Hebrew Bond-Service
Exodus 21:2-12
If you buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.…

The laws relating to this subject are to be found, in addition to those in the present chapter, in Exodus 12:43-45; Exodus 22:3; Leviticus 25:39-55; Leviticus 26:13; Deuteronomy 12:12, 18; Deuteronomy 15:15-19; Deuteronomy 16:11, 14; Deuteronomy 21:10-15; Deuteronomy 23:15; Deuteronomy 24:7. An impartial examination of these laws will show how fallacious must be every argument attempted to be deduced from them in favour of modern slave-holding. (On the fallacy of all such arguments, based on the state of matters in primitive society, see Maine''s "Ancient Law," pp. 162-166.) The Mosaic law did not establish slavery - at most it accorded to it a very modified toleration. It accepted it as an existing usage, labouring to the utmost to reduce, and as far as that was practicable, to abolish, the cvils connected with it. It could not well do more, for slavery, under the then existing conditions of society, was in some form or other almost inevitable, and was often the only alternative to a worse evil. Yet the law in its entire spirit and fundamental doctrines was opposed to slavery. Its doctrines of the dignity of man as made in God''s image, and of the descent of all mankind from one pair, contained in principle the recognition of every human right. As a member of the theocracy, redeemed by Jehovah for himself, every Israelite was free by constitutional right (see the emphatic annunciation of this principle in Leviticus 25:42, 55; Leviticus 26:13). If from temporary causes, the Hebrew lost the use of his freedom, the right to it was not thereby destroyed. It returned to him at the beginning of the seventh year. A law can hardly be regarded as favourable to slavery which makes man-stealing a crime punishable by death (ver. 18), and which enacts that a fugitive slave, taking refuge in Israel from his heathen master, is not to be delivered back to him, but is to be permitted to reside where he will in the land (Deuteronomy 23:15, 16). Bondsmen (both Hebrew and non-Israelite) were incorporated as part of the nation, had legal rights, sat with the other members of the family at the board of the passover, took part in all religious festivals, and had secured to them the privilege of the Sabbath rest. The master was responsible for the treatment of his slave; and if he injured him, even to the extent of smiting out a tooth, the slave thereby regained his freedom (vers. 26, 27). A female slave was to be treated with strictest honour (vers. 7-11), and with due consideration for her womanly feelings (Deuteronomy 21:10-15). Humanity and kindness are constantly inculcated. When the Hebrew bondsman went out in the seventh year he was to go forth loaded with presents (Deuteronomy 15:13-16). The legislation of Moses is thus seen to be studiously directed to the protection of the slave''s interests and rights. If there is a seeming exception, it is the one precept in ver. 20, on which see below. The law as a whole must be admitted to be framed in the spirit of the greatest tenderness and consideration, recognising the servant''s rights as a man, his privileges as a member of the theocracy, his feelings as a husband and father. As respects the Hebrew bondsman, indeed, his position did not greatly differ from that of one now who sells his labour to a particular person, or engages to work to him on definite terms for a stated period (Fairbairn). He could be reduced to servitude only by debt, or as the penalty for theft. In this latter case (Exodus 22:3), liberty was justly forfeited - is forfeited still in the case of those convicted of felony, and doomed to compulsory labours, or to transportation, or lengthened terms of imprisonment. The laws in the present section embrace three eases -

1. That of the Hebrew servant who is unmarried (ver. 2). He goes out at the beginning of the seventh year.

2. That of the Hebrew servant who is married. In this case, if the wife came in with her husband, she goes out with him in the year of release (ver. 3); but if his master has given him a wife - presumably a non-Israelite - he has not the privilege of taking her with him when he leaves. He may, however, elect to remain in his master''s service, in which case his servitude becomes perpetual (vers. 5, 6). The retention of the wife may appear oppressive, but it was, as Keil points out, "an equitable consequence of the possession of property of slaves at all."

3. The third case is that of a Hebrew daughter, sold by her father to be a maidservant, i.e., as the sequel shows, as a housekeeper and concubine (vers. 7-12). The master may betroth her to himself, or may give her to his son, but in either case the law strictly guards her honour and her rights. If her full rights are not accorded her, she is entitled to her freedom (ver. 11). Lessons.

(1) Ver. 2. - The natural right of mar. to his freedom.

(2) Ver. 5. - Recognition of the slave''s personality. "In modern systems, the man is a mere chattel, but in the Mosaic system, the slave''s manhood is declared. He is sovereign over himself, and is allowed the power of choice. The Southern slaveholder would not permit his slave to say, 'I will not'; but the Hebrew slave is permitted to say, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free'" (Burrows).

(3) Vers. 5, 6. - Love, the true reconciler between servitude and freedom. Paul the "slave" of Christ, yet the truest freeman.

(4) Jehovah''s care for the unfriended. This comes beautifully out in the law for the protection of the woman. - J.O.

Parallel Verses
KJV: If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

WEB: "If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years and in the seventh he shall go out free without paying anything.

Attachment to a Master
Top of Page
Top of Page