35 ‘Now in case a [v]countryman of yours becomes poor and his [w]means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. 36 Do not take [x]usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your [y]countryman may live with you. 37 You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain. 38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
39 ‘If a [z]countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. 40 He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. 41 He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. 42 For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. 43 You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. 45 Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have [aa]produced in your land; they also may become your possession. 46 You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your [ab]countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.
The more I think about this passage, the more it feels like a case where Jesus came to make the law perfect. For here it provides protection for the children of Israel. And it told them not to take advantage of each other. And it tells them to treat each other well, even if one becomes “enslaved” to another.
But as Jesus said, the law was not perfect, and He told us to love even our enemies. So that even slaves they might have purchased elsewhere should not be treated as slaves, but as hired men (and women). The original purpose of slavery was not to buy cheap labor, it was to pay off debt. If you couldn’t pay your bills, you sold your own labor as a slave. This is a far cry from the slavery we knew in our nation, which was mixed in with racism to make it worse. I’m sure there were exceptional folks who treated their slaves well, but even then, the racial attitudes toward anyone of minority was horrendous (and still is sometimes).
The slavery addressed in this passage is not unlike our modern system of debt, and indeed, being in debt to a bank is little different than being their slave. Your money is no longer your own, you must pay back the debt with your own labor (represented by the wages you earn).
The lesson remains, the law was not perfect, and God would not have us take advantage of others when lending money, and indeed, it nearly seems that we ought not to lend at all. But when we have the means and we see a need, we ought to give willingly to support our fellow man.