The Bible and Slavery

Exodus 21

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2017

It has been a few weeks since we have been together.  Last time, we were together we finished our series on the Ten Commandments.  We looked at the Tenth Commandment.  We said at the beginning of the study that The Ten Commandments are unique.  They were spoken audibly to God from a mountain and over two million people heard him with their ears.

God spoke to the nation in the context of an incredible theophany.  There was smoke and fire, lightning and thunder.  Out of the fire came a voice and the voice that spoke brought terror and fear.  The people all moved back (20:18).  They thought they were all going to die (20:19).

Instructions on Worship

Before we leave the chapter, God says something about worship.  God tells the people how not to worship Him and how to worship Him.  God does not just want people to worship Him in any way.  There is a right and a wrong way to worship God.  I want to look briefly at it before we move into Exodus 21.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23 Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

24“‘Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. 26 And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed’ (Exodus 20:23-26 NIV).

The first thing God does is to remind them of the first and second commandment.  Human nature naturally gravitates toward idolatry.  We naturally worship things other than God.  People still do today.  God is invisible.  We also like to worship things that we can see.

The second thing God tells them is to build Him an altar for sacrifices.  This is very interesting.  We think that there is no grace in the Ten Commandments.  That is not true.  God gave people the Ten Commandments but knew that they wouldn’t be able to keep it, so He provided a remedy in the form of animal sacrifices.  The same one who gave the law also gave the lamb.

God gave two instructions about this altar.  He told them to not use stones on the altar and not to build steps.  This was to be an altar of earth.  Worship does not have to be fancy and elaborate.  It can be very simple and God accepts it.

We come now to one of the strangest verses in the Bible.  It is found in Exodus 20:26.  It is still relevant to this day.  God not only told them to build an altar of earth; He told them not to build steps on the altar.  Why not?  Men did not wear pants.  They wore robes.  A high altar with steps would lead to nakedness.[1]

This brings us to another important principle about worship.  Worship today is to be modest and decent.  The NT tells us that in worship “all things are to be done decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40 ESV).  Canaanite worship involved nudity and immorality.

Temple prostitutes were part of worship.  Some of their worship involved orgies.  Some of their gods are portrayed in the nude.  Worship of the true God should look very different from pagan worship and that is still true to this day.

New Kinds of Laws

Exodus 21 begins a new section of the book.  The first verse of the chapter says “These are the laws you are to set before them.”  The Jews did not want God talking out loud to them.  It was too terrifying, so Moses became the spokesman.  This part of Exodus was not spoken by God.  It was written by Moses. It still came directly from God.  These were not man-made laws.  Moses did not come up with them.

These laws are a little different form the Ten Commandments.  These are not MORAL LAWS.  They are CIVIL LAWS. They are not religious laws about God or salvation.  This chapter deals with the state.  It deals with crime and punishment.

Are these laws still binding today?

The big question that comes out of these chapters is this: Some believe that these laws do apply today to civil governments.  These people are called recontructionists or theonomists.  If these laws apply today, then it is okay to sell our children into slavery.

Exodus 22:18 says, “Do not allow a sorceress to live” (NIV).  What is a sorceress?  A sorceress is someone who casts spells on people by black magic and witchcraft.  The KJV translates it “a witch.” Does that mean that we should kill witches today?  The church tried that in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s.  There are several problems with this approach.

In the OT, the people of God were a nation.  Israel was a nation.  Israel is not the church.  The church is not a nation.  There is not a nation on earth called “the church.”  In fact, the church is made up of believers from every nation.  The church is not given the power of the sword to punish people but the state is (Romans 13).

We do not live in a theocracy like the Jews in the OT did.  These are laws that God gave to the nation of Israel after He made a special covenant with them and no other nation on the planet.  These are laws he gave to the nation after he appeared to them in an incredible theophany and spoke to the entire nation from a mountain that was on fire.

Why even take the time to study these laws, if they were not even given to us?  All Scripture is inspired, including this chapter and there are lessons we can learn, even from a chapter like this.  Behind these specific laws are timeless principles that apply to us today three thousand years later. That does not mean that civil governments are bound by them but there are things we can learn from them today.

Does The Bible Approve of Slavery?

The first topic this chapter addresses is slavery.  Slavery was widespread in the ancient world.  Slavery is not a burning issue in our day.  It was a few hundred years ago.  There were fierce debates all over the country on slavery. Presidential candidates were talking about it.

Even though this is not a hot topic today, it is still relevant.  Slavery still exists today. There are millions of people today all over the world still in slavery.  Some estimate that there are twenty-one million people in slavery today (e.g., sex slaves).[2]

Slavery is still around today and many who criticize the Bible criticize what it says about slavery.  The argument of the critics goes like this.  We could summarize the argument in three points.

Premise One: Slavery is immoral.  It is wrong.  Everyone knows this.  It is immoral to own people as property and to buy people.  It is dehumanizing.

Premise Two: Slavery is mentioned many times in Scripture.  It is all over the Bible.  In fact, slavery is even mentioned in the Ten Commandments.  The Tenth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant,  nor his maidservant” (20:17).

In other words, “Don’t covet your neighbor’s slaves.”  When we go to the very next chapter of Exodus, the first topic is slavery, which is not surprising since the Jews just came out of slavery.  They knew all about slavery.  They spend hundreds of years as slaves in Egypt.

Premise Three: The Bible approves of slavery.  In this chapter, it even says that it is okay for a slave master to beat a slave.  Does the Bible endorse slavery?  Many liberals think that it does.  The Bible does NOT endorse slavery.

In fact, the Ten Commandments begin with these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (20:2).  They begin with a declaration of emancipation, so God is NOT pro-slavery.

The problem is that we read the Bible through the lens of our history.  That is a common problem.  People read the Bible through their own experience or history.  Some bad things happen to them and they conclude that God must not love them or there is no God.  We need to interpret interpreting our experience through the Bible, rather than to interpret the Bible through their experience.

The Nature of Hebrew Slavery

When we think of slavery, we think of black slavery in the South.  The slavery in the Bible had nothing to do with the American type of slavery.  It was a completely different type of slavery?  Most people do not know the difference between the two.  What was the difference?

1. Hebrew slaves had some actual rights.

American slavery was chattel slavery.  They were bought and sold as a commodity.  They were considered property.  They had no rights.  The shock from the Book of Exodus is that slaves had some rights. There was no nothing like them in the Ancient Near East.  This was unheard of.  Slave masters could treat slaves any way they wanted to.  These laws were way ahead of their time.

God says that even slaves had some rights.  They could marry and masters were not permitted to abuse slaves.  There were laws against abuse in this chapter.  It was the first declaration of human rights.  Killing a slave was a crime.  Exodus 21:20 says, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result” (NIV). If a master caused permanent injury to a slave, the slave was to be set free.

An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (21:26-27 NIV).

One little tooth goes out and the slave is free.  If you take out the eye of a slave, the slave does not get a week off or a year off.  He is granted complete freedom.  That would make you think twice before you ever hit a slave.  Masters could discipline slaves but there were limits to what they could do.  They could not do anything they wanted to a slave.  It was very different from the idea that slaves are sub-human and can be treated any way you want to treat them.

2. Hebrew slavery was economic, not racial.

We had raced-based slavery in America.  There were no white slaves in the South.  Exodus 21:1 says, “If you buy A HEBREW SERVANT, he is to serve you for six years” (NIV). Hebrew slavery was not racial but economic.  It had nothing to do with skin color.  Hebrews bought other Hebrews as slaves.  It was NOT based on racism.  It was based on poverty.  This was debt slavery.  As William Lane Craig says, it was “an anti-poverty program.”

People in extreme poverty sold themselves in slavery to pay off of their debt.  They sell off the only thing they have left, their ability to work.  In Western Europe, they had debtor’s prisons. If you could not pay your debts, you could go to jail.  In the US, debtor’s prisons are illegal.  You cannot go to jail because you are too poor to pay your debts, unless you owe the IRS (as a member of our class pointed out).

Today, if we are in debt and cannot pay our bills, we just take out a loan.  In the ancient world, another option was slavery.  If you did not have the money to pay your debts, you could work it off.  This is debt-bondage servitude.  It was like the old days when you could not pay your restaurant bill, you worked in the kitchen to pay it off.

3. Hebrew slavery was voluntary, not involuntary.

Hebrew slavery was voluntary.  People chose to be slaves.  We call it indentured servitude. American slavery was not voluntary.  People were sold on the slave block against their will.  American slavery was based on kidnapping.  The Bible condemns the slave trade.  Stealing and selling someone was a capital offense.  That is what happened to Joseph. That tells us what God thinks of human trafficking today.

Exodus 21:16 says, “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession” (NIV).  We have children abducted and sold for sex today in America and other countries.  According to Exodus 21, this was a crime worthy of death.  In America, kidnapping is almost never given the death penalty.  God looks on this much differently.

4. Hebrew slavery was temporary, not permanent.

Exodus 21:2 says, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you FOR SIX YEARS. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything” (NIV).  Slavery was not for life but only for six years.  In the seventh year, they could go free.  They worked six years, like the Sabbath (working six days). In the seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).  American slavery was not for six years.  Some slaves could buy their freedom but that was very rare.

Slavery was temporary for BOTH males and females.  We know that from Deuteronomy 15:12 and when they left, no slave was to leave empty-handed (cf. Deuteronomy 15:13-15).  They were given a severance package.

Exceptions to the Rule

Slavery was to be temporary, not permanent but there were two exceptions to this rule from our chapter.

1) If a father sold his daughter in slavery

This was one time female slaves were not allowed to leave in six years.

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is NOT to go free as male servants do” (Exodus 21:7 NIV).  That seems a little strange.  How could a father sell his own daughter into slavery?  It sounds like child abuse today.

We have to understand the culture of the time.  Poor people could sell themselves or their kids into slavery for financial reasons.  Was this a double standard with the men leaving in seven years but not the women?  No. This was a completely different situation.  It was for purposes of marriage, not labor.  The master in this case was not just getting a slave; he was getting a wife (either for himself or for his son).  That explains why she does not leave in six years.  Marriage is for life.

This is not a father selling his daughter as a sex slave, like the critics say.  Here, a father is selling his daughter as a bride.  It is most likely a poor man who is giving his daughter a better life.  She went in as a slave but if she married his son, she earned the rights of a daughter.  She was given rights and protections which were unheard of in the ancient world.  She had three legal protections and if she was not given these protections, she was to be free.

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 foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. (21:8-11 NIV)

2) A slave could choose to be a slave forever

 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him.4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (21:3-6 NIV)

Now this is very interesting.  If a slave came in single, he goes out single.  If he came in married, he would go out married at the end of the six years.  If he was given a wife while he was a slave, when his term was up, he went out alone.  That protected the slave master.  His wife and kids could come out when their term was up but there was another option available.

He could choose to stay as a slave, instead of being set free. Most slaves would choose freedom but some chose slavery, if they had a chance to be with their family and if they had a good master.  It meant economic security for them.

In order to do this the servant had to do two things.  He had to say, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free.”  He also had to be willing to have a hole put in his ear for an earring.  It was a way to publicly affirm his decision to the world.

What is that a picture of?  Christians are also slaves, not slaves to sin but slaves to Christ. He Apostle Paul began his letter to Romans saying, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (1:1).  We are not forced to serve Christ.  We chose to do so.  He is our Master.  We do whatever He says and we publicly identify with him in baptism when we tell the world that we are followers of Christ.  We are not ashamed let others know about our decision to follow Jesus.

[1] The reason for this command is not necessarily that people in antiquity did not wear underwear, as many claim.  Many people in the ancient world wore a loin cloth, which was a form of underwear.  It is even mentioned in the OT in Job 12:18 (ezor).  The Greek word περί ζωμα is not used in the NT but is used in the LXX (Genesis 3:7; Ruth 8:15; Proverbs 31:24; Jeremiah 13:1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11). The principle would be the same whether the priests wore or didn’t wear underwear.


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