Protecting the Powerless

All men are created equal! Really? If we mean by this that all men will have equal rights and opportunity, then the statement is patently false in every country. There are the wealthy and the poor; you have bosses and employees; there are the powerful and the marginalized. The question of the day is; what do you do when you find yourself in control of someone else? Are you a parent? Are you a manager? Have you ever gone to McDonalds? Life places us in positions of control or in positions of powerlessness. Often in the same day. How do you treat the people who are in the moment at your mercy?

Exodus 21:1-11 is not an easy passage to deal with. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, we know, because Jesus told us, that God allowed some undesirable things to go on, even among his people, because of their hardness of heart (Mark 10:5). Second, sometimes there is more going on in a passage than our first impression. I was not too happy with this passage when I first read it. The concept of slavery is abhorrent to me. Also disturbing to me is the minimizing of women. When I first read this passage it seemed to validate slavery and then make a clear distinction in favor of male slaves. What in the world? When this happens to me, I know it is time to dig a little deeper and wrestle with the text.

God begins by telling Moses that what follows is guiding principles or judgments that Moses is to place in front of the face of the people. That seems to state emphatically that what follows is a bit important. And the first set of judgments is about purchasing “Hebrew slaves”. In Exodus and 1 Samuel as well, the term “Hebrew” seems to be reserved for what foreigners call the Israelites and it is probably not meant as a compliment. This has caused some to suggest that God is speaking specifically of foreign slaves here. But Deuteronomy 15 and Jeremiah 34, both of which restate this law, make it clear that God is speaking of Israelites. In Deuteronomy and Jeremiah it is equally clear that both male and female slaves are intended. The term “slave” is used for both males and females on several occasions when Israel is reminded that they used to be slaves in Egypt. Historically, we know that slavery among the Israelites was about debt or crime. I would like to suggest that God mentions “Hebrew slaves” because these men and women have found themselves in a situation of not being full citizens of Israel, whether because of illegal activity or because of overwhelming debt. They are the marginalized; the powerless. In this situation, they can be made to work off their debt for six years. At the end of six years they are to be set free and their debt is to be considered paid in full. In the Deuteronomy passage the master is commanded to also set them up with some livestock. So, they are given the chance to start over with some capital to aid them in their reboot. But what if, while working off his debt, the master gives the slave one of his female servants as a wife? His freedom does not make her or any of the resulting offspring free. The slave can decide to make a pledge before God to remain a slave forever so that he can remain with his wife and children. I believe the being brought to God means that this is to be done in the presence of priests or rulers or people. The master is not allowed to drag the slave to a door and pierce his ear and claim it was all his choice. No, it must be done with a public avowal made by the slave. Then the ear is pierced.

Verses 7-11 deal with a man selling his daughter. The practice most likely being referred to here is the selling of a daughter as a bride. If the man finds the wife “evil or bad” he is not allowed to sell her off to a foreign family, which may mean any strange family or a non-Jewish family. She has her rights. Her family must be given the opportunity to redeem her. And if the man decides to pawn her off on his son, she is to be treated as a daughter, not a slave. If the man just decides to marry another woman, he cannot reduce her food, clothes or conjugal rights. If he does, she can walk without any restitution of funds. I believe this is another example of God stepping in and dealing with their hardness of heart in order to protect young women. The text makes it clear that God is holding the master responsible. He may find her “evil” but God states that he has no authority to sell her because of his “treachery”.

The truth is, no matter where you live, there are those who are in power and those who are powerless. If you find yourself in the position of power, how do you treat those in your control? Are they mere objects to be used up and discarded? Or are they precious souls to be valued and protected? This passage may be difficult, but it is about God providing rights and protection to the powerless. Do the same.