The first twenty chapters of Exodus tell the story of an epic adventure, in which a people enslaved by their enemies make a daring escape into the wilderness. The next three chapters are somewhat less entertaining. God said to Moses, “These are the laws you are to set before them” (21:1). Then he proceeded to issue a long list of rules for everyday life—regulations covering everything from what to do in the case of wrongful death to how to put up collateral for a loan. When God was finished, Moses “went and told the people all the LORD’S words and laws” (Exod. 24:3a).
This section of Exodus—which the Bible calls “the Book of the Covenant” (Exod. 24:7a)—does not make for very exciting reading (unless one happens to be a lawyer). Frankly, it’s one part of Exodus that preachers usually skip. As one Bible scholar describes it, “Boredom seems to set in at this point, relieved only by the golden calf incident narrated in chapter 32.… The impression is given that the writer of Exodus has now inserted into a brilliant narrative a series of rules and regulations that are of interest only to historians.”
Whether or not we find it very interesting, the Book of the Covenant is important. The mere fact that it is in the Bible means that it merits our attention. But the Book of the Covenant also teaches us how to live for God day by day. First God gave Israel his moral law in the form of the Ten Commandments. Then he showed them how to apply his law in various life situations. This is where the Book of the Covenant comes in. It is “an application of the Decalogue to the specific social context of Israel as a nation.”
The Book of the Covenant was revealed by God, just as were the Ten Commandments. Some scholars say the Israelites borrowed most of their laws from other civilizations. It is true that by the time of Moses other laws had been written, such as Hammurabi’s famous code (c. 1700 B.C.). It is also true that some of the laws in Exodus are similar to ones archaeologists have discovered elsewhere. This is not surprising. Most cultures have laws to prohibit murder, stealing, and other common crimes. Yet for all the similarities, the differences are more striking. For example, the Book of the Covenant afforded legal protections for women and the poor that were unavailable anywhere else in the ancient world. But the biggest difference was that no other nation had ever entered into a covenant with Almighty God. Whereas all the other nations came up with their laws on their own, the Israelites received them straight from God.
This means that the regulations in the Book of the Covenant are as fully authoritative as the Ten Commandments. However, there are some things that make them different. This part of Exodus was not written directly by the finger of God, but with the pen of Moses—not in stone, but on parchment (Exod. 24:4a). The implication is that they do not bind with the same eternal force; somehow they are less fundamental. This explains why we do not continue to keep these laws down to the very letter. While the Book of the Covenant contains principles that we can still apply today, its specific civil pronouncements and penalties were for the nation of Israel and thus are no longer binding on the church or the state.
We must also understand that even in the days of Moses, the Book of the Covenant was never intended to address every possible situation. It was more a guide to cases than a statutory code. Whereas the Ten Commandments were expressed as universal absolutes, the laws in the Book of the Covenant dealt with specific situations. They provided a series of legal precedents that wise elders could use in settling disputes. While these case laws could not possibly cover every new situation that might arise, they illustrated basic legal principles for living in community with the people of God.
Truly, this was exciting. The Book of the Covenant showed the Israelites how the law applied to daily life. Regulations about livestock grazing in a field may seem mundane. However, this is where most of us live most of the time—at the level of ordinary existence. Thankfully, God is as interested in this part of our lives as he is in anything else that happens in his world. The Book of the Covenant is about living for God, not just when we are standing at the foot of the mountain and gazing at his awesome glory, but when our neighbor borrows a video and fails to give it back, when someone is spreading rumors, or when an argument turns into a fistfight. In other words, it is about real life.
At first the Book of the Covenant may seem somewhat disorganized, a hodgepodge of unrelated rules. Yet there are clear signs of organization, including important connections to the Ten Commandments. Various sections of the covenant seem to be tied to particular commandments.
The Book of the Covenant starts with slavery, which in fact is the way the Ten Commandments begin. Before God gave his people the law, he reminded them how he brought them “out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). How appropriate, then, for God to begin the Book of the Covenant with the same topic. The Israelites were former slaves, and now that they were free, it would be unthinkable for them to treat one another the way Pharaoh had once treated them. Thus God began his Book of the Covenant by regulating the relationship between masters and servants.
We might have expected God to abolish slavery altogether. What he did instead was to allow for certain forms of servitude, with safeguards to protect the welfare and dignity of those who served. This is consistent with what the Bible teaches elsewhere. Without ever defending the practice of slavery, the Bible assumes that some form of servitude will continue. Yet it transforms the institution by carefully regulating the relationship between master and slave in ways that eliminate abuse and ultimately cause slavery (at least as we know it) to disappear.
This is hard for us to understand. In America we struggle with the Biblical teaching about masters and slaves because our painful national experience with slavery makes it hard for us to appreciate the very different social and economic circumstances of the ancient Near East. When we hear the word slavery, we think of the Civil War and everything that led up to it. But there were crucial differences between that kind of slavery and servitude in Israel.
In Israel servitude was voluntary (at least for Israelites). People hired themselves into the service of others. Usually this was because they were poor, and they recognized that the best way to meet their needs while at the same time paying off their debts was to become someone’s servant. Servant is the proper word for it. They were not slaves, as we usually think of the term, but something more like apprentices, hired hands, or indentured laborers. They lived in their master’s home, where they worked hard in exchange for room, board, and an honest wage.
Involuntary slavery was forbidden. Only a few verses later the law demands the death penalty for slave traders: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (Exod. 21:16). This verse rules out the whole institution of slavery as it was practiced in Africa and the West, and as it is still practiced in some parts of the world today. The Bible condemns the sin of man-stealing. Whenever people try to defend slavery on Biblical grounds, this is something they generally overlook. But the Bible passages dealing with masters and servants have little to do with slavery in America because that form of slave trading was a flagrant violation of the law of God.
Another difference between servitude in Israel and most other forms of slavery is that in Israel servanthood was temporary. God gave his people this law: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free” (v. 2). Here again we see the Sabbath principle at work. Just as God’s people had the freedom to rest one whole day in seven, Hebrew slaves were set free in their sabbatical year. Once they had served their time, they had a chance to start over, and this prevented them from remaining in perpetual servitude.
When Hebrew slaves were set free in the seventh year, they were not sent away empty-handed. Instead, their masters were required to give them everything they needed to make a new start in life:
If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today. (Deut. 15:12–15)
Masters had a responsibility to set their former slaves up in business. In effect, they gave them what some folks talked about giving American slaves after the Civil War, but the government never delivered: the proverbial “forty acres and a mule.” God is gracious, and he wanted his people to treat one another with the same kind of grace they had received when they were delivered from Egypt and went out loaded with silver and gold (Exod. 12:35, 36).
This proves that the Biblical form of slavery had a constructive purpose. It was for the benefit of the servant as well as of the master. This is not the way slavery usually works. Ordinarily it is for the master’s advantage: He gets his work done at his slave’s expense. But the purpose of slavery in Israel was to train men and women to become productive members of society. The reason they had to become servants in the first place was because they were in debt, sometimes through their own negligence and sometimes to make restitution for a theft. In such cases their servitude was made necessary by their sin. But rather than being condemned to a life of perpetual poverty, they had a chance to improve their situation. Slavery was God’s way of training irresponsible men to manage their own affairs.
By selling themselves to other members of the covenant community, debtors became members of stable households, where their needs were met and where they could get on-the-job training. They learned how to work in the context of a family. This was all in preparation for their ultimate freedom. Thus slavery had a redemptive purpose. Its goal was not perpetual bondage but responsible independence. The Hebrew servant was bound for freedom.
Here again we see how different things were in Israel, where even slavery was for the good of humanity and the glory of God. The relationship between the master and the servant is always subject to abuse. Taking advantage of others is part of our sinful nature, and whenever we have power, we tend to abuse it. But God wanted his people to care for one another. To that end, he regulated this relationship so that it would be mutually beneficial. Voluntary, temporary slavery was as much for the servant’s benefit as for his master’s.
A final difference between conventional and Biblical slavery concerned marriage. In America, slavery had a devastating effect on black families. Slave-owners bought and sold human beings as they pleased, with the result that husbands and wives were often separated. But the Bible—even in its regulations for slavery—preserves the sanctity of marriage. Consider what happened when a slave was set free: “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”(Exod. 21:3). In other words, a former slave returned to his former station in life. If he was single, he stayed single. If he was married, he stayed married.
Things got more complicated, however, when the man married another slave. In this case, although he was set free, his wife and children remained with their master: “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” (v. 4). Certainly this law cannot be faulted for a lack of fairness. If the wife and children belonged to the master to begin with, they were his property, and he had a right to keep them. Furthermore, the law allowed slaves in this situation to choose to stay with their families, as we shall see (vv. 5, 6). Yet most commentators still have trouble accepting a law that let a man go free while his family remained in bondage. “A cruel inconsistency,” they call it. The law hardly seems like a good way to strengthen a marriage. What was God doing?
It is at least possible that this law actually was for the protection of women and children. Remember that the husband and father in this case was a former debtor. If his servitude had served its purpose, he was now ready to become a productive member of the covenant community. Soon he would be able to buy his family’s freedom (see Lev. 25:47–55), and they would all be united under one roof—his roof. But if he had failed to learn his lesson, he would soon be back in debt, and this time his wife and children would also have to suffer the consequences. For the time being, then, the safest thing would be for them to remain under the care of their master. They were still a family, but the woman and her children would remain in their master’s household until their husband and father could take full responsibility for them in a God-honoring way.
What practical application do these laws have for today? The question we always need to ask about the Book of the Covenant is this: “If that was what was required back then with their particular set of circumstances, then how do we put the same basic principles into operation today when we are faced with this different set of circumstances?” Here the answer is that employers should not exploit their employees but should seek to promote their welfare, even to the point of helping them advance their careers. When people are in debt, they should be given an opportunity to pay back what they owe, in a context where they can learn how to be responsible citizens. The lack of such opportunities is a major problem in America today. Debtors should not be given handouts, of course; they need to learn how to work. But this requires the personal involvement of people who are willing to take the time to show them how.
Servanthood in Israel was supposed to be very different from conventional slavery. It was voluntary, it was temporary, and its purpose was to lead people into freedom. God’s slave laws were also designed to protect the family, especially women and children. This was true not only of the laws for menservants, but also of the laws for maidservants, which began as follows: “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do” (Exod. 21:7).
At first this law seems unfair, and thus it raises some obvious questions: Why did God allow his people to sell their daughters into slavery? And why didn’t he allow maidservants to go free in the same way that menservants could? It doesn’t seem right! In fact, at first it seems like God treated the men better than the women. Not surprisingly, this is one of the passages people use to criticize the Bible for being sexist.
To understand these laws, it is necessary to know the cultural context. While we do not have all the details we might like, we know enough to recognize that these laws had a benevolent purpose. The man who sold his daughter was not trying to get rid of her but to improve her prospects in life. What this verse describes was really a form of arranged marriage, which, however strange it may sound to most Americans, has been common in many parts of the world for most of human history. A poor man would send his daughter to a rich man in the hope that she would become a permanent member of his household. She entered into a conditional form of servitude, hoping that eventually she might marry the master’s son.
Obviously, this arrangement was subject to abuse. A bad master might take advantage of a maidservant by treating her harshly, selling her to slave-traders, or even releasing her from servitude. Such freedom may sound ideal. However, in the ancient world a woman who did not belong to a household was vulnerable to all kinds of danger; it was not safe for her to go free. In order to flourish, she needed to live within the community of a family. So by not allowing maidservants to go free, God was not seeking to restrict them but actually to protect them. He knew that even within the covenant community, men would try to take advantage of servant girls.
God’s law afforded maidservants three specific protections. The first concerned a master who decided that he didn’t want her service after all. For whatever reason, he was displeased with her. In this case he was not allowed to treat her any way he pleased. Instead, he was obligated to let her return to her own family: “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her” (v. 8). There was a probationary period for the maidservant to prove her worth. But notice that if things didn’t work out, the maidservant was not to blame. The master was the one at fault, not she; so the right and honorable thing was to allow her family to ransom her. They had the right to purchase her redemption.
The second situation involved a master who was pleased with his maidservant—so pleased in fact that he wanted her to marry his son. In this case, “If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter” (v. 9). Apparently at this point the maidservant was only engaged, not married. Yet she was welcomed as a full member of the family, with all the privileges of a daughter. This was really a form of adoption. Here again we see that God’s law had the woman’s best interests at heart: A maidservant could gain her freedom by being betrothed to the master’s son. As a married woman, she would have the full rights of a free citizen.
Sometimes engagements get broken, and—even more sadly—sometimes marriages end in divorce. When this happened to a maidservant, what would become of her? This question is important because in those days when a woman was married she received bride money from her husband. This was a form of security. It ensured that in the event something happened to her husband, or to their marriage, she would have enough to live on.
A maidservant did not have this protection. She was already treated as a member of the family; so no one paid her the price of a bride. But this left her without any insurance if her fiancé changed his mind or if her husband later decided to take another wife. So the law stated, “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money” (vv. 10, 11). No matter what happened, there were three things a husband had to provide for his wife: food (literally, meat), clothing (meaning shelter, which is a form of physical protection), and marital rights (which probably refers here to sexual intimacy). If a man failed to provide these things for a maidservant, she was released from her servitude. This prevented masters from taking advantage of their servant girls.
Critics sometimes say that the Bible has a negative attitude about women. Even some Christians secretly suspect that they ought to be embarrassed about the Old Testament attitude toward women, or that it is hard to defend God against the charge of chauvinism. But the truth is that God has always loved his daughters. If the Biblical teaching about men and women challenges our preconceptions, it is because our own thinking is distorted by sin. This is true of everyone and in every culture. Gender relationships always need to be transformed by the life-changing power of God’s Word; so we should expect that some of our attitudes about what it means to be male and female need to be changed. But we should never doubt the goodness of God, who loves his daughters as much as his sons and has always given them the care and protection they need to flourish.
In practical terms, the law for maidservants helps set the agenda for Christian marriage. What does a wife need? She needs to eat; so it is a husband’s responsibility to provide. She needs shelter; so she ought to find protection in his care. She also needs intimacy, at every level. Sex is never just about what people do with their bodies. It is an expression of the total love commitment between a husband and wife. These are all areas where a woman contributes to the marriage as an equal partner. But her husband has the responsibility before God to make sure that she gets what she needs. A husband who fails to care for his wife in any of these areas—provision, protection, or the physical expression of love—violates the law of God.
SERVANTS FOR LIFE
Even though we are not bound to follow the Old Testament slave laws today, they teach us practical principles to apply at home and at work. They also provide wonderful pictures of our salvation in Christ.
The Book of the Covenant showed how a servant living with a bad master could be redeemed and go back home. It also showed how a slave without any prospects could gain her freedom by marrying her master’s son. These narratives ought to sound familiar because they are both part of the gospel story. We were born as slaves to sin, tyrannized by the cruel mastery of the devil. But when Christ was crucified, he paid the price to redeem us, and now we are free to go back home to God. To tell the same story a different way, we were all alone, living without hope. But when we came to God, he engaged us to marry his one and only Son. Thus the Bible describes the Church as the bride of Christ. We are married to the Master’s Son. These are two examples of how the law of Moses points us to salvation in Christ.
But perhaps the most beautiful picture of the gospel comes from the law’s special provision for a slave who wanted to enter his master’s permanent service. God said: “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” (Exod. 21:5, 6).
It must have been a remarkable occasion. After six years of labor, a slave decided that rather than going free, he wanted to continue to serve his master. Some masters might take advantage of this law by forcing their slaves to keep working. In order to prevent this, there had to be a public ceremony. First the slave went before the elders to make a formal declaration of his desire to keep serving. The Bible literally says that the slave must be taken “before God,” meaning in this case his representatives among the spiritual leaders of the covenant community. Today we would say that the slave made his declaration “before God and these witnesses.” The declaration had to be emphatic. The Hebrew idiom could be translated like this: “If the servant truly declares …” There could be no doubt as to the man’s intentions.
Once the servant had made his declaration, everyone went to the doorpost of the master’s house, where a sharp object was driven through the slave’s ear. This was symbolic. The ear is the most important part of a servant’s body. He has to hear before he can obey. By having his ear pierced, therefore, the servant was making a public commitment to do what his master said. The doorpost was also symbolic. Not only did it serve as a place for driving the awl, but it also showed that the servant was now attached to his master’s household. The doorpost was marked with the blood of a covenant between master and slave.
This form of servitude was totally voluntary. Anyone who saw the servant’s earring would know that he had chosen to serve. But why would anyone make this choice? What could persuade a man to renounce his freedom and remain bound to his master? The answer is love. The slave who had his ear pierced swore an oath of allegiance: “I love my master” (Exod. 21:5). His servitude was not a form of tyranny, but a voluntary act of love.
This raises a further question: What kind of master would deserve so much love? The master who deserved to be loved was a good master. He took care of all his servant’s needs. He was also a kind master, one who treated his servant like a friend. And he was a generous master: He had his servant’s best interests at heart. In a word, he was a loving master, and thus it was only natural for his servant to love him in return. Rather than looking for freedom somewhere else, the servant had found it in his master’s house.
This special provision of the law has much to teach us about our relationship to God. David wrote about it in one of his psalms:
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.” (Ps. 40:6–8)
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.” (Ps. 40:6–8)
According to David, pleasing God means more than simply offering a sacrifice for sin. It also means doing what God says, obeying him the way a servant obeys the master he loves. To illustrate this, David referred to the ancient custom and compared himself to a servant who had his ear pierced. He had learned to hear and obey, offering himself in loving service to God.
This is the only way for us to find true freedom: not by serving ourselves, but by choosing to become servants of God. “I run in the path of your commands,” wrote the psalmist, “for you have set my heart free” (119:32). We are loved by the best Master of all. He takes care of all our needs. He does not treat us like slaves, but more like friends. He always has our best interests at heart. If all this is true, then why would we want to serve anyone else?
But there is more. We serve a Master who has made himself our slave, taking on the very nature of a servant (Phil. 2:7). This is the story of our salvation, that the Son of God “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This means that the words of David are really the words of Jesus. David was standing in for the Messiah, who lived in a way that said to his Father, “My ears you have pierced.… ‘Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’ ” Jesus always chose to do his Father’s will. We could even say that he is the servant who declared, “I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free” (Exod. 21:5). Out of his great love for his Father—and for us as his bride, his sons, and his daughters—Jesus bound himself to God’s will, even when it meant suffering and dying for our sins. The greatest service of all was his death on the cross.
If a servant loves a master who takes care of him and treats him like a friend, imagine what a servant would do for a master who saved him, and at the cost of his own life! We are loved by such a Master. Why would we ever want to serve anyone else, least of all ourselves? What we ought to do is give ourselves entirely to his service. We ought to make a public declaration of our allegiance to Christ. We ought to listen to his Word and obey his voice. We ought to say, “I love my Master, and I want my heart to be bound to him forever.” Service to such a gracious master is not bondage but freedom. As Ambrose rightly said, “That man is truly free … who is entirely God’s.”
The story is told of a visit Abraham Lincoln once made to a slave auction, where he was appalled to see the buying and selling of human beings:
His heart was especially drawn to a young woman on the block whose story seemed to be told in her eyes. She looked with hatred and contempt on everyone around her. She had been used and abused all her life, and this time was but one more cruel humiliation. The bidding began, and Lincoln offered a bid. As other amounts were bid, he counter-bid with larger amounts until he won. When he paid the auctioneer the money and took title to the young woman, she stared at him with vicious contempt. She asked him what he was going to do next with her, and he said, “I’m going to set you free.”
“Free?” she asked. “Free for what?”
“Just free,” Lincoln answered. “Completely free.”
“Free to do whatever I want to do?”
“Yes,” he said. “Free to do whatever you want to do.”
“Free to say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes, free to say whatever you want to say.”
“Free to go wherever I want to go?” she added with skepticism. Lincoln answered, “You are free to go anywhere you want to go.”
“Then I’m going with you!” she said with a smile.
Whether this story is fact or fiction, it shows us what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Anyone who trusts in Christ for salvation has been delivered from sin and death. Now we are free. Free for what? Free to say, “Jesus, I’m going with you!”
Ryken, P. G., & Hughes, R. K. (2005). Exodus: saved for God’s glory (pp. 697–707). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.