CDPCKL · The Book of the Covenant, Chapter 2: Workers’ Rights (Exodus 21:1-11)

The Book of the Covenant, Chapter 2: Workers’ Rights (Exodus 21:1-11)

The last time we saw Moses, he had climbed Mount Sinai and disappeared into the thick darkness where God was, while the people of Israel stood at a distance from the foot of the mountain, watching.  

They had just endured a terrifying sermon, preached by God himself, in a voice of thunder. In this brief, ten-point sermon, God had outlined the basic constitutional structure of the society he wants Israel to form. 

Israel, as a nation, is not going to be defined by ethnicity — they are already a mixture of many different races, different peoples who joined them in their midnight escape from Egypt. They are not going to be defined by state power — they are a loose coalition with a volunteer military. Instead, Israel as a national concept is going to be defined by a set of ten shared values, ratified by a covenant. 

And as I just pointed out, this ten-point sermon was terrifying for the people, because they realized they have no chance of maintaining these values, of keeping these ten laws. They begged Moses to make God stop talking. They said, “We cannot tahan anymore! Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” 

That is how Moses ended up in the darkness at the top of Mount Sinai, talking to God by himself. 

Because — apparently — God is not finished speaking. His ten-point sermon was really just the basic outline of the nation’s constitutional values. As soon as the people begin to try to practice these values in their daily life, they are going to have questions! Like: how do we define murder? How do we define stealing? What exactly does a true worshipful give-and-take relationship with God look like? God knows they will have these questions. So he has called Moses up to the top of Mount Sinai just so they can talk through the Ten Commandments in more practical detail. Later on, after Moses comes back down, he is going to write these instructions down in a book known as The Book of the Covenant. 

Well, last week, we saw that God began with a more detailed look at the first and second commandments. He offered his people a more detailed look at what a true worshipful give-and-take relationship with him looks like. He revealed that there must be blood shed in sacrifice: without blood there can be no forgiveness, no fellowship, no true worship. He revealed that, wherever his people do gather in worship around the altar of sacrifice, he will be present among them. But he also revealed that his true worshipers will not put their trust in the altar itself or in any of the superficial trappings of worship, but rather in God’s promise to be there with his people. 

But transformed worship is just the beginning. God’s presence with his people is supposed to result in real, practical, everyday changes. Transformed worship should lead to a transformed society. And that is where we ended last week: we realised that what God really wants is for his people not to conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds. 

Which left us wondering: what is this transformation supposed to look like in practical, everyday terms? What values and aspects of our church community should we be focused on changing so that we no longer conform to the pattern of this world? 

These are the words of the Lord as he continued speaking to Moses in the darkness at the top of Mount Sinai: [1] “These are the laws you are to set before my people: 

[2] “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. [3] If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. [4] If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.” 

Well! This is quite a change of subject, isn’t it! God has moved from defining worship to the buying and selling of human beings. And, to be fair, these do sound like some very practical, everyday instructions. 

But now we have some questions, don’t we? 

Because — correct me if I’m wrong here — this sounds quite a bit like God is talking about slavery. Which is something we are all opposed to in this day and age, right? And to make matters worse, God’s version of slavery is also sexist, apparently: men can go free after six years, but women cannot! 

What is going on here? Every culture in the ancient world practiced slavery. If God wanted to transform Israel’s society, why didn’t he just make a rule: “No more buying people!” That would have been truly transformational, no? 

For that matter, which of the Ten Commandments are these instructions supposed to help explain? 

Those are some good questions. 

So let’s start by correcting our first assumption: this section is not actually about slavery. It is not actually about buying and selling human beings. What God is actually doing here is providing appropriate employment opportunities for the poor. 

A few weeks ago, when we looked at the eighth commandment, we realised that “you shall not stealalso means “you shall be responsible with what God has given you.” Being responsible means investing in your property and protecting it. 

But we also realised that God does not give every family an identical inheritance: larger families have more, smaller families have less. And as time goes by, some families are going to grow and prosper, some are going to experience difficulties. And so we talked about how the eighth commandment also contains the idea that those who prosper are obligated to take responsibility for those who fall into financial trouble. 

These verses here are God’s more specific instructions on how to care for the poor in a way that treats them with dignity and gives them the opportunity to be productive members of society — thus fulfilling the fourth commandment about making sure everyone gets a chance to work six days out of every seven. 

But how? 

Well, let’s imagine a man who has had a run of bad luck: a famine, a fire, some disaster that wipes out his savings so that he has to sell his lands to settle his other debts. How is that man to survive and support his family without property? God’s law allows him to “sell” his labor to another family that is doing well enough to “buy” him. So: 

When God says, “If you buy a Hebrew servant,” he is not talking about shopping at a slave market, he is talking about signing an employment contract. The employer does not buy the man by paying money to a slave dealer, he “buys” him by paying money to that man — either as a lump sum right at the beginning, or a lump sum at the end, or as some kind of regular salary. 

We actually see an example of this in Genesis, when Jacob ”sold“ himself to his uncle Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel. He got “paid” at the end of that contract. And then, when he discovered how his uncle cheated him, Jacob renegotiated for another seven years, but that second time he insisted on getting paid up front. 

And as a point of protection for both employee and employer, the maximum contract period is six years. 

Now, during those six years, the employee’s life does “belong to” the employer — but this does not make him some kind of sub-human slave. The opposite, actually: because the employee’s life “belongs to“ the employer, the employer is obligated by the eighth commandment — against stealing — to take responsibility for his property, which in this case includes his employee’s life. And this is why, in another place, God’s law says that an employer is obligated to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care and an end-of-contract bonus — enough capital for his employee to restart his own business if possible. 

Probably the closest analogy we have today is military service. When someone enters the military, their life “belongs to” the military: they have to go where they are told, they have to do what they are told, or there will be some unpleasant consequences. But in return for all that control, the military is contractually obligated to pay them, feed them, clothe them, shelter them, provide medical care and a retirement package. 

So…okay. We can acknowledge that God’s instructions here do not support slavery, that these instructions actually abolish slavery in Israelite society. 

But what about the sexism that we see here? Why is it that “only the man shall go freewhile the woman continues to “belong to her master”? 

Well, first of all: we have to pay careful attention to what God actually says. He does not say, “Men go free, women do not” as if the general rules for men and women are different. No, what God says is, “A man in this particular situation goes free, a woman in this particular situation does not.” 

And we are going to see that most of God’s laws in this Book of the Covenant are like that: they are examples based on particular situations, designed as a guide for judges when they are trying to make decisions in similar circumstances. 

So what we need to do is make sure we understand this particular situation before we decide whether this law is sexist or not. 

So what situation is God describing? 

Actually, God describes three possibilities: 

First, if the man is single when he signs the contract, and still single at the end, he leaves with whatever assets he managed to accumulate. That makes sense. 

Second, if the man has a family when he signs up, he leaves with his family and whatever assets he managed to accumulate. That also makes sense. 

But third, if his employer gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, and then the man’s contract finishes before his wife’s contract finishes, then obviously the husband is free to go seek other employment, while the wife would have to stay back and finish out her contract. And that also makes sense: just because a woman gets married, she should not be allowed to skip out on her employment contract! That would be stealing from the employer. 

For instance, let’s imagine that a wealthy landowner “buys” the contract of a Hebrew man, and pays out the salary required by the contract. Later, he “buys” the contract of a Hebrew woman, and pays out the salary required by that contract. His two employees start dating. Soon they want to get married. But marriage is expensive — the male employee can’t afford to “buy” his girlfriend’s employment contract from the boss because he is poor, that is why he is working under contract! So the boss has mercy on him. He “gives” his female employee as a wife to his male employee: no bride-price required, no contract transfer needed. 

So now, in terms of marriage, the husband and wife belong to each other. But in terms of employment, the woman still “belongs to” the boss until her contract is completed. 

So that is not sexist at all, is it! That is just plain common sense. 

And this situation worked both ways, by the way. If the wife finished her contract before the husband, then only the woman would go free to seek other employment — if she wanted to — while her husband had to stay back until his contract was done. 

But why would she want to? After all, she might not find new employment nearby — which would mean physical separation from her husband for the duration of his contract. And then, even after her husband was free, her new employer might not need another man on his payroll. So her husband might end up working somewhere else entirely, which would entail even more separation…

But even if she did manage to find employment nearby, she would still be living on that other nearby farm, and there would not be much free time to see her husband — maybe just one day in seven? And if she tried to live with her husband and walk to work every morning, well: she could not expect free room and board from her husband’s employer, right? So that would be another expense. And what about the children? The ones who are still nursing would have to go with her, of course, but the ones who are old enough to learn how to work, would they stay with her, or with her husband…? 

And all these problems a free wife would face are the exact same problems a free husband would face. Marriage binds a man and a woman together into one flesh, one household, one set of shared difficulties. Living apart essentially doubles a family’s expenses! So the question could also be asked: just because a man’s contract is up and he is free to seek other employment away from his wife if he wants to…why would he want to? 

And what if that free man says to himself, “You know, I’ve had a pretty good employment situation here: my boss is cool, the benefits are good, my family is here, and the jobs market out there is looking a bit soft…I think I would like to stay on!”…what then? 

Well, God knew that some people might feel that way. So he makes provision for that particular situation also: 

[5] “If the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ [6] then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” 

In other words: if the employee wants to stay on, then there needs to be a public community hearing of some kind, to make sure the employee is not being pressured into staying, and to make sure the boss is not being pressured into rehiring him. And then there needs to be a piercing — probably for a gold earring — to publically symbolize the lifetime covenant the employee has made with his boss. 

And the result is…job security! The man or woman who had once lost everything — home, family, inheritance — has now gained it all back: a new covenant home, a new covenant family, a new covenant inheritance. 

So it turns out that God’s law here really is transformational. In a world where sub-human slavery was the norm — the same kind of slavery the Israelites suffered in Egypt — God’s commands here ensure that every citizen of the nation enjoys equal human rights under the law. 

Every citizen: including those who are not biologically related to Jacob, including all those from other ethnicities who have joined Israel at Mount Sinai. 

We have to pause to emphasise this point because that is the point God is making when he says ”if you buy a Hebrew servant”. He could have said, “if you buy an Israelite servant,” but he said, “if you buy a Hebrew servant”. Hebrew is the broader term, like saying Malaysian instead of just Malay, or Indian, or Chinese. An ”Israelite” is a descendant of Jacob. A ”Hebrew” includes everyone else who has come to join that central Israelite family. 

So God’s commands here ensure that every citizen of the nation — biological and covenantal — enjoys equal human rights under the law. If the people of Israel follow these instructions, they will definitely no longer conform to the pattern of this world: they will be a truly transformed society, at least in this area of employer/employee relations. 

But apparently God is not done talking about this topic, so let’s read on: 

[7] “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do.” 

Uh oh. Here we go again! “If a man sells his daughter”?! What kind of father sells his daughter? Is this more slavery? And then: why is she not to go free as male servants do?! Sexism, again? 

Well, not so fast. Let’s remember that these laws are situational. They are meant to serve as examples, guidelines. So let’s make sure we understand this particular situation before we jump to any conclusions. So: 

Based on the previous law, we should understand that when a man ”sells“ his daughter this means he is hiring her out. Basically, he is helping her get a job. Which is fine, right? If a father is poor, and does not have enough business to fully employ his daughter, of course it would be good for her to find work outside the family. 

And of course a good father is going to negotiate the best employment contract he can get for his daughter! The only restriction here is that this is a lifetime contract, not a six-year contract. At the end of six years she is not to go free as male servants do. 

So now we have to ask: why not? What kind of special employment conditions would require a life-time contract? 

Let’s keep reading and find out: 

[8] “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her.” 

Ah. Okay! This section is not really about an employment contract, this is about a marriage contract. 

But I have a question: why then does it start with “if a man sells his daughter as a servant”? 

Answer: because that is one way a marriage between a poor woman and a rich man could get its start back in those days. 

Remember that these are hypothetical situations, these are laws designed to answer “what if” questions. And the question being asked here is: what if a father signs his daughter up for a normal six year employment contract, so that her life “belongs to” her boss. And then what if the boss takes a liking to her. Is he allowed to sleep with her, since she “belongs to” him? And if he is allowed to sleep with her, is he allowed to send her back after her six year employment contract is finished? 

The answer is no. If the boss wants to sleep with her, first he has to convert her six-year employment contract to a marriage contract, and even then only with her father’s permission, which would also include a bride price and everything else that goes into arranging a marriage. 

And we actually see a godly example of this in the Book of Ruth, where Boaz — the wealthy landowner — refuses to take sexual advantage of one of his female employees, but marries her instead. 

And once the couple is married, obviously the woman is not to go free as male servants do at the end of six years, because marriage contracts are for a lifetime! 

In fact, the boss — now her husband — is not allowed to let her “go free” even if he later decides he wants to divorce her for some reason. He is not allowed to convert her contract back to an employment contract and then sell that contract to someone else. He is required to give her back to her family for free: he cannot demand that they give back the bride price he paid for her — which is really another way of admitting that the divorce is his fault, not hers. 

And the same policy applies [9] if he selects her for his son: he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 

Whatever happens, however the marriage is arranged, the female employee must become a legally recognised member of the family. 

And, finally — verse 10 — “if the man who married her marries another woman later on, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. [11] If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” 

Now, what is this about? 

This is about protecting the rights of the powerless in the face of the powerful and well-connected. 

Remember, the woman in this situation comes from a poor family: that is why she is working under contract in the first place. She is married now into a wealthier family with better social connections, which is good for her! But if the boss or the son or whoever married her decides to take on a second wife — perhaps a woman from another wealthy, well-connected family — they might be tempted to just dump the first wife, or turn her back into a mere employee. 

But God is saying: no. You shall not steal. You shall not murder. And you definitely shall not commit adultery by breaking the lifetime marriage contract. The husband must maintain his first wife according to the same rights and privileges as before: he has to feed her, clothe her, and give her children who will inherit a portion of the family fortune. If he refuses, then he must divorce her properly and give her back to her father’s family for free — again, without any repayment of the bride price, because he has broken faith with her, not the other way around. 

So, once again, now that we understand the particular circumstances God is talking about here, we realize that this second section — like the first section — does not support slavery, it also abolishes slavery. And it is definitely not sexist. 

Really, if we are going to call it anything, we would have to say that it is anti-sexist. God designed these instructions to protect female employees from their sexist male bosses. God knew — God knows — that women in the workplace are more sexually vulnerable than men, and so he deliberately included these extra protections under the law for their sake. 


Now: isn’t that amazing! I think we have to agree that these radical concepts — the idea that every citizen should have equal protections under the law, the right to regular employment, and the right to end that regular employment; the idea that women have equal rights, that they should be just as safe working outside the family business as they would be working for their family — all of these values, if adopted, really would result in a radically transformed society where no one would have to live in slavery without home, family, or inheritance. 

But here is a question we could ask: did it work? Was ancient Israelite society transformed by these values? 

Sadly: no. Ancient Israelite society was not transformed by these values. 

But not because these values do not work. The truth is, ancient Israelite society never did adopt these values. Yes, there were righteous individuals here and there who did live according to God’s commands here — Boaz, who married his employee Ruth, is one example. But the nation as whole failed to let these values transform their society. 

We know this because, one thousand years or so after Moses, God said this through the prophet Jeremiah: “I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me 

Therefore, since you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people, I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you — ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. The leaders, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them.” 

And that is what happened. God called the Babylonian empire to come and conquer Israel and carry them away into slavery — because Israel refused to adopt God’s employee protection laws. That is how important these concepts are to God! He really cares about the poor, and he really wants to see these healthy covenantal structures built into human society. 

But here is another question we could ask: why didn’t Israel adopt these values? They are so obviously good, so well balanced, designed to abolish slavery and reinforce a fundamental equality in society — why reject them? 

The answer is: fear. Fear of losing a good employee. Fear of losing control. Fear of misfortune. Fear that leads to a longing for stability and safety, a longing that leads to covetousness, which leads to dishonesty in speech, in business, in marriage, in life — fear that in the end results in just plain greed, the love of money, which is really just the same thing as the hatred of human beings. 

But where did this fear come from? 

It came from a lack of faith. The people of Israel simply did not believe God’s promise that he would be present with them. They did not believe in his covenant loyalty to them. And because they did not really believe in his covenant loyalty, because they did not really believe he was present with them, they lived as if they were on their own in the world, as if their survival was up to them alone, just like every other nation on earth. And because they did not believe in God’s covenant loyalty, they failed to respond with covenant loyalty in their daily lives. And as a result, instead of being transformed, their society ended up conforming to the pattern of this world: they became a slave society just like everyone else. 

Basically, since transformed worship should lead to a transformed society, we can conclude that an untransformed society must not be practicing transformed worship. 

Or to put that another way: a society that does not believe in God’s covenant loyalty to his people will not practice covenant loyalty to God or to anyone else who does not immediately benefit them. 

Which means that it is time now for us to take an honest look at ourselves and ask: how are we doing? As Christians, we have inherited these laws, these values. But how exactly are they supposed to apply to our lives, our modern society? 

Well, today we have learned that the eighth commandment — you shall not steal, but you shall take responsibility for your property — means that Christian employers do have an obligation to watch their bottom line, to make wise business decisions, which means finding the best male or female employees they can. But employers are also obligated to contract with those employees appropriately and honestly, being devoted to their welfare, providing what is right and fair. We have learned that parents and others in authority are obligated to help those under their care find gainful employment, and ensure that they are not abused or taken advantage of. 

On the other side, we have also learned that the eighth commandment obligates Christian employees to act with an appropriate covenant faithfulness toward those whom they are contracted to serve: not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, not just looking to their own interests but also to the interests of their boss and others in the company. 

So…how are we doing in adopting these values? 

In one sense we are all probably doing all right. As we noticed during our discussion of the eighth commandment a few weeks ago, thanks to British colonialism a lot of Malaysian law really is based on a Judeo-Christian understanding of personal property and all that this concept implies. So a lot of the worst abuses that ancient Israel struggled with are now illegal here. Basically, if we follow Malaysian labour laws, we are following God’s law. 

And yet, as we look around, we have to admit that Malaysian society is not the profoundly transformed society we are all hoping for, is it! Despite the laws that are in place, there are a lot of abuses going on — especially abuses of the poor, the foreigner, the refugee, and women. Our city here is full of people working in slave conditions: without contracts, without adequate pay, without food, proper shelter, health care or a retirement plan, everything that God’s law actually requires. 

So does that mean these laws, these values simply don’t work? Should we switch to a system in which there is no personal property, in which everything is owned and administered by the state, so that the state can ensure the proper distribution of work and wealth? 

No. That would be a bad idea, for all the reasons we discussed back when we looked at the eighth commandment. 

So what has gone wrong here in Malaysia, then? 

That’s easy to answer: the same thing that went wrong in ancient Israel. The vast majority of Malaysians do not believe in God’s covenant loyalty to his people. And so the vast majority of Malaysians live in fear as if they are on their own in this world, responsible to care only for the people who are closest to them, the people who benefit them the most. The British introduced Judeo-Christian law to these shores — and the generations that followed realised that these laws are a tremendous benefit to society, so they kept them on the books — but the Malaysian people, just like the British people, have not been transformed by true worship, by true love, by true covenant loyalty. Why not? Because it is impossible for law to transform the human heart. And so the best these good laws can do here is limit the very worst of the abuses and drive all the rest of the abuses underground where they are even harder to deal with. 

In short: it is not enough — it is never enough — to just follow God’s laws on the surface. As we learned definitively from the tenth commandment two weeks ago: what goes on in the human heart really matters. True worship really matters. 

So what are we supposed to do about all this, as Christians living in Malaysia? 

Well, it is good to follow the laws of the land, if those laws are in line with God’s law. So if we are doing that — if we are being good employers and good employees — then we should definitely keep doing that. If you are not doing that, then — as a Christian — you had better start doing that, or God will arrange some uncomfortable consequences for you. There should not be any greedy or corrupt businessmen in Jesus’ Church. So if that is you: repent. Quickly. Or you will be disciplined. 

But as Christians we must do more than just comply with the law. We have been told do not conform to the pattern of this world. Well, the pattern of this world is always just surface compliance. So we are called to a deeper kind of compliance. We are called to love from the heart, from the core of who we are. Which means that, really, the core of who we are needs to be transformed. 

So let us examine ourselves in that deeper sense now: how are we doing in adopting these values from the heart? 

If you are an employee, do you obey your earthly bosses with respect and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ, and not only those who are good and considerate, but also those who are harsh? Or are you quick to jump, quick to complain, quick to obey only to win their favor when their eye is on you? 

If you are an employer, if you are in management, do you treat those under your authority in the same way, serving them wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, refusing to threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him? 

Oh, that is a much higher level of commitment, isn’t it! 

And let’s be honest: none of us can claim that we have arrived at that level yet. None of us practice perfect covenant love for one another — much less for bosses or employees who are outside our Christian community. So what should we do about that? 

Well, first: it is good for us to admit it, knowing that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. But if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. So let’s be humble and admit the truth. 

Second, now that we know the standard, it is good for us to keep on aiming for it. We do long for a transformed society. We cannot achieve that for Malaysia. But we can work toward transforming our little society right here. 

And that transformation, as always, begins and ends with our transformed hearts, which come through transformed worship. Brothers and sisters, we have a Heavenly Father who is present with us always, who has bound himself to us through a covenant paid for by his own Son, Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, we who were once alone in the world — without home, family, or inheritance — have now been given everything: a new covenant home, a new covenant family, a new covenant inheritance. We have received meaningful labour, and meaningful rest. We are loved with a loyalty beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And the more we remember our Father’s covenant loyalty for us, the more we will respond with covenant loyalty to him and to everyone around us. 

Near the beginning we asked which values and aspects of our church community should we be focused on changing so that we no longer conform to the pattern of this world. Today the aspect we are focused on is covenant loyalty between employees and employers. Many societies recognise that this is a good thing! — but they believe loyalty can be created and enforced by law, and this is why every other society on earth is defined by ethnicity or power. We know, however, that the law is actually powerless to affect real transformation. So the way we refuse to conform to the pattern of this world is by refusing to live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, putting our trust in the transforming loyalty of Christ. Jesus’ covenant loyalty to us is the source of all true covenant loyalty between everyone, even employees and employers; this is one of the foundational values that define us as one spiritual nation. 

We were wondering what we are supposed to do, as Christians, about all the inequalities and workplace abuses going on in Malaysia. Well, we cannot directly change the system — that would require the spiritual conversion of every single individual in the nation. But we can refuse to contribute to the abuses and inequalities. We can refuse to accept the values of the system. And the best way for us to do that is to make sure our own values are founded upon the deepest truth of all: that we are not alone, that we have a Father in Heaven who loves us more completely than we know. And the best way for us to make sure our own values are founded upon this deepest truth is by participating in true worship with the people of Jesus Christ, so we can be reminded week by week of God’s promise to be present with his people. 

So let us keep on doing that. 

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