By Russ Ramsey
Context is everything.
Today’s text from Exodus contains laws that would never fly here in the West in 2022. Go on, read it. I’ll wait.
See what I mean?
So what do we do with stuff like this? Passages like these are why context matters, and context is a two-sided coin. Scripture was written in its own particular context. And we read it in our own particular context.
For example, verses like the laws about slaves (Exodus 21:2–11) can be difficult to understand because when we think of slavery, we tend to think of the slave trade, or people being sold against their will, or human trafficking. And while all “slavery” exists because our world is broken and flawed, the slavery described in today’s text is a particular kind which existed for a particular reason.
The slavery described in Exodus is what is known as “debt slavery.” When a person or family found themselves in economic hardship and could not provide for themselves, they could become bond servants, or “debt slaves” to another family. They would work for that family in exchange for food, shelter, and protection. This arrangement would last six years. At that point, a man could leave, or choose to stay if he liked his situation. Women, on the other hand, were not released after six years because it was assumed that they would marry into their new family.
For the woman, becoming a bond servant often meant becoming a part of a family for life. She was to be treated as a daughter (v.9). There is a provision in today’s passage for a woman who joins a family as a bond-servant, but doesn’t end up marrying into that family. In that case, her own family can pay her debt and take her back. Her “master” cannot give her to anyone but her own family.
In our culture, this sounds strange, and perhaps even wrong. But in those days, there was no infrastructure. No government. People could not easily relocate from city to city. They were not generally free to choose their vocations. People tended to work family trades, live among the same people, and settle in groups. Neighboring clans were seen as threatening. It was a very dangerous world. The bond-servant system was a form of protection for the poor.
We should never try to explain away the problem of slavery, not even debt slavery. It isn’t ideal. It is a product of poverty, and it provides an opportunity for people to treat each other in undignified ways if they choose. But in a world where the poor have no protection, laws like these provide some.
Again, we need to go back to context. In what context is this law given? God has just led His people out of tyrannical, oppressive slavery. He “heard their groaning ” (Exodus 2:24). So that’s one reason why we know God’s law is not designed to sanction tyranny. Another reason is because the heart of His law is to love God and love others. God’s people were called to live their lives under the gaze of God. They were not to make “gods of gold for [them]selves” (v.23), but to honor the Lord alone. Every other law fell under this one.
As you read passages like today’s, which may be difficult to understand in our present context, remember how Jesus summarized the whole law of God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37–40).
This is the context for every law we find in the Bible, and every law we find in the Bible has been perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17–18).