“‘In that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them.” Jeremiah 30:8. One would think that a people freed from Egypt and Babylon would do away and want no part of slavery, but sometimes it takes a little longer than we would think to free our minds from ignorance.
I have been living in a small town for about a year now. Most everything in the town seems frozen in time, from the town square my parents walked around, to mostly the same staple eateries. Change is something that has to happen gradually for folks here, if it’s too abrupt people can’t seem to swallow it. A dear friend reminded me of this today by sending out a quote from Mary Shelly, who once said, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” Our small town is pushing to let go of a law that’s been in effect since the 1920’s. They’ve been prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol for decades. Of course, you can get alcohol here, you just have to go through the drive thru of the local bootlegger who is well known by most folks in the town, including the police. Matter a fact, I hear in some places the police call and warn the bootlegger before they head for a raid. I read an article today about one woman who was able to purchase wine at 14 from the bootlegger here in town. No I.D required. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, alcohol is not the problem, neither is food, sex, or any other substance, its men who are over-indulgent. In order to get towns like ours prepared, they have come up with something in-between called “moist.” This is when the people are allowed to have a glass of wine or an alcoholic drink with dinner, but not on Sunday and not without food involved. Many towns like this one, try and ease into the new mindset so the people can adapt. Which brings me to our Torah portion.
I’ve been behind on my Bible studies and posting to Obadiah’s Cave. It’s been a jam-packed couple of weeks, but I wanted to begin this Torah portion with a topic that can be touchy and often misconstrued through ignorance. When we begin chapter 21 of Exodus we see slavery mentioned and rules for slaves. I must explain to you that they were not slaves in the sense that you may envision. What is actually going on here is indentured servitude, of course that was only for fellow Hebrews. Ownership did exist and I am not condoning it. Due to the times and culture, the topic of slavery had to be addressed in the Torah and it had to be eased into. We found that out the hard way in our own nation. Men in Lincoln’s day found verses in favor of slavery and they found verses against it. One God, one book, and may different doctrines.
Let’s take a look at the verses closely.
“If you purchase a Hebrew slave, he is to work six years; but in the seventh, he is to be given his freedom without having to pay anything. If he came single, he is to leave single; if he was married when he came, his wife is to go with him when he leaves. But if his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters, then the wife and her children will belong to her master, and he will leave by himself. Nevertheless, if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children, so I don’t want to go free,’ then his master is to bring him before God; and there at the door or doorpost, his master is to pierce his ear with an awl; and the man will be his slave for life.” Exodus 21:2-6 CJB. By the time we get to verse seven we see more rules for women and the text even implies fathers were selling their own daughters.
“If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed.” 21:7-8 NASB.
According to myjewishlearning.com, “She is not the amah ivriyah (Hebrew indentured servant) the text speaks about in 21:7-12. In that case, a girl has been sold by a presumably impoverished Israelite parent into a wealthier family on the understanding that she will eventually be married to the master or one of his sons as a free woman. This practice is well attested in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Should the man take another wife, he must continue to support her. An Israelite woman may not be resold if her owner is displeased with her; instead, she must go free without any compensation to the master. Her servitude, too, is time limited.”
Hebrew slaves were given rest on Shabbat, Feast days, and they ate the same food as their masters. When we study more verses on “slavery” we get a much more humane picture of what was going on here for the Hebrew slave, as they were given parting gifts. Here is a passage from Deuteronomy 15:13-18.
“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, he is to serve you for six years; but in the seventh year, you are to set him free. Moreover, when you set him free, don’t let him leave empty-handed; but supply him generously from your flock, threshing-floor and winepress; from what Adonai your God has blessed you with, you are to give to him. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Adonai your God redeemed you; that is why I am giving you this order today. But if he says to you, ‘I don’t want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your household, and because his life with you is a good one; then take an awl, and pierce his ear through, right into the door; and he will be your slave forever. Do the same with your female slave. Don’t resent it when you set him free, since during his six years of service he has been worth twice as much as a hired employee. Then Adonai your God will bless you in everything you do.”
In Jeremiah 34 the HaShem makes it clear that the people have sinned by not releasing any of the male and female bondservants in the 7th year and He again reiterates that they once were slaves in Egypt until He set them free.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, In Rabbinical Literature:
The following account is drawn mainly from Maimonides’ Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah:
The Hebrew servant referred to in the Torah is of two classes: (1) he whom the court has sold without his consent; and (2) he who has willingly sold himself. The court may sell a man for theft only, as noted above. A man may sell himself (Lev. xxv. 39) because of extreme poverty, after all his means are exhausted; he should not sell himself as long as any means are left to him. He should not sell himself to a woman, nor to a convert, nor to a Gentile. Should he do so, however, even if he sells himself to a heathen temple, the sale is valid; but it then becomes the duty not only of his kinsmen, but of all Israelites, to redeem him, lest he become “swallowed up” in heathendom. The sale of a Hebrew into bondage should be made privately, not from an auction-block, nor even from the sidewalk, where other slaves are sold.”
Slaves were treated horrible, and in order to put a stop to these practices the Torah went into detail. You may remember that Samson’s eyes were gouged out. King Zedekiah’s eyes were gouged out by Nebuchadnezzar. They would pull out their teeth so they couldn’t eat much and they would beat them to death. If they broke something they lost a hand. They were castrated and treated horribly. The Romans would even cut out their tongues so they couldn’t bring unwanted information among leaders that they may have overheard. The instruction in Torah was to save, free, and bring better treatment to those who were in servitude positions. But like all progress, at times we have to ease into it.
Job is thought to be the oldest book recorded. He had this to say, “If I have despised the claim of my male or female slaves when they filed a complaint against me, what then could I do when God arises? And when He calls me to account, what will I answer Him? “Did not He who made me in the womb make him, And the same one fashion us in the womb? Job 31:13-15 NASB.
All the other nations owned their slaves, but in the Torah Hebrew slaves would go free in the 7th year and not leave empty handed but with livestock and abundance just as the children of Israel left Egypt.
Ultimately, when you read about slavery it comes back to loving your neighbor as yourself and that includes everyone. “Never deprive foreigners and orphans of justice. And never take widows’ clothes to guarantee a loan. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from slavery. So I’m commanding you to do this.
This is what you must do when you’re harvesting wheat in your field. If you forget to bring in one of the bundles of wheat, don’t go back to get it. Leave it there for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.
When you harvest olives from your trees, never knock down all of them. Leave some for foreigners, orphans, and widows.
When you pick the grapes in your vineyard, don’t pick all of them. Leave some for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. So I’m commanding you to do this.” Deuteronomy 24:17-22.
Even the slaves that were beaten and were under ownership, were gradually given more and more freedom. Even in Deuteronomy we read, “If a slave escapes from his master and comes to you, don’t return him to his master. 16 Let him stay with you and live among your people wherever he chooses, in any of your cities that seems best to him. Never mistreat him.” 23:15-16.
This goes against the laws that were in place at that time among other nations. If a slave ran off they would kill him and if you took in a runaway slave they would kill you as well. Some people treat their dogs in a manner that’s just unbearable. Beating and chaining an animal outside in the cold…feeding them food that is unhealthy, never speaking kind words to them. I see this gradually changing too. Going over some Torah portions are more inspirational than others, but I also believe we need to dig in and learn all we can about our faith. I’ve come to look at it like the dry, wet, and moist counties, it was a gradual change and we are still changing. Now if we could only rid sex slavery and trafficking!