“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.” (Exodus 21:2)
After the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we read about additional laws and ordinances in chapters 21-23. These ordinances go into greater detail, outlining the specific legal remedies to be carried out when the Law is broken. It is fitting that the very first of these statutes listed concerns the treatment of servants and slaves.
It may seem peculiar to us initially that God would issue ordinances accommodating slavery at all, I mean, why not just abolish the practice altogether? But we should understand that there were reasons that the Lord allowed for it under the Mosaic System. Leviticus 25:35-55, for instance, speaks of the provision in the Law whereby a poor and indigent person might “sell” themselves to another more prominent member of the community and work as a sort of indentured servant. This would be a voluntary arrangement whereby the destitute individual could secure a means of livelihood. Secondly, if a criminal lacked the resources to make restitution for his crimes, he would be sold into servitude until the debt was repaid (e.g., Exodus 22:2-3). Since penitentiaries did not exist in those days, thieves and petty criminals were often sentenced to manual labor in order to atone for their crimes.
For the modern reader, the term slavery conjures up images of modern day sweat shops in Third World countries or the African slave trade of the 16th-19th Centuries. But God never allowed or condoned such inhuman cruelty. The sanctity of life was upheld in all circumstances and it was for this reason that the Lord laid out specific guidelines governing the treatment of slaves and servants. In Exodus 3:7, God tells Moses:
“I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings.”
God condemned the harsh and cruel treatment of the Hebrews under bondage in Egypt and He was not about to condone their own mistreatment of each other, or even foreign slaves captured in battle. Never do see human beings regarded as mere property under the Law of Moses but always retaining their human dignity. Additionally, the practice of abducting individuals for the purpose of slavery was specifically forbidden as Exodus 21:16 records. The only situations wherein a person could legally be made a slave were either by their own free will (indentured servitude), by means of committing a crime, as prisoners-of-war from foreign defeated armies, or as brides “sold” into marriages to wealthier families. Even the last of these bears more in common with the ancient practice of a bride’s father providing a dowry to the family his daughter was marrying into than an involuntary contract between a young woman and her husband. If a family was too poor to provide any other payment, than the girl herself was viewed as the dowry. Verses 7-11 of this chapter make it clear that God demanded fair and reasonable treatment of women entering into such arrangements.
Jesus The Loving Servant
“And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.” (Exodus 21:5-6 KJV)
As unlikely as it may seem, we find a very beautiful illustration of God’s great love for man right here in the middle of the ordinances regarding the treatment of slaves. As opposed to the public auctions of slaves held in early American history, where families were routinely separated because a buyer only wanted a husband and not a wife, or a son and not a mother or daughter, the Law of Moses stipulated that a slave who entered servitude with a wife would bring his wife with him when he was liberated (v. 3). When his six years of service ended, he and his wife would be free to go. However, if the man became married to another slave during his service, then only he would be freed at the end of the time period. “If he comes alone, he shall go out alone.”
But what if the man so loved his wife and children that he decided that he would rather remain in the household where he served? What if the man so loved the master whom he served that he would rather continue in his service rather than be set free to set out on his own? The provision given in verses 5 and 6 allowed for a slave to voluntarily choose to remain in his mater’s service, permanently, and to stay with the wife and children he had acquired during his service. He would announce his intentions before the judges of his community and his master would pierce his ear through against a doorpost; thus signifying his decision to remain a slave forever.
“Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; My ears You have opened; Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” (Psalm 40:6)
The opening of the ears spoken of here literally means “dug open” or “pierced.” It speaks not of the improvement of hearing or the focusing of attention, but of the literal, physical piercing of the earlobes. This verse in Psalm 40 shows that the One being spoken of has made the decision described in Exodus 21:5-6. He has voluntarily elected to surrender His own right to go out free that He might remain with those He loves.
The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that the One spoken of in Psalm 40:6 is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (cf. Hebrews 10:5-10). Jesus is the One Who has voluntarily elected to give up His right to “go out free” and chose rather that His own body be pierced through, forever identifying Him with those He loves. For we are all slaves to the sin which binds us, yet the Lord Jesus was not. He could have left this world free and clear, not suffering the horrors of the Cross. But He endured it because of His love for us and for His “Master”, God the Father. It was not a wooden doorpost but a wooden Cross to which, not His ears were pierced through, but His hands and feet. And the “Bride” for whom He chose to give Himself was the Church which would be called by His name. The sons and daughters for whom He laid down His own right to go free would be the children of God, those who would trust in Him for Salvation.
The Lord Jesus was never a slave to sin and had no obligation to subject Himself to the Cross. But He loved us. He loved you and He loved me enough to surrender His right to go free and chose to voluntarily be pierced through that He might remain with us.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,
**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.