My Bible in a year plan is going great so far. I’m current with the New Testament readings, and only a book and a half behind in the Old Testament. I struggle with the first five books, although when I actually sit down and read them I always find something interesting.
Today I read Exodus chapter 21. This is the chapter right after God hands down the Ten Commandments. Now he’s getting down to specific situations. Chapter 21 deals with servants (and goring bulls but this isn’t about that part).
This passage has bothered me before, and started to trip me up again, then I had a big light bulb over the head moment as I realized, like I’ve done so many times, that I’ve been seeing things inside out and backwards for years. Here’s what went through my head.
I read: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year he shall go free, without paying anything.” (Exodus 21:2)
THEN . . .
“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” (Exodus 21:7-11)
!!! EGREGIOUS !!!
I was outraged by this “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do” rubbish. Why the double standard? Why can’t a woman go free? Is God sexist, treating women like chattel the way most macho cultures throughout history have done?
…Oh, wait, hold on a sec…
I did some Googling and found this issue addressed again later: “If a fellow Hebrew, a man or woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)
Then I remembered what I’ve heard Bible teachers say over and over again: CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT!
First context: Exodus 21:7-11 seems to be referring to women purchased as wives or concubines, not regular servants. Deuteronomy 15:12-15 seems to be referring to women who were indeed regular servants. How they are to be dealt with is different in each scenario.
Second context: What do I know about the world of Moses’ time? These were times where women had few rights, especially among the poor. I grew up in America in the 20th century, where women have the right to vote, to receive equal pay for equal work, and the opportunity to forge their own way in the world. It’s pretty rare in world history. In many parts of the world today, and definitely in the world that Moses knew, women were little more than chattel. If a servant girl was just cut loose because a man didn’t like her, what were her chances of survival? Well, how would a young woman today like to be air dropped into a Taliban or ISIS camp? She’d almost certainly be raped, then either killed or kept as a slave or forced into marriage. She would have little chance of survival, let alone freedom, if left on her own.
God wasn’t treating women like they were inferior. He knew the times, he knew the culture, and he was protecting them. A man couldn’t use a woman and then just dump her. He couldn’t just get rid of her if he decided he didn’t like her. If something went wrong she A) had the right to be redeemed – protecting her reputation, her social standing, as well as her material needs. B) If she was purchased for a son, she had the rights of a DAUGHTER. C) If he wouldn’t provide her with food, clothing, and conjugal rights, then he had to let her go free without payment (that is, without her having to purchase her freedom). D) If things didn’t go well between her and her master, it doesn’t sound like she had to tough out the entire six years first like men had to do.
In fact, when you really look at it, the women are given more rights and protection than the men. If she’s a household servant then she is treated just like a man. If she is taken as a wife or concubine, then she can’t be misused and tossed aside. She has rights, and if they are violated she is free to leave.
Of course that raises a big question: What if she doesn’t want to be sold as a wife or concubine in the first place? Well, just like in cultures with arranged marriages today, she may not have had much say in that matter. Is that the way God wanted it to be for women? I don’t think so. But knowing the sinful, fallen world we live in, he shows his love in how tenderly he cares for everyone. Slaves as well as queens.
Remember Hagar, the Egyptian maid and mother of Ishmael, whom Sarah coerced Abraham into casting out (Genesis 21). The Bible doesn’t say they were sent with any great provisions. Enough food and water for a couple days, maybe? But God heard her cry, comforted her, and not only saved her and Ishmael but made him into a great nation that has been a thorn in the side of Israel to this very day.
I’m sure I missed a lot in this passage. Everything in scripture ultimately points to Christ, and a little more digging would bring that to light (such as the Redeemer reference). But for today I am very happy to see a troubling passage in a new light, and to gain a little more understanding of the caring and father-providing-for-his-children love that God has for all of us.
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. …Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” – Romans 10:9-13