Now if you would please take a copy of the Scriptures and turn with me in them to the book of Exodus, chapter 21. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find them in the pew racks in front of you or under your chair and Exodus 21, we’re going to be looking at the first eleven verses, that’s on page 62 in our church Bibles. Now it’s our custom at First Presbyterian Church to work sequentially, chunk of Scripture by chunk of Scripture, through entire books of the Bible so that we cover all of the teachings of the text and hope to hear the whole counsel of God and everything that God wants us to say. That’s our normal practice and it’s one that’s been extremely helpful for us. However, there are moments every now and again, when in our sequential treatment of the passage we land on very, very difficult texts like the one before us this morning. And so I want to ask you before we read to please pray with me and pray for me that the Lord would use His Word, despite its complexities, to show us the truth about ourselves and to show us the truth about Jesus. So let’s bow our heads together as we pray.
Father, we thank You for the Scriptures which are breathed out by God and are wholly useful, all of it useful, for correction and teaching and rebuke and for training in righteousness so that a man of God may be complete and equipped for every good work. We thank You that the words before us this morning are Your very Word to us and we pray that as we read them and as we wrestle with them and all their challenging intricacy, we pray that You would deal with our hearts and lead us not only to trust Your infallible Word but to trust the Christ who comes to us and speaks to us in it. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Exodus 21 at the first verse:
“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, 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 be her master's, 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 free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”
Amen. We praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.
Well, we all do it, don’t we? We’ve only know him for five minutes and already we have formed an opinion. You only have a casual acquaintance with her, but already you’ve decided she can’t be trusted. We take a few preliminary glances, put two and two together, pass summary judgment, and then sadly, as often as not, come to realize as we get to know them better that we’ve been quite wrong and two and two do not, in fact, make six. And with more than a little guilt, we have to admit that the premature conclusions to which we earlier jumped, based as they were on only the most superficial knowledge of a person’s character, were in fact altogether wrong and misplaced. And we are left to hope that our early judgmentalism hasn’t ruined our relationship with them permanently.
And if I may say so, I think the very worst victim of that kind of judgmentalism is God Himself, especially at the hands of those who have a purely superficial knowledge of the Bible. They light on passages like this one and suddenly the glimmer of denunciatory zeal blazes into life in their eyes. “God condones slavery!” they cry, with the wild joy of someone who has found at last a valid excuse for their secret sin. “An oppressor of minorities! An abuser of the weak! Who would worship a monster like this? I have no need of a God like this,” so the objection goes! But not so fast. Two and two, remember, do not make six. Don’t rush so quickly to judgment! There is more here than meets the eye. And if you will allow me, as we’ve moved our way through the book of Exodus this is where we find ourselves and so we have to deal with the passage. If you’re like me, as you read through the Scriptures you come to texts like this one and they often leave us perplexed and scratching our heads. So rather than skip it, I want us to deal with it and try to see what we must make of this before God honestly. And so if you’ll allow me, for the next few minutes I want you to see how this admittedly difficult passage, far from exposing the monstrous brutality of an ancient tribal deity, in fact, displays the realism, the compassion, and yes even the saving plan of God for sinners like me and like you.
- The Realism of God
So let’s turn our attention please, if you would, to the text, Exodus 21 verses 1 to 11 on page 62 of the church Bibles, and let’s think first of all about the realism of God, the realism of God. And the place to start, I think, is by facing a fundamental question about our passage. Why would a good God legislate for slavery in the national life of His people, Israel? Surely slavery is an evil. So does that make God pro-slavery? That’s a good question! And let’s be honest. There have been those in the ugly history of our nation, a history frankly that continues to haunt our society today, that would say God does indeed condone slavery and they would point to a passage like this one and they would say, “God condones the brutal, wicked, dehumanizing slave trade.”
By way of response, I want to first of all point you to a passage in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 19, where Jesus gives us a clue about the approach we should take to this text. He’s being questioned about adultery in Matthew chapter 19 and He explains that the laws of Moses given to Israel at this point in their history, the same period that we’re dealing with right now with the laws regarding slavery, those laws about divorce and adultery, divorce, are given not because God loves divorce. On the contrary, the Scriptures teach us God hates divorce. But they are given, rather, that Matthew 19 at verse 9, because of the hardness of heart, as a concession to deal with the wickedness of human society, God provided a mechanism because He knows sinners are wickedly sinful, marriages fall apart, and He needs to regulate and constrain it so that its worst wickedness might not run rampant. And that is precisely how I believe we should take this passage also.
Let me try a little thought experiment on you first by way of illustration. Imagine a scenario, please. Imagine for a moment you lived in a country where there were no restrictions legally at all on the use and sale of narcotics. The drug trade is legal and free and deadly. It’s killing thousands, spreading HIV/AIDS at an epidemic level as desperate junkies share dirty needles, trapping an entire generation in the terrible prison of addiction. Okay? Imagine that scenario. Now imagine you have been elected to a government office in such a country. Of course, it will be your priority and your goal to see this wicked cancer on the life of your society, this drug trade, ended forever. But you are a lone voice in the legislature and so instead of immediately introducing a bill to abolish the drug trade, which you know must surely fail, you begin to introduce a bill, for example, to limit access to certain drugs, to set a minimum age at which someone may legally purchase those drugs. You seek to implement punitive measures to make the production and the marketing of narcotics less and less attractive. And so on and so on, year after year, you seek to reduce it, to destroy it, to undermine it, until at last it is gone.
Now let me ask you, “Have you betrayed your convictions that the drug trade is an evil because you introduce bills that seek to minimize, restrict, and limit it rather than merely a bill that will immediately abolish it?” Well no, not at all. What are you doing? You’re not condoning it; you are working to restrain the wickedness all around you. That’s what you’re doing. You’re working to curtail the vice and to establish new and better norms, always striving to move the bar inch by inch toward the goal of the final eradication of the problem. And that, I think, is what we have in the regulations before us here addressing slavery in Israel in Exodus 21:1-11.
The Context of Slavery in Israel
Now consider, for example, just for a moment the context into which these laws were first spoken. Remember, the people of Israel have only themselves recently come out of crushing absolute slavery in Egypt. Now there was, so far as we know, no written code governing life in Egypt. The word of Pharaoh was law and the word of Pharaoh was capricious. He changed his mind in dangerous and volatile directions and as the people of Israel discovered to their great cost, it was a season of brutal, crushing, agonizing, unrelenting bondage they had to endure in Egypt. That was slavery in Egypt. Now there were other cultures older than Israel, cultures like that of ancient Mesopotamia for example, that did provide written bodies of law somewhat analogous to the Law of Moses that we’re reading here in the book of Exodus. The code of Hammurabi, the laws of Eshnunna are two of those and you can still read their contents to this day. And if you do, you will discover fascinatingly that they have a very different character to the law of God given to His people, Israel. They have little emphasis on ethical living; little concern for spiritual things. Their valuation of human life was decidedly inferior. Life was cheap. People were mere commodities. This was a brutal, difficult season and time and place in human history.
No Absolute Slavery in Israel
But over against the despotic tyranny of Pharaoh or the cruel rules of ancient Babylon, the Law God gave His people actually worked to restrain and limit the brutality of life in the ancient near east. So look at the text with me and notice importantly that there is no absolute slavery in Israel. You see that in verse 2? Slaves are to be freed every seven years. And look down for a moment at verse 16. This is important. Verse 16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him shall be put to death.” There is zero tolerance for the practice of man-stealing, kidnapping people and forcibly subjecting them to lifelong slavery. That’s the form of slavery with which we’re most familiar of course – the form once practiced here in the antebellum south. It’s still taking place in North America to this day in the dreadful trade of human trafficking. Forcible abduction and enforced bondage. The antebellum slave trade was based on abducted African men, women, and children forced to live as subhuman property. And the Bible has no tolerance for that. There’s no justification for it from the text of Holy Scripture; none.
Slavery in Israel was Voluntary Servitude Driven by Economic Circumstances
No, in fact, the form of slavery that we’re dealing with in our passage is very different indeed – different to Egyptian slavery, different to Mesopotamian slavery, different even to antebellum American slavery. Actually, it’s a kind of voluntary servitude driven by economic circumstance. And a great deal of the regulations that we’re dealing with in these eleven verses that seem so objectionable to us at first glance, cease to be quite so offensive when we understand the way that dynamic, economic destitution, would affect life in the ancient world for men and women. Remember, there’s no social security, there’s no possibility of a loan, there’s no centralized provision for the poor or the destitute. This is the practice. A way to provide for one’s self or one’s family in an absolute necessity of need. A person would enter into slavery not to shatter hope, but to secure a livelihood in the face of destitution and to cling to a shred of future hope when all other options have gone.
God is Limiting, Regulating, and Minimizing the Excess’s of Sin
So the first thing we need to understand is that God here is limiting and regulating and minimizing the excesses and redirecting the sinful hearts of human beings who, even as they emerge themselves from the worst excesses of Egyptian slavery, were still prone to dehumanize and dominate one another. You’d think Israel, of all the peoples of the world, would have learned the lesson and would need no laws to tell them not to treat human beings like cattle to be bought and sold without rights and without hope. After all, they knew exactly how it felt living for so long under the lash of Egyptian taskmasters, didn’t they? But you see, God knows our hearts. He is a realist and He knows that the abused easily become abusers. He knows that the hated easily hate in return. Like the debtor in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23, we who have been forgiven, are often slow to forgive in turn. You remember the parable of the unforgiving debtor, the unforgiving servant. The king is settling his accounts and he discovers that one of his servants owes him ten thousand talents; that’s a lot of money. And of course, the servant is unable to pay, so the king orders him and his whole family to be sold as slaves to repay the debt. And the man pleads for mercy and the king shows mercy and forgives the man the entire debt. But then as soon as the man leaves the king’s audience chamber he finds another servant who owes him only one hundred denarii, a comparatively small sum of money. And he takes him by the throat, begins to choke him, and demands that he repay the money he is owed, without mercy.
It’s a disturbing story. Distasteful, but it’s distasteful most of all not just because of its contents, but because of the way it exposes our hearts. We discover ourselves portrayed in it more than we might care to admit. Isn’t that so? Forgiven though we may be, still awfully prone to fail to forgive. Having received mercy, yet we do not show mercy. Here is Israel coming out of slavery, set free by the grace of God, and yet even they need to be told and their wicked hearts that would abuse and commodify other people, constrained and curtailed and limited by the Law of God. God is a realist about our hearts and about the wickedness of our world and so He legislates to restrain the worst excesses of sin. He gives us His Law to reign us in and constrain our wickedness. The realism of God.
- The Compassion of God
Then secondly, I want you to think with me about the compassion of God. That might sound like a bit of a stretch to you. We are talking about slavery here, after all! Compassion? What kind of compassion puts people into slavery? But look at what God tells His people in the passage. First, as we saw in verse 2, there is provision for freedom after six years’ service. The idea was, it would be long enough to repay a debt or to store up some assets in order to start over. “Oh, but look at verses 3 and 4,” you say. “People were to leave slavery in the same marital status with which they entered it, but if you married while you were a slave, the man could be set free but not his wife or child? Typical of the Bible! Always putting women down! How is that compassionate?” Well again, remember the dire economic context that would lead someone to enter slavery in the first place. They have no options left. And remember, to be an impoverished woman at this time and in this place was to be at risk. You were in an extremely precarious and vulnerable social position. Upon his release, a man whose circumstances were so dire that they demanded his servitude in the first place needed therefore to be able to ensure that his wife or his children would be secure, that he could protect them and provide for them and they would be spared the predations of the age. So she would have to remain and would be safer remaining a slave to a wealthy master until her husband had sufficient funds to buy her manumission, her release. Leviticus 25:47 and following make provision for people to buy others out of bondage. It was an effective way to make sure that the husband could provide for his wife and to care for her.
If he could not afford to buy their freedom and thus couldn’t afford to protect and to provide for them, he had another option, of course. He could, verses 5 and 6, he could indenture himself permanently. He can say, “I love my master and my wife and my children. I will not go out free.” And he would be brought before God. Presumably, that’s a reference to some form of oath taken between the servant and the master in the presence of God. And then at the threshold, his ear would be pierced by a blade into the wood of the doorpost. He was temporarily fixed to the entry of the home and his blood driven into the fabric of the dwelling by the blade that pierced his ear. It’s a graphic, symbolic way to say this person is now bound to this house forever, never to leave. He would never walk out that door a free man. But driven by his love for his master and his own family, instead, he has committed himself to stay and to care and to provide for them. You see what God is doing? He is placing regulations before His people, Israel, that would make sure that the very weakest and most marginal and the poorest had a mechanism for life. This is about the compassion of God.
God Preserves the Dignity of Human Life
And the same goes for the even more difficult material of verses 7 to 11. Look there, please! Verses 7 to 11. Once again, it’s important to remember this is a destitute family. And in those days and in those circumstances, very often a father’s only hope for a better life for his daughter might be that a wealthy man would marry her and be thus able to provide and care for her. And so the form of slavery dealt with in verses 7 to 11 is a kind of arranged marriage, either to the master himself or to his son. If for some reason, verse 8, the arrangement looked like a poor one, the woman should be set free. But notice carefully, she may not be sold off to foreigners in order to make a profit from her. She is not property to be disposed of as the master wills. She is to be set free, notice because the man has broken faith with her. He has betrayed her. She has marital rights that have not been met. He’s failed to provide and protect her as her husband. If the woman is purchased for the master’s son, then notice, she is to be treated not like some kind of plaything for the son’s pleasures, but with the dignity and position of the master’s own daughter.
Verse 9, if other wives enter the home – and again, remember this is the wickedness of the culture at the time, prevalent, and God is trying to limit and constrain it not advocate for it or promote it. Polygamy took place all over the ancient near east and should that happen even here, He wants to make sure that this first wife is not neglected or disenfranchised. And so she is not to be denied her rights. And if the master, at any point fails, then she is immediately to be released without any manumission price. Now did you notice the concern all the way through is actually for the welfare of the woman, for her rights to be secured and her future to be provided for? What at first glance may seem like a brutal abuse of power, a case of the callous manipulation of women who continue so often to be wickedly preyed upon in our culture and time, in the context of this time and place is seen to be in fact a provision designed to honor the woman with rights no one else and nowhere else have provided to her and to protect her from the danger she would otherwise have been exposed to if she tried to live on her own.
So I hope you’re beginning to see that, strange though it may appear to us, this is really a text that speaks about the compassionate care of God for the poor and for the weak and for the marginal and for the most vulnerable in Israelite society. It’s actually about the dignity of human life, not the abuse of it. Here is God “the Father of the fatherless and the protector of widows,” Psalm 94 at verse 6. “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” Psalm 113 at verse 7. “The Lord watches over the sojourner. He upholds the widow and the fatherless,” Psalm 146 verse 9. Here, even though we may need to strain our spiritual sight a little to see it, here is a dim reflection of the compassion of God climactically revealed in Jesus Christ in whose earthly ministry, in response to the inquiries of John the Baptist you will remember, he said that the blind receive their sight because of Him, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them. The compassion of God, seen climactically in Jesus Christ.
This is another echo of something we will see revealed with Jesus dealt with that poor woman. You remember her, don’t you, who had been bleeding for twelve years. Matthew 25 at verse 34. No one could help her; no one wanted to touch her. She was considered outcast and unclean. At the uttermost extremity of need, she tried doctor after doctor and no one could heal her. They only made her worse and worse. And yet, as Jesus passed by, she reaches out a trembling, desperate hand, and brushes the hem of Jesus’ garments and by faith takes hold of the compassionate heart of God toward her who makes her whole and cares for her.
Some of you, I suspect, are tempted to think that God is not interested in mundane things like sore bodies or troubled marriages or wayward children. He’s only interested in people who make the cut, who look the part, who have no troubles like this, none of the grit or grim challenge of the real world with which we deal every day. God is interested in abstractions and ideas and souls but not with real problems. Well, all I can say in response to that is to read our passage again. It’s not true at all, is it? The God with whom we all have to do is a God who operates in the grit and the grim realities of the real world. He is the God of all compassion and the Father of mercies and He gets it, He gets it. And He cares for His people in the harsh realities of the real world, a Father to the fatherless, who raises the poor from the dust, lifts the needy from the ash heap. Don’t think God is careless of your hurts and your obvious needs. Nor should you think that His people, the church should never be troubled with so mundane a problem as your daily bread. Our text, remember, is a body of instruction given to the church, given to God’s ancient people about how they should care for one another when every other recourse has resolved to nothing and you’re at an utter extremity of need. The church is to carry one another’s burdens. You’re not to suffer in silence. You don’t need to suffer alone. You can turn to the compassionate heart of God that is turned towards you, that beats for you in Jesus Christ, and you can turn to His people and we will strive to bear your burdens with you and walk with you through the worst and the darkest of times. The realism of God is here. The compassion of God is here.
- The Saving Plan of God for Sinners
And finally, even the saving plan of God for sinners is here. At several points along the way, God builds into these regulations, even for slavery, reminders of His saving design. He’s so committed to making the Gospel pattern clear that He weaves it into the details of the civil code of the national life of His ancient people, sometimes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places. So for example, look again at verse 2. We saw slaves are to be released every seventh year. That’s actually the first of an entire series of laws in Israel’s national life designed to reflect on and amplify and apply the Sabbath principle from the fourth commandment. The Sabbath principle that one day in seven is to be a day of rest and anticipation, a kind of enacted promise for God’s people that final rest is coming, rest from sin and misery is coming, relief is on its way and a new heavens and a new earth will one day dawn. And here too, on the seventh year, is a Sabbath year for a slave where they are set entirely free. God sets captives free and gives them rest! Isn’t that an admirable summary of the Christian Gospel? God sets captives free and He gives them rest and He does it by His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who said, remember, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you” – what? “I will give you rest.” Rest from sin and guilt, rest from our best attempts at self-salvation, rest from dead works, rest on grace, the rest of assurance and confident hope. Jesus has finished the work the Father gave Him to do and now because it is finished, we can rest on Him and find rest in Him as He sets us free.
Or look again at the strange ritual that took place at the threshold of the door in verses 5 and 6 as the slave’s ear is pierced with an awl as he swears himself to remain in the master’s house for life. In Psalm 40 at verse 6, commentators suggest there’s another reference to this same ritual, only now it’s applied not to a slave and a master in an Israelite home. Now it’s applied to a believer and his God. The psalmist says, “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you, O God, have given me an open ear,” or more literally, “you have pierced my ear.” The psalmist is saying, like the slave who says, “I will not leave the master’s house. I love my master and I love my family. I’m going to stay and serve gladly,” and so his ear is pierced. He says, “That’s how I am in my relationship to God. I will give my whole life to dwell in His courts and to give myself to His service.” But in Hebrews chapter 10 at verse 7, those very words we are told apply supremely and primarily not to the psalmist nor to you or me, but to Jesus Christ Himself. He is the one who is the servant of the Father whose blood shed signals His perpetual obedience in the Father’s house. He is our substitute, the true servant of God, obedient unto death who sets us free.
You see, the great concern of the Bible, the burden of the heart of God, is to point us to Christ. And I hope, I hope we can see something of how committed God is to that concern even in our difficult passage as He weaves these Gospel patterns even into so difficult a piece of Scripture as a law governing slavery. Everywhere in the Bible, there are adorations of Gospel truth, pointers to Jesus, so that wherever you turn, by God’s design, Christ steps forth from the pages of this book to say to you, “Come to Me and I will set you free. Come to Me and I will give you rest. The compassionate heart of God beats for sinners like you and you take hold of it by taking hold of Me.” That is the call of Jesus Christ to each of us this morning. It is a deep bondage from which only Jesus can give us release. Some of you live under its tyranny every day. Your conscience stings and sears and smites you and you long for freedom. Let me show you where freedom lies. Freedom is found in Jesus Christ who pleads with you to come to Him and He will give you rest. So may the Lord help you to hear, even in our obscure little text this morning, the invitation and summons of Jesus Christ who holds out to you deliverance from sin’s bondage and may He also help us to answer and come to Him. Let’s pray together.
God our Father, we are not so very different than ancient Israel who, having been set free from slavery, still fought in wicked terms about others and sought to oppress and needed to be restrained and reined in by Your Law. Thank You for Your compassionate heart that is concerned about the weakest and least and the most vulnerable and the most fragile. Thank You for the way that compassionate heart is most fully disclosed to us in Jesus Christ who lived and bled and died to give us liberty. Grant that every person here present today may run to Him, bow before Him, and receive from His hand, His nail-pierced hands, the freedom and the rest that only He can give. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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