There’s A Law For That (Exodus 21)


I’ve always liked rules. I know it’s odd. Most kids groaned with every new restriction placed on them, but for some reason I have happily accepted them with a sort of peace. Whether it was carefully committing to memory the new rules my mom made for my and my brother’s bedtime or reading carefully through the college dorm handbooks, rules have made me feel comfortable and even safe.

I wonder if I would have felt the same as an Israelite. What about you? How would you have felt if you were an Israelite, receiving pages and pages of laws about how to live your life? Exodus 21 delineates just a few of the rules God gave His people, but more were definitely on their way.

This batch of laws was a particularly uncomfortable one. It dealt with slaves and how they should be treated. Other rules, about murder and violence and how these crimes should be punished, were also given. God spoke and His words became law. Was He to be trusted? Were His laws fair? Would the Israelites listen even if they were? Time would soon tell.

The Treasures Within:

A God Who Notices

I’m sure it’s no big surprise to anyone that some of the laws specified here and in other places of the Bible are not popular nowadays. Just the fact that the Israelites owned slaves and God allowed it causes us to shudder. Slave owners could beat their slaves and they wouldn’t even be punished as long as the slave “recovered” (verse 21). Making things worse is the way laws for women were differentiated from laws for men. Male slaves could go free after six years (verse 2), but not female slaves (verse 7). Looking at some of these laws is horrifying. How could God think so little of women and slaves? How could He write laws so demeaning to those parts of society?

But even the fact that we are having this conversation suggests that there might be more to the story. God gave the Israelites specific and careful laws about women and slaves. If God really thought less of women or slaves, why would He even take the time to command the Israelites how to treat them? Why wouldn’t He have let the patriarchal Israelites treat women any old kind of way? He could have allowed men who had female slaves to deprive them of basic needs, but He specifically told them not to do that (verses 9-10). He could have allowed slave owners to sell their female slaves to the highest bidder, but that too was forbidden (verse 8). Why didn’t God let slaves be treated as subhuman, the way African slaves were treated in America? He could have allowed all slaves to be kept for life, but He refused. He could have allowed slave owners to beat their slaves to death or even just hit them hard enough to knock out one little tooth, but He didn’t (verses 20, 26-27).  A God who couldn’t care less for women or slaves wouldn’t have made those kinds of laws. So what kind of God did?

A God Who Knows

Laws like the ones in Exodus 21 would not fly today, at all. And that’s sort of the point. It was a different time back then. Today, most women go to school, hold down jobs, and handle their own lives. Those things were literally impossible in the Israelites’ time. A female servant set free after her time of service would have nowhere to go. She couldn’t go to her home, because her family’s poverty was probably why she would have been sold to her Hebrew brethren as a slave in the first place (verse 7). Unless she had a husband, she was literally homeless – which is why God commanded that female slaves be treated like wives (verse 10). If the female servant’s master didn’t want her, he couldn’t throw her out on the street – he had to allow her to go to someone else (verses 8, 11). Male slaves, with the educational and physical ability to find another shelter and another job, were allowed freedom to go find another place of employment – back then, that’s what slaves were: employees. For their work they received food and shelter and even debt forgiveness, as we’ll see later.

The bottom line is, the institutions of slavery, servitude, and even womanhood in those days were radically different from our time. God knew that. He knew the ins and outs of Israelite society. He knew what it was like to be a woman. He knew what it was like to be poor. Not only did God know, but He cared. God’s laws always reflect His character. These laws reveal that God did not cast women or slaves from His heart. Instead, He had a special place for them. He knew them. He loved them. He protected them. That’s the kind of God who wrote these laws.

God’s Message To Us:

“I know how to take care of you.” You might be wondering: why didn’t God completely change Israel and Israelite society? Why didn’t He command that women be educated and that independent housing be set aside for the poor? Why didn’t He make sure every single person had a job and didn’t need to look for work as servants in the first place? Quite simply, I don’t know. I barely know what to do with my Sims, so how could I know the best way to lead an entire nation? But see, that’s the difference between you and me and God. He knows and we don’t. It takes faith and trust to accept that. But ask yourself honestly: would an all-powerful God go through any effort to make the lives of women and slaves better if He didn’t really care for them? As unpopular as God’s rules might be, they show that He loves us and knows us. And when you look at it that way, you start to start to feel more comfortable with His laws, and even safe.

What do you think? How do God’s laws in this chapter make you feel? What is God trying to tell you through this chapter of the Bible?

2 thoughts on “There’s A Law For That (Exodus 21)

  1. Very deep stuff. You made some interesting points. One of the reasons why God did not completely turn the culture of that day inside out is because differences in fortune and circumstances develop character. God,said the poor will always exist among us. This is so that we can empathize with them and help them. This makes us better people. Another reason why God did not eliminate slavery is because it was so ingrained in the culture of that time that to get rid of it would infringe on the freewill of Israel. Slavery was so much a part of their lives in those days, that Israel would not have understood its abolishment. Plus, there was no welfare or charitable organizations, and there would have been nothing the very poor could do to help themselves if they could not go live in someone’s home as their servant.


    1. That is such an interesting concept: the abolition of slavery infringing on the Israelites’ freewill because they wouldn’t have understood it. That makes a lot of sense to me! In order for an improvement on society to do the most good, society has to understand why it needs to happen and choose to make it happen – else what’s to stop them from reverting back in the future?


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