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Moses' fourth speech, Part 12

Nov 19, 2012

After addressing the release of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, Moses then makes an astounding statement in Deuteronomy 15:16 and 17,

16 And it shall come about if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; 17 then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. And also you shall do likewise to your maidservant.

It was the obligation of the master to set his slaves free in the seventh year. Yet it was also the right of the slave to refuse to leave. Consider the circumstances under which a slave might want to remain in the house of his master. Moses says that the motive is love, and this, in turn, is due to the fact that the master treats the slaves well and does not abuse them.

If a master has faith in God and has adopted the mind of Christ, he will love his neighbor as himself. He will treat slaves much like he treats his own children. If they need discipline to learn obedience, he will administer discipline without abuse, but all discipline is subordinate to the love in his heart. He does not lose sight of the purpose of discipline, which, by God’s example, is to bring spiritual maturity to those being disciplined.

No abused slave would want to perpetuate his condition, unless forced to do so by threat of a worse condition if he should leave. This law of perpetual slavery, then, is only relevant in the Kingdom of God or among those who truly live by Kingdom principles.

The astounding truth is that slavery in the Kingdom of God is not an evil thing, but is actually desirable. This is why Paul considered himself to be a perpetual bond slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1). He had found freedom in being such a bond slave, because Jesus takes His bond slaves and turns them into His sons.

A master has the right to keep bond slaves, but he also has the right to treat them as sons and even to make them His heirs. A master has the full right to love his slaves. The only limitation on a master is that he has no right to command a slave to violate the law of God, nor does he have the right to abuse the slave.

Hence, when biblical slavery is practiced in a lawful manner by the mind of Christ, it results in godly discipline and training, resulting in full spiritual maturity as the sons of God. In other words, Kingdom slavery is beneficial to the slave, because it is administered by the second great law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A selfish master uses slaves to benefit himself. A loving master uses slaves to increase the scope of the Kingdom of God and to spread its love worldwide.

In later years the Pharisees and priests over-emphasized the fact that Moses had specified Hebrew slaves in this passage, as if this was meant to limit the application of this law. Yet first of all, it should be noted that a master had every right to treat non-Hebrew slaves with love and compassion. He was under no compulsion to love Hebrew slaves more than others. As the master of all the slaves, he had the lawful right to do as he pleased, as long as he did not abuse the slaves. Hence, when we come to the New Testament, we see how Jesus interpreted the law to show compassion for Romans and Samaritans as well as his own countrymen. In fact, when a lawyer came to test Jesus on some of these points of law, he asked Jesus specifically what the law meant when it said to love your neighbor as yourself.

And who is my neighbor?” he asked in Luke 10:29.

Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan and concluded with a question of His own in verse 36,

36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands? 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

In other words, when we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are commanded to be neighborly to everyone—including Samaritans, who were the people everyone loved to hate in those days. A neighbor was not merely a fellow Jew, or a fellow Israelite, or a fellow countryman of any kind. Jesus broadened the definition of neighbor to include all ethnic groups.

What about the practice of using an awl to nail a slave’s ear to the door in order to make him a perpetual slave?

This practice was to signify that one’s ear had been opened, and that the slave could fully hear and obey the voice of his master. We see this in the example of Jesus in His willingness to follow the plan of the Father, even if it meant dying on the cross for the sin of the world. For this reason we read the prophecy in Psalm 40:6-8,

6 Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; my ears Thou hast opened; burnt offering and sin offering Thou hast not required. 7 Then I said, “Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me; 8 I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy law is within my heart.”

This passage is a prophetic commentary on the law of perpetual slaves. When the slave’s ear is “opened” by the awl, he is joined to the Door, which is Christ (John 10:9). In fact, those who are truly in Christ are those who hear and obey His voice, for “the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out” (John 10:3).

Slaves who return after being released are saying prophetically, “Behold, I comeI delight to do Thy will… Thy law is within my heart.” In other words, the master no longer finds it necessary to inform the slave of his will, nor to tell him what to do, because he knows the master’s will and obeys, not by compulsion, but by nature. The law is within his heart, and no longer on external tables of stone.

Such a condition is characteristic of the New Covenant, which says, “I will put My laws upon their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts” (Heb. 8:7). In other words, a perpetual slave is one who has entered a New Covenant relationship with God. This is only possible through Jesus Christ, who is the “Door” to which the slave has been attached by the ear.

The Old Covenant commanded men to be obedient against human nature. The New Covenant needs no commands—not because the law has been set aside, but because it has been transferred to his heart by the power of the Spirit. He now desires to do His will.

Furthermore, a perpetual slave is the equivalent of a son, as Jesus said in John 8:35, 36,

35 And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. 36 If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.

In other words, a slave by compulsion of  law was to be set free in the seventh year. He was not to remain as a slave in the house forever (i.e., indefinitely). Only sons “remain forever.” Therefore, if a slave is set free by law, but returns to have his ear bored to the door, then he becomes part of the master’s house forever, even as a son. He then enjoys true freedom in his Master’s house.

Moses also adds in Deuteronomy 15:17, “And also you shall do likewise with your maidservant.”

This reveals an idea that was quite radical in Jesus’ day and even today in many circles—that women can also become the sons of God in the same manner as men. This great truth was nearly lost in the years preceding the ministry of Jesus, but He restored this truth to its proper place.  Jesus was almost unique in the fact that he had women disciples, for in His time, no respected rabbi would even speak to his own wife in public. Kenneth Bailey, who lectures at universities on New Testament culture, writes,

“A self-respecting rabbi did not even talk to his wife in a public place.” [Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, page 212]

Moses’ inclusion of women in the law of perpetual slavery is not so striking until we understand it through the eyes of the New Covenant. When we see this as a revelation of God, it shows how far many religious cultures have turned aside from the mind of God. This also explains Jesus’ radical departure from the religious and cultural norms of His day in talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and the Canaanite woman in Phoenicia (Matthew 15:22). If a rabbi would scarcely talk to his own wife in public, how much less likely would it be for him to talk to a stranger—and especially a foreign woman!

After speaking about perpetual slaves, Moses then concludes his section on setting slaves free by saying in Deuteronomy 15:18,

18 It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the Lord your God will bless you in whatever you do.

A hired man would work during the day but always returned to his own home at night. The slave, however, was always ready to do the master’s bidding, day or night. A hired man only worked one shift; the slave worked a double shift, if necessary. And, of course, if the slave was treated right, he did his work with enthusiasm, as he responded to the master’s love.

One final observation ought to be made in regard to this law. There are many who think that Jesus put away the law of Moses in favor of a new law of love—as if the two were incompatible or opposites. Such people do not understand the law of Moses, which hangs totally upon loving God and one’s neighbor. The law of perpetual slaves is a good illustration of how a master’s commands (laws) are supposed to be administered by love. Just because the master and slave had a legal relationship did not mean that this was devoid of love. In fact, this law shows that a master was supposed to reflect the mind of Christ, and, if successful, the slaves might even desire to return to serve him in perpetual slavery.

This would scarcely happen apart from love. The law in no way restricted the master from loving his slaves, nor did it restrict the slaves from loving their master. In fact, the entire law, if used properly, was built upon love. Unfortunately, men often interpreted the law in a self-serving manner, perverting the law and hiding the love inherent in the law. Jesus showed us how to interpret and to apply the law properly through love.

His law of love, then, was not really new at all, but it was indeed new to many of the people in his day. He taught them a new way, which was really the old way, for God is love and always has been. The character of God is often misunderstood, however, and so the traditions of men must be exposed so that we may change and conform to the image of Christ.


This is the twelfth part of a series titled "Moses' Fourth Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.

Moses' Fourth Speech


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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