“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave…” ~ Exodus 21:1-2
When we read though the Bible, inevitably there are certain scriptures that will make us feel uneasy and wonder, “Did God actually say that?” and make us wonder if the ‘God of the Old Testament’ is somehow different than the magnified love of God in Christ we see in the ‘God of the New Testament.’
In Exodus 21 and other places, there are a lot of laws that have to do with the handling of slaves. Exodus 21:21 even refers to a slave as property or money. How does this square with what we read in other places in scripture about how we are to treat other people?
I think part of the answer comes when we look at what Jesus says about the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, he affirmed it as God’s good word (Matthew 5:17-18). On the other hand, he looked at it through a lens reflecting human nature post-Genesis 3.
In Matthew 19, some Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus responded by going back to Genesis 1&2, stating how God had made mankind male and female, and a man was to leave his father and mother to become united as one flesh in a relationship to his wife. Therefore, Jesus concluded, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The Pharisees asked, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?” It’s actually a fair question, because Moses wrote about divorce proceedings in Deuteronomy 24, which the Pharisees quoted (though how accurately they quoted it is up for debate). Jesus’ response is telling, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
In other words, Genesis 1&2 reflect how the world was supposed to be. In Genesis 3, we broke it when we chose sin over God. Jesus is restoring it, but it will not be fully restored until he returns (Revelation 21&22). Even among the Israelites, the nation marked out to be God’s people in the Old Testament, not everyone truly trusted God. Indeed, even though all the male children were to be circumcised on their eighth day, according to the command of God, Moses still had to call them to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16, also: 30:6).
The Law in the Old Testament was not given as a reflection of a return back to Genesis 1&2 or forward to Revelation 21&22. In other words, the purpose of the Law was not to create a society in which things were as God created them to be. Rather the Law put restraints on the hardness of heart which is, and kept sinful men who had no love for God from falling into the full trap of their sinfulness.
Stubborn hearts were bounded by a complex set of laws, mainly to protect others. Hearts made new in Christ which beat for God reflect a simpler law—a law of love and freedom (Galatians 5:13-26 and James 2:8-13).
A person under the law of love and freedom will seek to be a servant to others instead of forcing others to serve them. But without such love, people will seek to use others. Many of the Old Testament laws sought to keep in check the harmful reach of sinful and stubborn hearts.
So when a passage makes us uneasy, let’s remember to think of it in the full context of God’s word.
This post is part of our ongoing series as we go through the Bible together as a church in 2015-16.