Summary: God speaks to me of recompense not vengeance, punishment but not cruelty, deterring crime and not accepting bad behaviour. As I love and serve Him I take on His character and I can be just and fair.
Exodus 21 - An Eye for an Eye
Exodus 21 is where Israel is given instructions regarding slaves, violence and restitution. You won’t believe some of the things that are covered here, from buying slaves to an ox falling accidently in a ditch. Rules and regulations. This is where we come across those famous words, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."
The 10 commandments covered the general, but we never hear about the laws that covered very specific situations. This is a chapter we pass over all too quickly, because the details bore us easily.
Some of these rules seem cruel and unfair - like slavery is accepted. But it gets worse. Although a slave can be free after serving his master for 6 years, if his master has arranged a marriage during the period of his slavery and he has children during his term of slavery, things get complicated - on the 7th year he can leave as a free man, but his wife and kids have to remain behind. In order to keep his marriage, he has to become a slave again, this time permanently. How odd is that! It gets worse. If a man beats his male or female servant with a rod and he remains alive for a day or two, the man goes unpunished. It’s only if he or she dies on that day that he is punished!
We have no idea in our Western culture of slavery and we disapprove of it, even when we read about it in the Bible. Does God approve of slavery, we ask? We can water it down and say that slaves in Israel were better off than in other cultures of the time, but what is going on here?
Let’s get some perspective. Slavery didn’t come into being with the giving of Bible laws. It was already a part of the culture. Israel had been slaves in Egypt. What these Biblical laws do is to regulate the practice of slavery, which was already a reality in the culture, without commenting whether it is right or wrong. This ensured that this part of culture was exercised in a just way.
I don’t know what it is like to be left with no option but to sell my children into slavery because it is the only thing I can do to ensure their survival. As slaves they would be looked after because the laws protected them. Slavery saved their lives.
Slavery also reduced poverty and became a place where people could learn a trade. A person in debt could sell himself as a slave to a wealthy person, and pay off the debt. After 6 years of service he was free, and the master gave him money and resources to start fresh. It was kind of like a job start programme, only you could be beaten if you didn’t work well! If you survived the beating, you could keep your job! Work place health and safety wasn’t an issue. Actually, not beating a slave was obviously of more advantage to the master, who needed a workforce.
The eye for an eye principle stopped the cycle of injustice and continual feuding and harm. This law simply says that a person has no right to demand more in retribution than that which has been done to him. Elders would settle the dispute and negotiate until the case was settled and a payment that was mutually acceptable was made. The injured person set the price that was to be paid, not exceeding the damage done to him. We no longer hold to such laws, and recompense sometimes far outweighs the injuries done. Sometimes it is not nearly enough. The Bible speaks of a just recompense.