Monday, August 18, 2014

God’s Employment Standards Act: Part 1 -- Exodus 21:1-4

“Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them.  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.  If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, 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 belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.”
The Ten Commandments have been shared with the people and now God continues with some other ordinances that Moses is to pass on to the Children of Israel.  Generally speaking an ordinance is a type of law, but in today’s application of the word, it usually refers to laws passed or enacted by municipal bodies as compared to national ones.  In God’s economy, Chuck Smith suggests that these ordinances are really “judgments for the appointed judges” to use in adjudicating matters that arise among the Israelites.  David Guzik says these are the laws “that establish precedent for the legal system of Israel”.  Matthew Henry suggested that these laws in Exodus chapter 21 relate to, and expound on, the fifth and sixth commandments.  He states they “are of great use for the explanation of the moral law, and the rules of natural justice.”
The first area covered is the legal relationships between slaves and masters.  In those days most of the labor that took place was indeed performed by slaves.  Today, that kind of exchange of work for some form of compensation (be it housing or food) has evolved to the modern relationship of employee and employer (work for pay and other benefits).  Nevertheless, it is important for us to note some of the principles that God had established in how work was to be undertaken.
To begin with, we should note that God, to our knowledge, did not establish the master-slave arrangement.  [Any more than He established polygamy.]  This arrangement was a man-conceived means of getting work done.  There may even have been some good intentions involved such as providing shelter and food and care for individuals in exchange for the work they did.  But as in most things that man construes to do on his own without taking God into consideration, his natural instincts of greed and taking advantage of others, especially those that are weaker, eventually come to the surface and bring about undesirable characteristics of the practice.  This was the case for much of the slavery that was in place, over time.  So much so, that it became unbearable for true followers of Christ to condone it in any way and it eventually was outlawed in the Western world.  But for our purposes, back in the days of Moses, God had to place some parameters around the conditions under which slaves were used and treated.
Two things we need to remember.  First, all Israelites were born as free men and women.  Second, as David Guzik points out, God brought these particular Israelites “out of slavery” – something they were to forget.  And so with that background, it is interesting to note that the very first area that ordinances dealt with was that of slavery.
It is also important to note how people became slaves in the Israelite society at the time.  Guzik suggests there were four basic ways a Hebrew might become a slave to another Hebrew as taken from later Scripture:
1.     In extreme poverty, they might sell their liberty (Leviticus 25:39).
2.     A father might sell his children into servitude (Exodus 21:7).
3.     In the case of bankruptcy, a man might become servant to his creditors (2 Kings 4:1).
4.     If a thief (or other criminal) had nothing with which to pay proper restitution (Exodus 22:3-4).
The first thing we note is that God never intended for any slave to be the property of any master forever.  A bought slave was only bought to work for six years and then the slave would be released as a free person and no payment would exchange hands.  Each of the above-mentioned four ways a person could become a slave would be subject to this principle.  No one owns another person for life.  We are God’s creations and only He can redeem us forever.  It is also of interest to note that God chose six as the number of years for which a slave was to serve.  This is in keeping with the pattern of His instruction to us to work six days and then rest.
And at the end of the six years, when the slave is let go, he only goes with what and with whom he came.  There is much to consider or ask ourselves here.  First, were female slaves ever bought on their own, or perhaps with their husband?  (We will see later that the answer to this question is yes, certainly for single female slaves.)  Second, if a young man was bought as single unmarried person, and then married during his six years of slavery, what are the implications for that marriage after that?  (That question is indeed answered below.)  And third, what happens to the children if they were born prior to a married person becoming a slave, or after he married during his term of service?  (This question too is left unanswered to this point in the Scriptures.)
The third part of this short passage does shed some more light on what happens when a slave marries during his six-year term of service as a slave.  If a slave marries during his term, and has children, then both the wife and children do not become free with him at the end of his term of service, for the wife and the children “belong to the master”.  What is not clear here is whether a slave can marry during his term via any other means other than “if his master gives him a wife”?  Can he find his own wife, as unlikely as that may be?  And if so, can that wife and any children that follow leave with him at the end of the six months?  We do not know but would suggest the answer is no.  It does seem rather a harsh ordinance to say that the wife and children that were joined to the man during his term of slavery could not leave with him.  On the other hand, if we follow this principle, we may have an answer to our question about what happens to the children born to a slave during his term of service but who had a wife when he became a slave?  Would they not belong “to him”?  Or because they were born “in the service of his master” would the children still belong to the master at the time of separation?  These are difficult questions for which there is no answer to this point in the Scriptures.
It is clear here that the slave had no rights at all to possess anything or to acquire anything while he was a slave – perhaps even his own children from a wife he brought to his term of slavery.  So, is there a way out to save one’s new wife and/or children?  The answer is yes and we will address it next.

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