“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.”
No one in their right mind would ever call slavery a good thing any more than they would call war a good thing, because slavery and war both extend from man’s exertion of power over his brother, but it’s important to understand that the enterprise of slavery was in certain times and places in the ancient world a necessary socio-economic affair, sometimes even a mercy when the ulterior was genocide. Think of it like this. What if Assyrians stormed through your city, burned down all the buildings, and seized you and your children. What would you do? Your entire livelihood has been obliterated; your community is in a heap; thousands of your strongest men lie dead around you; weeping widows and screaming children are running frantically through the streets. What will you eat? How will you get protection from future attacks? How will you rebuild the walls of your vanquished life? You won’t. Instead, you’ll do the human thing. You’ll get down on your knees and beg for the most precious thing you’ve got—your life—in exchange for your fealty.
What did freedom mean to Hagar when Sarah sent her and Ishmael packing? It was a death knell, and she wept rather than rejoiced. So at least it’s helpful to realize that not all forms of captivity in the ancient world were ethical nightmares. Even pagans like Potiphar clearly treated Joseph with respect, placing him in charge over his entire household. And both Darius and Nebuchadnezzar, for all their dark sides, gave Daniel and his exiled friends prominent positions in the palace. So there was hope for slaves in the old world. There was a chance they could rise from their low position to greater heights. It was far from ideal, a far cry from Zion’s glory, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom either.
That gives us a little insight into why many of these hard-hearted Hebrews will constantly gripe at Moses for taking them out of their own captivity in Egypt. But which do you think is a sadder sight? To see a slave who yearns for freedom but can’t get out? Or to see a free man who yearns for slavery but can’t get back?