When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.
Exodus 21:2 (NRSVCE)
Slavery has always been a part of the human social equation though it has taken various forms in different periods of history. If you think that slavery is a thing of the past, then you need to get to know organizations like International Justice Mission, an amazing outfit that Wendy and I have supported financially for many years.
I find it ironic (or perhaps it’s God’s synchronicity) that I happen to be reading through Exodus and grappling with these texts at the same time that we are having a massive social conversation about America’s history with slavery and the continued repercussions of the race issues it created which continue to plague us. Wendy and I have been having on-going, daily conversations about our roles and responsibilities to make a positive difference. Over coffee this morning, Wendy shared that she’d heard someone mention being an “accomplice” to positive change, which we differentiated from being an “ally.” We want to more than just agree. We want to act, to be part of the solution; We want to be “accomplices” to change.
How do I, as a 21st century follower of Jesus, relate to today’s chapter? It’s an ancient Hebrew text that is basically a code of law dealing with specific instances of slavery around 3,500 years ago. How can this possibly relate to my life today?
I have a couple of thoughts.
First, it provides me with context. Slavery was not invented by Dutch traders kidnapping and sailing Africans to the America’s to be sold. As I mentioned in the outset of this post, slavery has always been a part of the human societal equation. What the European, American, Indian and Arab slave trade did with Africans was particularly heinous compared to the slavery we read about in today’s text.
Throughout the Near East in the time of the Exodus, life was particularly harsh and human existence was largely a fight for mere survival. The clan, the tribe, the community were essential for safety, protection, and provision. It’s hard for me as a “rugged individualist” in America to even relate to a world in which the tribe was more important than me as an individual, and a world in which human life was viewed as economic capital. Producing children, especially sons who could work, fight, and protect was among the most critical components to the survival of your family and community. The more men you had, the better your odds were of surviving against other tribes bent on killing you and taking everything you had (including your children to become slaves and your women to produce more men for their tribe).
Because humans were capital in the economy, debts could be paid and collected (within your own tribe or people group) by using your own life or the lives of your family members. You worked off your debt by becoming a slave to the person you owed money. Life (more particularly work and service) was a form of currency. Working for my creditor or giving a family member over to work for the creditor was part of the economy of that day.
Another important piece of context for me is that, through much of history, forms of slavery were legitimate forms of life-long protection and provision that some individuals chose into. In today’s chapter, the Hebrew code of law allowed for individuals who said, “I love my master,” and chose to remain in service. The individual chose to remain in service to his master and in return he received provision, protection, security, and sometimes kept his family together.
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. I’m not making excuses for, nor am I saying that slavery’s history makes it okay or acceptable. I’m simply saying that I believe I must understand and accept that slavery was part of daily Hebrew life and survival in 1500 B.C. It’s all that they knew.
The second lesson for me from today’s chapter is that God called His people to do better, and to do more. If you had a person in your service because they owed you a debt, you were expected to free that the person and forgive the debt in the seventh year no matter the size of the debt. The number here is significant. Seven in the Great Story always relates to completion as in seven days of creation, and the series of seven plagues prophesied in Revelation. This code went further than any other legal code we know about from that time. God expected His people to do better than those around them, to forgive debt, and to free people who owed you. This is the root of what Jesus brought to fruition when He called on me, as His follower, to look beyond the letter of God’s law. Murder isn’t just about killing a body, it’s also about murdering a person’s esteem and soul. Adultery isn’t just about sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t your spouse, it’s about letting your appetite for lust see another person as an object on which to indulge your sexual cravings.
Finally, I find that there’s a piece of what theologians call “free will” in all of this. God allowed for Hebrew society to operate like all the human societies who were living and surviving “East of Eden” during that time. What God instructed from His people was that they could do better than those around them. They were called to a higher standard. I can’t help but think of the Abolitionist movement in Britain and the United States that was motivated by Christ followers who refused to accept slavery as part of the human societal equation and instilled in their day that we have to do better. We have to change. In Jesus words, we have to do more than what’s expected and walk the extra-mile, love our enemy, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us, and show by our love-motivated actions that there is a better Way.
In the quiet this morning, this takes me full-circle back to Wendy’s comments over coffee. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to be more than an ally for justice. I am to be an accomplice in showing others, by love in action, that we can do better in this community, this state, this country, and this world.