21:1 “These are the legal rules that you should explain to them. 2 When you contract with a Hebrew servant, he should serve six years, and in the seventh he should go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he should go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife should go out with him. 4 If his employer gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her employer’s, and he should go out alone. 5 But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his employer should bring him to God, and he should bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his employer should bore his ear through with an awl, and he will be his slave forever. 7 “When a man contracts out his daughter as a servant, she should not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her employer, who has designated her for himself, then he should let her be redeemed. He will have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she will go out for nothing, without payment of money.
covenant household employment rights
The “book of the covenant” apparently begins here. It was a set of legal descriptions and elaborations which explained how the ten words (commandments) applied to the covenant community. Judges would use this book as they tried individual cases to see whether a crime against the covenant had been committed, and how to respond to the crime if it had been committed.
Since the entire nation had been subjected to forced slavery by the Egyptians, it makes sense that the instructions on how to judge human rights violations would begin here. Contractual obligations for those who decide to employ contract workers is the issue at hand. The reason it was so important is that the entire generation had no experience doing anything but serving in Egypt. To those with little or no possessions to trade, contractual service would seem a logical option.
1. The arrangement is contractual, so the term of employment is for only six years, after which the single worker must be set free (2). This arrangement parallels the rules about Sabbath observance, and reminds both parties that God is the author of the rest that comes at the seventh period of time. It also provides for the person employed a way of legally walking away from the arrangement, by setting a time limit to the contract – something the Hebrews never had under the Egyptians.
2. Children born to the contract worker must be protected (3-4). A child born to parents under contractual obligation is to remain under the protection of the worker’s employer even when one of the parents has served his time limit, and is no longer under the employer’s supervision.
3. A contract worker may voluntarily choose to make his situation permanent (5-6). In such cases, a separate contract for lifetime service can be arrange, attested to by the priests. This arrangement had to be signified by making a hole in the worker’s ear, a sign of the permanence of the new contractual arrangement.
4. Certain restrictions applied in the contractual arrangement between an employer and a woman who would serve in his household (7-11). These restrictions protected the rights of both the woman and her employer.
Anyone who has ever been unemployed, or faced the threat of unemployment – knows how depressing and disheartening it feels. The LORD wanted his people to know that he cared for them. His laws protected them, and showed that he loved them.
LORD, we pray for those trapped in unemployment and discouraged today. Help them out of that trap. But until they are free, remind them that you love them and value them.