It seems odd, doesn’t it, that in a chapter of the Bible which begins by regulating the trade of Hebrew slavery, we might say this tells us that God values freedom? But, there it is.
The thing I was so struck with was how God commands the Israelites to treat these slaves:
1) There was absolutely no room for stealing or kidnapping people. There are only provisions made if a servant is bought. Now, this might not seem like a big distinction to us. Indeed, our 21-century sensibilities are still outraged at the thought of buying and selling people. But God must start with what He’s got. And what He had was a whole world of people who didn’t give much of a thought to people. And so He begins by insisting that people — even if they are going to be bought and sold — are valuable and worth money!
2) After seven years, the servant could make the choice to be free. This was something brand-new. In Genesis 15, Abraham wondered aloud to God about the promise of making him a great nation when the only "heir" to his estate was the son of a lifelong servant. Now, in Exodus 21, God says that any servant — no matter their background, no matter where they came from, no matter how much they cost — would be free to choose their own destiny after six years. They could choose to go, or they could choose to stay. If they chose to stay, it would be for life. Now, after having to purchase a servant, and knowing that in six years, that servant would be free to walk away or stay, how would that motivate the owner to behave toward his servant? Quite generously, unless he wanted to lose his "investment"! Nevertheless, God introduces freedom for the slave. This, of course, was no accident. God was always keeping before the Israelite nation the reminder that He had brought them out of slavery. And He is still the only freedom there is.
3) God also introduces rights for women at the beginning of this chapter. Sure, they are still included in the "slave" category, but... rights for women! Apparently, God didn’t like the way He looked down and saw them being treated either.
Now, what does all this mean? It means that God values freedom. You might say, "Well, if God really valued freedom, He would have come along instead and said, 'No more slavery! And stop treating women like property!'" And yes, He could have chosen to do that. But what would that have accomplished at that time?
Do you know how to solve this equation? x + 537 = 21x / 2968
You probably do. But you didn’t know how to solve it in Kindergarten. In math, you must begin with 1 + 1 = 2. And in the realm of morals and love, God had to begin with the Israelites where they were, not where He was!
Freedom for the slave! Equality for women! The very beginnings of these ideas are found right in Exodus 21. God values freedom — for all of us. He gives freedom to everyone, respects the freedom of everyone, and He is eager to teach us how to do the same thing.