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Exodus 21:2-35 - Homiletics

The slave laws.

Slave laws belong to all communities, and not to some only, slavery being really a universal and not a partial institution. In the most civilised communities of modern Europe, there are two large classes of slaves—lunatics and criminals. The law openly condemns these last to penal servitude, which may be for life; and this "servitude," as Lord Chief Justice Coleridge has repeatedly pointed out, is simply a form of slavery. Ancient communities differed from modern—

1 . In the extent to which slavery prevailed;

2 . In the grounds upon which men were bound to it; and

3 . In the treatment whereto those bound to it were subjected.

I. EXTENT OF ANCIENT SLAVERY . The slaves in ancient states were almost always more numerous than the freemen. At Athens they amounted to more than four-fifths of the community. Every free person was a slave owner, and some owned hundreds of their fellow-creatures. Perpetual insecurity was felt in consequence of the danger of revolt; and this fear reacted on the treatment of slaves, since it was thought necessary to break their spirit by severities. The evil effects of the institution pervaded all classes of the community, fostering pride and selfishness in the masters, dissimulation, servility, and meanness in the slaves.

II. GROUNDS ON WHICH ANCIENT SLAVERY RESTED . Ancient slavery did not necessarily imply any mental or moral fault in the slave. Some reached it through mental defect, as our lunatics; some through crime, as our convicts (see Exodus 22:3 ). But the great majority were either born in the condition, or became slaves through the fortune of war. Thus slavery was not commonly a deserved punishment, but an undeserved misfortune. Men found themselves, without any fault of their own, the goods and chattels of another, with no political and few social rights, bound to one who might be in all respects inferior to themselves, but who was their lord and master. A sense of injustice consequently rankled in the bosom of the slave, and made him in most cases dangerous. Slave revolts were of frequent occurrence.

III. TREATMENT OF SLAVES IS ANCIENT STATES . Some considerable differences may be observed between the treatment of slaves in different communities; but there are certain features which seem to have been universal.

1 . Slaves were for the most part the property of individuals, and depended largely on the caprice of individuals, who might be harsh or mild, brutally tyrannical, or foolishly indulgent.

2 . Slave families might at any time be broken up, the different members being sold to different masters.

3 . Slaves might everywhere be beaten, and unless in case of serious injury, there was no inquiry.

4 . Very severe labour might be required of them; they might be confined in workshops, which were little better than prisons, made to toil in mines, or chained to the oar as galley slaves.

5 . They might be badly lodged, badly clothed, and badly fed, without the law taking any notice.

6 . In most places there was no redress for any injury that a slave might suffer short of death; and in some the law took no cognisance even of his murder. The Mosaic legislation, finding slavery established under these conditions, set itself to introduce ameliorations, without condemning the institution altogether. Compare St. Paul' s conduct when he sent Onesimus back to Philemon ( Philemon 1:12 , Philemon 1:16 ). It divided slaves into two classes, Hebrew and foreign, changing the slavery of the former into a species of apprenticeship for six years, and guarding, not merely the life, but the members and organs of the latter. It acknowledged the family lie in the case of the slave, and laid down rules tending to check the separation of wives from husbands. It protected slave concubines from the caprice of a sated husband. It absolutely forbade the practice of kidnapping, whereby the slave-market was largely recruited in most countries, putting men-stealers on a par with murderers, and requiring that they should suffer death. We may gather from the Mosaic legislation on the subject—

I. THAT THERE ARE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH SLAVERY SHOULD BE TEMPORARILY MAINTAINED . Where a whole community is uncivilised, or half-civilised, where slavery is an old-established institution, engrained not only into the laws, but into the habits and manners of the people—where there are no prisons or means of building them, and where the alternative for slavery would he the massacre of prisoners taken in war, and of criminals, it may be well that even Christian legislators should for a time tolerate the institution. The Europeans who obtain political influence in Central Africa, and other similar regions are bound to bear this in mind; and while doing their utmost to put down man-stealing, should carefully consider in each case that comes before them, whether slavery can in the particular community be dispensed with or no. To tolerate it for a while is simply to act on the lines laid down by Moses and St. Paul.

II. THAT IF UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SLAVERY HAS TO BE MAINTAINED , ALL POSSIBLE AMELIORATIONS OF IT SHOULD BE INTRODUCED WITHOUT DELAY . The slave is entitled to be protected in life and limb, to he decently lodged, fed, and clothed, to have the enjoyment of the Sunday rest, to be undisturbed in his family relations, to have the honor of his wife and daughters respected, to have an appeal from his master if he regards himself as in any way wronged. The efforts of missionaries and other humane men in uncivilised communities, should be directed primarily to the introduction of such reforms as these into the systems which they find established there.

III. THAT , WHERE DOMESTIC SERVICE HAS SUPERSEDED SLAVERY , THERE IS STILL ROOM FOR AMELIORATIONS IN THE CONDITIONS OF SERVICE . It is not the masters of slaves only who are hard and tyrannical. In all service there is room for the exhibition on the part of the master, of indulgence on the one hand, or strictness and severity on the other. We at the present day may either oppress our servants, or deal kindly with them. True, they may leave us if we oppress them; but a good servant will not readily leave a respectable place, and a good deal of tyranny is often borne before warning is given. It is the duty of masters, not only to "give to their servants that which is just and equal" ( Colossians 4:1 ), but to show them sympathy and kindness, to treat them with consideration, and avoid hurting their feelings. More warmth and friendliness than are at all usual in the present treatment of servants, seem to be required by the fact that they are our brethren in the Lord, joint-heirs of salvation with us, and perhaps to be preferred above us in another world.

Exodus 21:12-14 and Exodus 21:20 , Exodus 21:21

Laws on homicide.

Here again, in the time of Moses, a custom, regarded as of absolute obligation upon all, held possession of the ground; and nothing was practicable hut some modification of it. The next-of-kin was "avenger of blood," and was bound to pursue every homicide to the bitter end, whether it was intentional and premeditated ( i.e; murder), or done hastily in a quarrel ( i.e; manslaughter), or wholly unintentional ( i.e; death by misadventure). Moses distinguished between deliberate murder, which the State was to punish capitally ( Exodus 21:12-14 ) and any other sort of homicide, which was left to the avenger of blood. In mitigation of the blood-feud, he interposed the city of refuge, whereto the man who had slain another might flee and be safe until his cause was tried. And in the trial of such persons he introduced the distinction between manslaughter and death by misadventure, allowing the avenger of blood to put the offender to death in the former case, but not in the latter. ( Numbers 35:16-25 .) Mercy and truth thus went together in the legislation.

I. TRUTH The primary truth is the sacredness of man' s life. In rude times, where it is everywhere "a word and a blow," very severe laws were necessary, if human life was not to be continually sacrificed; and so manslaughter was placed on a par with murder, made a capital offence; the sudden angry blow which caused death, though death might not have been intended, was to receive as its due punishment death at the hands of the "avenger of blood."

II. MERCY . The "avenger of blood" was not allowed to be judge in his own cause. Cases of unpremeditated homicide were to go before the judges, who were to decide whether the death was intentional or by mischance. Mercy was to be shown to the man who had blood on his hands through accident. He was to be safe within the walls of the "city of refuge." Cities of refuge were multiplied, that one might be always within easy reach. Legislation should always seek to combine mercy with justice. Draconian enactments defeat their own purpose, since over-severe laws are sure not to be carried out. The moral sense revolts against them. Thus, when in our own country forgery was a capital offence, juries could not be got to convict of forgery. Laws should be in accordance with the conscience of the community, or they will cease to command respect. Good men will infringe them; and even courts will be slow to enforce obedience when they are infringed. Wise legislators will ever aim at embodying in the law the judgments of the more advanced conscience, and making it thus an instrument' for elevating the moral sentiments of the community.

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