Q. If marriage is sacred, how do we explain God’s instructions in Exodus 21, which says that when a slave is freed, his master can keep his wife and his children (if the owner initially provided the slave with this wife)?
Good question. The first thing I would say is that we do find ourselves scratching our heads at some of what we find in the Old Testament, regarding marriage (concubines, multiple wives, such as Jacob, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon), and slavery (as here). From Ephesians 5:32 it does appear that the coming of our Lord and the founding of the church was a game-changer. This (Christ/church, husband/wife relationship) was a “mystery” in the Old Testament, and thus we should not be surprised to find that in Ephesians (5:25-30) and 1 Timothy 3:2 (one wife) different, higher, standards for marriage are now set forth. Now, the husband-wife relationship for the believer is to be patterned after the relationship of Christ and His church.
As I see it, the issue in Exodus 21 is two-fold, involving not only marriage, but slavery. What I would say is this; if the slave viewed his marriage as sacred, and held it in high regard, then a provision to sustain his marriage is set forth here in this text: the slave can renounce his “freedom” and remain a slave to his master, and in so doing, he can retain his wife and his children. Thus, the law (God) does not force the slave to dissolve his marriage and abandon his children.
The other thing I would say, is that I don’t read this as a “must do” command which forces the slave owner to send his slave away and keep the wife and children. The law only gives him the right to do so. When I look at men like Boaz in the Book of Esther, I see that men of great character see the law as the minimum standard, and that thus they are free to go beyond the basic requirements of the law. In other words, I believe one may choose grace over law in such situations.
I feel I must say that there is a certain danger when we spend too much of our time and energy thinking about how the Old Testament is different from the New, and thus it does not apply to us today. Is it possible that this law in Exodus 21, like other Old Testament laws, has a broader application for us, in principle? For example, I’m thinking of “Don’t muzzle the ox” in 1 Corinthians 9:
7 Who ever serves in the army at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not consume its milk? 8 Am I saying these things only on the basis of common sense, or does the law not say this as well? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” God is not concerned here about oxen, is he? 10 Or is he not surely speaking for our benefit? It was written for us, because the one plowing and threshing ought to work in hope of enjoying the harvest. 11 If we sowed spiritual blessings among you, is it too much to reap material things from you? 12 If others receive this right from you, are we not more deserving? But we have not made use of this right. Instead we endure everything so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:7-12, NET).
What if we were to look at Exodus 21 in the light of the cross? Jesus, in order to acquire a whole new “family” (the church) submitted Himself completely to the will of the Father (as we see in Philippians 2:4-8), set aside His rights, and died on the cross of Calvary? Does this provide husbands with a pattern for how they are to be Christlike as a husband? To retain the sanctity of the family, the husband must choose to surrender his “rights” and submit himself to Christ.
Here’s another thought, which might well apply to those who are single. Suppose the principle is something like this: “In order to have a wife and children, one must be willing to set aside some of his freedoms.”
Sound a bit far-fetched? Perhaps, but I believe the the Old Testament law is instructive for us today, and we would do well (as did the author of Psalm 119) to meditate on the law and how it does apply to us.
Hope this helps,