Here in America we have a perspective of slavery that involves kidnapping, harsh treatment, and a lifetime of service.
Is that the slavery mentioned in the Bible?
From Exodus 21:2-11
“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.
“If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him.
“If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.
“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’
then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.
“If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.
“If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her.
“If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.
“If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights.
“If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”
This passage from Exodus 21 troubles me. The idea that people are property should be appalling to us. We should be repulsed that a man could sell his daughter to be a wife for the buyer or the buyer’s son.
I cannot explain all the commands from this passage. But let’s look at a few major differences between slavery as perceived in the United States and slavery in Exodus chapter 21.
How did a person become a slave back then?
We might picture several men and women standing on an auction block. There they would be bid on and bought.
That was America before the Civil War. That was not slavery in the early history of the Israelites. They had been forced into oppressive slavery by the Egyptians. God did not want that repeated.
A Hebrew could become slave to another Hebrew two ways. Either he owed the other Hebrew money that couldn’t be paid or he owed someone else money that couldn’t be repaid. Either way he was voluntarily selling his services to repay a debt.
They weren’t kidnapped or placed on an auction block.
Was slavery a lifetime condition?
In verse 22 God commands a slave will serve for only six years. The he must be freed. If He had a wife when he became a slave she was to be freed also.
Was slavery harsh and cruel?
Apparently being a servant was not all that bad for some people. Some slaves wanted the arrangement to be permanent. What if he did not want to be freed? Verses 5 and 6 address that question.
Is there more to this topic?
There is so much more that could contribute to this discussion. I am not a trained Bible scholar, and I haven’t studied all the cultural dynamics that surrounded slavery.
Slavery in American was a terrible mark on our history. A lifetime of involuntary service was many times accompanied by cruel treatment and dreadful living conditions.
That kind of slavery still exists in the world today.
Slavery was different for the nation of Israel.
God values human life. He valued the lives of slaves and still does today. We should, too.
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