Exodus 21 – On Slaves to Legalism Legalizing Slavery

Exodus 20 Bible with Theo Orange 70 percent Dark Chocolate

Today’s ChocolateTheo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassageExodus 21

Oh, great. We’re not two verses into this chapter, and God–the same God whom we had established was speaking out loud about what not to do as his people and how to build altars–now starts talking about the proper keeping of slaves. Comedian Bo Burnham’s song from 2010 “Rant” immediately sprang to mind. Most of it is unfit to quote on this blog, as it’s Bo Burnham. But there’s a section where a hypothetical priest interprets the Old Testament passages about slavery as allegorical, referring to “slaves within our hearts,” and then Bo observes: “And then as God goes on to explain / The logistics of buying and selling slaves…” And worse, this isn’t the last time in the Torah that we’ll read a passage detailing the rights and obligations of the slave and slave-owner.

To quote another song by Bo Burnham, I don’t think that I can’t handle this right now.

To those who would contend that the God of the Bible condones slavery, I have only the Hail-Mary argument of a Christian skeptic weary of playing Devil’s Advocate with himself. I’m not even entirely convinced by it. But if you look in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus time and time again expands on the Torah: concerning murder and anger (Matt. 5:21-22), concerning adultery (Matt. 5:27-30), concerning oaths and promises (Matt. 5:33-37). Each time, he points out that it’s not sufficient to keep the letter of the law. God doesn’t merely expect us to refrain from adultery; he wants us to refrain from lust and pursue purity. Nor does he give us points for making elaborate promises, or for not murdering. He wants us to go the extra mile.

And this principle is best illustrated in Jesus’ teaching on divorce here. The Torah allows for divorce and stipulates how to handle certain conditions that arise from it, but Jesus takes the law to the next level, saying, “Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32). What the Law forbids, you certainly shouldn’t do. But neither should you do everything that the Law permits.

God allowed divorce as a concession to human frailty, fallibility, and selfishness, and to that end, the regulations of the Law served as damage control. But if you actually want to be righteous, the bar is much higher. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stands by every last letter of the Law, but he holds up a higher standard: “[U]nless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees [those known for keeping the Law to the letter], you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

And how does this relate to slaves? It may be permissible for a Torah-keeping Hebrew to own slaves, and chapters like Exodus 21 contain provisions and protections to redress certain wrongs against slaves. But God’s expectation for perfection is much higher: not to own human beings as property, but to serve them and treat them with dignity. As another musician, Derek Webb, says in his song “A New Law”: “What’s the use in trading a law you can never keep / For one you can that cannot get you anything?” If you’ve merely followed each of the Torah’s instructions on proper keeping of slaves, don’t pat yourself on the back. Have you kept the Torah’s instruction to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)? Have you measured up to the perfect standard of Jesus Christ himself?

There’s your answer, all you Bo Burnhams from 2010. I hope you’re happy.

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