Israel’s system of slavery was rehabilitative—designed to take people who were on the fringes of society and move them to the center. When we look at who sold themselves into servitude, we see people in social distress for various reasons. Some sold themselves due to indebtedness (Leviticus 25:47). Perhaps the debt came about through no fault of their own: their crops didn’t come through due to drought, pests, plant diseases, etc. Or it could have been the case that the person wasn’t a very good farmer, herder or whatever they did to earn a living and that led to their indebtedness. Or maybe they weren’t hard workers. Exodus 22:3 adds another reason—the person who had stolen and was unable to repay their debt so they sold themselves into slavery. Summing it up, whether a person was threatened with marginalization due to difficult circumstances, poor skills or bad character, Israel’s servitude system provided a safety net for them. Rather than continuing to accumulate debt and desperation, they could attach themselves to thriving families where they could have another chance, learn how to run a farm or business, work hard and after six years, get a new start.
There were several advantages to this. There was no provision in Israel’s law for prisons. Capital punishment was applied to more severe situations (a discussion within itself). For lesser offenses like stealing, failure to pay debts, etc., people sold themselves to a productive family, giving them the opportunity to be rehabilitated and start anew rather than being institutionalized with the worst of society.
This meant that rather than resources being used to feed and house them, everyone who could, worked and was productive. But it’s bigger than economics. Man was created to work and when we don’t, we lose something very important—our dignity and sense of purpose. Israel’s social system was constructed in such a way that this didn’t happen and subsequently lots of social problems were avoided.
All of this meant they lived in community in a way that’s hard for us to comprehend. People who struggled on the margins due to poor choices, poor character or insufficient skills weren’t shunned or warehoused somewhere—they were absorbed and worked with. In fact, things might work out so well that the servant decided to stay and be a permanent part of the household (Exodus 21:5-6).
Like Law & Order, there were other layers and nuances to their system. There were other laws protecting the slaves as well as those protecting the owner that are offensive to our emphasis on individual freedom (often at the expense of everything else). All of that needs to be worked with and understood in the context of the time. Nonetheless, I think the general purpose of the system of servitude is clear and its benefits to society are easy to see.