‘Slavery’ is one of those words that tends to prompt a knee-jerk reaction. ‘The Bible condones slavery; how can we then take the Bible seriously on this or any other matter?’
But hold on for a moment, urges Gordon Wenham. Maybe we are too ready to read back into the Old Testament teaching on slavery our own ideas about what is actually meant by that term. Maybe ‘slavery’ isn’t even the best word to use. What if Exodus 21:2, instead of being translated,
‘When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.’
‘When you buy a Hebrew worker, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.’
For the more prosperous to take on the more destitute as their employees, or ‘slaves’ was, in fact, an act of kindness. When, for example, the Egyptians became destitute, and had to sell off all their land, Joseph made them ‘slaves’ of Pharaoh. Their response? – ‘You have saved our lives’ (Gen 47:25).
It was a pretty beneficent system (see Ex 21; Lev 25; Deut 15) that, instead of forcing the destitute to eke out a pitiful existence in the slums, they were enabled to stay on the land, provided with work and food, with an opportunity to return to their own land after six years.
The general thrust of the pentateuchal laws is to limit the period of service. But it is recognised that some might find their position as ‘slaves’ so appealing that they might choose to become permanent slaves (Ex 21:f; Deut 15:16f).
‘Preaching from difficult texts’ in Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching, ed. Grenville J.R. Kent et al. Page 218.