“These are the laws you are to set before them:

Hebrew Servants

2 “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. 3 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.

7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 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.

‘The material which comprises this section represents only some of the statutes which formed part of ancient Israel’s law. In all likelihood many of the laws included here have been selected because they corresponded closely with God’s actions in rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.’ T.D.Alexander: ‘New Bible Commentary’, p.109.

We are entering into territory, in Exodus, which is not always easy to read or understand. But here are some pointers to help us with this particular passage:

  • There is much that relates particularly to the people of Israel at that time, and their context and culture;
  • Nothing resembling Caribbean-type slavery is envisaged here. The Christians who fought against the slave trade rightly saw it as a great evil, and did not see any Biblical support for it. It is probably something more akin to indentured apprenticeships and service in an extended family that is in mind here. Compulsory, life-long slavery is forbidden;
  • The safeguards are put in place because people, made in the image of God, matter. As we saw in looking at the Ten Commandments, loving God and loving people are indissolubly linked. ‘God always safeguards the rights of those who cannot defend themselves, such as servants, women and children…In the corresponding passage in Deuteronomy 15:12-18, the master of the servant being freed is commanded to treat the servant generously and not send him away empty-handed; the master is to remember that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt, and that therefore he should treat his servant as he would have wanted to be treated himself (Deuteronomy 15:14-15; Matthew 7:12).’ Tom Hale: ‘Applied Old Testament Commentary’, p.246.)

The principle to take away is, I believe, that people matter. We cannot divorce how we treat fellow human-beings from our worship of God. It’s a principle we will see again.

“In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).