Regulations for the Treatment of Slaves
Exodus 21:1-11
Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them.…

I. THE CONDITIONAL ELEMENT RUNNING THROUGH THESE REGULATIONS. What a difference there is here from the strong, uncompromising imperatives of chapter 20! There we feel that we have to do with man, not only as he is at the time, a Hebrew in the wilderness, but with every man, in every age, and in all sorts of social circumstances. The ten commandments simply assume humanity and society. But the regulations now to be considered abound in the word "if." If certain things are done, then certain other things must be done. But then these things need not to be done at all. A man need not buy a servant; a man need not take a woman to be his companion in servitude, knowing that thereby he runs the risk of being separated from her and his offspring afterwards. These regulations have to be made for free agents, acting often thoughtlessly, or in a matter-of-fact compliance with the customs of their country. There was no real need for any of these "ifs" to pass into action. Consider how ludicrous such regulations would appear if propounded as possibilities in modern English society. The actions which they assume would be scouted as scarcely conceivable. Our notions of property, of service, and of the position of woman are quite different. And yet how many things there are even now, commonly accepted indeed as right and proper, which are no more defensible on the highest grounds than these practices of Israel in the wilderness. There are practices among Christians now, considered proper enough according to the present notions of society, and yet the day is assuredly coming when they too will seem as strange and abhorrent as the practice of a man selling his daughter to be a maid-servant. Things done without scruple, even by enlightened Christians, are far enough from what Christ would have them be. And all that can be reached is to regulate and mitigate what there is not sufficient enlightenment of conscience to abolish.

II. THE EVIDENT DESIRE TO BE JUST TO ALL THE INDIVIDUALS CONCERNED IN THESE REGULATIONS. The purchased individual must have his benefit by liberation in the seventh year; and yet the master is to be treated justly too by the recognition of the woman whom, as it were, he had lent to be a companion to the slave. So also if the slave has a notion of staying, he is compelled to treat it as a serious matter, and not play fast or loose either with master or companion. She who had been, as it were, a concubine, becomes by his desire to stay, lifted to the full privileges of a wife; and to leave then would be a wrong to her as well as the master. The principle holds good all through human society - whatsoever we want in the way of temporal advantages we must take with certain limitations. Whatever benefit there might be in buying a slave must be taken along with the limitation of the seventh year. If the slave chose to have a companion, he must make up his mind how to treat her at the six years' end; either to have liberty and lose her or keep her with life-long bondage. We should choose our position in this world, looking steadily for the guidance of infinite wisdom in our choice. If we be sure of that, then all advantages will be golden to us, and we shall not for a moment think of grumbling because of the disadvantages that must inevitably accompany them.

III. Still though there is a desire here to be just to all, IT IS EVIDENTLY THE WEAK AND UNFORTUNATE WHO ARE CHIEFLY THOUGHT OF. It is for the sake of the slave and the despised woman that these regulations are here specified. The strong in such circumstances are as a rule well able - only too well able - to look after themselves. It is the glorious mark, again and again appearing in God''s dealings, that he loves to bring the enslaved nearer to liberty, the degraded nearer to the normal elevation of humanity. - Y.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.

WEB: "Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them.

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