Parashat Mishpatim (Ordinances or Statutes)
Shemot (Exodus) 21:1–24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25–26
One of the greatest gifts God has given to us is the freedom to choose. As I wrote in a previous blog (but believe that it is a good reminder), our weekly Scripture portion opens with a very interesting verse, which is usually interpreted negatively. 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) משפטים that you shall set before them.
(*All quoted scripture is my translation directly from the Hebrew.)
God tells Moses that He is about to give statutes (משפטים) to the Children of Israel. I chose to translate the Hebrew word, ״משפטים״ (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 deeper into the different laws, we will find a profound and logical basis to them.
It is interesting that right after this verse we read about the ordinances/statutes which are connected to the Hebrew slave:
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.
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 see that Jeremiah confronts Israel with this issue of treating the Hebrew slaves:
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.
It is possible that the people here released their slaves since they were under siege and did not have what to do with them as often “slaves” will work outside in the fields, and not only that they did not have what to do with them, but they also could not care for them any more. Regardless of the reason, after the released the slaves, they turned around and took them back to be slaves and by doing that, they disobeyed God’s direct commandment from Exodus 21:2–6.
God gave us freedom to obey Him or not, and the next verse not just confirms that, but also shows the result when we freely choose not to obey Him:
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.
From Creation, God gave us the freedom to choose. I entitled this commentary “Freedom to Choose” since I truly believe that each of us has the freedom to choose; we not only get to choose how we handle any given situation, but we also get to choose if we want to be “slaves” to sin or servants for God. We are free to choose to walk in accordance to His ordances, or in accordance to the ways of the world. It is our choice, our free choice, and no one can force us to make that choice, as each of us will give an account of him/herself to God (Romans 14:12).
The good news is that Yeshua came to free us from being slaves to sin! He even read the famous words from Isaiah 61:1 in the synagogue in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed,”
In Him we have the freedom to live in accordance to God's ordinances, and find freedom from sin. However, 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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