Israelite Slaves

Exodus 21:1-11

The portion begins with the laws of the Jewish slave. Although to our modern eye, slavery appears to be oppressive and an affront to human rights, it was a common practice until relatively recently. The Torah, in our portion and other places, outlines circumstances in which an Israelite might be sold into slavery to his fellow (see 22:2 for example). The period of slavery is limited to seven years, but if the slave is happy in his position, he is entitled to request that his indentured period be extended.


Another example of the exchange of humans for financial compensation is the sale of an unmarried daughter. The verses indicate that it is a sale for the purpose of marriage — if the buyer ultimately opts not to marry her, he must redeem her. If he takes another wife in addition to her, he cannot in any way diminish her marital rights.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

If an Israelite slave opts to stay with his master, he is taken to the court and his ear is pierced with an awl through to a doorpost. What do you think this means or represents?


Comments ( 13 )

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  • Maureen Ross Jones

    I believe this is a picture of how we have been redeemed from the slave market of sin by our master – and since the doorpost in Egypt was where the blood was applied to set the Jewish people free – so the door is symbolic of redemption. In love and gratitude to his master the slave chooses to pierce his ear to the doorpost – to serve God and not go out free to do his own thing. This is someone who has chosen true freedom

  • Herman Arentsen

    Just as the house was belonging to the master, the nailed servand now belongs also to him. That's why he s nailed at the doorpost, he is one of his master's possessions. Compare this to the blood on the doorposts in Egypt. This would tell who is bonding with HaShem and in case of no blood who is obeying Pharao. . The Angel of death would "pass over" the house which has the blood on the doorposts. Its is also a prophetic sign: Believers must also show in life they would like to be with the Eternal One by keeping His Covenant as good as possible.

  • Deborah

    This truly speaks of a deep devotion for ones Master; and it also, to me relates back to Egypt and the marking of doorposts, the bondservant is “marked” as belonging to their master foreve, should they choose tor. This is an awesome study..I love the parallel’s involved. Isn’t this also like Adam in the garden where Adam was a bondservant unto HaShem, Used to describe what Adam was to do in the garden (eved) bondservant? Also…the most important command is to LOVE the LORD your G-D…one would have to in order to allow that to be done just to stay with their Master…sorry guys…didn’t mean to ramble..was thinking out loud 🙂

  • Janice

    A type of blood covenant?


    In the year of his freedom the servant could now choose whom he would serve or he could simply leave. But because of the love he had for the master and because of the love he had for the gifts he had been given (His wife and children) he freely chose to stay with the master. The master would then take the servant before GOD, at the threshold, and the servant would there promise to HEAR and obey his master all the days of his life and upon doing so would know be a member of the master’s household.

  • Magda

    I would still like to know why this specific practice (of piercing the ear with an awl through to a doorpost). Was this a common practice in the cultures of the Ancient Near East? With a specific symbolic meaning perhaps? I immediately connected it in my mind with the mezuzah and our obligation to write our Master’s commands on our doorposts; also symbolic of our commitment to Him and His commandments – maybe just a random thought.

    • Definitely not a random thought Magda. I think there is supposed to be a connection between the mezuzah and the piercing of a slave’s ear. There is also another connection to the doorpost-that of the doorpost in Egypt. Rashi, an 11th century commentator, brings a few opinions as to why the ear is pierced and why specifically on the door. He connects the ear of the slaves to the ear that heard God’s words. God says ‘For the Children of Israel are slaves unto Me.’ (Leviticus 25:55). The ear which heard these words, nonetheless, went to acquire for himself a master, deserves to be pierced. And it is done specifically on the door, as the doorposts bore witness to God choosing the nation of Israel as His slaves when He skipped over their homes with the blood of the Passover Sacrifice daubed on their doorposts.

      • Magda

        Thanks, Aliza, this gives it a rich meaning.

      • Angela B

        Thank you for throwing light on this. Thus the servant was to hearken to the words/voice of his master all his life, the same way we are supposed to hearken to Yahweh's words/voice.

  • Kenneth Osterman

    What I appreciate from the many laws is the equity and fairness shown. Vengeance is not the purpose of the law in resolving wrong, but it is executing fairness and offsetting the wrong without exaggeration.
    In simple terms, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….
    Dealings between man is fair and balanced. In accidents, even the splitting of an oxen between the parties involved. This is a far cry from our modern judicial system exemplified by many lawyers (no apology to any lawyers in the classroom).
    In some cases as we will see later, the Lord will require a seven fold penalty when the sin is against him. Leviticus 26

  • Kenneth Osterman

    Also see parallel account in Deuteronomy 15:16-17 But 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 thrust it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your bondman for ever. And to your bondwoman you shall do likewise.
    For a bondservant to do this would mean recognition and appreciation of the Master’s kindness and fairness for why would a bondservant commit his/her life to anyone forever unless the master was exemplary. It is also a commitment of the Master to the bondservant, you are now part of my household. It is an act of love.

    • Diana Brown

      True. Another amazing thing is something I failed to think about until I read your comment. In the New Testament, Jesus said His Servants are not greater than their Master. I have forgotten to learn, at times, how important it is to read His Words before I went out and acted like I had been taught by Him. When we act like a master instead of being in service to our master, we sure can do a lot of damage.

  • Diana Brown

    The one who is considered a slave wishes to remain where he is. Probably the position was one where the slave felt secure and his family provided for.
    Certainly a degree of respect and loyalty had to be present for someone to wish to remain in subjection to another. Also, probably hard to start a life with nothing unless you were allowed to take sheep or goods to insure you could make it on your own.

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