Social Legality

It seems that “legalism” among disciples of Jesus has created a situation where a major portion of inspired Scripture has been jettisoned: the Torah. It’s as if the law is irrelevant to modern disciples. What is ironic about this is how difficult it has become to now practically apply the Scripture that is still acceptable. There is an alternative.

What if disciples of Jesus considered the Torah of God was actually helpful, still inspired, and still relevant to a life as a disciple of Jesus? What would that look like? How could someone “saved by grace through faith” find laws helpful? Well, let’s look at some. Here’s one we deal with every day, slavery…

“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.

Exodus 21:2 NASB

And this is where the typical believer points out that this has no relevance to their lives, and that they even find it embarrassing that God would have a law encouraging slavery. It’s time to be atypical. Read that through. “If you buy a Hebrew slave…” Why would that even happen? It happened when a Hebrew became impoverished and needed money to keep the family farm afloat. This is an indentured servant, not a captive of war or arbitrary enslavement of a race of people. It served that culture as a way to make money without putting up the farm as security. Instead it was the physical labor of a person.

But keep reading, “he shall serve for six years…” there is a legal limit to how much work or how long this person works. It’s not a life sentence, it’s not a curse or a sign they’ve lost everything. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a six-year agreement. Most loans are for longer than that, even for cars. This law refuses to demean a Hebrew who is suffering some sort of financial setback or loss. It protects him from being abused by those with more money.

But there are other problems that could stem from this cultural practice.

If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.

Exodus 21:3-4 NASB

The first part protects both the person who “buys” the Hebrew’s work for six years and the Hebrew bought. If he comes in unmarried, he’s not allowed to take another slave with him (no running off with another slave who’s time isn’t up yet). That part makes sense. If he’s married when he becomes a slave (the “master” got a “two-fer”), he leaves with the wife. There’s no breaking up a family unit which was intact to begin with.

But this sets up the next statement which is hard, and protects the slave-owner. If the slave-owner joins one of his female slaves to the Hebrew slave, she stays after the six years. And this is the rule, even if there are children. To understand this better, it may be helpful to read ahead to the law about female “slaves” (maidservants), but that isn’t the only instance. It could be a foreign female slave in view here. Either way, ownership which was there before the union remains after the freeing of the male slave. It’s a problem, a serious one, and God is interested keeping families together, and has a solution.

But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.

Exodus 21:5-6 NASB

This is a very cultural law, but it solves the problem of broken families. The other option is for the slave to go out alone, and earn enough to redeem his family. That could be a problem if poverty caused his situation in the first place. The reality is that it would better to remain a slave if he truly wanted to keep his family together. And, judged from this culture in this time, it’s a horrible situation. And it wasn’t great in their day either. But keep in mind that Paul makes rules about household slaves and their owners in Ephesians 6.

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.
And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

Ephesians 6:5-9 NASB

Keep in mind this is a very different sort of slavery than what was practiced in Europe and the United States during the 18th and 19th Centuries. This was voluntary and clearly temporary. It was a “contract” between two people. What the law was designed to do was protect the poor, limit the power of the rich, but also protect “property rights”. While we may judge this culture of the 13th Century BC harshly by our 21st Century AD mores and culture, the truth is that our Creator is clearly interested in how the rich treat those less fortunate, and how the poor are not to be allowed to disrupt the economy (read it again).

When we judge this rule by the standards of our culture then we miss the message of our Savior. He is interested in how we treat those less fortunate, and those more fortunate. We assume the former, and forget the latter. Both have responsibilities. Both are answerable to the same Creator.

As Paul points out, “…both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” We forget that. But our Savior does not. We can learn from these forgotten and disregarded, ignored legal texts. And this is just the first lesson. More to come.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation