Wait, what? Rules? We just saw the mountain shake, and he’s giving us rules? I can scarcely process what just happened, and now we have laws? And the first one is about owning slaves?
Imagine you’re three months out of Egypt. You’ve left your slavemasters’ country after a fairly impressive and devastating series of plagues, followed a somewhat unknown leader into the wilderness, witnessed a miracle at the Sea of Reeds and then the nature-bending sound and light show at Sinai. You might want to go off into the wilderness, still reeling from the whole thing, trying to wrap your head around what just happened.
But you are now part of a nation in the making. God’s revelation at Sinai created a holy, sanctified nation out of fractured, damaged group of people. One might think that God’s first order of business would be telling the people how to worship this Divine being that redeemed them. “Ok, people, here are My rules of prayer, sacrifice, sacred space, etc.” But, no. Mishpatim (rules) immediately presents a variety of social guidelines for this brand-new society: what to do with a murderer, a thief, loss of property, damages due for leaving your property unsafe for neighbors, and, of course, “a stranger you shall not wrong, nor oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20). Judaism is a religion of this-world, real-life practical behavior. After Sinai, it’s time to build a sacred society. How would this group possibly know how to structure that? How would you begin to organize a new society when all you’ve ever known is being a slave to a foreign culture? For Judaism, it’s done by telling you first, that each human being is made in God’s image, and in light of that, that there is a right and a wrong way to treat each other. That’s what it means to be a holy, sanctified people in a relationship with God.
The first injunction, however, isn’t even about oxen being gored or leaving a pit open for someone to fall into. The very first mishpatim are about how to treat slaves. Specifically because this was a group of ex-slaves, Torah starts teaching there are ways to treat even a slave with respect. Being a slave is not a never-ending status. No one should be a slave for life, but if that’s what your slave really wants, then it’s his choice to stay a slave, and even then, after 49 years, you have to free him. And if your male slave marries while he’s in your house, you cannot sell him without his wife and children – you cannot split up a family.
Our modern sensibilities may recoil even at the thought of treating a slave with respect, since owning a human being in the first place is offensive. But consider that these were ex-slaves themselves. God meets them where they are. What better way to show them this is a new way of life, as a people consecrated to God, than by impressing upon them how even slavery is going to be different?
The rest of Exodus deals with the details of building a mishkan, a sacred space where the people could come close to God. But there would be no point in building a sacred space without knowing first how to build a sacred community. We are no longer slaves building structures for cruel masters, but architects of a new society that honors its members, one that is worthy of God’s love.