It this day and in our society we find slavery archaic and inhumane. The very idea of slavery is abhorrent to us. In the ancient times slavery was a very common practice. In that environment Israel was given a profound truth: Slaves have rights too. Instead of being treated as property, slaves were to be considered as persons. As it is, this is the first step in the long road to the abolition of slavery. Significantly, these laws only governed the rights of Hebrew slaves.
We are given here two sets of laws, those governing male slaves and those governing female slaves. The male slave was to be offered his freedom; he was to be given the privilege of remaining a slave. This was to be done publicly and to be indicated by a sign that was to be openly visible. The expression “bring him to God” probably meant to take him to a shrine or sanctuary where God would witness that there was no coercion being exerted.
The female slaves were on a lower level of privilege, just as a woman in that society was on a lower level than that of a male. At the same time, because of her lower social status, in many ways there was a greater responsibility toward her. The more unimportant a person was the greater the responsibility to protect his or her rights. The legal concepts of the Old Testament place a greater responsibility on caring for the weak than for the strong.
The female slaves were often a concubine and occasionally even a wife. If such a slave did not please her master, he could not sell her to another. He could only let her be redeemed. That is, he could only sell her back to her family. In no way could she be abused or mistreated. Further, if she was so abused, she could go free without the payment of the redemption price.
The next set of laws puts forth a series of crimes which were punishable by death. These may appear unduly harsh if judged by Christian standards. On the other hand, these wrong acts were to be taken seriously. Sin must always be taken seriously. Perhaps today man takes his wrongdoing too lightly.
The first three of these capital crimes was premeditated murder. In order to clarify the nature of the act identified in the basic statement, two explanatory statements were made. To “lie in wait” obviously referred to a planned attack. Such an act would fit into the category of one “to kill him craftily.” This type of killing was considered treachery. It was a betrayal of the common covenant bond that united the people of Israel.
The expression “God let him fall into his hand” is a simple way of saying that the attack was not planned. If the death came as a result of an accident, the killer could flee to the altar of God. Later, specific cities of refuge were established for such purposes. (Numbers 36:6) Such a refuge prevented the typical blood feuds that sprang up in the ancient world. Only the guilty should die. This distinction was a major step forward in the world’s laws.
Two of the capital crimes relate to striking or cursing a parent. In the ancient world, words were considered to have an objective reality in themselves. Curses, once spoken, released power and would carry out their work. In the rough society of the ancient world, Israel was being told that order and respect in the home were both important and imperative. Israel’s very existence was to depend on obedience and respect within the home.
Kidnapping was fairly common in the ancient world. The slave markets were kept filled by these practices. Even Joseph was so treated by his brothers. (Genesis 37) Whether the criminal was found with the victim or merely in possession of the money from his sale, death was to be the penalty. A man accused of such a crime, unexplained wealth was to be assumed as evidence of guilt.
Israel was being told that the covenant community was to be pure. Crime should not exist in such a community and could not go unpunished.
Israel’s legal responsibility ultimately rested upon their covenant with God. With the Exodus, they had been delivered from slavery to Egypt. With the covenant laws, they were being provided with the first step in their deliverance from sin. This was not completed until the cross, when the ultimate death penalty was paid.
The next set of laws deal with personal injury to the body. They are fairly straightforward as far as meaning is concerned. There are some underlying considerations that we should look at.
A first concern when injuring another person is that the person must be repaid for the loss of time and that “he is completely healed.” In that time medical expenses may have been minimal so this may mean responsibility to the support of the person until there was a complete healing.
Slaves were held at a different standard. Among the various social strata of that day, slaves were the lowest. Slaves, as mentioned before, were considered as property. With these laws the master of a slave now had some responsibility towards the slave. The slave was not only property but also considered to be as a person. This was a significant step in the right direction for Israel.
The laws regarding miscarriage imply nothing concerning the personhood of the unborn. The punishment here was based upon the injury to the woman. The fine was to be suggested by the husband, but also must be approved by the judge.
At the core of this section was the lex talionis or law of retaliation. Certainly Jesus transcended this with his statement of the law of love. (Matthew 5:38-39) There is also a major statement on human responsibility. In the ancient world, vengeance was the rule of the day. Here Israel was clearly told that no one could exact more that justice for any injury. This law was intended to prevent excessive punishment for the one causing the injury.
These laws in reference to slaves also further the personhood of the slave. In other ancient societies, slaves were to be paid for such injuries. In Israel, they were to be given freedom as well.
An ox was a very dangerous animal. The owner was to be responsible for his ox and for protecting others from it. In some cases, failure to heed this responsibility could even cost the owner his life. In some cases it was possible that the courts could set a sum that a man could ransom his life by the payment of a proper fee of redemption.
The ideal of paying to ransom a life has an interesting twist in late times. The price for a slave was, “thirty shekels of silver, has significant overtones for our understanding of the scorn with which the high priest and Judas considered for Jesus, thirty shekels of silver. The slave was at the lowest rung of the social structure.
Numbers 36:6, Matthew 5:38-39