You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed.—Éxodo 23:12, NTV
The mention of slaves in the Law of Moses provokes scandal in the mind of today’s reader. How could the Law of God have permitted the Israelites to keep other people in slavery? The fact that the Hebrews had suffered slavery in Egypt should have conscientized them to the evil of that nefarious institution. Despite this explicit hypocrisy, they never developed such a conviction during Biblical history.
Why dd God permit the continuation of slavery in Israel? In reality, the Law of Moses did not perfectly express the justice of God. In the matter of divorce—another tragic institution that the Law left in place–Jesus Christ commented that “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. ” (Matthew 19:8). As for slavery, God made the same concession. It seems that not only Pharaoh had a hard heart. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus explained in detail how the justice of God greatly exceeded that of the Law of Moses.
Nevertheless, God made provisions to soften the hardness of hearts in Israel. The slaves and immigrants had the same right to a day of rest and worship as free Israelites had, and God insisted that they should receive it. In our time also, justice calls our for equal, defined workplace rights for all, whatever their economic situation or national origin.
Some would accuse God of evil for permitting slavery and injustice in the world. But those same people do not submit their free will to God and would not opt for God depriving human beings of their freedom. The task of establishing justice in the earth belongs to us as human beings, and legal codes constitute the instrument for supporting justice. As in Ancient Israel, it is useless to establish laws that no one will execute. The imposition of laws always takes into account the culture and relative goodness of the people and seeks a balance between perfect justice and the possible. We should pray that the country where we live might have just laws and a righteous population with a conscience to execute them to the benefit of everyone.
Dr. Joseph Castleberry is President of Northwest University in Kirkland Washington. He is the author of Your Deepest Dream: Discovering God’s Vision for Your Life and The Kingdom Net: Learning to Network Like Jesus. Follow him on Twitter at @DrCastleberry and at http://www.facebook.com/Joseph.Castleberry.