“‘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 believe in freeing our minds from ignorance.
In 2015, my husband and I lived in a small town for about a year. Almost everything in the town seemed frozen in time, from the town square, to mostly the same staple eateries. A change had to occur gradually for folks there. If 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.” The small town was 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. As a matter of fact, I hear in some places the police call and warn the bootlegger before they head in for a raid. I read an article about one woman who was able to purchase wine at 14 from the bootlegger in this town. No I.D required. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it, alcohol is not the problem, neither is food, or sex, its men who are over-indulgent.
To get towns like this one prepared, they came up 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–Mishpatim.
This Torah portion can be touchy and often misconstrued through ignorance. When we start chapter 21 of Exodus, we see slavery mentioned and rules for slaves. They were not slaves in the sense that you may envision. What is 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 many 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.
Benei Avraham explains more in his blog Mishpatim:
“This passage alludes to the Messiah, to the Messiah’s devotion to God, and our devotion to the Messiah. The numerical value of the words “Hebrew slave” in Hebrew have the same numerical value of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” It is as if the Messiah said, in Psalms 40:6, “My ears you have pierced.”
The case of the permanent slave also speaks to our own servitude to the Messiah, and the Torah.
If we are to love our families, our children, and our spouses in the proper way, we must first love our master. This is why the servant says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children,” in that order. Yeshua alludes to this idea in Matthew 10:37, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
“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” (Exodus 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 ate the same food as their masters. When we study more verses on “slavery,” we get a much more humane picture of what was happening here for the Hebrew slaves, 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, HaShem clarifies that the people have sinned by not releasing 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 becomes “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.”
Enslaved people were treated horribly, and to put a stop to these practices, the Torah went into detail. You may remember that Samson’s eyes were gouged out. Nebuchadnezzar gouged out king Zedekiah’s eyes. They would pull out their teeth so they could not 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 to bring unwanted information among leaders that they may have overheard. The Torah’s instruction was to save, free, and bring better treatment to those in servitude positions. But like all progress, at times, we must 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 Israel’s children 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. 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” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
This goes against the laws in place at that time among other nations. If an enslaved person 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 unhealthy food, and never speaking kind words to them. I see this gradually changing too. 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! Going over some Torah portions is more inspirational than others, but I also believe we need to dig in and learn all we can about our faith.
I pray this has helped you with some difficult passages.
Sources: Benei Avraham, My Jewish Learning, Maimonides’ Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah:
Photo by Hussain Badshaw