In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.
I would guess that most people are able to recognize the above as the words that open every episode of Law and Order. The series ran for twenty years (1990-2010), making it the second-longest running show behind The Simpsons. And if you didn’t get to see it then, it’s makes frequent appearances in the rerun universe.
It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite shows. I enjoy it for a lot of reasons: the cold opens, the ensemble cast and the New York City location to name a few. But what I like best about it is that it is all about law and order. In very few episodes did the guilty “get away with it.” You did what is right or you suffered the consequences. And more to the point, the victim was portrayed as the one deserving of our sympathy—not the criminal. The idea of punishing the criminal as a deterrent to crime and for the good of society was embedded in the show’s DNA.
For all of that though, the show never backed away from controversial issues, nuances or grey areas of the law. It recognized that the law could range from simple to sophisticated and it addressed almost all of the hot-button issues of the times. Of course, you might not always agree with their resolutions or conclusions, but another part of the show was the idea that as long as laws are legislated and prosecuted by humans things weren’t going to be perfect.
All of this should help as we think about Israel’s law and order (which consisted of perfect laws given to imperfect people). Their system is often ridiculed and misrepresented but was in fact exactly what the nation needed for their time and circumstances. No better example of this comes from an examination of the laws in Exodus 21:1-6.
These laws here are part of the Book of the Covenant (24:7). The Ten Commandments were written on two tablets of stone (Deuteronomy 5:22) and represented the overarching basis for all law as it spoke of man’s relationship to God and his relationship to others (20:2-17). They were later written by God on two tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18). The laws in the Book of the Covenant were given afterwards and can be thought of as providing the meaningful specifics on how the commandments were to be put into practice in different situations (20:22-23:33).
In Exodus 21:1ff, we have a small section dealing with slaves or servants, (depending on your translation). Of course, the mention of the word “slave” evokes indignant responses from people who wish for us to know how primitive, crude and vicious the laws of God for Israel were. But if we are willing to give the text a brave hearing, we find something quite different.
The first thing we should note is that the slavery spoken of here was not the slavery of the new world where people were kidnapped and sold as slaves. In 21:16 we read that anyone kidnapping another person was to be put to death (see also Deuteronomy 24:7). Furthermore, the servitude was limited to six years (21:2)—at which time they received from the person they had been working for a generous allotment to help get them started on their own (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). All of this makes it clear that the slavery spoken of here is something much different than the definition many people come to the text with.
If the slavery spoken of here wasn’t the cruel institution we’re familiar with where people were abused for economic gain—what was its purpose?