Does the Bible condone slavery in Exodus 21?

Question: In Exodus 21:7-11 it seems like God is promoting/continuing devaluation of women? In v.20-21, He condones slavery and the beating of slaves?

Answer: The Law of Moses is actually going counter to the prevailing devaluation of women. It was not normal for a woman slave to be given this kind of value. Moses is saying that if a man sells his daughter into servitude (and this is a custom that we would say is barbaric, but that was common in those cultures), she could not be disposed of as if she were simply property you no longer desire. She must be treated as a wife if he takes her for himself, or a daughter if he takes her for his son. She cannot be disposed of but must be given the opportunity to be redeemed from servitude by her family or extended family. He is in a “faith” or covenant relationship with her (verse 8). If he takes another wife he must not deprive her of room and board and sexual rights. If he does, he must set her free entirely.

The law in verses 20,21 is the same kind of counter-cultural law. Normally, a slave or servant could be beaten or killed without penalty. But not in Israel! Killing a slave resulted in punishment for the slave owner. This was a protection for slaves.

Now of course we do not condone slavery of any kind. But the Law of Moses was not written in a time when the eradication of slavery was possible. Instead, God seeks to teach some principles to fallen human beings who had mistreated other fallen human beings for millennia. Human beings have value and these slight improvements to the normal way of treating humans was a step toward the eventual reordering of our society under the leadership of Christians, like William Wilberforce in Great Britain (see Wikipedia.org and the movie, Amazing Grace) and the anti-slavery advocates in the United States. Paul’s message to Philemon in his letter to Philemon about his runaway slave set the stage for a radical change in the way we look at slavery and human dignity and value.

It might seem more reasonable for God to just forbid slavery, but remember He also did not forbid multiple wives. There were some things the Israelites needed to change, but apparently some things they weren’t ready to change. Have you ever given commands to your child that were less than what you ultimately wanted him or her to do but were moving in the direction of what you wanted and more suited to where he or she was at the time? I think that is how God is dealing with mankind. We needed to grow as a race in order to fully implement all that He has for us. It just took time for society as a whole to embrace this radical change.

Randall Johnson

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