|Series Theme: Meditations in Lessons from the Law of Moses|
Meditation No. 15
Meditation Title: The Law for Servants
Ex 21:2-4 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
Remember, we said in the previous meditation, these laws are to bring peace, order and stability to society. Many years ago when I taught Law at college, I would always ask my students in the first lesson, do we need laws, and why? They would always answer, yes, to protect the weak. That is an answer which corresponds very well with Scripture for the Lord is always concerned for the weak, the poor and the underdog. Someone who has to work for another as their servant is clearly in this category and so the Lord starts off these laws with instructions for caring for servants.
Note that it starts off, “If you buy a servant.” The situation would be that a family was poor and in need and so might sell a family member into servitude. They would become the ‘ownership' of the master who bought them and the family would receive the payment for them and they would receive their keep and become almost part of the family who bought them, and would work for them. The point that is at issue here is that when such a thing happened, the Lord demands that their period of service be limited to six years only and then they be released without payment.
Now we need to realise that this is very different from the concept of slavery for later in the Law in Leviticus we find the following instructions: “If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.” (Lev 25:39-43). The servant is to be treated as a ‘hired worker or a temporary resident', NOT a slave!
The fact of history is that slaves did exist. For example, Hagar had been Abraham's slave (Gen 21:10). In the Law, slaves could be bought by the Hebrews but only from other nations (Lev 25:44,45) and many laws protected the welfare of those slaves (e.g. Ex 21:20, 28-32, 23;12, Lev 19:20). The Lord was just as concerned for them as for servants and for masters. The Law however regulated the practice, already in the world, of owning slaves, and ensured in Israel , at least, slaves were well cared for.
The crucial issue, here at least, is that the period of servant-hood is strictly limited and so if poverty pushes a family into service, that is only for a relatively short period and not for a lifetime. If the servant was married when he came, then his wife went as well and when the period of service came to an end they both left.
Now comes the difficult part (in our modern eyes). If the master gives the servant a wife, she is under the master's directions and so she and any children remain with the master at the end of the period (unless of course a friendly master should release her as well). However legally she was to stay with the Master. It would be likely that a servant knowing this would either marry with the obligations and stay on at the end, or simply not marry during that time.
We then come to an even stranger part of the Law: “But if the servant declares, `I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free, then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” (v.5,6) There is an implied recognition here that being a servant for a good master actually created a great sense of security. It was just a job and one which had rewards which the servant might wish to continue. For a good master, such a job may have had no more onerous requirements than many jobs today. If the servant did want to stay on, then a simple procedure of creating a permanent body mark (like we pierce ears for earrings) indicated his intent and the master's agreement to have the servant and his family stay on. Actually piercing the ear against the doorpost of the home probably also added the sense symbolically of him being attached to that home. In reality it was no more different than ear piercing today. The purpose of these instructions was to formalise a process that often happened anyway – the servant staying on after the six years – in order to prevent abuse and to protect the servant by formalising the arrangement in the eyes of the Law and of the local community.
Although there is much that is taken for granted in these laws or implied by them, the basic guidelines are there that show the Lord's recognition of what went on in the world but which, in the redeemed community, should be carried out in a caring and humane way. Peace, order and security thus followed.