsible for their actions for or against others, He also has chosen to not hold us up to His punishment for our sins. His righteousness demands that we pay the price for our iniquity, but His love provided Jesus to pay that price instead. Even as God handed down all of these regulations He knew that we were not going to be able to uphold the standards He set. So He sent Jesus to pay the price for those defections. His plan was already in place even as He spoke these words to Moses. For that reason, we are now willing slaves to His mercy and grace. Instead of being slaves to our sin, we are instead His purchased children. In the end, everything always leads back to the Gospel – even a passage about slavery.