The Old Testament speaks of slavery often, and lays out rules on how slaves were to be treated. This has caused some to become confused…but a basic understanding of the context for ancient near-eastern slavery shows that the Old Testament does not condone slavery. Let’s look at some common assumptions:
ASSUMPTION #1: Regulating a behavior shows approval
I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel…
God hates divorce. Why would He give specific instructions governing it? Simple: because divorce was a fact of life. Failing to provide practical instructions on divorce would be like pretending it didn’t actually happen. Well, slavery was also a fact of life. Regulations for slavery should not be confused with the approval of slavery. The existence of regulations for specific behaviors is not the same as approval for those behaviors.
However, Assumption #1 is not relevant to the issue of slavery in the Old Testament. As we’ll see, other faulty assumptions are at work:
ASSUMPTION #2: Slavery was involuntary servitude
Many incorrectly assume that the slavery in the Old Testament was like the modern western slavery of the 1700′s and 1800′s. Western slavery primarily benefited the rich, but Israelite slavery primarily benefited the poor. You see, slavery was almost always voluntary…the basic types of “enslavement” are known as self-sale, family sale, and indentured servitude. These relationships were usually initiated by the slave as a remedy for poverty.
Poor families would sometimes sell their children as slaves. Were this situation like modern western slavery, we could justifiably condemn the practice…but the reality is that this was of great benefit to the child.
Slavery contracts often emphasized that the slave agreed to work in exchange for economic security and personal protection. While modern western slaves were forbidden to own property of any kind, Hebrew slaves could take part in business, borrow money, and buy their own freedom…in other words, they were free to “buy out” the contract they’d made. They were also able to own property, pay betrothal monies, and pay civic fines. Slaves could appear in court as witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants.
Many ancient near-eastern slaves were able to buy time off as well, paying a fixed fee called a “quitrent” to their owner. This bought them a year where they didn’t have to work. The amount paid was roughly equivalent to the average annual pay of a hired worker, regardless of whether he was free or a slave.
ASSUMPTION #3: Slavery was cruel and inhumane
While human nature tells us that abuse certainly must have occurred, the Old Testament forbids the cruel treatment of slaves. In fact, slaves were afforded the same legal protections as free citizens.
- Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
- …you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
- …you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly.
Instead of being cruel and inhumane, the relationships between slaves and owners appear to have been, at the very least, respectful. Many slaves were treated much like members of the owner’s family. Deuteronomy 15 has a very instructive passage regarding setting a slave free:
If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.
But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his ear lobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your maidservant.
Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because his service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do.
The personal rights and responsibilities of a slave were clearly more important than the owner’s “property rights”. Slavery was generally an economic transaction and not a human rights violation. As but one example, slaves were forbidden to work on the Sabbath and were expected to take part in social celebrations…just like their masters. It’s clear that the slavery in the Old Testament wasn’t like modern western slavery at all. Obviously, these slaves recieved great benefits from making such arrangements.
Assumption #4: It was okay to harm a slave
If a master beat a slave and the slave died, he was to be killed. If he caused any sort of permanent damage to the slave, the slave was to be set free immediately. Note that “permanent damage” included such things as knocking out a tooth! This was a stark contrast to other near-eastern cultures, where a master was allowed to put out the eyes of his slaves with no consequences. An Israelite master had incentive to avoid striking a slave in the face, which was considered a civic wrong.
Some try to use Exodus 21:20-21 as evidence that Assumption #4 is accurate:
If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
On the surface, this looks as though a master could get away with mistreating a slave. When we look more closely, it’s clear that this wasn’t considered mistreatment. In fact, this verse shows that slaves were treated in much the same way as free citizens.
Being beaten by a rod was a common punishment. The community elders employed the rod to punish wrongdoers, and fathers applied the rod to rebellious older sons. Using a rod to discipline a slave would be common, if not customary. The punishments for harming slaves and free men were equivalent:
- If the slave died, the owner was killed.
- If the slave was permanently harmed, they were set free.
- If the slave was temporarily harmed, the owner was not punished.
A free citizen who was temporarily harmed would be compensated for lost work time and medical bills, but the slave would not. The difference was simply economic: the owner was financially responsible for the slave, so he absorbed the loss of work time and made sure the slave was healed instead of paying them cash.
Assumption #5: Women were sex slaves
Women were sometimes sold into slavery (self-sale or family sale) as concubines. While westerners typically consider this the equivalent of being an involuntary sex slave, that’s clearly not the case, as we read in Exodus 21 :
If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
A concubine wasn’t held against her will and used for sex. She was a true wife, but a secondary or subordinate one. The phrase “marital rights” as well as those in Judges 3 give us insight into a concubine’s life: the man who bought her is her husband, his father is her father-in-law, and so on. The practice of keeping concubines is related to polygamy and not to enforced servitude.
These relationships could hardly be considered negative. They let young women voluntarily escape poverty, offered them security and protection, and gave them upward social mobility in the home of a wealthy family. They were also safe from favoritism: if the man took another wife, she was afforded the same basic legal protections as any other wife: food, clothing, and conjugal rights.
Exodus 21:8 says that such women could not be sold to foreigners. The implication is that foreigners wouldn’t recognize her personal rights as afforded by Israeli law, and so she could never be redeemed. This shows that a slave’s personal rights were more important than a slave owner’s “property rights”.
Assumption #6: The Old Testament condones involuntary slavery
The Old Testament is clear in its position on involuntary slavery: it was punishable by death:
- Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. Exodus 21:16
- If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. Deuteronomy 24:7
Involuntary enslavement was, according to the Old Testament, evil.
Assumption #7: The selling of slaves is proof of cruelty
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
The assumption here is that this sale would be against the slave’s will. However, there’s nothing in the Old Testament to bear this out. The Hebrew word from that verse that’s translated “buy” suggests a transaction. Considering the Old Testament’s view of slavery and the lack of contrary evidence, one could reasonably assume that these transactions were entirely voluntary.
The ancient definitions of freedom and slavery were more relative than absolute. Kings were masters and their subjects were slaves. Rulers subject to others (e.g. emperors) were slaves. Child adoptions were recorded as sales transactions, with the new parents being considered masters. Virtually any subordinate could be considered a slave. The modern definitions of freedom, slavery, property, and ownership don’t adequately express the ancient reality.
For an example, read the 15th and 16th verses of Deuteronomy 23:
If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.
The implication here is that the slave belongs to a foreigner, but should be allowed to make a home among the Israelites as he pleases. If slaves were considered property, extradition would have been immediate…since the slave would “belong” to someone else. Extradition back to a foreign slave owner was forbidden, and we might safely assume that this had to do with the difference in how slaves were treated by other cultures.
Note as well the wording of Leviticus 25:46…
You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life…
While it was possible to will foreign slaves to your children, that was not the default. While it was possible to make them slaves for life, that was not the default. It’s entirely reasonable to assume that the ‘slave for life’ clause would be based on the slave’s wishes, as it would be for a Hebrew slave.
Assumption #8: Slaves were captured in wartime
During wartime, a city might surrender to Israel. It would then become a vassal state to Israel, and its people would be considered serfs instead of slaves. They would be expected to work on civic projects, as the Israelites did under Solomon’s rule.
Considering the fact that such conscriptions included both Hebrews and foreigners, such serfdom would be entirely voluntary. The serf as well as the slave enjoyed the protection and prosperity of the community.
While the Old Testament clearly lists guidelines regarding slavery, it’s clear that the type of slavery involved was overwhelmingly voluntary. Most relationships were either initiated by the slave or as an arrangement by the family of the slave as an economic and social benefit. Mistreatment of a slave was forbidden, and slaves were afforded most of the same freedoms and responsibilities as free citizens. The charge that the Bible condones slavery, as the modern western world understands it, is entirely without merit.