If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. (Exodus 21:2)
On the surface of things, it seems strange that the ordinances given to the people of Israel should begin with one that speaks of servitude, especially when we consider that these were people who had just been freed from decades of bondage. On top of that is the fact that these particular instructions were given because the people asked for them and agreed to “hear and obey.” So the question that arises is, “Why was this the first of the instructions given to them after the initial encounter at Mount Sinai? It is my view that the reason this particular statute was the first of the many others to follow was to see whether or not they truly would “hear and obey.”
The Hebrew word translated “servant” (or slave in some translations) is eved and is more commonly translated as “bondservant.” The biblical bondservant is dramatically different from the slavery that was practiced in Greece and Rome where the servant was regarded as the possession of his master. The bondservant of the Bible was someone who had become indebted to his master and was thus obligated to serve him for a specified number of years — six to be exact. At the end of the six years, his master was obligated to let him go.
As you continue to read the laws concerning the bondservant, it becomes clear that there is a message embedded within the particulars that were given to the people. The message is this: someone who has been freed from his bondage may go his own way unless he, of his own volition, decides to stay with his master. And should he decide to do this, his motivation should not be fear of his master but love, as it is written:
But if the servant plainly says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free.” (Exodus 21:5)
Having decided this, the servant then makes a public profession of his decision and obligates himself to serve his master for the rest of his life. The embedded message is this: God had delivered Israel from their bondage and they had a choice to make — would they go their own way or would they decide to serve the Almighty? Furthermore, would they serve Him strictly out of fear or would they serve Him because they loved Him? Remember, Israel was motivated to say “we will hear and do” because they were afraid! Consequently, the message contained in the laws of the bondservant was actually a test to see if they truly would “hear and obey” and if they would serve Him out of love.
The same test is put to you and me. Can we truly hear what God is saying to us through His Word? Moreover, what is our motivation for serving Him? Is it fear or love? While it is true that we all need to fear God and show Him proper respect, it is also true that God wants us to serve Him because, more than anything else, we love Him. Thus, the first and greatest of all commands is, “Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul and strength.” And so, now we know why God gave this particular instruction to His people — to alert us to the fact that He is looking for those who will commit their lives to Him because they love Him.
Blessings and Shalom,