“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money. (Exodus 21:1-11, ESV)
Slavery has always been a harsh reality in our fallen world. Though Yahweh does not abolish slavery in this social context He does regulate it for Hebrews in a way totally contrary to the norms of their culture. Recognizing that some would get into debt they could not pay and resort to selling themselves to another to cover their debt, Yahweh regulates how this is to work among Israelites.
An Israelite can only be held as a slave for six years unless he makes a voluntary choice after that time to be a slave forever. If he doesn’t, he is to be released with no more debt to his owner, he and his family. However, if his master provided him a wife during his slavery from among other slaves he owned, the man cannot take his wife with him out of slavery.
If a man cannot pay a bride price for his daughter but a man wants her as his slave so he can marry her as a secondary tier wife (concubine), the woman is protected. If the owner divorces her he cannot sell her to a foreigner but she must come under the law of manumission after six years as before stated. He is breaking faith with her (failing to keep his covenant vows of marriage) and cannot mistreat her. If someone buys a woman as a wife for his son, she must be treated as a daughter. And if she is one among other wives he must nevertheless continue to provide for her in every way or else she is free to leave with no debt.
Though we might say these laws perpetuate slavery, the real implication here is that Yahweh will determine how we conduct our lives and His concern of love for those who fall into this dilemma bodes the prospect that slavery may one day be abolished. It has been abolished in nations whose populace is majority Christian (though not without a great degree of conflict), but still remains an issue in too many countries. In our own country the laws contained here in the Law of Moses should have taught us how to treat slaves and did eventually lead us away from slavery out of love for fellow humans. It is to our shame that some among us argued for the maintenance of slavery and the regarding of those enslaved as sub-human. The slavery we practiced in no way reflected the law of Moses. There was no provision for release from slavery after 6 years though, in fact, many slaves became followers of Jesus and thus brothers and sisters.
John Woolman was born at Northampton, N. J., in 1720, and died at York, England, in 1772. He was the child of Quaker parents, and from his youth was a zealous member of the Society of Friends. His “Journal,” published posthumously in 1774, sufficiently describes his way of life and the spirit in which he did his work; but his extreme humility prevents him from making clear the importance of the part he played in the movement against slaveholding among the Quakers.
My mind is often led to consider the purity of the Divine Being and the justice of his judgments, and herein my soul is covered with awe. Many slaves on this continent are oppressed, and their cries have reached the ears of the Most High! Such is the purity and certainty of His judgments that He cannot be partial in our favor. In infinite love and goodness He has opened our understandings from one time to another concerning our duty towards this people, and it is not a time for delay. Should we now be sensible of what He requires of us, and through a respect to the private interest of some persons or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand on an immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in firmness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, it may be that by terrible things in righteousness God may answer us in this matter.