The God of Slavery? – Exodus 21
Today’s reading from Exodus 21 is one of those passages that makes me want to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head, and take a really long faith nap.
“When you buy a Hebrew slave…” What? “When a man sells his daughter as a slave…” Who is saying this? Surely, it must be Moses or Aaron. I’ll bet it’s Jethro.
With an anxious heart, I scan back over the text searching for a name, any name but there is only one I see. “The LORD said…” I emotionally duck and cover.
I believe the scriptures are God’s self-revelation. For this reason I get dizzy and wobble off balance when I read a text like this one. God’s revelation of himself to me personally has been marked by generous grace and freedom. The God I have come to know is abundantly good, loving, and compassionate; he is antithetical to everything I know about slavery.
Slavery is an ugly evil. How in any way could the heart of my Father make allowance for it in the covenant with his people? I hear the doubt and fear screaming, “Look away! Close your eyes!”
I suspect if in any small portion you share my temperament, you are familiar with my habit of dealing with these difficult passages. I don’t. I just keep turning the pages, as quickly as I can. Flip, flip, flip, until I find what I want to see in the text. Ah, here we go. Chapter twenty-three. “Set free the burdened donkey (yes!), do not pervert justice (yes!), have a heart for the alien (yes, please!), feast and festival (yes! yes! yes!), and watch God drive out his enemies before the people.” (Amen!)
You don’t really blame me, do you? The biblical text and slavery has a sensitive history. In the U.S. of A., the Bible was used on both sides of the Civil War debate to argue the appropriateness of African slaves. The image flashes through my mind of a soul-wounded, black-skinned man bound with a metal collar, and I cringe in response to his pain. In recent years, so much attention has been brought to the plight of those in sex trade slavery that I can’t help but see their anguished faces superimposed over the type of these verses. These images burn in my heart with righteous anger and frustrated justice. In brew houses and on college campuses across the nation the conversation continues concerning what to think about a God who includes such seemingly barbaric words in his Holy Writ.
So are you wondering why I am even taking the time to reflect on a passage like this? Why not just hop straight over to the reading in the New Testament and write something happy about the resurrection? Today’s passage in Luke 24 when Jesus turns the attention of the two men on the Emmaus road to “Moses and all the prophets, to interpret to them all the things about himself in the scriptures” (Luke 24:27) that has me turning back to stare the Exodus passage straight in the face and confront my doubt and fear with greater courage and humility.
Jesus, I pray, I am foolish and slow of heart to believe. I too have come to my faith as if it were an empty tomb and could not find you there. I am no different than your first disciples—fear and doubt have risen in my heart. My eyes are dim and my understanding is dumb. Might you be gracious to once again open the mind of wavering disciple to understand the scriptures, to see there your redeeming hands and feet?
The intensity of the dissonance I feel with this chapter has much to do with it being set within a story of God seeing and freeing his people. Exodus begins with a description of the Egyptian’s ruthless enslavement of the House of Jacob. Groaning under their oppression, we learn their cry for rescue meets the ears of God:
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 3:7-8 ESV)
So why bring them out of slavery only to allow it in their new home?
For over two hundred years the Israelites had been in Egypt. Slavery was the only life the exodus generation knew. Don’t we all know it to be true, hurt people hurt people? God in his wisdom knew that his people didn’t know the goodness and beauty of reflecting his image in their dealings with one another. Soon they would forget their oppression and become the oppressors. The habits of Egypt would become the way of life in the Promised Land if God didn’t see to it that they be taught a new way of thinking.
In Egypt, slavery was imposed. Under the banner of God’s name, it was to be voluntary. A man facing financial hardship could indenture himself for a time as means of sustenance and learning a new trade to be used in his future freedom. In Egypt, slavery was a means of pervasively suppressing life; it demeaned and destroyed. In God’s social contract, slavery was to be temporary (only six years) and rather than disregard human dignity, it was to be a community’s way of protecting the individual and empowering him to prosper in the future. We learn in Deuteronomy 15:12-15 how these laws concerning slavery became a way by which God cared for the needy. The community was to see that vulnerable times became a gateway to sharing in the benefits of living in a flourishing land.
God’s way of treating the vulnerable was to live in such contrast to the Egyptian form and function that slaves, experiencing the goodness and compassion of their masters, would want to continue in their service beyond the six years of their commitment.
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 (Exodus 21:5-6).
Not only would the slave determine to stay in service to his master, he would publicly declare his love before God and man. There in the passageway of a door, where covenants are sealed in blood, his ear would be pierced as a visible and lasting display to his lifelong devotion to hearing and obeying his master’s commands.
Now I see Jesus. The one who inverts everything in this chapter by which we might be tempted to judge God. Jesus becomes the voluntary slave, willingly pierced through and bearing the marks forever of the declaration, “See how I love you.” God is not the one who sells his daughter. No, he is the one who purchases her freedom at the very cost of his own blood. In Jesus, at last my eyes are open to see God, who full of generous grace and everlasting compassion sets the captives free. In Jesus, we see that God still hears the groans of all those who suffer in slavery and sends his rescue of love that makes them truly free.
A passage like the one today begs us to search our hearts, not in judgment against God but in discovery of our own commitment to justice. The groans of physical, emotional, and spiritual slavery continue to rise to the ears of God, not only around the world, but also in your own neighborhood. We are the people of the seeing and freeing God. Or are we? In a society that wakes and sleeps upon the rise of the dollar, we must always be asking if people too have become a mere commodity. May it never be so with us! We must choose. Will we become enslaved to the entitlement of our own comfort and prosperity or will we bind our hearts to our Master’s in service to the vulnerable and needy? May we, the redeemed people of God, choose today to use our freedom in ways that cause others to say, “See how they love me!”
Today, may our Lenten observance cause repentance to awaken our hearts to share in the costliness of Christ’s rescue and redemption.
Brenda is passionate for Christ-followers to display God’s words and works as captivatingly beautiful. She has served in various ministerial and nonprofit roles, and is currently working on her M.Div. (at Fuller Theological Seminary) where she is delighting in new discoveries of her Savior and Scripture. She is a regular teacher of Bible studies and a hope coach for the wounded, weary and wandering. Sometimes she does laundry, but only when it’s absolutely imperative. She loves days spent in the garden, sharing a good meal with friends, and the exuberant devotion of her two Basset Hounds. She may or may not have an unhealthy relationship with coffee, chocolate, and book buying. She lives outside of Los Angeles with her husband of twenty-two years and is a mom to two college-age boys who grew up way too fast. She writes about truth, beauty, and God’s goodness at OnceUponATruth.wordpress.com.