Parashat Mishpatim (Ordinances or Statutes)
Shemot (Exodus) 21:1–24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8–22, 33:25–26
Our weekly Scripture portion opens with a very interesting verse, which is usually interpreted in a negative way. However, I believe we misunderstand the essence of what the LORD is saying to us in it, and I argue for a more positive interpretation of it:
And these are the ordinances (statutes) [המשפטים] that you shall set before them.
God tells Moses that He is about to give statutes (המשפטים) to the Children of Israel. I chose to translate the Hebrew word, ““המשפטים”” (Mishpatim) as “ordinances/statutes” and not “judgments” since they are far more than just a set of laws. And we know that the Lord never uses a word without a specific purpose, so I believe that as we dig in deeper into the different laws, we will find a profound and logical basis for them.
As we continue, we read:
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years; but on the seventh he shall leave as a free man without a payment to you. If he comes in alone, he shall leave alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall leave with him. If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not leave as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently. Exodus 21:2-6
The word “slave” (eved in Hebrew) in this passage refers to a man with rights. It is interesting that God allows for the Israelites to have slaves since they themselves were just freed from slavery in Egypt. The main difference, however, is that God gives provision for the slave and does not allow the kind of back-breaking labor that Pharaoh imposed. For example, a Hebrew slave had the right to marry, to have children, and after seven years, he could choose to be freed or to stay with his master if he loved him. Why would a slave love his master unless the master treated him well? Another interesting point about the Hebrew slave is that, according to historical records, Hebrew slaves were often men who had committed a crime, and as an act of mercy, were given to slavery instead of being severely punished. While this may not seem like an act of mercy in our cultural understanding today, it actually was a much better option for the criminal.
In our Haftarah, we read of some amazing connections to God’s instructions to Israel when they wandered in the wilderness, as well as the tragic results of not applying His instructions into their lives:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim release to them: that each person was to set his male servant free and each his female servant, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, so that no one would keep them, his Jewish brother or sister, in bondage. And all the officials and all the people obeyed who had entered into the covenant that each person was to set his male servant free and each his female servant, so that no one would keep them in bondage any longer; they obeyed, and set them free. But afterward they turned around and took back the male servants and the female servants whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male servants and as female servants.
Zedekiah king of Judah made a covenant with the people who were in Jerusalem to release their servants at the seventh year with accordance to God’s law. Although it may have been from a selfish reason so that he can take those servants or slaves for his own benefits, which he was judged for, we see that Israel did release their servants. Only that after doing so, they reneged as they realized that they would not have servants for their own benefit.
In the next verses, we find the logic behind this command:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: ‘I made a covenant with your forefathers on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years each of you shall set free his Hebrew brother who has been sold to you and has served you for six years, and you shall send him out free from you.” But your forefathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear to Me. Although recently you had turned and done what is right in My sight, each one proclaiming release to his neighbor, and you had made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Yet you turned and profaned My name, and each person took back his male servant and each his female servant whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your male and female servants.’”
The redemption of Israel was meant to free them from bondage in Egypt and not for them to return to that reality. That practice of freedom was to be continued and practiced as a testimony of God's character, yet through their disobedience, Israel defiled His name. The by-product of that disobedience was judgment.
Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming release, each one to his brother and each to his neighbor. Behold, I am proclaiming a release to you,’ declares the LORD, ‘to the sword, to the plague, and to the famine; and I will make you a terror to all the kingdoms of the earth. I will give the people who have violated My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts — the officials of Judah and the officials of Jerusalem, the high officials and the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf — I will hand them over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives. And their dead bodies will be food for the birds of the sky and the animals of the earth. Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials I will also hand over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives, and to the army of the king of Babylon which has withdrawn from you. Behold, I am going to give a command,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring them back to this city, and they will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’
The byproduct of that disobedience was a very interesting type of judgment. Since Israel did not grant freedom to their slaves, as instructed, God "freed" them to be judged by the sword, the plague, and famine.
My dear brothers and sisters, God’s act of redemption for Israel was to free them to live for Him and obey Him. In the same way, God’s freedom for us, His followers, from the bondage of sin is meant to free us to live for Him and obey Him!
Freedom in Yeshua is not lawlessness! If we love Him, we will obey Him and His statutes. And we will know true freedom.
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