A central theme of the story of the Exodus, one that we have not properly touched upon to this point, is that of the release of the slaves. YHWH comes as the kinsman redeemer of Israel, the one who avenges their blood that has been shed and delivers them from the hand of the oppressing and wrongfully enslaving power of Pharaoh through great judgments (cf. Leviticus 25:47-49; Numbers 35:9-30). Themes of slavery and release pervade the narrative and provide a crucial background for understanding the Law that is given at Sinai. As we shall see, reading the narrative against the background of the laws of slavery will bring out dimensions of significance in the drama that might otherwise be entirely missed.
Before we study these themes, however, we need to get a better grasp of the institution of slavery as it functions within the world of the narratives of Genesis and Exodus. We have already encountered forms of slavery at various points in the narrative of the patriarchs. We saw that Abram had many servants in his household in such places as Genesis 14:14, which mentions 318 homeborn servants trained for combat. Abram’s servants were members of the covenant people (17:12) and at one point one of his homeborn servants was his heir (15:2-3). As I observed in another post, the number of servants within the house of Jacob as Israel went to Egypt must have been quite considerable, as they were given the entire land of Goshen as their possession.
Slavery isn’t seen as a bad thing in principle in the book of Genesis. From our historical perspective, with the brutal legacy of race slavery, it can be hard for us to understand why the scriptural writers did not entirely condemn the practice of slavery, and typically appear to condone or even present it as a good thing.
Slavery is mentioned in a number of the prophetic blessings or curses. Canaan was to be a servant of servants to his brothers (Genesis 9:25-27). Esau was to serve Jacob (25:23; 27:40). We see concubines/maidservants in Hagar, Zilpah, and Bilhah. Jacob is reduced to the status of a servant by Laban, but gains great wealth through service. The sons of Jacob later sell their brother Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites. The story of Joseph’s slavery, like that of Jacob, is one of gaining rule through service and an initial fulfillment of the divine promises that Israel would be served by others and become a father to many nations. Through obedient submission, he becomes the great power in the land of Egypt.
In the story of Joseph we see slavery presented in a positive light in certain respects. Through YHWH’s help, Joseph brings the whole nation of Egypt, first into a feudal relationship, and then into outright slavery to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:13-26). Joseph’s divinely given wisdom enables him to make the people by whom he was enslaved the servants of Pharaoh. This is a good thing in a number of respects. It fulfills divine promises that other peoples would serve Abraham and his seed. It also brings the Egyptians under the wise, divinely blessed, and provident rule of Joseph, saving their lives from famine.
Our concept of slavery and servanthood is powerfully shaped by the notion of slavery being involuntary, coercive, and lifelong (James Jordan’s paper, ‘Slavery in Biblical Perspective’ is very helpful on this subject, and I will draw upon it in much of what follows). This is a very unhelpful way to understand most forms of biblical slavery, which occurred on a spectrum of differing degrees of dependency and voluntariness. Man-stealing and kidnapping for slavery were subject to the death penalty (Deuteronomy 24:7). In perhaps the majority of cases, biblical slavery was not strictly involuntary, although it was an undesirable state to which to be reduced.
Slavery was a means of managing the dependency of the poor or the indebted in a society without a welfare state (which is typically somewhere on the spectrum of service itself, limiting people’s rights in various respects). It was part of the criminal justice system, as it was used as a means of providing restitution. Israelites could also enslave foreigners taken in war and could buy foreign slaves from others, something that they couldn’t do in the case of Israelites (Leviticus 25:42ff.). Finally, people could voluntarily enter into the state of service to another, desiring security and membership in a good master’s household (Exodus 21:5-6).
As dependents, biblical slaves had certain securities, but also many limitations on their freedoms. In Galatians 4:1, Paul says that ‘the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all.’ The analogy between slavery and childhood is an illuminating one in several respects. The slave was, unlike the hired hand, a member of the household. He did not have the autonomy of the hired hand and, rather than have his employment ended or pay cut, he could be beaten as a form of punishment. The master had a duty to provide for him as a member of his household. Like the child, his rights of free movement, his bodily autonomy, and such things as his rights of marriage were curtailed. However, also like the child, this period of dependency and limited freedom was typically intended to be temporary, with a clear and legally established ending point in view, and to lead to the learning of greater self-discipline and providence from a master who had proved himself more adept in these respects.
The system of slavery is seen as a positive way of securing the survival of dependent and improvident people in society, ensuring that they are protected and provided for by provident masters into whose service they come. It is seen as a way that YHWH blesses those who are faithful and wise, bringing other people under their authority and provision, thus extending the means of their influence within society and the level of their responsibility. It is a form of judgment upon the wicked, as YHWH makes them the servants of the righteous.
The harshness of slavery is mitigated in many ways in Scripture. The biblical slave is guaranteed the rest of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10). Clear requirements are established for the release of different kinds of slaves after different periods of time (21:3; Leviticus 25:8-17). Protections are provided for concubines (Exodus 21:8-11). Departing Hebrew servants should be sent out with generous gifts (Deuteronomy 15:12-14). YHWH consistently reminds his people that they were once slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). YHWH declares that he will bless those who are faithful in their treatment of their servants (Deuteronomy 15:18). The entire story of the Exodus is a repeated reminder that YHWH hears the cry of the oppressed slave.
The state of slavery to men is not celebrated in Scripture. It is a state of immaturity akin to that of childhood. YHWH’s intention is always that people gain maturity through obedience. The biblical expectations of the slave were similar to those upon children: to grow in responsibility through faithful obedience. Like childhood, it is very negative for people to return to the state of slavery: rather, people must grow beyond it and the strict law-bound character of slavery, like that of childhood, can provide a means of maturation. Biblically, slavery is oriented towards manumission and blessing. Slave-owning is a means by which the righteous and provident man can come to provide for and protect many dependent people, training them towards responsible independence, or fully absorbing them into the life of his family.
While we have clear continuing forms of dependency relations in society, it is very good that we have moved beyond slavery in many respects. The sort of slavery spoken of in Scripture was necessary and served good purposes in a less developed society. However, as society matures, such an institution fitted for a more childlike stage in humanity’s life should be left behind.
Pharaoh as Master
Israel entered Egypt as free people. However, Pharaoh wrongfully and coercively enslaved them. They did not voluntarily enter into Pharaoh’s service for security, to pay off debts, or on account of poverty – they were multiplying greatly. Pharaoh treated the Israelites wickedly, reducing them to involuntary servitude, trying to get control over them in a vicious fashion. In Exodus we see Pharaoh as a harsh and unforgiving taskmaster, who increases the burdens of his Hebrew servants when they ask for the freedom to go into the wilderness to celebrate a feast (Exodus 5 – notice that nothing is yet said about them leaving for good).
The story of the Exodus is one in which the Hebrew slaves are ripped free from Pharaoh’s clutches. We have already observed the relationship between the narrative and the laws concerning slavery in our study of Jacob. The work of David Daube is especially helpful in revealing the way that the same holds in the case of the Exodus narrative: the customs and laws surrounding slavery clearly lie in the background of many of the events that occur.
After the eighth plague, in Exodus 10:8-11, Pharaoh granted Moses and Aaron permission to leave. However, he wanted to know who were the ones who would be leaving. When Moses and Aaron declared that they will be leaving with their wives, children, and flocks, Pharaoh refused, only permitting the men to go for the feast. Exodus 21:1-4 is important background for this interaction. If the Israelite men had been given their wives and children by the Egyptians, Pharaoh’s terms might have appeared fairer (although Exodus 21:9-11 would apply in that case): the wives and children would have remained in Pharaoh’s service and the men would have to return to visit them, rather than taking them with them. However, the women, the children, the flocks, and the herds of the Israelites had entered Egypt with them and should be allowed to leave with them.
After the ninth plague, Pharaoh is prepared to allow all of the Israelite persons to leave, provided that their flocks and herds are left behind (10:24). However, Moses refuses, insisting that all of their flocks and herds must depart with them (vv.25-26). In Deuteronomy 15:12-14, the Hebrew slave is supposed to be released with all of his possessions and with liberal gifts. Moses and Aaron’s refusal to accept the terms of Pharaoh at this point are an insistence upon the biblical rights accorded to slaves.
The ‘plundering’ of the Egyptians should also be read against the requirement for the slave to be sent away with many gifts. YHWH ensures that his people are released from slavery with many possessions to establish their new life.
When Israel leave, they leave with a large ‘mixed multitude’ (12:38), people who also escape the service of Pharaoh. Former servants of Pharaoh too, they were fleeing from the oppression of a cruel madman, who was bringing the nation down to destruction. In harbouring these fugitives among them (these were the initial ‘strangers’ among the children of Israel, before settling in the land), Israel was obeying the command of Deuteronomy 23:15-16, providing refuge for the oppressed runaway servant. In previous studies we have also seen the way in which the patriarchs brought servants up out of oppressive situations with them.
The Exodus should not be thought of as a movement from slavery to autonomy. Rather, it is a movement from oppressive bondage to Pharaoh to obedient service of YHWH. The Scriptures are not absolutely opposed to slavery at all, but rather speak of a change of masters. There is liberty and redemption from oppression, but also entry into a new service as slave-sons of YHWH. As Daube observes, both of these themes occur throughout the Scriptures, but receive differing emphases on different occasions.
YHWH brings Israel out of Egypt so that they might ‘serve’ him (Exodus 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). The story of the Exodus is the struggle between two masters and their claims. YHWH claimed Israel as his firstborn son and insisted that Pharaoh release Israel so that Israel might serve him (4:22-23). Pharaoh’s refusal to acknowledge YHWH’s title to his servants provides much of the drama that follows.
This redemption from slavery to Pharaoh also provides the basis for the demands of the covenant upon Israel, which YHWH gives to Israel as the new servants of his royal household. The Ten Commandments, the charter of Israel’s life in covenant with YHWH, begins with this fundamental fact (20:1-3), with a declaration of his claim on the Israelites, and their duty to serve him and no others.
The theme of redemption by God for service is a prominent one throughout the Scriptures, as we shall later see. We were once slaves of sin, but now, having been set free from sin, we have become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:16-22). The master changes, but we don’t cease to be slaves. Without a clear biblical theology of slavery and the way that it can function as a positive institution, we will find it hard to understand such themes.
As the slaves of God, we owe him our service and are not autonomous. We don’t have the right to use our lives and bodies as we wish. We must render him faithful obedience and surrender all competing claims to pure self-determination or a right of detached choice.
Peter Leithart has made a persuasive case (The Priesthood of the Plebs fills out this argument) for regarding priests as household servants. The story of the Exodus is the story of the movement from slavery to Pharaoh in the Egyptian house of bondage, building store cities, to service as royal priests in YHWH’s house and building the tabernacle.
In Exodus 21:5-6 and Deuteronomy 15:16-17, we encounter a strange ritual in which the servant who loves his master and wants to bind himself to him from that point onwards, beyond the period of his appointed service, has his ear pierced against the doorpost with an awl and is adopted into his master’s household as a homeborn slave. The bloodied doorposts of the Passover relate to this. The servants of Pharaoh are judged with all of his household. However, the Israelites, by applying the blood representing its commitment to be YHWH’s firstborn slave-son to the doorposts, comes under the refuge and protection of YHWH’s house and is not judged with the household of the dragon, Pharaoh.
In Numbers 3, as we have seen, YHWH will claim the Levites in exchange for the firstborn of Israel as his primary servants, concerned with the priestly running of YHWH’s tabernacle and the house of Israel. The establishment of the priestly ministry is one of the purposes for which YHWH released Israel. The bored ear of the adopted servant relates to part of the ordination rite (and also to circumcision), in which the ear of the priest was bloodied.
Jordan also suggests the possibility of a relationship between this rite and the incarnation:
The incarnation of the Second Person of God is spoken of in terms of this provision. Psalm 40:6 states, “Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; My ears Thou has opened;” the NASV margin notes that “opened” is literally “dug, or possibly, pierced.” This verse is cited and paraphrased in Hebrews 10:5 thus, “Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me.” The boring of the ear, making a free person into a slave, is here a figure for the incarnation. As Paul puts it, He “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men” (Phil.2:7).
The story of the Exodus must be read against the background of a biblical theology of slavery. YHWH claims and delivers his people from the oppressive tyrant, ensuring that they are sent out with all of their possessions and with great gifts. They also release many other fugitive slaves as they do so. The Israelites are freed from bondage for service, delivered from the house of Egypt to minister to YHWH. Through the blood on the doorposts, they are adopted servants in the household of YHWH, charged with obeying him as their new master and redeemer.