This is perhaps one of the touchiest subjects for Jews and Christians to approach. Our modern Western world unequivocally condemns slavery. Yet as God was forming the nation of Israel in the Sinai desert, He included a form of slavery (servant-master contracts) as part of the fabric of Jewish society. How does a Judeochristian mind broach this subject?
Before we delve into the specifics of Hebrew servitude laws, let us point out that nearly all societies throughout history have engaged in slavery. The first civilization to ever abolish slavery was the Western world and it was Christian men who led this freedom movement. So it should be no surprise to find within Judeochristian texts the grounds for freedom and not slavery.
In Scriptural times, the God of the Bible worked with humanity according to the stage of development they were in at that time. If Genesis was truly divinely inspired, it’s simplified language was not due to God’s knowledge gaps, but man’s. In Genesis, God spoke of natural history in terms that were understood to ancient Near East civilization (honestly, how else could it have been done?). For example, in reference to outer space there is no mention of “supernovas” or “black holes” but only to “the Heavens.” Bronze Aged peoples would have recognized this term as the equivalent of our modern term “universe.”
Another example would be city ordinance commands in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. If God is the inspiration behind Levitical guidelines such as public sanitation for dealing with leprosy, He would have had to work around the lack of microbiological understanding and the lack of modern medicine in the ancient Hebrew culture. Hence He directed them to burn lepers’ clothing and household items as well as isolate lepers outside the village until certain symptoms had disappeared. He directed them to wash themselves thoroughly after having dealt with any leprous citizen in their midst. To the ancients, this would have seemed like some form of religious ceremony. To a skeptic who lived prior to the mid 1800’s this may have seemed like silly superstition. But to the modern reader who is aware of the microbiological world of disease, Levitical protocols for handling lepers would emerge as a stunningly effective way of preventing the spread of Hansen’s Disease — the modern term for Leprosy. Caused by a bacterial infection of the Mycobacterium leprae species, leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease) is spread by touching either the skin or clothing of lepers as well as being in close proximity to the nasal breath droplets of a victim. Because it affects the skin and mucosal linings of an individual, the bacteria is present on the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat and nose. So a sneeze or cough can eject contagious water and mucous droplets. Hence the command to distance lepers from the rest of the Jewish citizenry. Should God have simply told Moses how to create the antiobiotics dapsone and rifampicin? How could a God — one that works in real time and allows individuals and societies to progressively grow in their understanding of nature — force a download of future science into the brains of humans? It simply is not the way He has established the fabric of reality.
Similarly, in a world in which societies had no social welfare systems but used slavery to sustain people who were in dire straits, God may have had to work with the human machine in its then current status. Society is always evolving technologically, medically and economically. It is easy to thumb our noses at past cultures, but this does not mean the rules in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy were not improvements on the slave classes’ life experiences relative to their contemporaries. It also does not mean God was not smart enough to implement modern social welfare systems. It simply may not have been possible to do so until civilization moved further into certain discoveries and progresses.
Now, in our ancient world, slavery was simply a matter of fact. Sumerian culture is the oldest recorded civilization known to date and an ancient legal tablet known as the Code of Ur Nammu contains legal distinctions between free born citizenry and slaves. Babylonian decrees concerning slave labour are also found on the Code of Hammurabi records. As we will see, there were stark differences between slavery laws of nations like Babylon and that of Hebrews. For example, according to the code of Hammurabi if you gave refuge to a runaway slave you received the death penalty. Under the Hebrew system, a runaway slave looking for safety could not be returned to his master (Dt. 23:15). Roman historian Pliny records an event in which a slave broke a valuable crystal object and was subsequently killed. If a Hebrew master so much as injured his slave, that slave would go free. And if he killed his Hebrew slave, the master’s own life could be in danger (discussed below).
Ancient Greek and Egyptian societies also had large pools of slave labour. As Exodus attests, Hebrew slaves were themselves a servant army until their exit into the Sinai wilderness. Rome also employed slaves and the Middle East Arab nations had slavery legalized until the 1960’s. Considering the harsh treatments of slaves, especially in antiquity, why would an all knowing God make slavery a part of of His new society that He was building from scratch in the dessert?
Skeptics such as Sam Harris point to the slavery guidelines okayed by God as proof that the Bible is not divinely inspired but simply the work of ancient minds trapped in their primitive ethics. After all, if modern man is smart enough to work around slavery, than why trust and obey the primitive wisdom of the “god” the Jews invented?
Much of the power of such objections lies in a superficial understanding of biblical guidelines and their historical context. Does the bible condone slavery as it was commonly practiced in the ancient world?
The answer is no… and yes. As we will see below, the Jews could not enslave each other in typical fashion. However, much like God overlooked polygamy in the Jewish patriarchs and in the time of Moses, He allowed Jews to purchase foreigners as life long slaves. As modern readers this is quite offensive, yet Christians have to come to terms with the fact that God allowed the Jews to participate in the universal slave trade that provided large portions of the work force for the ancient world. We will discuss the ethics of this at the end of this entry.
Slavery in the Bible
The term used in Exodus 21 is servant. It is the Hebrew word ‘ebed (עֶבֶד) and it’s definition ranges from the harshness of slavery to the softer ends of being a willing servant of God or to an individual that is an equal partner. In short, being a “servant” can signify the brutal experience of slavery under Egyptian or Roman whips, or the Levitical priesthood serving God out of joy.
In regards to Exodus 21, God presents the notion of indentured servitude (verse 2):
“When you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.”
The notion of purchasing another human being seems odious to us. And perhaps it should. Yet the maximum period of servitude for a Jewish (i.e.: Hebrew) servant was 6 years, after which he was set free. Completely debt free. There is no such policy in the ancient world. Slavery in Egyptian, Greek and Roman contexts was almost always permanent and brutal. And there is no evidence of their slaves being set free after only 6 years. In one stroke, God abolished life long slavery for His people.
Let us not be too snide simply because we don’t use words such as “purchase a servant” in our society. We still employ hard line contracts in our modern world. If you think there is no equivalent servitude in our world try and get rid of a large student loan burden after only 6 years. Or walk away from your mortgage in 6 years without losing the roof over your head. Try committing financial fraud without going to prison — sometimes for life. In our financial world we still put permanent obligations to those who finds themselves in debt. Imagine a world in which you were completely set free of any and all debt after 6 years. Would it seem harsh compared to life long crushing debt that plagues us today?
Remember that in the ancient world, to find yourself in a situation in which slavery was necessary was to find yourself in a very difficult situation financially. Something which still occurs to this day. Modern homeless populations often take over portions of public land because they find themselves unable to successfully enter the housing or work market. Tent cities are a common phenomenon and are often places where the rule of law does not reach. Substance abuse, mental illness, physical assault and despair fester and increase in these environments. No one wins. If left unchecked these settlements grow in size and number, destroying the land value and safety of law abiding citizens in the immediate vicinity. Even with modern social welfare we have not successfully eradicated the plight of those who are financially down and out. In fact, we have only grown poverty and government dependence through welfare programs. Perhaps this is why God only allowed limited social welfare — such as telling harvesters to leave a small portion of their product for the poor. Yet He did not institute endless runaway welfare programs that doled out more and more money for less and less serious circumstances. If you were in trouble financially or emotionally and were destitute, the Hebrew culture would not pay you to fester in a community of addicts and despair but would push you into the economy and then set you free within a few years.
The modern welfare state of the Western world has bankrupted countries such as Greece and many others. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities even the unprecedentedly wealthy U.S. nation dedicates more than half of its federal budget to welfare or social programs. Again, there is nothing unbiblical or unethical about social safety nets. Yet, we must notice that even in countries with high levels of economic opportunity once welfare programs are instituted they tend to only grow. And as they grow, the amount of money handed out increases and is not an exchange for labour but a hand out. Further, it becomes easier and easier to qualify for such programs and it begins to be an unhealthy crutch for otherwise able bodied individuals. As noted in the 1989 University of California research book “The Social Importance of Self Esteem,” if you train a person to rely on hand outs instead of becoming employed and therefore more self reliant, they tend to lose self respect and have a higher chance of substance addiction, teenage pregnancy and criminal behaviour.
As yet another example of the nefarious impact of a growing dependence on hand outs, it can be very successfully argued that the American black family was destroyed by modern welfare. From approximately the mid part of the 20th century, welfare programs for black single mothers were instituted and incentivized women from this community to turn to the State for financial support instead of a single partner. Over time the black family unit went from being the strongest in the U.S. (circa 1930’s) to by and large the most unstable with a single mother house hold rates at nearly 80%. Absentee fathers are known to be the primary factor in the sky rocketing of juvenile crime rates as well as other social ills for children of single mothers.
In light of the failure of the runaway growth of a “money for nothing” welfare society, the notion of forcing “down and outers” to participate in the economy does not seem barbaric. In fact, imagine a world in which those who found themselves in difficult financial or personal situations and were at risk of falling into life long substance abuse and despondency were instantly deviated into productive labour and given a chance at self dependency.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, “home children” from the British Isles were sent to Canadian farms as indentured servants. They had to work the land for their guardians and were set free at 18 years of age. In return for their free labour they had to be fully educated by the time of their release. Given the limitations of the economy at that time, this type of servitude was an improvement in the lives of poor children. Here is a more modern example of how circumstances can force families to make choices that are difficult but make the best of their current economic circumstances. As Western society has progressed, everything within it has improved. Medicine, technology, personal freedoms and social welfare programs. God has allowed this process of fruition to take place and has not seen fit to hurry the process or to create the world in a perfected state. The modern Christian has to see the ancient world as a place which, in many ways, was less developed than ours. And God’s strategies were implemented for that time and place. Not ours.
Exodus 21, verse 3 goes on:
“If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.”
This is hardly controversial and simply gives a Hebrew slave rights over his family that are equal to those of a free citizen. Again, good luck finding this human rights revolution in any other ancient society’s rules concerning their lowest class: slaves. Remember that God’s rules surrounding indentured servants is aimed at protecting this very vulnerable lower economic class. It is noteworthy that this is His first priority after the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. God is not making it easy for the elite class, He is ensuring that the lower classes are not abused.
Exodus 21, verses 4 through 6:
“If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.“
In this case, a slave did not have a wife going into the 5 year master-servant contract. And the servant is not forced to take the wife offered by the master. If he does accept the marital relationship and children are born from the union, then the wife and children remain in the custody of the master after the servant is freed. This may seem offensive to the modern ear. Yet consider that this is to protect the women and children not enrich the master. After all, he is responsible to provide for her and her children for life. Men who find themselves in the down and out position of slaves may or may not be economically sturdy even as they head into freedom.
If they repeat the behaviours that made them destitute in the first place, or if they suffer from physical or mental handicaps and cannot climb the socio-economic ladder, then the women and children could not be trusted to the freed slave without risking becoming destitute. The master, on the other hand, has resources that can ensure the security of the women and children. It is also not expressively forbidden in this passage for masters to release the women with the freed servant, but perhaps simply allows him legal priority over them. This may be to allow a master to evaluate the character of his slave and protect the vulnerable members of society from unstable people.
If the slave wants to remain under the protection and authority of a master (which would almost certainly be someone from a wealthy class) he can freely choose to extend the contract for life. Again, there is no sin in a master freeing a slave at any time, this ordinance simply lays out the legal priority being in the master’s favour during the exchange.
Exodus 21, verses7 through 11:
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”
First, realize the tone of this passage is clearly focused on protecting women and children. The onus is squarely on the master class to offer rights and resources to servant women. This is meant to ensure she is not left without a provider for her or her children. The women slaves are not to be freed after six years however. Wow. Modern feminists will ripple at this part. And I sympathize with modern soreness at hearing of women being essentially “owned.” However consider that the master can only keep her if he has taken her as his wife and treats her exactly as he would a free women whom he had selected for marriage. If not, she is able to leave after 6 years. Notice that sex trade of women — which was common then as it is now — was not allowed by this passage. The master cannot simply purchase her and sell her to a foreigner because that would most certainly place women in the hands of a society who offered no rights to slaves. The Hebrew system of dealing with male and female slaves ensured that it resembled nothing like the barbaric human trade of the ancient world.
An interesting side note could be discussed at this point. In a world of modern feminism in which most women have left the traditional house wife role to enter into the realm of career women, more and more secular studies are showing that the happiness index for women in the modern world is decreasing continually. Although it is perfectly ethical to allow women to pursue whatever career path they choose, a strong case can be made that many women are often happier being “domestic engineers” than part of the work force. It appears that the “archaic” 1950’s house wife was happier than the liberated modern women. This does not mean it is wrong for women to work, but that they are very happy as people whose daily focus is raising, education and nurturing children and engineering a household. Also, in a world in which women are encouraged to be sexually “liberated” and to not look for a life long monogamous partner they can rely on during child bearing and rearing years, they end up being more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Both men and women are to blame in the break down of the family. I simply state this factor to point to the necessity of forming solid marital unions as the basic building block of society and to highlight the consequences of playing fast and loose with how we structure our private lives. And in an ancient Hebrew world in which an agricultural society had to have a division of labour (men doing physically demanding tasks, women doing other more domestic tasks), it was more common for women to be untrained for the hunting or farming tasks required for survival. Making a domestic relationship more necessary at that time and therefore increasing the need for men to be legally bound to provide for women and their children. These ordinances were not universal ethical rules like the 10 Commandments, but were civil legal codes for the nation of Israel at that time. As we have seen, the absolute need for women to be strictly domestic has decreased as society’s labour demands have evolved towards those of the modern world in which more and more intellectual tasks are required and can be performed just as well by women as by men.
Exodus 21, verse 16 states:
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
In one simple passage, the difference between the Hebrew slave system and that of the rest of antiquity and modern history becomes enormous. Northern African slave traders captured and enslaved their fellow countrymen and then sold them to the rest of the world. This type of “human chattle” was life long and promised no rights to the slaves. Hebrews were strictly forbidden to engage in this activity with their own countrymen. Unlike those involved in the northern African slave trade, if someone tried to ensnare another human and to sell them for money, the penalty for the would-be slave owner was to be the most serious: death.
Exodus 21, verse 20:
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
Hebrew servitude laws protected the servant class from being cruelly treated. If a slave owner got carried away and killed his slave, then “vengeance” would be taken on him. Considering that the Hebrew word for avenge seems to heavily lean towards the notion of having an equal harm done to the perpetrator, and seeing as the previous verses ask for capital punishment for those who kill others maliciously, it is very possible that killing your slave could get you killed. Now, the next portion of this passage will leave modern sensitivities quite sore. How can we justify allowing a slave master to strike his slave without punishment simply because the wounded servant survived a couple of days before dying? I think the best possible answer lies in understanding the context of the slave work force. Remember that often servant classes included the “rougher” elements of society. It could be that using physical discipline was needed in order to keep certain people from corrupting the work force. Not unlike police having to physically subdue unruly members of our modern society, slave owners may very well have had to enforce rule with corporal methods. We allow police officers the right to man handle individuals in a manner that would not be permitted by regular citizens. Including using deadly force if necessary. Without a professional police force it may have been necessary for masters to be the main enforcers. This did not give slave owners carte blanche to abuse their servants with sub-lethal force:
Leviticus 25:43 “You are not to rule over them with harshness. You are to fear your God.”
There was to be fair and humane treatment and even non-lethal injuries would result in the slave being freed instantly (Ex 21:26-27):
“When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.“
Exodus 21, verse 32:
“If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”
In the case of accidental death of a slave due to a domesticated animal, the owner of the animal is fined. Then, just as is the case with the death of a freed citizen, the animal is killed to signify the importance of human life. Giving the same death penalty to an animal for killing a slave shows a legal equality between freed men and women and those in servant contracts. According to verse 29 and 30 prior to this verse we are told that if an animal had previously injured another person, not only was the animal killed, but so was the owner. Unless the family of the deceased human was willing to accept a financial compensation instead.
Slavery of Non-Hebrew Foreigners
Leviticus 25:44-46 states:
“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.
You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property.
You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.“
Here we see the most difficult passage for modern ears. God is allowing Jews to purchase life long slaves if — and only if –they are foreigners. Considering the multiple New Testament passages that speak of slaves being treated as equals by Gentile Christian slave owners, and considering the Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25 guidelines for ethical treatment of slaves, we can safely assume the only difference between a Hebrew slave and a foreign slave in Israel was that the servitude was life long for the foreigner.
In an ancient world where non-Jewish slavery was often racked with brutality and containing almost no human rights codes, a slave that found themselves in Jewish hands would quite possibly be relieved. As Christians we have to own up to the fact that God put up with slavery as a primitive economic system. Remember that it was the Judeochristian community that eventually abolished slavery nearly 3,000 years later.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 states:
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”
Interestingly I don’t find myself too troubled by this passage. First, I hate war and no doubt so does God. Yet I understand that in some circumstances, it is more humane to fight than to ignore evil. In a “Just War” between Israel and enemy nations, the women were vulnerable especially when the males were killed. The details in this passage seem to assume the woman being chosen by the Hebrew soldier is not married. There is no mention of her husband, only her mother and father. The 10 Commandments clearly forbade the act of adultery. And these commands are universal rules of ethics, not simply civic ordinances pertaining to Jews only. But the very laws by which God judges all mankind. So by taking a woman out of a war torn community and bringing her into Israel, her situation could be seen as an improvement. Especially seeing as God only called Israel to combat and devastate wicked nations with barbaric practices. It could be seen as akin to taking a woman from war torn Sudan and bringing her to a stable and wealth first world Christian nation. See also that the Hebrew is not to have sexual relations with her for a month. This allows her to grieve and gives the soldier a time to evaluate the woman without being in the heat of passion. A common phenomenon throughout the ancient — and unfortunately even the modern — world was to convert the adrenaline of war into sexual passion. Hence the long history of pillaging followed by raping. God simply did not give His Hebrew soldiers this option. Either you take her to be your wife, or you let her go. No sexual concubines or cheap conquests of war. Women survivors of Israel’s enemies were to be ushered into Jewish society as full citizens with all human rights, or let go.
Hebrews were given guidelines for treating the most helpless and needy members of their nation: slaves. As we detailed above, since the beginning of time men and women have had to engage in financial contracts in order to survive. It is no different in our era. During Old Testament times there were no modern social welfare systems to put the State in the place of a husband or benefactor. So the rules for dealing with the servant class in those days were different. And considering the woes of our modern welfare class, perhaps this is a good thing. Essentially the Exodus rule set ensured that people in need of help were not put on perpetual welfare at the expense of the public but instead they were put to work for 6 years, after which time their debts were wiped out and they retained their full freedom. God’s protocols for the Hebrews’ lower economic classes gave them rights that were essentially equal to non-slaves. These strategies are arguably the most humane in the ancient and even recent times and do not constitute the slavery most people imagine when this word is mentioned. It was more akin to a short term labour contract that gave unprecedented rights to the helpless.