A question about slavery in the OT Ex 21: 3-6


(Sara Isaac) #1

The text is dealing with a case where a slave came into servitude without a wife, and then his master gave him one. When that slave’s time was up and he wanted to leave, he had two options either to leave his wife and children and be free or he could stay with them and serve his master forever.
My question is, why would he need to serve forever? I mean, at some point, the female servant will reach the seventh year and become free or even in the jubilee year. Why then did he stay forever at his master’s house?

(SeanO) #2

@saraisaac Thank you for that question. I believe the point of that passage is that the woman needed to finish her agreed to service to the master - she could not simply leave early with the man who had already finished his term. That would not be fair to the master. So, if the man wants to stay with his wife he needs to renew his commitment to continue to serve in the house.

Below are some more resources. The Lord Jesus bless your studies.

Specific Response to Exodus 21:4-5

Answers in Genesis Article

“Regarding Exodus 21:4, if he (the bondservant) is willing to walk away from his wife and kids, then it is his own fault. And he would be the one in defiance of the law of marriage. He has every right to stay with his family. On the other hand, his wife, since she is a servant as well, must repay her debt until she can go free. Otherwise, a woman could be deceitful by racking up debt and then selling herself into slavery to have her debts covered, only to marry someone with a short time left on his term, and then go free with him. That would be cruel to the master who was trying to help her out. So this provision is to protect those who are trying to help people out of their debt.”

The Importance of Context - Historical and Literary

"Knowledge of the social and legal realities of the ancient Near East, often available only through study of other cultures, such as those of Mesopotamia, are critical for a full understanding of the world of biblical law. As I have tried to demonstrate, some apparent contradictions can be resolved once we understand the range of cases that could be discussed, and once we see that different laws could be addressing different cases. Other differences are real, but explicable as the results of the varying foci of the collections in which they are found.

Many readings of the legal texts in the Bible, both ancient and modern, are in fact acontextual, not attuned to the real world the laws were addressing and not aware of the range of legal precedents and realities open to the legislator. It is important to build our edifices on the basis of full knowledge of both textual and historical realities." Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber

Does the Bible excuse American slavery?
(Sara Isaac) #3

Thank you Sean for your reply. I actually read the part discussing slavery in Paul Copan’s ‘is God a moral monster?’ And it really has great insights on the matter. I understand what you said but my inquiry is about ‘serving forever’, his wife will pay her debt off at some point. Another thing i have noticed is that the passage says that the master gives him a ‘wife’ not a ‘slave/servant’. That will put it in a whole new perspective. 'Coz then the master would have the right to keep this woman under his watch because she trusted him when he gave her a slave husband and he needed to ensure the financial stability of her and her children lest her husband gets into another debt and sells her and the children into slavery, as they used to do with their families. I have no reliable source for this interpretation, it’s just my own. So let me know what you think of it.
Another thing i don’t know if we can apply to the text here or not, is that we know that some of the laws were reformed through the time of Moses in Exodus and Leviticus and that’s why we don’t see this part in Deutronomy. There is an Example in Numbers where a group argued for a change in a certain code and Moses negotiated with God and the code was changed. So, could this be the case here, especially that this part doesn’t exist in Deutronomy where the only case for life bondage is the slave’s own desire and love for his master?

(SeanO) #4

@saraisaac I think that serving ‘forever’ was simply the natural alternative to leaving in that culture after a term of service. If a slave wanted to stay on with his master after finishing a debt, he automatically had his ear pierced and stayed there for the rest of his life. That was just the way the contractual arrangements worked.

Like in Deuteronomy, when a servant wanted to stay on after their term they had their ear pierced and then stayed for life. That was just the process. I am not sure they had the concept of a servant signing on for another term equal to the wife’s term… In addition, as mentioned below, in ancient culture relationships guided rules; not the other way around like in modern Western culture.

The Lord guide our discussion.

Deuteronomy 15:16-18 - But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant.18 Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.

Relationships Trump Rules - Ancient Culture

It is also possible that while we read this rule as absolute, members of ancient Israelite culture would have considered the relationship more important than the rule. So that if the married couple wanted to leave for a better opportunity at some point and it was best for the master too, they may have done so. On the flip side, the married couple may have desired to honor their relationship with their master… We read this as an absolute rule - in ancient culture it may have been more proverbial and could have been trumped by relationship?

Also, the rules in the Torah were likely given in response to specific situations that had occurred in the community; not unlike Paul’s letters in the New Testament. So that in a different situation this specific law may not have been applicable.

Because Western readers tend to understand relationships in terms of rules and laws, we have a tendency also to understand ancient relationships, including those we read about in Scripture, in terms of rules. (160-161)

In contrast to the modern Western worldview, in ancient worldviews it went without saying that relationships (not rules) define reality. (161)

…we have to learn to identify when the Bible is prioritizing relationship instead of rules or laws. | One way to do this is to pay attention to the motivation or rationale a biblical writer offers for a commandment. (174)

(Sara Isaac) #5

That’s so great. Helpful! Thank you dear Sean.

(SeanO) #6

@saraisaac Glad it was helpful! The Lord bless you.