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Laws on Slavery (An Introduction)

Exodus 21:1-2a
“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave …”

I once had a book in my small library called ‘An Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties’ that I’d occasionally reference when a particularly difficult Scripture sent my mind into a tailspin, and I never encountered a more difficult reality in all the Scriptures than God’s rules here in Exodus 21 for the economy of slavery. For modern readers, the existence of slavery in Israel’s commonwealth is an existential crisis for Christianity. I wish I could just skip over Exodus 21 today and move on to something far more palatable, something like Psalm 23 or Isaiah 11 or John 3:16; but if Moses could draw near to God through the thick darkness of Sinai and come back more luminous, so can we.

Friend, mark this: it wasn’t enlightenment thinkers or American revolutionaries or civil rights leaders who finally put the truth in black and white that all men are created equal. It was Moses, in the opening lines of the first book in the Bible, in Genesis 1:27, who wrote as clear as day—“God created man in His own image—male and female he created them.” So before Renaissances and Reformations and Civil Wars, God already told us our intrinsic, unalienable worth. Yet, it’s taken us as societies thousands of years to wrap our minds around the wondrous idea, to calibrate our politics to the immovable proposition, to frame our constitutions in preservation of the truth. Which brings us to why Exodus 21 is such a difficult conundrum, because how God can so explicitly begin the whole redemptive drama by saying that all men are created equal yet allow for the subjugation of one image-bearing brother to another?

Let me recommend that we follow the examples of Abraham and Jacob and David and Asaph and Habakkuk and wrestle with the Lord for understanding as we go through Exodus 21. Beg Him for the wisdom and comprehension needed, not just for the sake of our own faith, but also for the sake of so many in our world today whose sensitivities might lead them to think of God as a slave-driver rather than the Servant-King He’s always been.