This week’s portion is titled Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24), which, fittingly, means “judgements.” There’re a lot of things I could write – which I want to write – about this portion, because it contains numerous things that critics of the Bible typically take issue with. But regrettably, I don’t have the time to do that… to go through every judgement written in Mishpatim and give comment (a problem which I foresee will repeat itself numerous times with other portions of the law from this point on).

This pains me because the Torah, while undeniably challenging and disconcerting in places, can nevertheless be much better understood than it commonly is, and I have a desire to make straight the places which have become crooked in the eyes of the world… to justify the character of God in the giving of His laws to the best of my ability (small as that ability might be compared to some other people’s) – so that those who wish to denounce Him must do so fully aware of what they’re really rejecting.

… Call it a vain desire, but that’s where my heart lies. But unfortunately, for pragmatic reasons, I have to be selective… and hopefully, eventually, I’ll get around to blogging about the rest of the things I want to cover in these chapters in subsequent Torah cycles.

So this year, I’m going to start at the top, with the most obvious topic – slavery. Specifically, here are the verses I’m going to be writing about: 

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.

And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money. …

And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. (Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21)

When you read Mishpatim, no other segment offends quite as much as the above paragraphs. Anyone reading the rest of the laws in this portion, I think, would be able to concede that they are, for the most part, ethically sound and morally defensible, especially in the context of an ancient Eastern culture (which, if you ask me, makes the underlined verses all the more jarring because they seem so out of place). … Additionally, I’ve written before about the proper context in which to understand the allowance of slavery in Israel (see The curse of Canaan) – so when we read what Exodus 21 has to say about the issue of Hebrew slavery and the treatment of slaves, we have to think about how it fits into the idea that God is supposed to be just, compassionate and consistent.

So a little word study first. The term for slave in Hebrew is עֶבֶד (evedh); it’s most commonly used to mean slave, but can also mean servant, bondsman, serf, servitor, a subordinate, or a dependant in a position of trust, e.g. a steward. To know exactly which the Torah means when it talks about a Hebrew slave, one must consult the provision of Leviticus 25:39-43:

And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.

So an עֶבֶד in this context is really an indentured servant who would serve another Hebrew until his debt/financial need was discharged, until 6 years were up, or until the arrival of the year of Jubilee (whichever came first), after which he was free to return to his own. Moreover, such a person was not allowed to be abused because as a fellow Israelite, he was redeemed out of Egyptian slavery, and belonged to the Lord as much as the Hebrew master did.

This means that apart from the Canaanite peoples who were cursed with a curse of perpetual servitude (again, see The curse of Canaan), God did not condone the kind of slavery many people imagine when they hear the word – i.e. wholesale, lifelong ownership with no release or chance of redemption – much less the violent, degrading subjugation of entire people groups fuelled by a total lack of accountability or checks against abuse that’s so common to the imagination (a picture which, in my opinion, is informed entirely by the collective experience of a human race that’s known nothing but the horrors of godless slavery for millennia… a human race that has no concept of what slavery is supposed to look like in a Biblical theocracy).

But to properly establish the truth of this, we have to get down to the nitty-gritty. So let’s look at the first of the underlined verses: “If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.”

… How is one supposed to understand this? Does the fact a master has temporary power over a man mean that he can give him a family, then tear it away from him? Are women and children merely chattels to be used, multiplied and kept in a master’s household as he sees fit? Or worse, in light of subsequent verses (“But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master … shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever”) – does this mean that said master can use a woman and her children as a way of manipulating a servant so he’ll agree to remain under his service for the rest of his life?

Well, firstly, it must be established that the woman in question is not an Israelite. According to Deuteronomy 15:12, a female Hebrew bondservant is supposed to go free after 6 years just like a male Hebrew bondservant; so the woman in question is understood to be a Canaanite slave, who, according to Leviticus 25:44-46, is supposed to belong to her master perpetually:

And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves.

As mentioned before, I’ve dealt with the question of how this could be right from a Biblical standpoint in The curse of Canaan, so I won’t go over it again here. But suffice it to say that for well-founded reasons, this part of the Torah must be interpreted in light of the history previously laid out in Genesis – so the fact is, the rules are different for Hebrew and Canaanite slaves, and this must be taken into consideration when one looks at the text.

So when a male Hebrew enters indentured servitude and his master decides to give him a Canaanite woman, manipulation is not in the picture: the man already knows that the woman and any offspring she produces cannot technically belong to him; he also knows that unless she converts and becomes a citizen of Israel like Rahab and Ruth, the chances of such an arrangement resulting in a successful marriage are slim. … In other words, he has no illusions about the situation beyond the pragmatic and temporary, and is not deceived or misled. Rather, his master can give him a woman if he chooses, whether as a kindness or for the express purpose of producing offspring, and if the union does result in children, they are the inheritance of the master by virtue of the fact that God has allowed it in His dealing with Canaan (to get the full picture, again, I recommend reading The curse of Canaan).

But knowing the human heart, provision is also made for the possibility that the servant ends up becoming attached to the household he’s in – Canaanite slaves are not allowed to simply go free, but the servant can choose to stay. And in this provision, I see a Messianic allusion: a freeborn Hebrew male, of his own volition, can choose to be a servant out of love for his master, and commit himself to a wife and children who, from birth, are held under permanent bondage to slavery. Moreover, this commitment is witnessed by religious authorities, and sealed with the shedding of blood by the driving of a long spike (an awl is a pointed tool made for piercing holes) – through the servant’s flesh (the ear symbolising obedience) – into wood (a doorpost).

… Even in this tiny part of the Torah, one can see pictures of Yeshua and what He did. Truly He is the fulfilment of the law.

So as I said before, the Torah, while undeniably challenging and disconcerting in places, can nevertheless be much better understood than it commonly is… and once you understand, it becomes apparent that those parts which are typically considered offensive are actually nowhere near as bad as an uninformed reading might initially make them out to be.

Now, moving on to the second underlined verse: “If a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.” This seems to imply that a daughter of Israel is treated differently to a son, in that she has far less freedom and has no real means of release from servitude unless her master first drops the ball.

However, this verse has actually been translated misleadingly. In the Hebrew, it says:

וְכִי-יִמְכֹּר אִישׁ אֶת-בִּתּוֹ לְאָמָה לֹא תֵצֵא כְּצֵאת הָעֲבָדִים

“And if a man sells his daughter as a female servant, she shall not go forth in the manner of the slaves.”

As you can see, the sentence does not contain the word “male” at all; it simply says that a female Hebrew servant shall not go out in the manner of the slaves. And when the Torah uses the term “slave” or “slaves” in this generic way, it’s understood to refer to non-Israelites, because every time the Scripture discusses Hebrew slaves, it qualifies by using the more specific phrase עֶבֶד עִבְרִי (“evedh Ivri”, meaning Hebrew slave).

This means that the verse isn’t comparing female Hebrew slaves to males, but to non-Hebrews. And it changes one’s understanding of the law entirely, because then it becomes apparent that this is about protecting female Israelite servants – because the only way a non-Israelite slave was entitled to freedom was if they were abused and lost an eye or tooth (Exodus 21:26-27), upon which they walked free without payment. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan confirms this in its interpretive translation:

And if a man of Israel sell his daughter, a little handmaid, she shall not go forth according to the going forth of the servants of the Canaanites, who are set at liberty on account of the tooth or the eye; but in the years of remission, and with [the signs of puberty], and at the Jubilee, and on the death of her master, and by redemption with money.

As the great Sephardic rabbi Nahmanides (Ramban) explained it, God was actually prohibiting a master from taking advantage of a female Hebrew servant through this passage, i.e. if she was harmed or injured, the master couldn’t simply release her without paying her like a normal slave; rather, he had to pay her damages for the injury that she suffered as well as let her go free.

One could ask why this was not stipulated in relation to male Hebrew slaves as well, but it stands to reason that God put this command in place because women were more vulnerable than men in ancient society, both physically and status-wise, and therefore in need of explicit provision for recourse. And when one recalls Deuteronomy 15:12, which stipulates that a female Hebrew bondservant is supposed to go free after 6 years just like a male Hebrew bondservant, it becomes further apparent that one cannot accuse the Torah of treating women as inferior or unimportant.

In fact, the law was weighted in favour of females because not only were they to be set free on the same terms as men (during the 7th year of release and the Jubilee, or by money redemption), they were also afforded additional conditions of release, i.e. if they were sold as young girls and then reached puberty, they were allowed to go free, and if they were supposed to be betrothed to their master or his son, then they were to be accorded full marital rights and treated as a daughter of the house – and if these things were not done for them, then they had to be released and not sold on to someone else. Thus God took extra care to ensure that the women and girls of Israel were not taken advantage of, deprived or unfairly treated, even if they had to be sold on account of poverty.

Next we come to the third underlined verse, and the most controversial of all: “If [a beaten slave] remains alive a day or two, [the master] shall not be punished; for he is his property.” I see this verse pop up all the time in atheist rants, but seeing as the preceding verses about slavery have commonly been misunderstood, I believe we can extend the benefit to this verse as well (and I hope you’ll see, in the end, that this is not misplaced).

Firstly, again, we start by looking at the Hebrew:

אַךְ אִם-יוֹם אוֹ יוֹמַיִם יַעֲמֹד לֹא יֻקַּם כִּי כַסְפּוֹ הוּא

“Howbeit if in one or two days he stands, he shall not be avenged, for he is his silver.”

Different, isn’t it? The key lies with the word יַעֲמֹד (ya’amodh), which is commonly translated “lives”, “survives” or “continues” in this verse – but literally, it actually means “stands”. And if one were to read this verse plainly as it’s written in the Hebrew, one should be able to see that this law isn’t a license for a master to beat his servant right to the threshold of death with impunity. Instead, it’s a limit on excessive force.

In allowing the Israelites to take Canaanites as slaves, God knew that there would be those among them who’d prove unruly and difficult (the Canaanites were, after all, a generally violent and unregenerate populace), so He also allowed the Hebrews to exercise force in ruling over them. But they were not allowed to kill these slaves, and if they maimed any of them, the slave had to be set free. Short of this, a slave also had to be able to get back on their feet in one or two days if they were beaten, or the master would be punished. And this is the proper context by which this oft-repeated, oft-maligned verse ought to be understood.

So once you put the whole picture together and read the verses as they ought to be read, it becomes obvious that these supposedly controversial parts of the law aren’t really out of place among the rest of the regulations in Mishpatim. … In fact, one perceives the opposite: one sees a considered, measured approach to civil, criminal, moral and ceremonial legislation that outstrips basically every other civilisation that was contemporary to that period of history – a law that was not merely the product of human discretion, but divine equity and compassion in interaction with the necessities and challenges of building a holy theocracy in a fallen world.

As a case in point, I’d like to share a blog post I wrote some time ago here as well: The unseen presence of victorious corruption, which briefly highlights the supremely ethical character underpinning the laws of Mishpatim (Exodus 23:1-9), as well as the perennially relevant nature of those ethics.

The next 2 portions go into the building of the Tabernacle and the particulars of Aaronic dedication, so they’re rich in ritual and symbolism. And I look forward to them very much. … Apologies for being behind in the blogging, but I’ll try to catch up in the coming week. Shalom. :)