Day 39: Slavery in the Old Testament

Exodus 21:1-11 Slavery as practiced by the Israelites was not as abusive or harsh as the various forms of slavery practiced throughout history. Israel treated slaves with great dignity, and the laws articulated here were designed to avoid abuses. (CCC 549)

CIVIL AUTHORITIES MUST RESPECT THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS and freedom of the human person. It is by serving the needs and betterment of the individual that civil authority contributes to the common good. Authority is properly exercised when its laws and governance reflect NATURAL LAW. For their part, citizens should collaborate with civil authorities to establish and promote a spirit of TRUTH, JUSTICE, SOLIDARITY, and FREEDOM.

Ch 21:12-36 The harsh penalties for these sins emphasize the importance of abiding by the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Commandments in ordering civil society. Penalties involving slaves were different from those involving free persons, but the Law still gave them protection against abuse. Throughout the Old Testament, God prepared his people for the coming of the Messiah through a GRADUAL process, and the arrival of Jesus marked the ideal time for the Mosaic Law to be dramatically perfected by the long-awaited Messiah. Though Christ reflected the Law and revealed the priceless value of the humans person, he did not eliminate every violation of human dignity; his mission was to free humanity from its SLAVERY TO SIN. (CCC 549, 2455)

Ch 21:22-25 Accidentally provoking a miscarriage or abortion was a punishable offense; this indicates that the Israelites cherished human life from the moment of conception. Throughout Christian history, the Church has ALWAYS regarded the unborn child as a person from the moment of conception and has ALWAYS considered abortion a grave offense against human life. (CCC 2270-2273, 2274, 2322)

THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT, which forbids the intentional destruction of innocent human life, requires that the faithful work for the AVOIDANCE OF WAR, which may only be waged in defense against an unjust aggressor. Legitimate defense by military means must satisfy several criteria, including the degree of damage caused by the aggressor, whether or not a response is proportionate, having exhausted ALL realistic peaceful solutions, and the existence of a reasonable prospect for success. The moral law also governs the conduct of war itself; for example, indiscriminate killing of civilians is PROHIBITED, and the wounded and imprisoned MUST be treated HUMANELY.

Psalm 75 For the just and righteous, God’s judgement is an occasion for rejoicing. This prayer of thanksgiving vindicates the psalmist, who so often had suffered under false accusations and belittlement for his faith in God and who now sees the downfall of his enemies. This hymn translates easily as a Chritian prayer of thanksgiving on account of all the “wondrous deeds” God has accomplished for us in Christ and the joyful expectation of his Second Coming. (CCC 224, 2612, 2648)

(*The Didache Bible RSV-CE Ignatius Edition, 2006)

  • Following the Ten Commandments is Exodus 21-23, known as the Book of the Covenant.

  • It is a list of practical laws aimed at governing the people of Israel for their life in the Promised Land.

  • Notably, the first subject it takes up is slavery.

  • Slaves are to be freed in their seventh year of service, for God set Israel free from slavery in Egypt.

  • There are repeated admonitions to treat strangers and sojourners with compassion, for Israel, too, were strangers in the land of Egypt.

  • God’s compassion on Israel when they were sojourners and his liberation of them from slavery, were not only for Israel’s benefit, for now Israel is to imitate the Lord and treat others as he has treated them.

  • God’s law spells out how to put the love he showed Israel into practice and thus bless the other nations.

(*Walking With God: A Journey Through the Bible by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins)

  • We have a challenging part of The Bible here where we recognize here is this Law God is giving to Israel

  • God is saying, “Ok here is what you should do with your slaves…”

  • Huh? Wait, what??

  • It’s important because we have to realize God is NOT revealing Himself to a people who KNOW WHO HE IS

  • He is not revealing Himself to a people who have an incredible familiarity with him

  • He is not revealing Himself to a people who are, for lack of a better term, CIVILIZED

  • He is revealing Himself to a people who are familiar with “Wild West Justice”

  • He is revealing Himself to a people who have a sense of the difference between RIGHT AND WRONG, but don’t necessarily know how to PURSUE what is Right and What is Wrong in a way that is absolutely JUST AND FAIR

  • In ancient Egypt, and in the Ancient Mediterranean, as well as the Ancient Greco-Roman World, there are “gods and goddesses”

  • These gods and goddesses are not GOOD

  • These gods and goddesses are not JUST

  • These gods and goddesses are not FAIR

  • So what you have is POWER and that is what rules

  • What you have is UTILITY and that is what rules

  • God is teaching His people a new way to be

  • God is also teaching His people His IDENTITY

  • God’s IDENTITY is as a God of Justice

  • God’s IDENTITY is as a God who hears the cry of the poor

  • God’s IDENTITY is as a God to whom our actions MATTER

  • Not only do our actions MATTER TO GOD, but they CANNOT be rooted merely in power or vengeance or usefulness


  • God is giving these rules for behavior for how to live in this society

  • These rules or commandments are based on JUSTICE FIRST

  • God is speaking to a people that DOES NOT KNOW HIM


  • The kind of SLAVE LABOR that the Israelites suffered under for 400 years is completely normal FOR THAT TIME

  • It is one of the ways in which people cared for each other IN THAT TIME

  • Slaves had no home

  • Slaves had no job

  • Slaves had no prospects

  • Slaves had nothing to sell or to offer

  • But they COULD offer themselves and their service


  • There is a difference between CHATTEL SLAVERY and this type of slavery which was similar to INDENTURED SERVITUDE

  • This type of slavery WAS NOT IDEAL


  • This is a people who does not know God or Justice

  • This is a people that do not remember that God made them in His image and likeness

  • This is a people that have to be TAUGHT WHAT JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS IS


  • We will be going through more laws as we continue in Exodus

  • These laws may be challenging to us and our sensibilities

  • Imagine you are taking Trigonometry or Calculus and you saw your younger sibling’s 1st or 2nd grade homework

  • You wouldn’t look at their level of math and think it’s silly

  • Math gets so much more advanced but YOU HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE IN THE BEGINNING to understand the trigonometry and calculus you know now

  • That’s what God is doing here

  • He is starting at the lowest possible level where His people are able to ACCEPT and BEGIN LIVING

  • He will eventually call them HIGHER

  • But first, He must come down to their level, “LEVEL 1”

  • He will eventually call them up to the “HIGHEST LEVEL” where they learn to CHOOSE MERCY OVER JUSTICE

  • But they must FIRST know what JUSTICE IS

  • Eventually His people will be at the point where they will clearly understand that a human person is made in GOD’S IMAGE AND LIKENESS and MUST ALWAYS BE TREATED THIS WAY

  • God begins this lesson by placing parameters on what the Israelites could do to each other

  • These parameters covered SLAVERY (indentured servitude in this case)

  • These parameters covered “an eye for an eye”


  • We will learn how God teaches His people HOW TO LIVE IN JUSTICE, and eventually how God teaches His people to CHOOSE MERCY OVER JUSTICE (spoiler alert)

  • Keep praying for each other because these are difficult lessons to understand

  • Fr Mike thinks he may not explain these as well as he could so you could reach out to him if you are having difficulties with these challenging parts of The Bible

Prayer by Fr Mike: "Father in Heaven we give you praise and thank you. We thank you for your Word. We thank you for convicting us and for challenging us with how you reveal yourself to us. You reveal yourself to us so slowly and incrementally. Lord, you meet us where we are at. You stoop down to us, not to leave us there, but to raise us up to you. Help us to recognize your divine condescension, your gentle and helpful condescension meeting us in our brokenness, meeting us in our woundedness, and beginning where we are so that we can end up where you are. Thank you. We make this prayer and ask you to please receive our thanks in the name of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen."