The Brief Context of Exodus 21
The first laws God gave the Israelites after giving them the Ten Commandments concern the proper treatment of slaves. It is as if God is saying, “Though you will be allowed an institution called slavery, or indentured servanthood, it will be nothing like what you experienced in Egypt.” The Egyptian slavery they experienced was like what most of the world was practicing, which was clearly similar to American slavery. Worldwide slavery was being practiced by the large Muslim slave trade in places like Africa, India, Central Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe, which involved millions of souls. The Quran, and later Islamic law, never condemn such evil practices, while the Bible and Torah specifically address the practice and condemn it.
Clarification is Needed in View of The Dominant Cultural Narrative Being Espoused Today
There is a desperate need for clarification today. So many people, including many in the Christian community, wrongly believe that American style slavery is equivalent with biblical slavery. The bible describes indentured servitude, and not forced abuse and mistreatment of humans. Once again, the Social Justice Movement is controlling the narrative in our culture, and one of their main tenets proposes that American Slavery is the cause of racism in our country. The proponents of SJ will never let Americans forget it and no matter how much success black people attain in America, it can never be enough. It’s clear now that these proponents intend to never let it down.
Because of the raging arguments and misunderstandings surrounding what this Bible teaches about slavery, I am writing this more expansive treatment, seeking to explain the biblical perspective. This is not a full treatment, but will hopefully shed some light on the issue.
Even people in the Christian Community have been taught incorrectly that “American Slavery” is supported from the text of Scripture. When you hear people say this, politely ask them to show you in the Bible where it justifies slavery? Wait for an intelligent response. If they provide none then ask them to research the Scriptures with you and invite them into a conversation.
It would be morally troubling if American Slavery was condoned in the bible.
If the Bible was to support “American Slavery” it would go against the basic tenets found throughout the whole Bible that speak of God’s righteous judgment, justice, morality, and righteousness in general. A holy and loving God would never condone American Slavery. In addition, Exodus 21 addresses kidnapping, which is far more in line with the horrific atrocities which took place in American Slavery. This type of slavery, and the perpetrators who participated in it, were to receive the death penalty under Torah Law. Torah is the only ancient law code that includes a punishment for mistreating a slave (Exodus 21:26). That surely does not indicate to me that God, or the Bible, condones American slavery!
The original meaning of the 8th Commandment
In addition, the 8th commandment “You shall not steal” was always understood to mean, before anything, that are not allowed to steal human beings. The early rabbinic tradition interpreted this commandment as specifically referring to kidnapping. Look to Talmud Sanhedrin 86a.
To reiterate, American Slavery is considered kidnapping and that was punishable by death according to the Hebrew Scriptures: “Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves.” – Exodus 21:16 NLT
In the Bible a slave is better rendered “servant,” based on the original Hebrew. In particular “servant” or “slave” means “indentured servanthood” in which a person worked to pay off a debt of some sort. Part of the reason certain people believe the Bible supports American Slavery, is because the KJV used the word “slave” in many cases, and we placed a Modernist (defining past actions through our modern lens) paradigm on to the past without accurately understanding the past.
When We Forget the Past, We lose Our Understanding of the Present
When it comes to remembering America’s past, the level of ignorance exhibited among younger Americans is unprecedented. This lack of understanding about correct American history is not limited only to college students either. Studies over the years show Americans of all ages fail to answer the simplest of questions. For example, the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report found that “only 18% of 8th graders were proficient or above in U.S. History.” Look to Saba Naseem, May 28, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how -much-us-history-do-americans-actually-know-less-you-think–1809955431/.
As more and more of our young people consider themselves, “world citizens,” rather than members of a specific nation, we will soon cease to be a nation. This is one reason why we are observing the rise of globalism and, sooner than we wish, a one-world government as revealed in Revelation 13:5-18, and other passages. One major reason for the survival of the Jewish people is their memory. They have historically remembered their roots and God’s hand in helping them survive. The Jewish religion is replete with prayers and rituals that reinforce this memory. The most obvious of these being the Passover Seder, the retelling of the Exodus in Jewish homes for over 3,000 years. (I will address the staggering value of rituals in another article!)
The Wisdom of Indentured Servitude
There were three categories of people who were “indentured slaves, servants” —
1. Paupers, 2. Debtors, and 3. Thieves.
Paupers: These were so poor that they could not provide for their families, so they worked for another person in exchange for room and board.
Debtors: These were unable to pay off their debts, so they worked without salary until their obligations were met.
Thieves: These were unable to make restitution for their crime, so they worked for free until the cost of their theft was paid back.
Furthermore, Hebrew slavery, (indentured servanthood) was not perpetual. After a debt was paid, or a certain time elapsed, the indentured individual became a free person. No matter how great the sum which was needed to be paid back, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) set a six-year limit on a Hebrew slave’s term of service (unless a debt was worked off sooner).
Once six years of service were concluded, the slave did not have to ransom himself or pay any sort of restitution to his master; he simply went free. In addition, Deuteronomy 15:13-14 legislates that the servant should not be sent out without any funds or possessions, understanding that he could quickly be where he started if not given some support to live differently. Thus, Deuteronomy rules: 13 “And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the LORD your God has blessed you. – Deuteronomy 15:13-14
The American parallel is morally clarifying. “Between one-half and two-thirds of all white immigrants to the British colonies between the Puritan migration of the 1630’s and the Revolution came under indenture.” Look to Abbot Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776 (Chapel Hill, 1947), 336.
This is pretty cool isn’t it? God is fair, and the Bible is profound in its understanding about Justice, and how to make a society successful.
In Torah we do not know of the existence of prisons
In the case of criminal activity, given how rare it is for people who cheat and steal from others to ever recompense their victims, the institution of indentured servitude is not necessarily morally inferior to a thief or embezzler spending time in prison and in no way compensating those from whom he stole. Moreover, given the lack of mechanism to recompense victims of theft, and given the abysmal prison conditions throughout history (and often now as well), ancient Israelite society was actually quite progressive in its reliance on indentured servitude instead of prison. If A robs B, who benefits from A going to prison? Society doesn’t —it has to pay for the robber’s room, board, incarceration costs, medical attentions, etc. And of course, B, is never compensated for this loss. Added to that, many, if not most, criminals do not leave prison morally transformed.
It makes us wonder about how wise we are to think that the prison system is the best alternative for exacting punishments?
The Treatment of Servants
The whole of Scripture, and the Torah specifically, demanded and legislated radically new attitudes toward slaves. These were not only more humane than other laws that prevailed in the ancient world, but also more humane than the laws that prevailed until the abolition of slavery in the West thousands of years later.
– The law required that slaves were protected from homicide, “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. …” – Exodus 21:20 ESV. When a human life is taken by intent or reckless endangerment, it must be avenged. Thus, any murderer, even a master who murdered his slave, is subject to the death penalty.
– Slaves were also protected from maltreatment by their masters, ”When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye” – Exodus 21:26
– In Deuteronomy 23, the law protects a runaway slave from returning to his master and provides a town of safety for that servant—”You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” Deuteronomy 23:15-16 ESV. That law alone afforded unparalleled rights to slaves, whether Israelite or non-Israelite.
– Job, in asserting his essential goodness as a human being, points to his treatment of his servants, “If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me…” – Job 31:13 ESV
– Notice the endearing language that the Apostle Paul uses when addressing Philemon about his “bondservant” Onesimus. “10 I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. 12 I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart. … 16 He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. … “ – Philemon 10,12,16 NLT
For a most thorough treatment of this huge issue, along with an explanation of “an eye for an eye” justice, I recommend Dennis Prager’s Commentary Exodus: God, Slavery, and Freedom, pages 279-310. Our second oldest grandson and I have spent hours discussing the contents of his commentary.
Some additional points about people in the past misusing the Bible to justify slavery
Because people in the past misinterpreted the Bible or misapplied it with regard to race, does not mean that people today are systemically racist. It also clearly does not mean that the Bible must be condoning something like slavery. In addition, not all people in the past have misused the Bible or taught the Bible incorrectly. We simply hear this over and over again without clear historical evidence of such behavior. What happened in the past without original sources can and does lead to ideologues propounding their dogma to a modern generation that is becoming woefully ignorant.
It seems like much of the Social Justice Movement relishes looking at the past sins of America in order to justify their outrage. The proponents immediately conclude that racism is happening today without objective, verifiable, and ‘proven until found guilty’ facts. It is easy for all of us to let the past determine our behaviors and ideologies in the present. I think that whether you are supporting or opposing the SJM, we all must live and make decisions in the here and now and learn from the past, but not to be held hostage for past evil actions.
In addition, because someone misused the Bible in the past does not make me guilty today, or that society today is guilty and white people in particular are culpable (deserving blame). We are simply not responsible for past atrocities like slavery, the holocaust, the Civil War, etc. However, I am responsible when I see injustices and I make efforts to bring biblical equality to the table. This is why verifying the facts is crucial and allowing judicial justice to determine guilt or innocence is essential. And NOT allowing “media justice” to have the final voice.
1. We must become more astute at explaining the text of Scripture about the issues we face today and specifically how our pagan culture is defining and re-defining biblical concepts.
2. Write a letter to your pastor, or better yet call him and ask him to read one or two of my articles. Then set up a time to discuss with him personally.
3. If you have children or grandchildren, pay them to read two chapters from the commentary by Dennis Prager on the Book of Exodus.
4. Ask some family members over for dinner and listen to five of the talks from Prager U and then discuss the contents.