Richard Agee

Exodus 21: The real lesson about slavery

Richard AgeeYeshua told us that the second greatest commandment was to “love your neighbor as yourself.” How do we go from loving our neighbors on a theoretical level to a practical level? Exodus 21 doesn’t just show us how people should treat people. It also teaches us how God treats people.

Most of us do not work in agriculture so these rules about oxen don’t seem to apply to us but in fact these guidelines are embedded in our rule of law to this day and are applicable to liabilities that owners bear or the actions for other animals such as dogs, pet snakes, etc.

This is not just about how people treat people but teaching us about how God treats people. We are to God’s slaves and He is our master. How does He treat us?

This is about the laws of the United States, either now or in the past. This is not about the modern country of Israel or the United Kingdom or any modern earthly kingdom. 

The chapter starts off by saying, “Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them: ‘If you buy a Hebrew slave, ….'” Who is a Hebrew? Hebrew means “one who crosses over.” Abram was the first Hebrew and he was given the title of Hebrew when he obeyed God’s call to leave his family and his comfortable familiar land and come to a new land, to find the city not made with human hands. 

If the Hebrew gives himself to be owned by another, it’s limited to 6 years and released in the seventh year. He leaves with nothing as far as material wealth is concerned but he doesn’t owe any payment to the Master for His freedom either. 

Some might say that the man who comes to the master and the master provides a wife, the man and the wife are אֶחָד ’echad and when the man leaves the master, the wife should leave the master, too. But there’s more to this judgement. 

If you look at this from God as the master and a man comes into fellowship with Him and God gives him a wife and then the man wants to walk away from God, the man doesn’t have the right to make his wife walk away from God just because he wants to walk away from God.

We can not look at these texts through the lens of how slavery was practice in America during the 1600s–1800s. That evil practice has nothing to do with this. 

These judgements were laid down before the children of Israel were a nation. It would be 40 years before these judgements would be practiced at all. 

If the male slave, after the six years expire, decides he wants to stay in his masters house, the master takes the slave to the temple and the master pierces the slaves ear. The servant is now permanently marked as one who must listen to his master’s every word. Everyone who sees that slave in the community from now on will know that he is a representative of his master. 

The next section talks about female bond-servants:

“If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.” (Ex. 21:7) 

This contract was not conducted by the daughter directly but by the father. The father “sells” the daughter to the master and the master is to take care of her. If the master later doesn’t want her, he can not sell her to a foreigner or sell her to make a profit. 

If the master had intended the girl to be his son’s future wife, and the son marries the girl, she is no longer a bondwoman but a free woman. She is now his daughter in law and the master is to treat her like a daughter in law, not a servant. 

If the son later takes a second wife of a higher status, the first wife who was formerly a servant still has primary status. She is still to get her due in terms of food, her clothing, and her conjugal rights. If she denied these, she is free to marry someone else but she leaves without a dowry. 

The first part of this chapter about “slaves” is difficult for us to look at because we can’t look it these texts through the lens of any nation’s history or tradition but through the lens of how God sees us. The second part, starting at Ex. 21:12 is easier to understand. 

“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.” (Ex. 21:12–14)

Premeditation is judged very harshly by God. Accidental killings are treated with a degree of mercy. For accidental killings, the killer can flee to a safe place to be judged but a premeditated murder can not flee anywhere, even to God’s altar and expect mercy. 

“He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:15)

This is a violent attack against one’s parents, not just a slap or indignity. 

Kidnapping is a death penalty offense in Israel:

“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16)

The next text goes back to talking about parents, “He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:17)

“If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.” (Ex. 21:18-19)

The framework of this rule is embedded in many countries rules about compensation related to negligence even to this day. 

The next text confuses us a bit because in America we believe everyone is equal under the law.

“If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.” (Ex. 21:20-21)

Although there is no “vengeance” inflicted against the master, it doesn’t mean the master is free of consequence:

“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” (Ex. 21:26-27)

If a master abuses a slave, the slave goes free, regardless of whether the slave is male or female. 

The one lesson I would ask you to take away from this is that God is going to treat you the same way you treat others. If you abuse people, God will allow abuse to come to you. If you are kind to others, God will be kind to you. 

Reader: Jeff. Speaker: Richard Agee. Summary: Tammy.


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