“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out for free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”
Before diving into the details of Exodus 21:5, remember first and foremost that God has revealed Himself to His people the way a father reveals truth to a child: in stages. Societies have changed, political systems have adapted, and ideologies about man’s civic duties have altered as well, yet God remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. Which is precisely why the hermeneutic of progressive revelation is so foundational here. It means that our Father has been holding our little hands through every stage of our development, stooping down to meet us at our level, crawling and walking and running with us at our pace, with incarnational humility too deep to fathom.
So when approaching Exodus 21:5, keep in mind that the running hypothesis of freedom in our modern Western world has been an ever-adapting one, with the most seismic shifts in our evolving theory taking place in just the last six hundred years. From John Calvin’s proposition on individual soul liberty, to John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into the language of common men, to Kierkegaard’s philosophic fragments on individual rather than institutional faith, to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, to William Wilberforce’s legislative action to abolish the slave-trade, to Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad operations, each innovation has further altered our interpretation of what man’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness entail. But the train’s still moving, and theories are still evolving, and five hundred years from now people might look back on our own society today the way we look back on the so-called primitive nomads of Exodus 21—as ancient history.
Note this, friend: there’s always been only one way to life, liberty, and happiness, and it’s paradoxically illustrated through this bondservant analogy: Christ’s word pierces our ears like an awl; the Spirit masters our thoughts and affections and ambitions; and the Father’s will dictates our every action. That might sound like slavery on paper. But it’s freedom at its finest in practice.