Good question...

...Does God condone slavery in the Bible?


OT: Created Nov 9, 1997 // UPDATED Mar 18/2004 // NT: Created Dec 30, 1999


Every so often I get a question about slavery in the Bible, or someone sends me a 'spoof' of the biblical Mosaic regulations concerning 'slavery'. Sometimes the issue concerns Paul in the NT, as this thoughtful quote might indicate:

"I think a lot of the problems you spill a lot of "electrons" on can be understood better by looking at the Bible as an accommodated and historical revelation. In my judgment, the most important example of how this concept operates in scripture is the Bible's approach to slavery, especially as it appears in Paul's writings. Paul clearly understood that the gospel obviated all class distinctions (Gal. 3:28) but was never willing to draw out the social ramifications of his understanding of what it meant to be "in Christ." Philemon is the most troubling account of Paul's social conservatism, for here he had the opportunity to tell his friend Philemon that slavery was inconsistent with the gospel and that his Christian duty obligated him to manumit Onesimus and any other slaves he might have. Unfortunately, Paul danced around the topic of manumission but never made it an explicit directive; accordingly, it made the problem more difficult for later theologians. We can only imagine how western civilization might have been changed had Paul openly stated what we now all agree on: that for one human to own another is inconsistent with the imago dei and the freedom of the gospel.

Of course, Paul did not do so, probably for a number of reasons. He may have still been freaked out by the "crisis" he speaks of in I Cor. 7, or he may have felt that an explicit position on manumission would have made the gospel appear too radical (although he didn't shy away from "radicalness" in other areas and manumission was considered by many in the Roman empire to be a noble act of kindness). At any rate, it took theologians and activists 1900 years to finally convince Christendom of the moral bankruptcy of slavery, and frankly, from a perspective of exegesis and Biblical theology, the fire-eaters had a better argument in ante-bellum America than the abolitionists, largely due to the statements made by Paul in Ephesians and Philemon."

I replied to this part of the email with a 'directional' statement...

"The specific case of slavery is more complex than first appears...there is no monolithic 'institution' of slavery in the bible--e.g. the OT has SEVERAL models of what might be called 'slavery' and much of what passed as slavery in the ANE is no longer considered such in socio-economic understandings of the period and area. In the NT case, the problem is hugely complicated by the SEEMING position that ALL socio-economic institutions are 'neutral'; that they can be either used wonderfully or abused woefully...for example, i am called to be a 'slave to Christ'...and to obey (within conscience and stewardship) the demands of oppressive governments...this area of cultural forms is notoriously difficult (in my opinion) so the Philemon situation is not at all decisive or instructive for me...(i am familiar, however, with those civil war debates, but consider much of that simply bad theological method)...simply put, i think the problem is more complex than a simple 'Paul hedged here'...i am still thinking through this, so dont take my comments as finished goods ...

And hence I want to come back to this issue in this series...

There are several elements of this study, which I will no doubt have to publish piecemeal ("oh no! not ANOTHER unfinished series in the Tank!"):

1.      Introductory remarks

2.      The OT institution of Hebrew 'slavery' in the Law of Moses--its nature, purpose, and structure.

3.      Other references to 'slavery-like' situations in the Mosaic law: the Foreign Slave.

4.      The Great Escape Clause…?

5.      References to slavery in later OT books.

6.      The issue of 'slavery' in the NT/Apostolic world (esp. Paul)


.........................................................................................

1.     Introductory remarks

I am a child of the Western World, and a native of the rural American South. The word 'slavery' is such a powerful vortex of images, meanings, cries, and grief to me. Any technical discussion of any type of forced labor or corvee becomes immediately inflamed when the word 'slavery' is attached to it, and I suspect that many others share this association.

Scholars in the ANE have often abandoned the use of the general term 'slavery' in descriptions of the many diverse forms of master-servant that are manifest in the ancient world. There are very few 'true' slave societies in the world (with Rome and Greek being two of the major ones!), and ancient Israel will be seen to be outside this classification as well (in legislation, not practice).

A recent example of this comes from the discussion of the Hittite culture in [HI:HANEL:1.632]:

"Guterbock refers to 'slaves in the strict sense,' apparently referring to chattel slaves such as those of classical antiquity. This characterization may have been valid for house slaves whose master could treat them as he wished when they were at fault, but it is less suitable when they were capable of owning property and could pay betrothal money or fines. The meaning 'servant' seems more appropriate, or perhaps the designation 'semi-free'. It comprises every person who is subject to orders or dependent on another but nonetheless has a certain independence within his own sphere of active."

Scholars in Cultural Anthropology are sensitive to this as well, and point out that New World slavery was quite unique, historically:

"Scholars do not agree on a definition of "slavery." The term has been used at various times for a wide range of institutions, including plantation slavery, forced labor, the drudgery of factories and sweatshops, child labor, semivoluntary prostitution, bride-price marriage, child adoption for payment, and paid-for surrogate motherhood. Somewhere within this range, the literal meaning of "slavery" shifts into metaphorical meaning, but it is not entirely clear at what point. A similar problem arises when we look at other cultures. The reason is that the term "Slavery" is evocative rather than analytical, calling to mind a loose bundle of diagnostic features. These features are mainly derived from the most recent direct Western experience with slavery, that of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The present Western image of slavery has been haphazardly constructed out of the representations of that experience in nineteenth-century abolitionist literature, and later novels, textbooks, and films...From a global cross-cultural and historical perspective, however, New World slavery was a unique conjunction of features...In brief, most varieties of slavery did not exhibit the three elements that were dominant in the New World: slaves as property and commodities; their use exclusively as labor; and their lack of freedom..." [NS:ECA:4:1190f]

Generally, in the ANE, these 'fuzzy' boundaries obtain as well. "Slavery" is a very relative word in our time period, and we have to be very carefully in no auto-associating it with more 'vivid' New World examples. For example, in the West we would never say that the American President's Cabinet members were his 'slaves', but this term would have been applied to them in the ANE kingdoms. And, in the ANE, even though children/family could be bought and sold, they were never actually referred to as 'slaves'--the property aspect (for such transactions) did NOT define explicitly the notion of 'slavery':

"Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for "slave" in all the region's languages illustrates. "Slave" could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his "slaves," even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the "slave" of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were "slaves" of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as "your slave." There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge." [HI:HANEL:1.40]

 

Accordingly, I think--to avoid the inflammatory associations that naturally occur for Westerners when something is referred to as 'slavery'--it wise to carefully set out the structure of what we consider 'slavery' today, and compare that to the OT institution of 'Hebrew slavery'. New World slavery differs substantially from most ANE institutions labeled 'slavery', which themselves differed at significant points from OT slavery. We will try to make these distinctions clear, when they are relevant to the discussion.

With this in mind, I want to set out the basic elements associated with historical slavery, as practiced in America before the American Civil War, and to offer some general contrasts with ANE slavery (I will look at OT slavery later in the article). (This is not meant to be exhaustive, but simply to highlight the aspects of the institution that strike our sensibilities today.)

·        Motive: Slavery was motivated by the economic advantage of the elite.

So, [NS:ECA:4:1190] point this out: "New World slavery was a unique conjuntion of features. Its use of slaves was strikingly specialized as unfree labor-producing commodities, such as cotton and sugar, for a world market." and Britannica: "By 1850 nearly two-thirds of the plantation slaves were engaged in the production of cotton...the South was totally transformed by the presences of slavery. Slavery generated profits comparable to those from other investments and was only ended as a consequence of the War Between the States." (s.v. "Slavery")

In the ANE (and OT), this was NOT the case. The dominant (statistically) motivation was economic relief of poverty (i.e., 'slavery' was initiated by the slave--NOT by the owner--and the primary uses were purely domestic (except in cases of State slavery, where individuals were used for building projects).

The definitive work on ANE law today is the 2 volume work [HI:HANEL] (History of Ancient Near Eastern Law). This work (by 22 scholars) surveys every legal document from the ANE (by period) and includes sections on slavery. A smattering of quotes will indicate this for-the-poor instead of for-the-rich purpose for most of ANE slavery:

§         "Most slaves owned by Assyrians in Assur and in Anatolia seem to have been (originally) debt slaves--free persons sold into slavery by a parent, a husband, an elder sister, or by themselves." (1.449)

§         "Sales of wives, children, relatives, or oneself, due to financial duress, are a recurrent feature of the Nuzi socio-economic scene…A somewhat different case is that of male and female foreigners, called hapiru (immigrants) who gave themselves in slavery to private individuals or the palace administration. Poverty was the cause of these agreements…" (1.585)

§         "Most of the recorded cases of entry of free persons into slavery [in Emar] are by reason of debt or famine or both…A common practice was for a financier to pay off the various creditors in return for the debtor becoming his slave." (1.664f)

§         "On the other hand, mention is made of free people who are sold into slavery as a result of the famine conditions and the critical economic situation of the populations [Canaan]. Sons and daughters are sold for provisions…" (1.741)

§         "The most frequently mentioned method of enslavement [Neo-Sumerian, UR III] was sale of children by their parents. Most are women, evidently widows, selling a daughter; in one instance a mother and grandmother sell a boy…There are also examples of self sale. All these case clearly arose from poverty; it is not stated, however, whether debt was specifically at issue." (1.199)

·        Entry: Slavery was overwhelmingly involuntary. Humans were captured by force and sold via slave-traders.

This was true both for the Islamic slave trade and the European trade. So, Britannica:

"Slaves have been owned in black Africa throughout recorded history. In many areas there were large-scale slave societies, while in others there were slave-owning societies. Slavery was practiced everywhere even before the rise of Islam, and black slaves exported from Africa were widely traded throughout the Islamic world. Approximately 18,000,000 Africans were delivered into the Islamic trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades between 650 and 1905. In the second half of the 15th century Europeans began to trade along the west coast of Africa, and by 1867 between 7,000,000 and 10,000,000 Africans had been shipped as slaves to the New World.... The relationship between African and New World slavery was highly complementary. African slave owners demanded primarily women and children for labour and lineage incorporation and tended to kill males because they were troublesome and likely to flee. The transatlantic trade, on the other hand, demanded primarily adult males for labour and thus saved from certain death many adult males who otherwise would have been slaughtered outright by their African captors."


In the ANE (and especially the OT), the opposite was the case. This should be obvious from the MOTIVE aspect--these were choices by the impoverished to enter this dependency state, in return for economic security and protection. Some slavery contracts actually emphasized this voluntary aspect!:

"A person would either enter into slavery or be sold by a parent or relative. Persons sold their wives, grandchildren, brother (with his wife and child), sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephews and niece…Many of the documents emphasize that the transaction is voluntary. This applies not only to self-sale but also to those who are the object of sale, although their consent must sometimes have been fictional, as in the case of a nursing infant." [HI:HANEL:1.665]

This might also be seen from the fact that war/violence was NOT a major source of 'real' slaves in the ANE (nor OT). For example, even though there were large numbers of war-captives in the ANE, they were generally NOT turned into slaves, but rather into tenant-farming, serfs:

"Within all the periods of antiquity, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Persian, and other Oriental rulers carried away great masses of captives from their victorious battles. But only an insignificant part of them was turned into slaves; all the others were settled on the land as palace and temple serfs….The question arises, why the masses of war prisoners were not enslaved. Slavery was the optimal form of dependence, and very often there was no shortage of prisoners captured in war. Besides, there were no legal or ethical norms preventing these prisoners from being turned into slaves. But this happened in a negligible percentage of cases, while the overwhelming majority were settled in places specially set aside for them, paid royal taxes, and carried out obligations, including military service." [ABD: s.v. "Slavery, ANE"]

"War is only mentioned as a source of slavery for public institutions. The most frequently mentioned method of enslavement was sale of children by their parents. Most are women, evidently widows, selling a daughter; in one instance a mother and  grandmother sell a boy…There are also examples of self sale." [HI:HANEL:1.199]

The same, of course, can be said of Israel. For example, even in wars on foreign soil (e.g., Deut 20.10,10), if a city surrendered, it became a vassal state to Israel, with the population becoming serfs (mas), not slaves (ebed, amah). They would have performed what is called 'corvee' (draft-type, special labor projects, and often on a rotation basis--as Israelites later did as masim under Solomon, 1 Kings 5.27). This was analogous to ANE praxis, in which war captives were not enslaved, but converted into vassal groups:

"The nations subjected by the Israelites were considered slaves. They were, however, not slaves in the proper meaning of the term, although they were obliged to pay royal taxes and perform public works." [ABD, s.v. "Slavery, Old Testament"]

And since most slavery was done through self-sale or family-sale, it was likewise voluntary (at least as voluntary as poverty allows), cf. Lev 25.44 in which the verbs are of 'acquisition' and not 'take' or 'conquer' etc.

·        Treatment : Slaves were frequently mistreated by modern standards, and punishments were extreme.

The images we have of the Old American South are filled with mistreatments, and we need no documentation of that here. The ANE, on the other hand, was much less severe, due largely to the differences in the attitudes of the 'master' to the 'slave'. Slavery in the ANE was much more an 'in-house' and 'in-family' thing, with closer emotional attachment. However, there were still some extreme punishments in the ANE, but the biblical witness is of a decidedly better environment for slaves than even the ANE. Exodus 21, for example, is considered by many to be unparalleled in respect to humanitarianism toward slaves, and we shall return to this in detail below. [Suffice it to mention here that Ex 21.21 restricts the treatment of the slave to be no more severe than what the community/elders could do with a regular, free citizen. This restriction on an owner should make one ponder what in the world the word 'property' might mean in such a context! But more on this in a minute…]

But in the ANE slaves were generally protected from over-abuse (under normal conditions, runaways were a problem, as we shall see):

"[Slaves were generally afforded protection from] Excessive Physical punishment. Even chattel slaves appear to have benefited to some extent from this protection" [HI:HANEL:1:43]

And all the records of the period seem to indicate humane treatment:

"First, let us set apart the slaves--the booty of war or in servitude for various reasons--who by definition were totally dependent on their masters, although the latter appear to have treated them fairly humanely, and more like domestic servants." [HI:ELAM, 114]

 

·        Treatment : As a matter of course, slaves lived in radical separation from their owners and did not participate in many of the 'benefits' of the owners' fortunes.

We have already noted that in New World slavery at least two-thirds of plantation slaves would have lived in barracks (field-slaves), and not in intimacy with owners (domestics), whereas in the ANE/OT, the vast majority of the slaves were domestics under the same roof. In the ANE/OT, we don’t have the 'gangs' of agricultural workers we will see later in Republican Rome and in the New World:

"Moreover, in general there were probably only a few in each household [in Israel]--there is no indication, for example, that large gangs of them were toiling in deplorable conditions to cultivate big estates, as in the later Roman world" [OT:I:101]

"Both types (Hebrew, foreign slaves) were domestic slaves living in their owners' homes, not members of slave gangs working on plantations." [Notes, Jewish Study Bible, Ex 21]

 

·        Legal Status : Slaves were considered 'property' in exclusion to their humanity. That is, to fire a bullet into a slave was like firing a bullet into a pumpkin, not like firing a bullet into a human. There were no legal or ethical demands upon owners' as to how they treated their 'property'. Other than with the occasional benevolent master, only economic value was a main deterrent to abusive treatment.

Theoretically, some expressions of New World slavery had some protection from outright murder of a slave, but this was not very widely accepted:

"In the American South, 10 codes prescribed forced sale to another owner or emancipation for maltreated slaves. Nevertheless, cases such as State v. Hoover (North Carolina, 1839) and State v. Jones (Alabama, 1843) were considered sensational because slave owners were punished for savagely 'correcting' their slaves to death." [Britannica]

And the right-to-kill differed by groups [Britannica]:

"Legally the slave was usually defined as property, and the question then was whether he was movable property (chattel) or real property. In most societies he was movable property, but in some, real property… A major touchstone of the nature of slave society was whether or not the owner had the right to kill his slave. In most Neolithic and Bronze Age societies slaves had no such right, for salves from ancient Egypt and the Eurasian steppes were buried alive or killed to accompany their deceased owners into the next world. Among the Northwest Coast Tlingit, slave owners killed their slaves in potlatches to demonstrate their contempt for property and wealth; they also killed old or unwanted slaves and threw their bodies into the Pacific Ocean. An owner could kill his slave with impunity in Homeric Greece, ancient India, the Roman Republic, Han China, Islamic countries, Anglo-Saxon England, medieval Russia, and many parts of the American South before 1830That was not the case in other societies. The Hebrews, the Athenians, and the Romans under the principate restricted the right of slave owners to kill their human chattel."

Now, this restriction on an owner as to what he/she could do with their personal 'property' should make us wonder about how the word 'property' is being used there. And indeed, the definition of 'property'--in the context of slavery--gives Anthropologists pause:

"The definition of slaves as property runs into conceptual as well as empirical problems. 'Property' is a shorthand and abstract term for a bundle of very specific and relatively exclusive rights held by a person (or group) relative to a thing (or person). To say that in any given society, something (say, a person) is 'property' has meaning only to the extent that the rights involved are specified and understood in the context of other rights prevalent in the society. For example, in many precolonial African societies, the kin group had the right to sell equally its slave and nonslave members, it had equal control over the wealth acquired by either of them, it extracted (or failed to extract) as much labor from one as from the other, and the majority of slaves were quasi-relatives or actual relatives, and, if prosperous enough, could acquire slaves of their own. Here, obviously, one must look at other features to find the difference between the slave and the 'free'." [NS:ECA:4:1191, s.v. "Slavery"]

Sale of family peers highlight this 'oddness' of the notion of 'property' when applied to people:

"A person would either enter into slavery or be sold by a parent or relative. Persons sold their wives, grandchildren, brother (with his wife and child), sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephews and niece" [HI:HANEL:1:665]

And this implied range of freedom/slavery can be seen all over the ANE. Buying and Selling, for example, can be the contractual terminology for child adoption:

"Older children were adopted by reimbursing their parents for the expenses of feeding and raising them. These transactions were recorded as if they were sales." [HI:DLAM:131]

and slaves had very specific legal rights (can real 'chattel property' have such?):

"Slaves had certain legal rights: they could take part in business, borrow money, and buy their freedom." [HI:DLAM:118]

"Guterbock refers to 'slaves in the strict sense,' apparently referring to chattel slaves such as those of classical antiquity. This characterization may have been valid for house slaves whose master could treat them as he wished when they were at fault, but it is less suitable when they were capable of owning property and could pay betrothal money or fines. The meaning 'servant' seems more appropriate, or perhaps the designation 'semi-free'. It comprises every person who is subject to orders or dependent on another but nonetheless has a certain independence within his own sphere of active." [HI:HANEL:1632]

"However, the idea of a slave as exclusively the object of rights and as a person outside regular society was apparently alien to the laws of the ANE." [ABD, s.v. "Slavery, Ancient Near East"]

One other important distinction has to do with how 'comprehensive' or exclusive was the 'property' aspect. In other words, to what extent was a slave only property, and not also, a human, a family member, a contracting agent. In the ANE at least, slavery was generally a mixture of these aspects--they were not ONLY property per se [HI:HANEL:1.40]:

"A better criterion for a legal definition of slavery is its property aspect, since persons were recognized as a category of property that might be owned by private individuals. A slave was therefore a person to whom the law of property applied rather than family or contract law. Even this definition is not wholly exclusive, since family and contract law occasionally intruded upon the rules of ownership. Furthermore, the relationship between master and salve was subject to legal restrictions based on the humanity of the slave and concerns of social justice."

A less dramatic illustration of this might be in a modern acquisition of one business by another business. I the employee--a 'bundle' of all my workplace obligations, the contract under which I work, the values I am supposed to uphold, the relationships I have with co-workers at the office, my skills, my organizational knowledge, and my career path in the firm--is 'sold' to other owning group (e.g., competitor, private investor, Wall Street, etc). There is, in this case, a 'property' aspect to my life-at-the-office. This does not mean, of course, that my family status as a dad is changed, or that I cannot vote in my country. My role and/or identity as a worker could thus be 'sold', 'transferred', and even 'inherited' (e.g., if the firm was privately owned, and the owner died with a successor). Our legal system recognizes this in many, many contracts under the heading "Successors and Assigns". But wherever I went, the state would still see me as a human, and prevent--as in the ANE-- my 'owner' from killing me.

 

·        Legal Status : Slaves could not have their own property--all they had belonged to their 'owner'.

"In North America, India, Rome, Muscovy, most of the Islamic world, and among the Tuareg a fundamental principle was that the slave could not own property because the master owned not only his slave's body but everything that body might accumulated. This did not mean, however, that slaves could not possess and accumulate property but only that their owners had legal title to whatever the slaves had. In a host of other societies, such as ancient and Roman Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Talmudic Palestine, Gortyn, much of medieval German, Thailand, Mongol and Ch'ing China, medieval Spain, and the northern Nigerian emirates, slaves had the right of property ownership. Some places, such as Rome, allowed slaves to accumulate, manage, and use property in a peculium that was legally revocable but could be used to purchase their freedom." [Britannica]

[Note: As pointed out in the quote about the fuzziness of 'property' above (by the Cultural Anthropologists), there is a little 'play' in this word, But a strict delineation of what was and what was not 'property', and/or what was and was not 'owned', was established and determined by the governing body of the specific situation. For example, in the ante-bellum South, it would have been the law courts in that time and in that geographical jurisdiction which decided, and they would have invariably sided with the slave owner instead of the slave as to whether, for example, the bed the slave slept on belonged to him or to his owner. The relevance of this 'jurisdictional' point is threefold: (1) It is irrelevant to this discussion as to what parties outside the legal system would have judged (e.g., Native Americans of the time would have said that the plantation land did NOT 'belong' to the Owner, but to the Earth--but the Southern courts would have disagreed); (2) it is irrelevant to this discussion as to what 'relative/informal/conventional ownership' arrangements would have been held within the community of slaves (e.g. Even though the Owner legally--according to Southern courts at the time--owned the bed that Slave X slept in, did NOT mean that Slave Y could take it from him, under the argument that it didn’t 'belong' to Slave X… "relative rights to usage"--very close in content to what property really is all about--would not violate the common legal understanding of property ownership (i.e., establish and delineated by relevant judiciary authorities)...the minors who have lived with me might have argued among themselves whose TV set it was, but the courts would have blamed me the dad had said TV set hurt one of their visitors); (3) it is irrelevant to this discussion what people after the legal jurisdiction collapsed said about property ownership (e.g., Civil war soldiers after the war had destroyed the jurisdiction structure agreeing that slave X 'owned' his bed, based perhaps on the 'informal' and relative rights of #2, would be irrelevant to the question of whether "slaves could own property under the pre-war, pro-slavery legal system").]

 

"Sometimes slaves [in the ANE] were permitted to possess various kinds of property (peculium). Naturally, a slave received the right to a peculium only in those cases when the master took an interest in this. Such slaves were left to themselves with the payment of a fixed quitrent [tanknote: a 'quitrent' is a fee paid by the slave to the owner, so that the slave doesn’t have to work any more for the owner, during the period covered by this 'rent to quit working'. It's like a substitution of money for labor]. The size of the quitrent fluctuated depending on the property of the slave, and in 1st-millennium Babylonia, on average, when calculated in money, amounted to twelve shekels of silver a year. Such a sum was also equal to the average annual pay of an adult hired worker regardless of whether he was free or a slave. Sometimes a quitrent was replaced by work for the master. Temple slaves who led an independent economic existence were also obliged to pay a monetary quitrent or provide the temple with finished products in accordance with the established norms…In 1st-millennium Babylonia enterprising slaves owned land, houses, and considerable amounts of movable property. They actively participated in all spheres of economic activity, were engaged in trade, ran taverns and workshops, taught other persons various trades, pawned and mortgaged their property, and they themselves received the property of others as security for loans…In the legal sphere such slaves could appear as witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants in court. They also could have their own personal seals and take oaths. Moreover, there were apparently no differences in the ways in which the interests of slaves and freemen were defended, though the slaves, of course, could not engage in litigation with their masters. In affairs with a third party, the slave could mortgage only the peculium, but not his own person." [ABD, s.v. 'Slavery, Ancient Near East']

 

·        Exit : Slavery was forever. There were never any means of obtaining freedom stipulated in the arrangement. In the cases of an owner granting freedom, it was generally a 'bare bones' release--no property went with the freedman.

"…in the American South manumission ws comparatively difficult and almost never happened after the prohibition on importing new slaves…manumission was even forbidden in South Carolina in 1820, Mississippi in 1822, Arkansas in 1858, and Maryland and Alabama in 1860…" [Britannica]

In the ANE, although some cultures had pre-built "debt-payoff-periods" (like Israel's 6 years), "chattel" manumission was rare because it wasn’t sought after--the issues of economic security and the quasi-family relationships that developed within the household unit created little incentive to become 'independent':

"More usually, individual autonomy has meant exposure to danger and predation; safety lay precisely in the protection afforded by the bondage of dependence on groups and patrons. What was desirable was not freedom but belongingness." [NS:ECA:4.1191]

[We will be semi-shocked below when we discover that manumission in Israel was either pre-scheduled (in the case of Hebrew slaves) or anytime-you-want-it (in the case of foreign slaves)…!]
 

Garnsey identifies many of these elements in his understanding of what he terms 'chattel slavery' [HI:ISAA:1]:

"A slave was property. The slaveowner's rights over his slave-property were total, covering the person as well as the labor of the slave. The slave was kinless, stripped of his or her old social identity in the process of capture, sale and deracination, and denied to capacity to forge new bonds of kinship through marriage alliance. These are the three basic components of slavery."

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

With this framework in mind, let's consider how the Mosaic Law structured 'Hebrew slavery'...
 
 

2.     The OT institution of Hebrew 'slavery' in the Law of Moses--its purpose, and structure.
 

First of all, we will have the same wide, wide range of meanings of the terms for 'slave' here, as we did in the ANE. It will refer to general (and sometimes vague) subordination:

"The word >ebed, however, denoted not only actual slaves occupied in production or in the household but also persons in subordinate positions (mainly subordinate with regard to the king and his higher officials). Thus the term >ebed is sometimes translated as “servant.” Besides, the term was used as a sign of servility in reference to oneself when addressing persons of higher rank. Finally, the same term was also used in the figurative meaning “the slave (or servant) of God.” Thus, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prophets, David, Solomon and other kings are regularly called slaves of Yahweh (Exod 32:13; Lev 25:55; 1 Sam 3:9; Ezra 9:11, etc.). Similarly, all the subjects of Israel and Judah are called slaves of their kings, including even wives, sons, and brothers of the latter (1 Sam 17:8; 29:3; 2 Sam 19:5, etc.; cf. also Gen 27:37; 32:4). Addressing Moses and prophets, the Israelites called themselves their slaves (Num 32:25; 1 Sam 12:19, etc.). Ruth refers to herself as a slave girl of her relative Boaz (Ruth 3:9). Being a vassal of the Philistine king Achish, David called himself his slave (1 Sam 28:2). It is natural that the same vague and inexplicitly formulated social terminology characteristic of the ANE is also used in the Bible in relation to the subjects of foreign rulers. For example, courtiers of an Aramean ruler or the soldiers of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II were considered slaves of their monarchs (2 Kgs 6:11; 24:10–11). It is natural that kings of Judah depending on more powerful rulers of neighboring countries were considered their slaves. Thus, Ahaz is referred to as a slave of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kgs 16:7). In modern translations of the Bible >ebed/doulos and several other similar terms are rendered “slave” as well as “servant,” “attendant,” etc. Such translations, however, might create some confusion and give the incorrect impression that special terms for the designation of servants and slaves are attested in the Bible…However, selecting the proper meaning from such a broad metaphorical application of the term designating a general dependence rarely presents great difficulty. For example, Abimelech, king of Gerar, called up his slaves and told them his dream (Gen 20:8). Apparently, these “slaves” were royal courtiers and officials. Abraham gathered 318 of his slaves, born in his household, in order to recover his kinsman Lot who had been captured by Chedorlaomer and three Mesopotamian kings (Gen 14:14). At least, a part of these persons constituted freeborn members of Abraham’s family. Upon ascending the throne of Judah, Amaziah executed his slaves who had murdered his father, the former king (2 Chr 25:3). These slaves were certainly royal dignitaries. When Josiah, king of Judah, had been killed at Megiddo, his body was taken in a chariot to Jerusalem by his slaves (2 Kgs 23:30). It is quite evident that these slaves were royal soldiers. In a number of cases, however, the interpretation of the actual meaning of the ambiguous >ebed may be disputed. For instance, the steward of Abraham’s household who was in charge of all his possessions is called his slave (Gen 24:2). His status can only conjecturally be interpreted as an indication of actual slavery and, of course, he could have been a freeborn person." [ABD, s.v. "Slavery, Old Testament"]

 

In the ANE, legal systems divided 'slaves' into different categories, and prioritized interventions (social intervention has costs, remember, and scarce resources in the ANE had to be allocated to optimize their effect on social/community survival) around these categories:

"In determining who should benefit from their intervention, the legal systems drew two important distinctions: between debt and chattel slaves, and between native and foreign slaves. The authorities intervened first and foremost to protect the former category of each--citizens who had fallen on hard times and had been forced into slavery by debt or famine." [HI:HANEL:1,42]

In the OT case, we will see a similar interest: most legislation will be about Hebrew ("native") individuals who, for reasons of debt/famine, sell themselves into short-term slavery ("debt slaves"). Accordingly, we will examine this class of 'slaves' first (native, debt).

Hebrew 'slavery' (i.e., a Hebrew 'servant' of a Hebrew 'master'; we will do foreigners next) occurs in a very specific socio-economic-religious context, and only actually makes sense (in its structure) in that context. Like the ANE, the context is a constant struggle for economic stability. The Mosaic law contains numerous initiatives designed to preclude someone having to consider voluntary slavery as an option:

"Pentateuchal prescriptions are meant to mitigate the causes of and need for such bondservice. Resident aliens, orphans and widows are not to be abused, oppressed or deprived of justice. When money is lent to the poor, they are not to be charged interest. (Elsewhere in the ancient Near East exorbitant interest rates on loans were the chief cause of people being sold into slavery)." [OT:DictOT5, s.v. "Slavery"]
 

·        There were not supposed to be any poor in Israel at all! (Compliance with the spirit and letter of the covenant would have produced a society marked by righteousness, compassion, and prosperity.)

However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. (Deut 15.4)

This makes any economic situations involving slavery exceptional.
 

·        But God is a realist (Deut 15.11!); hence He made a wide range of provisions in the Law for the poor. Some of these are:

1.      He enjoins the Israelites to be generous toward the destitute (this would function to preclude/reduce voluntary or debt slavery), in the same passage He expressed the hope of pan-success:

"If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.  8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. … There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." (Deut 15.7ff)

2.      Interestingly, the passage above recognizes that this 'lending' (best for self-respect of the recipient) might turn into 'giving' (best for economic good of the recipient) quickly, but that the Hebrew should not let this obvious risk deter his heart:

"Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin.  10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to." (Deut 15.9)

"Moses left the realm of law for a moment to appeal to his fellow Israelites’ hearts. The law of debt cancellation (vv. 1-6) was intended to instill a spirit of generosity within the Israelites and thus a freedom from the love of money and things. Therefore a calculating Israelite was guilty of sin if he refused a loan for a poor brother (v. 7; cf. needy brother, v. 9) out of fear that it might not be repaid since the seventh year was near. Being hardened or tightfisted meant he was not trusting the Lord to bless . . . all his work." [BKC, in loc]

 

3.      There are numerous instructions to merchants and farmers to provide special help for the disadvantaged (again, reducing the need for someone to sell themselves or family members).

§         The entire seventh year of the planting cycle was dedicated to the poor (and servants)!

"For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Ex 23.10)

Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you -- for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, (Lev 25.6)

§         They were instructed to leave the margins around the fields unharvested, and to not go over the fields but once:

"`When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19.10; 23.22; Deut 24.19f)

§         The poor were to be exempt from interest, and were to be buy food at cost.

"`If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. (Lev 25.35ff; note the quote above that interest rates were the dominant cause of voluntary servitude in the ANE.]

[Note: Israel was allowed to charge interest to foreigners, and to no forgive their unpaid loans in the year of Jubilee (Deut 23.21). Tigay [JPStorah, in loc] explains the sociological rationale for this: "This exception is similar to 15:3, which exempts loans to foreigners from remission. As Shadal notes, the foreigner is normally a businessman visiting the country for purposes of trade, and he borrows in order to invest in merchandise and make a profit, not to survive poverty. There is no moral imperative to remit loans made for such purpose or forgo interest on them. Furthermore, assuming the risk of lending and making the sacrifice that remission and interest-free loans entail are special obligations toward one's countrymen (Heb, ahim, lit 'brothers') and for the sake of maintaining equilibrium in Israelite society. The law does not require assuming the same risk and sacrifice toward others who do not share the same obligation."

§         The entire Levitical tithe of EVERY THIRD YEAR was to be shared with the poor!

28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deut 14.28ff)

4.      Even the sacrificial system made allowances for economic status:

"`If he cannot afford a lamb, he is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the LORD as a penalty for his sin -- one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering..."`If he cannot afford a lamb, he is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the LORD as a penalty for his sin -- one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering." (Lev 5.7,11; see also Lev 14.21)

If anyone making the vow is too poor to pay the specified amount, he is to present the person to the priest, who will set the value for him according to what the man making the vow can afford. (Lev 27.8)

5.      Indeed, there was even a major structure in the economic system designed to support the poor--the automatic cancellation of debts every seven years!

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. (Deut 15.1ff)

·        Many of God's commands to Israel about treatment of 'slaves' are cast in light of Israel's experience of harsh slavery in Egypt (which generally DID conform to the "western" paradigm described above). She is told to remember her slavery and to not oppress the slave or the alien in the Land. There are many, many verses relative to this (e.g. Deut 5.6; 6.12, 21; 7.8; 15.15; 16.12; 24.18, 19). Just to cite a couple:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. (Deut 5.13f)

When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deut 24.21)

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. 13 And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today. (Deut 15.15; note: this is a 'standard' case of debt-slavery, and is different from cases of 'selling a daughter' for a dowry-less marriage--a la Exodus 21--discussed below.)

·        Finally, the Covenant Community and its law was meant to demonstrate 'how it should be done' within ANE communities. The content of the Mosaic law was designed to show forth both the compassion of God (e.g. treatment of neighbor and the disadvantaged) and the holiness/purity of God (e.g. the sacrificial system and cleanness stipulations). One would therefore expect that intra-Hebrew dealings would reflect a much higher standard than the law codes of the surrounding nations (as indeed the historical record generally confirms).

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? " (Deut 4.5)

19 He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. 20 He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws. (Ps 147.19)

With this as background, I want to compare the verses we have on this institution with the preceding description of Western antebellum slavery.
 

·        Motive: Slavery was motivated by the economic advantage of the elite.
 

OT: There is a very fundamental difference here. The 'slavery' of the OT was essentially designed to serve the poor!:

"`If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
39 "`If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. 40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. (Lev 25.35-43)

Indeed, as we shall note below, the proceeds of the transaction went to the servant only--each 'sold himself' to someone.

Notice that the sole motive--in the primary text before us-- for allowing 'slavery' is so the poor can continue in the land, and that it is NEVER 'forever' (indeed, other passages indicate that it was 6 years at the most!). This is radically different than an elitest-motive.

[Even chattel slavery, however, often produced this benefit. So Garnsey [HI:ISAA:5]:

"This points to a paradox at the heart of the slave system. Slavery is the most degrading and exploitative institution invented by man. Yet many slaves in ancient societies...were more secure and economically better off than the mass of the free poor, whose employment was irregular, low-grade and badly paid...It was not unknown for free men to sell themselves into slavery to escape poverty and debt, or even to take up posts of responsibility in the domestic sphere."

But this was not the POINT of such slavery, whereas in the OT context, this benefit is the SOLE JUSTIFICATION for even allowing a watered-down, temporary, semi-servanthood.]
 
 

·        Entry: Slavery was overwhelmingly involuntary. Humans were captured by force and sold via slave-traders.
 

OT:: In the OT, this relationship was overwhelmingly voluntary, and forced, non-negotiated (as in pledge of work, in case of default of debt, cf. the case in 2 Kings 4.1 where the creditor is probably coming to claim the children for non-payment, [BKC, in loc]) enslavement was a capital offense (unless it was a community punishment--you were an theft/fraud offender yourself, of course). This is generally in keeping with what we have noted earlier:

"A person would either enter into slavery or be sold by a parent or relative. Persons sold their wives, grandchildren, brother (with his wife and child), sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephews and niece…Many of the documents emphasize that the transaction is voluntary. This applies not only to self-sale but also to those who are the object of sale, although their consent must sometimes have been fictional, as in the case of a nursing infant." [HI:HANEL:1.665]
 

§         Forced enslavement of Hebrews 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. " (Ex 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. (Deut 24.7; cf. I Tim 1.10).

§         The vast majority of cases would have been voluntary, with the person himself initiating the transaction--it is ALWAYS couched in the terms of 'selling oneself':

"`If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you..." (Lev 25.39)

"`If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien's clan... (Lev 25.47)

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. (Deut 15.12)

§         Although most of these arrangements were limited to six years in length (e.g. Deut 15.12 above), continuation of this relationship was possible, but ONLY AS a strictly voluntary act of the 'slave':

"But if the servant declares, `I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,' 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Ex 21.5)

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, 17 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. (Deut 15.16f)

[Note: if a person had a wife/family when he sold himself, then the wife/family went free when his freedom occurred (If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. Ex 21.3). We will discuss the various release scenarios (with/family, w/o) below under 'Treatment".]

……………………………………………………………….

Pushback: "Whoa, whoa! Can we not gloss/skip over that last point! I am reeeely bothered by that 'your wife stays here' clause…Can you explain how the various exit scenarios looked, in the case of a Hebrew debt-slave's going free? And is it true that a man could sell his daughter into slavery without any HOPE of freedom for her????

Sure, pal--I'll be glad to (but you'll regret asking me to interrupt the flow of this, with my typically verbose response…smile)

Here are the two passages, both in Exodus 21 (translation from the Jewish Publication Society version):

"When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone." (21.2-4)

"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment." (21.7-11)

The way I want to approach this is to sketch out the marriage process background (rel. to OT and some ANE aspects), and map these scenarios onto them.

 

First, the process of getting married (for normal folks).

 

1. The parents of two families (or head-of-household, often the father, but not exclusively--Hagar 'took a wife for Ishmael out of Egypt', Gen 21,21) discuss and agree on a marriage/union between their respective son/daughter, in the context of a union of families--not of individuals. (The daughter, depending on her age, might have been a participant in these discussions, of course):

 

"Customs varied over time and place, but the process of marriage included at least four stages: (1) the engagement, (2) payments by the families of both the bride (dowry) and the groom (bride-price), (3) the bride's move to her father-in-law's house, and (4) sexual intercourse." [OT:DLAM, 133]

 

 "Second, a father arranged for the marriage of his daughter by finding a suitable husband for her and negotiating the terms of the marriage." [HI:MFBW, 55]

 

"When parents deemed their child to be approaching marriageable age, the father of the groom would contact the parents of the potential spouse and negotiate the terms of the marriage, specifically the nature and size of the mohar, "marriage present". ." [HI:MFBW, 57]

 

"If the groom died or had a change of heart, his father could insist that the bride be given to one of the groom's brothers if one were available and of age. That is, the bride married into her husband's family--she did not marry an individual." [OT:DLAM, 134f]

 

"The control of marriages and offspring was also patriarchal. A woman’s father decided whom she could marry (Exod 22:17), although there is evidence that daughters were consulted (cf. Gen 24:55–58)." ["Patriarchy As An Evil That God Tolerated: Analysis And Implications For The Authority Of Scripture", Guenther Haas, Jnl of the Evangelical Theological Society 38:3, Sept 1995]

 

2. This mohar was once thought of (and still called in the literature) as a 'bride price', but more recently it is understood as a 'bride-present' (since sometimes the bride got to keep it herself). It is a payment made by the father of the groom, to the father of the bride:

 

"The contract described in the Laws of Eshnunna was between the two families, commonly represented by the fathers. For the groom's family, the contract concerned payment of the bride-price, which was a  considerable sum of silver in the Old Babylonian period. The bride-price was an act of good faith, insuring the grooms' right to the bride." [OT:DLAM, 133]

 

"While some have interpreted the mohar as a purchase price, it is preferable to see it as a deposit delivered to the parents of the bride to promote the stability of the marriage and to strengthen the links between the families of those being married." [HI:MFBW, 57]

 

"The father of the girl negotiated a bride-price with the groom or groom's father, with an expected amount the baseline, the mohar habbetulot, set at fifty shekels, but with no upper limit. " [HI:HALOT,:2:1007; Note: this amount in the ANE at that time would have been the value of 5 years of a hired person's labor.]

 

3. However, depending on the circumstances of the families, this bride-price (and counterpart, the dowry of the girl) could be paid in installments, in non-cash items such as clothing (Judg 14:8-20), and/or in services:

 

"Normally, the bride-price consisted of sliver or goods, but it could be servicesJacob worked seven years for Rachel and Leah respectively. " [HI:HALOT,:2:1007]

 

"A fiancé could compound for the payment of the mohar by service, as Jacob did for both his marriages (Gn 29:15-30), or by accomplishing an appointed task, as David did for Mikal (1 S 18.25-27) and Othniel for Calab's daughter (Jos 15:16 = Jg 1:12)." [AI:1, 26f]

 

"Both the bride-price and the dowry could be paid in installments until the first child was born, at which time the balance of both payments was due. The marriage was legally finalized, and the mother assumed the legal rights of 'wife'" [OT:DLAM, 133]

 

 

Now, let's turn to the Exodus 21.7-11 passage, dealing with a father 'selling' his daughter….

 

1. The first thing to note is that commentators do not see this as a 'despicable' , 'mercenary' act on the part of a cold-hearted father. Rather, it was an exigency taken by a dad in protection and provision for his daughter (generally thought to be under extreme duress):

 

·        "Lagas-Girsu legal texts show children being sold into slavery, and this led the texts' editor to posit a weak family bond. If, as seems likely, the parents were choosing life over death for their children, one does not need to doubt their devotion to the children." [OT:LIANE, 35]

 

·        "While this legal right of parents was more than likely subject to abuse, its practice resulted from poverty and debt that threatened the survival of the household. Thus the selling of children was one means of payment of debt by an impoverished household, at the same time providing a new household for the poor offspring." [OT:FAI, 196]

 

·        "Female slaves were treated differently. Many times female slaves were concubines or secondary wives (cf. Gen. 16:3; 22:24; 30:3, 9; 36:12; Jud. 8:31; 9:18). Some Hebrew fathers thought it more advantageous for their daughters to become concubines of well-to-do neighbors than to become the wives of men in their own social class." [BBC, at Ex 21.3ff]

 

·        "In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived from Nuzi. The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. A breach of faith gains her her freedom, and the master receives no compensation for the purchase price."  [JPStorah, Ex 21]

 

2. Secondly, commentators are quick to point out that this 'selling' isn’t real slavery--its very, very different from 'regular' slavery transactions. [This case is different than the debt-slave situation, in that (1) it is done by the father for a dependent daughter, rather than an independent self-selling female; (2) it is about marriage and childbearing, instead of simple domestic service labor, and is therefore exempt from the must-wait-six-years provision--indeed release would not have to wait nearly that long at all [the 'master' would know very soon if he was not pleased with the bride-to-be]; (3) has multiple exit conditions;  and (4) has additional protections and guarantees in it]:

 

·        "Older views held that Mesopotamian marriage was basically a commercial arrangement in which the groom purchased the bride, and it is true that extant texts are interested in the economic relations that were being forged by the new union. But it is not helpful to see marriage as purchase because the bride's family too usually presented gifts to the groom's family; instead, marriage seems more a change in status for both parties, like adoption." [OT:LIANE, 52]

 

·        "The provisions here stipulated for such a woman make it very likely that she was not sold into slavery for general purposes, but only as a bride, and therefore with provisions restricting her owner-husband concerning her welfare if he should become dissatisfied with the union. … Such an interpretation makes clear why the provisions for such a slave-bride are given in sequence to the “guiding principles” for the protection of the male temporary slave: the slave-bride had special rights, too, and if they were violated, she too could go free. [WBC]

 

·        "The Hebrew term 'amah used here, does not mean a slave girl in the usual sense, since her status is quite different from that of the male slave. The following laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation."  [JPStorah, Ex 21]

 

·        "In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. …The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her."  [JPStorah, Ex 21]

 

3. The odd mixture of 'slave' words and 'marriage' words designate this individual as a 'concubine'. Concubines in the ancient world were essentially wives whose offspring were not automatically in the inheritance/succession line. They had all the legal rights of wives, but they had typically originated in a state of slavery. They were subordinate to freeborn-wives (if there were any in the household), and their offspring could be successors ONLY IF the offspring were legally 'adopted' or publicly acclaimed by the owner. They could be legally 'promoted' to full wife status (in the ANE).

 

·        "In Assyria a man could raise a concubine to the status of a wife." [OT:DLAM, 136]

 

·        "The ancient law of Ex 21:7-11 allows an Israelite father who is poor or in debt to sell his daughter to be the slave-concubine of a master or his son. She is not freed in the seventh year like the male slaves. If her master is not satisfied, he may resell her to her family, but may not sell her to a stranger. If he takes another wife, he must leave intact all the rights of the first. If he intends her to be his son's wife, he must treat her as a daughter of the family." [AI:1, 86]

 

·        "This restriction was the result of the owner's having been faithless to her, that is, he had not lived up to the agreement made with her household, that she would be his concubine. In addition, if the buyer purchased the woman to be a concubine for his son, then she was to treated as a daughter. And if the buyer took another woman for his wife, he could not reduce his concubine's conjugal rights, food, or clothing." [OT:FAI, 196]

 

·        "In addition to the regular wife or wives, a man might also have one or more secondary wives or concubines who would bear children for him. The most explicit statement prescribing a husband's behavior toward a wife occurs in Exodus 21:7-11. This text concerns a concubine, to be sure, but according to the rabbinic principle of qal wa-homer (what applies in a minor case will also apply in a major case), one may assume that husbands were to treat their wives with even greater dignity. Because of uncertainties in the meanings of the three critical words in verse 10, there is some question concerning the obligations placed upon the man. However, on the analogy of extrabiblical formulas, seer, kesut and ona are best understood as 'food,' 'clothing' and 'ointment/oil', respectively. These specific expressions capture the man's general responsibility to provide peace, permanence and security for his wives." [HI:MFBW, 48]

 

·        "Exodus 21:7-11 specifically seeks to regulate cases involving Israelite women/girls who were sold by their fathers as female slaves (amot), presumably because of debt. Many commentators assume that this sale envisions marriage to the master or to his son, but the absence of marriage or divorce terminology in the passage suggests the purpose of the sale was concubinage. The regulation safeguards the woman's rights in two respects. First, the purchaser may not treat her as an ordinary slave. If she proves not to please him, and he does not fulfill his contractual obligation to treat her as his own concubine, or assign her to his son, he may not treat her as an ordinary slave woman. Because he has failed to grant her the protection available to concubines through motherhood, she retains the right to redemption by her father. Second, the purchaser may not sell her to a foreigner, that is a non-Israelite, and thereby render her irredeemable because foreigners would not recognize her rights under Israelite law." [HI:MFBW, 60]

[Note: one of the two main purposes of  concubinage (the other being to provide an heir in a barren marriage)--an economically very expensive expedient in the ancient world--was to keep the family from falling below 'critical mass'. The mortality rate was so high ("as many as one in two children did not survive to the age of five" [OT:FAI:19]), and the labor demand was so high, that additional means of renewal (other than just the single-wife of the ideal) were sometimes necessary:

 

·        "Those labor requirements in early Israel were especially intense for several reasons: cropping patterns, with their seasonal demands for many hands to do certain sowing or harvesting tasks within a relatively short window of environmental opportunity; sporadic needs for terrace maintenance and land clearing; a constant set of time-consuming daily procedures for tending to livestock, securing water, and transforming food products to comestibles. The number of persons needed for the family, as the primary, self-sufficient economic unit, to perform the myriad tasks in a regime with critical labor-intensive periods was greater than a nuclear family could supply. Extended or compound families were essential for survival." [OT:FAI, 18]

 

·        "Concubines are women without dowry who include among their duties providing children to the family. Childbearing was an important function in the ancient world, where survival of the family, and often survival at all, was tenuous at best. " [BBC, at  Gen 35.21ff]

 

·        " A concubine was a true wife, though of secondary rank. This is indicated, for example, by the references to a concubine’s “husband” (Jud 19:3), the “father-in-law” (Jud 19:4), “son-in-law” (Jud 19:5). Thus, the concubine was not a kept mistress, and did not cohabit with a man unless married to him. The institution itself is an offshoot of polygamy." [TWOT, s.v. concubine/pilgsh]

 

 

4. This focus on the wife-aspect of this process leads commentators to understand this passage to be about protections for the woman, over and above the protections afforded a male slave, and there were many 'exit clauses' for the woman--to full family membership, or to freedom:

 

·        "When a daughter was sold into slavery by her father, this was intended both as a payment of debt and as a way of obtaining a husband for her without a dowry. She has more rights than a male in the sense that she can be freed from slavery if her master does not provide her with food, clothing and marital rights. [BBC, Exodus]

 

·        "Female slaves were treated differently. Many times female slaves were concubines or secondary wives (cf. Gen. 16:3; 22:24; 30:3, 9; 36:12; Jud. 8:31; 9:18). Some Hebrew fathers thought it more advantageous for their daughters to become concubines of well-to-do neighbors than to become the wives of men in their own social class. If a daughter who became a servant was not pleasing to her master she was to be redeemed by a near kinsman (cf. Lev. 25:47-54) but never sold to foreigners (Ex. 21:8); she could also redeem herself. If she married her master’s son she was to be given family status (v. 9). If the master married someone else he was required to provide his servant with three essentials: food, clothing, and shelter. [BBC, at Ex 21.3ff]

 

·        "The expectation of seventh-year release was denied to women... Though an owner may be unhappy with a female slave he has bought for himself, he is to permit her to be freed by the payment of a price, apparently by her family, or he is to make provision for her to remain within his own family, perhaps as a daughter-in-law. Despite his own dissatisfaction with her, he has no right to sell her to “a strange family”, a family unknown to her, perhaps even one outside the covenant community of Israel. If he keeps her within his own family, yet takes another woman as his own wife or concubine, he is not to deny her the basic rights which his purchase of her for himself guaranteed in the first place. … If the owner refuses to provide the female slave with these fundamental rights, he waives his claim of possession, and she is free to go her own way. The provisions here stipulated for such a woman make it very likely that she was not sold into slavery for general purposes, but only as a bride, and therefore with provisions restricting her owner-husband concerning her welfare if he should become dissatisfied with the union. Mendelsohn has cited Nuzian sale contracts which almost exactly parallel the Exodus provisions. Such an interpretation makes clear why the provisions for such a slavebride are given in sequence to the “guiding principles” for the protection of the male temporary slave: the slave-bride had special rights, too, and if they were violated, she too could go free. [WBC]

 

·        "In addition to the regular wife or wives, a man might also have one or more secondary wives or concubines who would bear children for him. The most explicit statement prescribing a husband's behavior toward a wife occurs in Exodus 21:7-11. This text concerns a concubine, to be sure, but according to the rabbinic principle of qal wa-homer (what applies in a minor case will also apply in a major case), one may assume that husbands were to treat their wives with even greater dignity. Because of uncertainties in the meanings of the three critical words in verse 10, there is some question concerning the obligations placed upon the man. However, on the analogy of extrabiblical formulas, seer, kesut and ona are best understood as 'food,' 'clothing' and 'ointment/oil', respectively. These specific expressions capture the man's general responsibility to provide peace, permanence and security for his wives." [HI:MFBW, 48]

 

·        "The regulation safeguards the woman's rights in two respects. First, the purchaser may not treat her as an ordinary slave. If she proves not to please him, and he does not fulfill his contractual obligation to treat her as his own concubine, or assign her to his son, he may not treat her as an ordinary slave woman. Because he has failed to grant her the protection available to concubines through motherhood, she retains the right to redemption by her father. Second, the purchaser may not sell her to a foreigner, that is a non-Israelite, and thereby render her irredeemable because foreigners would not recognize her rights under Israelite law." [HI:MFBW, 60]

 

·        "The Hebrew term 'amah used here, does not mean a slave girl in the usual sense, since her status is quite different from that of the male slave. The following laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation."  [JPStorah, Ex 21]

 

·        "In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. … The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. ."  [JPStorah, Ex 21]

 

·        "The 'amah of' the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 21:7-10) is an Israelite woman sold for this status by her father. If the buyer has designated her for his son, she is treated like any other daughter in-law, becomes a wife, and is not freed in the seventh year. If the man for whom she was acquired as a wife did not want her, he could "redeem her" to another family but he could not sell her, for his not marrying her was considered a betrayal. If he married another woman, he had to keep providing for his 'amah; if not, she would go free. " [HI:HALOT:2:1008]

 

·        "The ancient law of Ex 21:7-11 allows an Israelite father who is poor or in debt to sell his daughter to be the slave-concubine of a master or his son. She is not freed in the seventh year like the male slaves. If her master is not satisfied, he may resell her to her family, but may not sell her to a stranger. If he takes another wife, he must leave intact all the rights of the first. If he intends her to be his son's wife, he must treat her as a daughter of the family." [AI:1, 86]

 

·        "This restriction was the result of the owner's having been faithless to her, that is, he had not lived up to the agreement made with her household, that she would be his concubine. In addition, if the buyer purchased the woman to be a concubine for his son, these she was to treated as a daughter. And if the buyer took another woman for his wife, he could not reduce his concubine's conjugal rights, food, or clothing." [OT:FAI, 196]

 

So, this passage is hardly 'negative': it provides an escape from poverty for a young woman, security and protection (and upward social mobility) in the house of a better place, and all the basic legal rights of a wife.

 

 

Now, let's turn to the odd looking 'post-release' passage, dig into the situation/background, and look at the different scenarios…

 

Case 1: Single in, Single during, Single out. No issues here. The master supported the servant during the tenure with room, board, medical care, etc; and the servant provided labor in exchange for this stability, provision, and legal protection. Economic exchange transaction.

 

Case 2: Married in, Married during, Married out (with or without kids). Seems to be a bit economically burdensome on the master/owner, especially if it was a large family that drove the Hebrew to have to sell himself! There is no stipulation that the wife/kids have to be  'servants too', yet the master has to feed, clothe, house, provide medical care, etc for them out of this own pocket during their tenure ("The master would have been responsible for the maintenance of the slave's wife and children throughout the period of his service." [JPStorah, Ex 21]). But this certainly recognizes the importance of emotional attachments (i.e., the servant and his own family), and supports these values out of the pocket of the owner. Grace and goodness.

 

Case 3. Single in, Married during, Single out (with or without kids). This is the one that seems odd at first glance to us. Let's make some notes:

 

·        The wife is obviously a servant too, since a free woman wouldn’t have to stay behind and the offspring of free and slave was free in the ANE ("If a slave, either male or female, married a free person, the children they had together would be free." [OT:DLAM, 118])

 

·        This means that the owner paid for the servant girl himself (at typical prices of at least one-third to one-half of all the labor output the male slave would have generated in his 6-year tenure), or, if she was born in the household, then the owner had been paying all her support costs for years and years, with little economic value--given marriage age was around 12-14 (the support costs being considerably more than the male slaves output). ("If, however, his wife has married him during his servitude, obviously by the permission and through the provision of his owner, both the wife and any children born to such a union must remain with the owner when the “temporary” slave claims his freedom of the seventh year." [WBC])

 

·        Now, normally, this male servant would have to pay the mohar (bride-price, bride-present) for the wife, but he obviously doesn’t have such resources in his circumstances. This means one of two things: (1) the bride-price must be paid after his release; or (2) the marriage is not a 'real' one, but a siring (like concubines sometimes functioned) to help populate the household.

 

We know the latter (#2, 'siring only') situations occurred, and typically did NOT generate the emotional/commitment attachments of a real marriage [probably difficult to generate in a relationship whose average duration would have been 36 months (half of 6 years), most months of which would have been spent in pregnancy/nursing ("children")]:

 

"In the ancient Near East is was a common practice for a master to mate a slave with a foreign bondwoman solely for the purpose of siring 'house born' slaves. In such instances, no matrimonial or emotional bond was necessarily involved, and the woman and her offspring remained the property of the master (e.g., Gen 17.12,13, 23, 27;Lev 22.11; Jer 2.14.; Cf Gen 14.14; 15.3; Eccs 2.7)" [JPStorah, in loc.]

 

So, this should not be a serious issue for us.

 

But, in case emotional bonds WERE created with the wife/kids, there were at least two options open to the ex-servant:

 

1.      First, he could invoke the clause of 'permanent servitude' and stay forever in that situation (with security, familiarity, family);

2.      Secondly, he could negotiate a marriage/mohar payment and "get" his wife/kids. (Slaves did have to pay betrothal fees: "… they were capable of owning property and could pay betrothal money or fines. " [HI:HANEL:1, 632]

 

 

This second possibility could take several forms:

 

1.      We know that a person could continue to work/provide services inside a household (as a post-servant) and earn the bride-price, like Jacob did for Rachel and Leah (7 years for each).

2.      We know that, in the ANE, future services could be accepted by an owner as payment today ("More frequently (than a slave using their property to buy freedom), the manumitted slave was bound to support the former owner during the latter's lifetime. In Speleers 45, a slave is ceremonially manumitted and bound by a support clause but is also said to have 'redeemed himself,' which suggests that his future services were seen as a payment in fact, if not in law." [HI:HANEL:1,384]), so the owner could allow the family to exit, on the basis of a services 'promissory note'.

3.      The post-servant could move out (assuming he had a place to go, obviously), arrange these terms, and take his wife/kids to himself . [In many cases of 'regular betrothal, the bride-to-be moved in with the groom's family long before the marriage was consummated, especially if she was in childhood. This often occurred right after the 'contract' was signed, and since we have already noted both 'promissory notes' and 'installment plans', this is not implausible an arrangement at all.)

4.      Some of the 'lavish gifts' the master was supposed to send him out with at his release (see Deut 15.15, and the discussions above/below) could be used as a/part of a bride-price to get the process going.

 

These are just a couple of easily conceivable scenarios, of which there might be more. The community thrived off healthy relationships and survived because of the fertility associated with them--they would have had a way to keep vibrant and loving couples together.  

 

So, this case #3 has a couple of different aspects to it, but upon analysis, doesn’t seem as 'odd' as it appeared at first. There's just too much flexibility in the marriage processes, economic substrate, and servant institution for this to be a real problem for them (or us).

 

 

………………………………………………………………… 

§         The only clear case of involuntary servitude was in the case of a thief that was too poor to make restitution for good stolen, and here is was strictly an economic measure:

"A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft. (Ex 22.3)

Presumably, the 6 year period would be enough to make restitution.

 
 

·        Treatment: Slaves were frequently mistreated by modern standards, and punishments were extreme.
 

OT: The Law forbade harsh treatment, set stipulations for positive treatment, and set tight boundaries around punishment/abuse of servants.
 

§         There are several general admonitions in the Law against harsh/abusive/oppressive behavior toward Hebrew servants:

Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. (Lev 25.43)

..but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (Lev 25.46)

53 He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly. (Lev 25.53)

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. (Deut 15.18)

§         In fact, the Law assumes that the situation may be lucrative enough for some servants to decide to stay with their masters for their lifetime.

"But if the servant declares, `I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,' (Ex 21.5)

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, (Deut 15.16)

§         The general scholarly assessment is that this domestic "slavery" was not very atrocious, went way beyond "property only", and instead created family-like bonds:

"However, domestic slavery was in all likelihood usually fairly tolerable. Slaves formed part of the family and males, if circumcised, could take part in the family Passover and other religious functions. Moreover, in general there were probably only a few in each household--there is no indication, for example, that large gangs of them were toiling in deplorable conditions to cultivate big estates, as in the later Roman world." [OT:I:101]

"Slave labor was used in domestic service and thus made for a close relationship between master and servant in everyday life. In spite of the legal status, the slave' position was in practice closer to that of a filius-familias than to that of a mere chattel." [OT:HLBT:114ff]

"The treatment of chattel slaves indicates that these slaves are considered human beings…" [OT:DictOT5, s.v. "Slavery"]

"The slave's personal dignity is also evident in the prescriptions concerning personal injury (Ex 21.20-27)., since the punishments for mistreatment are meant to restrain the abuse of slaves…Clearly, the personal rights of slaves override their master's property rights over them." [OT:DictOT5, s.v. "Slavery"]

§         Interestingly, when a servant was to be released at the Sabbath year (without payment of money!), the master was to send him out with gifts of material possessions!

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. 13 And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deut 15.12f)

§         ALL servants were required to take the Sabbath day off--just like the masters.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. (Ex 20.9)

"Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed. (Ex 23.12)

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt (Deut 5.13ff)

§         In fact, the servants were supposed to take part in the rejoicing of the cultic "parties" and trips to Jerusalem (including the big Feasts--Deut 12.11,14):

Then to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name -- there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the LORD. 12 And there rejoice before the LORD your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants... (Deut 12.11f)

Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose -- you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns -- and you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to. (Deut 12.18)

§         Not only was abusive treatment of servants strictly forbidden, but the Law held masters very accountable!

§         If a master beat a slave and the slave died, the master was held accountable under the 'life for life' clause:

"If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished (Ex 21.20, NIV)

"When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged" (JPS Tanach translation)

"If a man shall strike his slave or his maidservant with the rod and he shall die under his hand, he shall surely be avenged." (Stone Edition Tanach translation)

§         If a master caused any type of permanent damage to a servant, the servant was given immediate freedom:

"If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth. (Ex 21.26-27)

§         The above prescription is hugely instructive, in comparison to the ANE: In some ANE codes, a master could literally put out the eyes of his slaves![HI:HANEL, e.g., at Mari, 1:383; at Nuzi, 1:586]. This represents a MASSIVE departure from 'conventional morality' of the day!

§         And the above prescription is also instructive, in comparison to today: whereas typical insurance programs will pay 50% of maximum disability for 'loss of a single eye', they pay nothing for the loss of a tooth…(smile). But in the OT, there was a huge "disincentive" to strike one's slave in the face! [Legitimate community punishments were by rods, on the back. Facial blows were considered culpable.] The ANE, however, did NOT have the same 'respect' for the face of slaves--besides eye-gouging, they resorted to branding, cutting of the ears, mutilating the nose, etc-- IN THE LAW CODES!. These practices are NOT in Israel's law codes, and they are implied to be prohibited by the focus on penalties for striking the face.

§         And this passage is noted as being 'oddly humanitarian':

"In the case of bodily injury to slaves, whose status does not qualify them for equal compensation, the owner whose abuse results in the loss of an eye or a tooth is to free that slave, a remarkably humanitarian provision directed at cruelty and sadism in a slave-owner." [WBC]

§         The law allowed disciplinary rod-beating for a servant (Ex 21.20f), apparently under the same conditions as that for free men:

If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed,  19 the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed. If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished,  21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property (ksph--"silver"; not the normal word(s) for property, btw).

§         Free men could likewise be punished by the legal system by rod-beating (Deut 25.1-3; Prov 10.13; 26.3), as could rebellious older sons (Prov 13.24; 22.15; 23.13). Beating by rod (shevet) is the same act/instrument ( flogging (2 Sam 7.14; Ps 89.32). This verse is in parallel to verses 18-19. If two people fight but no one dies, the aggressor is punished by having to 'retributively' pay (out of his own money--"silver", ksph) for the victim's lost economic time and medical expenses. If it is a person's slave and this occurs, there is no (additional) economic payment--the lost productivity and medical expenses of the wounded servant are (punitive economic) loss alone. There was no other punishment for the actual damage done to the free-person in 18-19, and the slave seems to be treated in the same fashion. Thus, the 'property' attribute doesn't seem to suggest any real difference in ethical treatment of injury against a servant. Let's structure out the parallel:

Aspect

Two "Free-brews" (smile)

Master/Slave

Victim:

Freeman

Slave

Perp:

Freeman

Master

Extent:

"Confined to bed"

"cannot get up"

(i.e., Confined to bed)

Bodily Harm:

Wounded to point of needing a 'staff';

Wounded to the point of needing medical attention and 'healing'

[Unspecified, but sounds similar to the other case]

Instrument used:

Stone or fist

Disciplinary rod

(like elders used on criminals; and parents used on sons)

Motive:

"Brawl"

Discipline

Punitive

Compensation:

Loss of time;

Cost of medical attention

(paid in 'money'--'silver')

Loss of time;

Cost of medical attention

(borne 'internally' - 'silver')

If victim dies"

Perp Executed

Perp Executed

It should be obvious that the 'slave' in this case is raised to at least as high a level as is the Free-brew! [The context actually may raised the slave HIGHER, due to the eye/tooth passage. So [JPStorah], ""The aggressor must indemnify the victim for loss of income, here called 'idleness', and for medical expenses as well. This text (about the Freeman) is curiously silent on the law governing the infliction of permanent injury." It may be only the slave who is protected in the case of permanent injury…?

§         The discipline of free men (and older sons) by the community MIGHT form the backdrop (and boundary?) for this type of rod-usages. Here are verses to compare with this master/slave discipline:

·        When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.  2 If the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make him lie down and have him flogged in his presence with the number of lashes his crime deserves,  3 but he must not give him more than forty lashes. If he is flogged more than that, your brother will be degraded in your eyes. (Deut 25.1-3)

·        ”I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. (2 Sam 7.14)

·        “Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath! I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me" (Is 10.5f)

 

·        He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.  (Prov 13.24)

§         This Exodus  passage is very instructive, because it places slaves (both Hebrew and foreign, apparently) on a legal-protection par with full, free citizens. It no more 'authorizes' a master to abuse a slave, than it 'authorizes' a Hebrew to bash his fellow's head with a rock, knocking him unconscious for a day or so! Notice some of the commentators on this passage:

First, the JPS Torah Commentary [JPStorah, in loc]

"This law-the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters-is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social and human values and expresses itself once again in the provisions of verses 26-27. The underlying issue, as before, is the determination of intent on the part of the assailant at the time the act was committed.

 

his slave The final clause of verse 21 seems to indicate that the slave in question is a foreigner. Otherwise the terminology would be inappropriate, given the conditions under which an Israelite might become enslaved.

 

a rod Hebrew shevet, the customary instrument of discipline [2 Sam 7.14 (to the sons of David!); Is 10.5,24; Prov 10.13; 13.24; 23.13-14; 26.3]. The right of a master to discipline his slave within reason is recognized. But according to rabbinic exegesis, it is restricted to the use of an implement that does not normally have lethal potentiality, and it may not be applied to a part of the body considered to be particularly vulnerable.

 

There and then Literally, "under his hand," in contrast to "a day or two" in verse 21. The direct, immediate, causal relationship between the master's act and the death of the slave is undisputed. The master has unlawfully used deadly force, and homicidal intent is assumed.

 

He must be avenged The master is criminally liable and faces execution, in keeping with the law of verse…The verb n-k-m is popularly taken to signify "revenge." Actually, it means "to avenge," that is, to vindicate, or redress, the imbalance of justice. Its use in the Bible is overwhelmingly with God as the subject, and in such cases it always serves the ends of justice. It is employed in particular in situations in which normal judicial procedures are not effective or cannot be implemented. It does not focus on the desire to get even or to retaliate; indeed, Leviticus 19:18 forbids private vengeance.

"Verse 21. Should the beaten slave linger more than a day before succumbing, certain new and mitigating circumstances arise. The direct, causal relationship between the master's conduct and the slave's death is now in doubt, for there may have been some unknown intermediate cause. The intent of the master appears less likely to have been homicidal and more likely to have been disciplinary. He is given the benefit of the doubt, especially since he is losing his financial investment, the price of the slave."

Then, [EBCOT]

"The second case involved a master striking his slave, male or female. Since the slave did not die immediately as a result of this act of using the rod (not a lethal weapon, however) but tarried for "a day or two" (v. 21), the master was given the benefit of the doubt; he was judged to have struck the slave with disciplinary and not homicidal intentions. This law is unprecedented in the ancient world where a master could treat his slave as he pleased. When this law is considered alongside the law in vv. 26-27, which acted to control brutality against slaves at the point where it hurt the master, viz., his pocketbook, a whole new statement of the value and worth of the personhood of the slave is introduced. Thus if the master struck a slave severely enough only to injure one of his members, he lost his total investment immediately in that the slave won total freedom; or if he struck severely enough to kill the slave immediately, he was tried for capital punishment (vv. 18-19). The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the master's mercy but to restrict the master's power over him (cf. similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi 196-97, 200). [EBCOT]

Then, [OT:DictOT5]:

"The slave's personal dignity is also evident in the prescriptions concerning personal injury (Ex 21.20-27)., since the punishments for mistreatment are meant to restrain the abuse of slaves…Clearly, the personal rights of slaves override their master's property rights over them." [OT:DictOT5, s.v. "Slavery"]

Now, when I back up and look at this passage, factoring in these observations, I note the following:

1.      This passage is unparalleled in its humanitarian considerations.

2.      This passage is absolutely anti-abuse, in the strongest sense of the term.

3.      This passage is completely parallel to the case of the freeman, under discipline by the community.

4.      This passage is completely parallel to the case of a brawl between Hebrews:

5.      It applies primarily to the foreigner.

6.      The "because he is his property" is NOT about 'property', but about how the punitive payment was made (economic 'silver'--lost output, increased medical expense)

7.      It is a remarkable assertion of human rights over property rights.

 

 

 

§         Although the matter under discussion is Hebrew servitude, one verse about foreign slaves might also be illustrative of the heart of YHWH in this issue of treatment:

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. 16 Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him. (Deut 23.15)

This passage refers to slaves, without any mention of their origin. No matter what the cause of their servitude, nor the cause of their refuge, God still says that extradition is NOT to be done! (We will come back to this amazing verse, but note here that it is in abject disagreement with all other ANE codes:

"According to Deuteronomy, a runaway slave is not to be returned to its master. He should be sheltered if he wishes or allowed to go free, and he must not be take advantage of (Deut 23:16-17). This provision is strikingly different from the laws of slavery in the surrounding nations and is explained as due to Israel's own history of slaves." [HI:HANEL:2:1006]
 

 

·        Treatment: As a matter of course, slaves lived in radical separation from their owners and did not participate in many of the 'benefits' of the owners' fortunes.
 

OT: We have already seen how servants were supposed to be given liberal gifts from the possessions of their masters upon release (Deut 15.13) "according to the blessing of the Lord". We have also seen above how they were expected to celebrate and rejoice with the household during the festivals of YHWH.

The Rabbinic lore highlights how this was supposed to play out (B. Kid 22a):

"Out masters taught: 'Since he has fared well with there'--'with thee' in food; 'with thee' in drink. For you may not eat fine bread while he eats coarse bread. You may not drink aged wine while he drinks new wine. You may not sleep on soft bedding while he sleeps on straw. Hence the saying: When a man buys a Hebrew slave, it is as though he had bought himself a master."

But one interesting verse highlights the apparent solidarity of a servant with the family household:

"`No one outside a priest's family may eat the sacred offering, nor may the guest of a priest or his hired worker eat it. 11 But if a priest buys a slave with money, or if a slave is born in his household, that slave may eat his food. (Lev 22.10)

 

Also, we have already cited sources pointing out that almost all servitude in this class was domestic--they lived IN the house with the master and family. They did NOT have separate quarters, as the vast majority in the New World context did:

"However, throughout the entire history of Israel and Judah as well as of all other countries of the ANE, slave labor did not play a decisive role in agriculture and it was used to a very limited extent compared to the labor provided by small landholders. As the Bible indicates, the artisan trades were also in the hands of free persons (1 Chr 4:14, 23; Jer 37:21; Neh 3:8). For this reason, there existed no artisan workshops based on slave labor and the decisive role in the handicraft industries was played by free labor, especially in the area of manufacture depending upon skills. Thus, there was no predominance of slave labor in any branch of economy, and it was used primarily for household tasks requiring neither skill nor extensive supervision, i.e., in jobs where slaves could be employed all the year round, not those which were seasonal in character." [ABD, s.v. 'Slavery, Old Testament']

 

·        Legal Status: Slaves were considered 'property' in exclusion to their humanity. That is, to fire a bullet into a slave was like firing a bullet into a pumpkin, not like firing a bullet into a human. There were no legal or ethical demands upon owners' as to how they treated their 'property'. Other than with the occasional benevolent master, only economic value was a main deterrent to abusive treatment.
 

OT: In keeping with the 'variableness' of notions of property in the ANE (as noted by historians and anthropologists), Israel's notion of 'property' was a severely restricted one, and one that did NOT preclude the humanity of the servant nor absolve the master from legal accountability.
 

§         Although Hebrew servants are mis-called 'property' in one verse (Ex 21.21), Israel's notion of 'property' in the law was severely restricted to economic output only--NOT 'ownership of a disposable good'.

§         Both the land and Hebrew servants belonged to God--always!

"`The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. (Lev 25.23)

"`If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. 40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. (Lev 25.39)

§         Accordingly, tenants and masters were held accountable to God for treatment of the Land and the people. In the case of the Land, there were numerous prescriptions by God for them; in the case of servants, there were likewise guidelines and limitations upon practice.

§         'Property' is therefore seen not as 'owned disposable goods' but as economic output (including labor):

"`If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. 15 You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. 16 When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. (Lev 25.14)

"If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed. (Ex 21.18)

49 An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in his clan may redeem him. Or if he prospers, he may redeem himself. 50 He and his buyer are to count the time from the year he sold himself up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for his release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired man for that number of years. 51 If many years remain, he must pay for his redemption a larger share of the price paid for him. 52 If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, he is to compute that and pay for his redemption accordingly. 53 He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; (Lev 25.49ff)

§         As a 'managed, but not owned' human resource, servants were NOT thereby rendered 'disposable, non-human goods'. They were still legal agents in the culture and their masters were legally accountable for how they were treated.

§         We have already noted that abuse leading to death or permanent injury was punishable under law for the master.

§         In the case of a servant's voluntary choice for lifetime service, the local courts were required to witness the transaction ("But if the servant declares, `I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,' 6 then his master must take him before the judges. " Ex 21.5)

§         That the servant still had full agent status in servitude is obvious from the fact that the servant could "buy himself back" from the master (i.e. "redeem" himself):

An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in his clan may redeem him. Or if he prospers, he may redeem himself. (Lev 25.49)

§         This right of self-redemption is not unique to Israel, but occurred elsewhere in the ANE:

At Emar: "Slaves might redeem themselves out of their peculium." [HI:HANEL:1,644]

 "Another Assyrian document from ca. 1115 records that a slave redeemed himself from slavery for 1 mina 55 shekels of silver." [ABD, s.v. 'Slavery, Ancient Near East']

 

§         In the judicially difficult case of the 'serial goring' animal (Ex 21.32ff), the optional ransom value for a dead servant is fixed at a very high rate, compared to even children (cf. redemption values in Lev 27). If the ransom were not offered by the bereaved family/master, or if the ransom price were not paid by the ox-owner, then the ox-owner would be killed for a capital offense. This demonstrates rather vividly the human and moral status of the servant.

§         We might also note that in the case of this goring animal, the value of the life of the slave was placed on a par with freepersons. This can be seen in two ways: (1) that the ox was stoned--not slaughtered; and (2) that the price was equivalent to ANE aristocracy:

(1) "The killer ox is not destroyed solely because it is dangerous. This is clear from the fact that it is not destroyed when the victim is another ox and from the prescribed mode of destruction--not ordinary slaughter but stoning. The execution of the ox was carried out in the presence, and with the participation, of the entire community--implying that the killing of a human being is a source of mass pollution and that the proceedings had an expiatory function…The sanctity of human life is such as to make bloodshed the consummate offense, one viewed with unspeakable horror…In the law of the Torah, the stoning of the ox (in the case of the slave) means that it was regarded as having incurred bloodguilt, just as it had for killing a free person." [JPStorah, in loc]

(2)"This (30 shekels) is the evaluation, for the purposes of vows, of a woman between the ages of twenty and sixty, as given in Leviticus 27:4. It is also the fine imposed by Hammurabi's laws (par 251) on the owner of an ox that gored to death a member of the aristocracy. The same laws (par 252) impose only twenty shekels if the victim was the aristocrat's slave." [JPStorah, in loc.]

§         We have seen above that the elders (addressed by Moses in Lev 25.53) were ordered to make sure owners did not mistreat Hebrew semi-servants:

He is to be treated as a man hired from year to year; you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly.

 

·        Legal Status: Slaves could not have their own property--all they had belonged to their 'owner'.
 

OT:Hebrew servants obviously could have their own property.

§         The purchase price for their servanthood belonged to them (before they used it to buy their freedom and/or their land back).

§         They could prosper and buy their own freedom (above).

§         They maintained any family and property that they had before they entered into the servant arrangement.

We don’t have a lot of data on this, but we do have some additional data that indicates that servants could accumulate property:

"Naturally, there were a certain number of privileged slaves. Thus, according to 2 Samuel (19:17), Ziba, a slave of Saul’s family, had fifteen sons and twenty slaves. To judge from Leviticus (25:47–50), some slaves of Hebrew origin could have raised the means in order to purchase their freedom." [ABD, s.v. "Slavery, Old Testament"]

·        Exit: Slavery was forever. There were never any means of obtaining freedom stipulated in the arrangement. In the cases of an owner granting freedom, it was generally a 'bare bones' release--no property went with the freedman.
 

OT: One of the more amazing things about Hebrew servant-status was how 'easy' it was to get free! (There might be a message in there about God's attitude toward it, smile).

§         Freedom could be bought by relatives (Lev 25.49) [This demonstrates that Garnsey's 'no kinship relations' criteria for REAL slavery did not exist in Israel.]

§         The servant could buy his own freedom, whether the master WANTED to let him go or not (Lev 25.49)

§         Every 7th year (the Sabbath year), all servants were to automatically go free--without ANY payment of money to the master:

"If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. (Ex 21.2; Deut 15.12)

§         Minor injuries due to abusive treatment automatically resulted in immediate freedom (this is actually labeled as 'to compensate', implying rights/duties/debt):

"If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth. (Ex 21.26)

§         When freedom was granted at the Sabbath year or Year of Jubilee, the master was obligated to send them out with liberal gifts--to allow them to occupy the land in sufficiency again (Deut 15.13)

 

Summary: It should be QUITE CLEAR from the above, that the institution in the Mosaic law involving voluntary, fixed-term, flexible, and protected servant-laborer roles was unlike "western", chattel labor in almost ALL RESPECTS. To label it as 'slavery', except in the most general/metaphorical sense of the word, is significantly inappropriate. God's intent in Levitus 25.39f of protecting their status and self-image was VERY clear: ""`If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you."
 
 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

3.     Other references to 'slavery-like' situations in the Mosaic law: The 'Foreign slave".
 

In addition to the institution of Hebrew servanthood above, the Mosaic law has some material on two other kinds of servant/slave-type situations: captives of war and foreign slaves. There is not much material on these subjects, and, given the intention of the Law to differentiate between Israel and the nations, much of it falls into the exceptional category.

The first case is that of war captives in Deut 20. The scenario painted in this chapter is a theoretical one, that apparently never materialized in ancient Israel. It concerns war by Israel against nations NOT within the promised land. Since Israel was not allowed by God to seek land outside its borders (cf. Deut 2.1-23), such a military campaign could only be made against a foreign power that had attacked Israel in her own territory. By the time these events occurred (e.g. Assyria), Israel's power had been so dissipated through covenant disloyalty that military moves of these sort would have been unthinkable.

But the scenario involved offering peace to a city. If the city accepted peace, its inhabitants would be put to "forced labor" (cf. Gibeon in Josh 9), but this would hardly be called 'slavery' (it is also used of conscription services under the Hebrew kings, cf. 2 Sam 20.24; I Kings 9.15). If the city was attacked and destroyed, the survivors were taken as foreign slaves/servants (but the women apparently had special rights--cf. Deut 21.10ff) under the rubric of the second case (below).

We noted earlier in this essay that these were not 'slaves' in the proper sense of the word, but more 'vassals' or 'serfs'.

The second case is that of foreign slaves within Israel (Lev 25.44f):

Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. 44 "`Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life

God orders the Israelites to make a distinction between the Hebrew servants and the those of foreign nations. They were:

·        Allowed to 'buy' (not take!) slaves from foreign nations around them [Note: these would NOT include the Canaanites, but would be from remote nations. This would make the incidence level of this extremely small, except in the case of royalty or the ruling class. In those days, rulers would often have slaves with special skills, such as writing, teaching, translation, but the lives of these 'slaves' would not be representative of the common "western" slavery under discussion.]

·        The temporary resident situation would look more like the Hebrew institution (since the alien would be 'selling himself' as in that case). The main difference would be the absence of the "timed-release" freedom clauses, but the slave-for-life-for-love situation may have been what is behind the 'you CAN make them slaves for life' (implying that it was not automatic.).
 

·        The temporary resident already performed more mundane tasks for the people, for example wood and water services (cf. Deut 29.11: the aliens living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. ), in exchange for escape from Egypt or from troubles abroad. But these aliens were not confined to some 'lower class' in the Israelite assembly, since it is obvious that they could rise to affluence and actually BUY Hebrew servants as well:

"`If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien's clan, 48 he retains the right of redemption after he has sold himself. (Deut 25.47)

As such, it looks more like the Hebrew institution than the 'western' version.
 

·        It is not to be expected that foreign servants would have the same rights and privileges as Hebrew servants, given the 'showcase' nature of the law. There were many distinctions along these lines, to highlight the value of covenant membership. Some of these include:

§         Dietary laws: Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God. (Deut 14.21)

§         Cancellation of Debts: 1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. (Deut 15.1-3)

§         Interest charges: Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, (Deut 23.19ff)

This shows that the standard for intra-Hebrew cultural practice was to be higher than international practice (but note that foreigners could easily become members of the assembly of Israel and participate in the covenant blessings, so this is not an exclusion scenario at all.) And indeed, such standard cultural priorities are meant as inducements to assimilate to the host community--they are like a 'Benefits of Membership' brochure.

Indeed, it must still be remembered that the nation of Israel was supposed to welcome runaway foreign slaves with open arms (Deut 23.15).

·        The case of the female war-captives is remarkable for its 'instant exaltation' of the woman--past slave, past concubine, all the way to full wife(!):

"The position of a female captive of war was remarkable. According to Deuteronomy 20:14, she could be spared and taken as a servant, while Deuteronomy 21:10-11 allowed her captor to take her to wife. While the relationship of the Hebrew bondwoman was described by a peculiar term (note: concubine), the marriage to the captive woman meant that the man 'would be her husband and she his wife.' No mention was made of any act of manumission; the termination of the marriage was possible only by way of divorce and not by sale." [OT:HLBT, 127]

 

·        Finally, it should be noted that the passage says that they "can" make them slaves for life--not that they "were automatically" slaves for life. Somehow, freedom was the default and lifetime slavery only an 'option'.
 

It should also be recognized that the Law did make some allowance for less-than-ideal praxis in the day (e.g. polygamy, divorce), but nevertheless regulated these practices and placed definite limits and protections around these areas. This foreign semi-slavery seems to have fallen into this category as well.

 
 
But even with this class of people being 'below' regular Hebrew slaves, there was still a God-directed humanitarian vision required of Israel--in strong contradiction to other lands…

Let's see some of the data which reveals this perspective.

(1) "Although slaves were viewed as the property of heads of households, the latter were not free to brutalize or abuse even non-Israelite members of the household. On the contrary, explicit prohibitions of the oppression/exploitation of slaves appear repeatedly in the Mosaic legislation.  In two most remarkable texts, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19, Yahweh charges all Israelites to love ('aheb) aliens (gerim) who reside in their midst, that is, the foreign members of their households, like they do themselves and to treat these outsiders with the same respect they show their ethnic countrymen. Like Exodus 22:20 (Eng. 21), in both texts Israel's memory of her own experience as slaves in Egypt should have provided motivation for compassionate treatment of her slaves. But Deuteronomy 10:18 adds that the Israelites were to look to Yahweh himself as the paradigm for treating the economically and socially vulnerable persons in their communities." [HI:MFBW:60]

(2) The classic alienation of insider-outside social stratification (a major component of Western and even Roman slavery) was minimized in Israel by the inclusion of the domestics in the very heart-life of the nation: covenant and religious life. This would have created social bonds that softened much of any residual stigma associated with the servile status. This was accomplished through religious integration into the religious life of the household:

"However, domestic slavery was in all likelihood usually fairly tolerable. Slaves formed part of the family and males, if circumcised, could take part in the family Passover and other religious functions. Moreover, in general there were probably only a few in each household (note: allowing easier access to family bonds)" [OT:I:101]

 

 

4.     The Great Escape Clause…?

Deut 23.15 has this fascinating passage:

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. 16 Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him. (Deut 23.15)

Most commentators understand this to be a reference to non-extradition of a foreign, runaway slave. That is, a slave in another country runs away and flees to Israel. Israel, under this verse and under this understanding, has to allow the runaway to live freely in the land (as a sanctuary), and cannot extradite him/her to their former master. Commentators also note that this is in abject contradiction to ANE and international law of the time:

·        "In contrast to the laws of other ancient Near Eastern nations, slaves who flee their owners and come to Israel are not to be returned to their masters, nor are they to be oppressed, but they are to be allowed to live wherever they please (Deut 23:15-16)."[OT:DictOT5, s.v. "Slavery"]

·        "Wherever slavery existed, there were slaves who escaped from their masters. Ancient Near Eastern law forbade harboring runaway slaves, and international treaties regularly required allied states to extradite them. The present law, in contrast, permits escaped slaves to settle wherever they wish in the land of Israel and forbids returning them to their masters or enslaving them in Israel." [JPStorah, in loc.]

 Now, this understanding could be right, and this restrictive an application (i.e., foreigners immigrating to Israel) is argued on the basis of the scope of the allowance ("whatever town"), but it is not clear from the passage that it is to be taken so restrictively. Nor is the (translation supplied) 'come to Israel' very obvious from the text.

If the passage is NOT this restrictive, then what we have here is an escape-clause that says: "if you--Hebrew or foreigner-- run away from a master, as long as you stay within Israel, you are free, and no one can return you to him/her."

This is exactly the understanding given in [HI:HANEL:2,1006]:

 "A slave could also be freed by running away. According to Deuteronomy, a runaway slave is not to be returned to its master. He should be sheltered if he wishes or allowed to go free, and he must not be taken advantage of (Deut 23:16-17). This provision is strikingly different from the laws of slavery in the surrounding nations and is explained as due to Israel's own history of slaves. It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution."

Think about this conclusion for a moment…Slavery was meant to serve the poor (and thereby, contribute to community strength and health). If a master/slave relationship turns destructive, the value is not being achieved, and it is better for the community for the relationship to dissolve. This was NOT left in the hands of the elite to decide, through appeals and litigation and hearings etc (!!!), but was something the slave could initiate himself/herself. There was a cost--dislocation--but this would have been a tradeoff-driven decision anyway.

If HI:HANEL is correct, then NO situation of 'true' slavery was exempt, and the foreigner (and Israelite alike, presumably) could live in freedom (but without the economic support substrate many sought in voluntary slavery). I would guess, however, that this would have been of little interest to most Hebrew debt-slaves, since they had a time-release clause already, and since they would want the local community reinstatement process to come to closure--for reasons of community respect, status, and sense of self-worth.

And, since this clause is based on Israel's experience in Egypt, it probably resonated with the elders of communities, and therefore had a good chance of being honored.

"It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution"--a Great escape clause?

 

5.     References to slavery in later OT books.


The subsequent references to slavery, semi-slavery, and forced-labor situations all reflect (1) this non-western character of the arrangements; (2) Israelite tendency to abuse even the well-intentioned structures of Hebrew servanthood set up in the Law; and (3) a transitional framework that will carry over into the Greeco-Roman era.

A number of historical situations reflect this:

·        The Gibeonite deception of Joshua (Joshua 9).


This is the incident in which the people of the four towns in Canaan (Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. ) deceived Joshua and the Israelites into signing a peace-treaty with them, even though Israel was NOT supposed to do so. In retaliation for this deception, the Gibeonites were put to 'forced labor':

but all the leaders answered, "We have given them our oath by the LORD, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. 20 This is what we will do to them: We will let them live, so that wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them." 21 They continued, "Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers for the entire community." So the leaders' promise to them was kept. 22 Then Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said, "Why did you deceive us by saying, `We live a long way from you,' while actually you live near us? 23 You are now under a curse: You will never cease to serve as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." 24 They answered Joshua, "Your servants were clearly told how the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. 25 We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you." 26 So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. 27 That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the community and for the altar of the LORD at the place the LORD would choose. (Josh 9.18ff)

Now, the interesting thing about this is that these cities still maintained their individual status, as the next chapter in which Israel was politically 'forced' to defend them against a Canaanite war-alliance (chapter 10). They were apparently placed under this conscription/forced-labor arrangement, but this does not seem to be too abusive in the least.

What I personally find interesting about this, is that commentators often relate the 'curse' formula of Joshua in this passage to the antediluvian curse of Noah on Canaan:

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." 26 He also said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. 27 May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave." (Gen 9.24ff)

This curious passage is never referred to later in the bible, unless the situations of the forced-labor of Joshua and later of Solomon (All the people left from the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these peoples were not Israelites), 21 that is, their descendants remaining in the land, whom the Israelites could not exterminate -- these Solomon conscripted for his slave labor force, as it is to this day. I Kngs 9.20-21) are oblique references to it.

IF this prophecy of Noah is fulfilled in the conscription arrangements of Joshua and Solomon, then the 'target' of the prophecy is a political arrangement and NOT a class structure (as is sometimes argued from the passage).
 
 

·        The anti-king warnings of Samuel.

But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do." 10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day." 19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. "No!" they said. "We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles." (I Sam 8.6ff)

In this warning speech by Samuel to the straying nation, he points out that the ruling elite will end up placing forced-labor and conscription services on the nation. Since this is meant to be a deterrent to the nation, it makes sense that it was seen quite negatively. In other words, forced-labor was NOT an acceptable state of affairs for the populace.
 
 

·        The runaway slaves of Shimei

But three years later, two of Shimei's slaves ran off to Achish son of Maacah, king of Gath, and Shimei was told, "Your slaves are in Gath." 40 At this, he saddled his donkey and went to Achish at Gath in search of his slaves. So Shimei went away and brought the slaves back from Gath. (I Kings 2.38-39)

This is the earliest passage that suggests that slaves (foreign?) were sometimes mistreated to the point of attempted escape. Since these slaves fled to the Philistine coast for protection, it might be reasonable to assume that they were NOT Hebrew servants. In any event, the main character of this story--the master Shimei-was not know for his wholesome attitudes and dealings anyway! (His abuse of King David is recorded in 2 Samuel 16.), rendering the use of this story as representative as unwarranted.

We have one other piece of data that tends to support this, however: the comment of Nabal concerning David:

When David's men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David's name. Then they waited. 10 Nabal answered David's servants, "Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. (I Sam 25.9)

Although, like the case of Shimei, Nabal is not know for his 'plain dealing' (!, cf. "His name was Nabal and his wife's name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband, a Calebite, was surly and mean in his dealings. "), such a statement only makes sense if the social context could be remotely characterized so. This MIGHT mean that a general abuse of the institution (although again it is unclear if this is the semi-servant role described in the law) was occurring in a higher incidence.
 
 

·        The forced enslavement of the widow's sons in the Divided Monarchy (2 Kings 4)

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves." (2 Kings 4.1)

This potential forced enslavement seems to run counter to most of the provisions for the widows in Israel, and as such would not be in the spirit of the Law in the least! (A similar situation occurs in Neh 5.5, where the Israelites are being economically forced to sell their sons and daughters to simply maintain their living and homestead.)
 
 

·        The attempted enslavement of 200,000 Judeans! (2 Chrn 28.8-15).

The Israelites took captive from their kinsmen two hundred thousand wives, sons and daughters. They also took a great deal of plunder, which they carried back to Samaria. 9 But a prophet of the LORD named Oded was there, and he went out to meet the army when it returned to Samaria. He said to them, "Because the LORD, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand. But you have slaughtered them in a rage that reaches to heaven. 10 And now you intend to make the men and women of Judah and Jerusalem your slaves. But aren't you also guilty of sins against the LORD your God? 11 Now listen to me! Send back your fellow countrymen you have taken as prisoners, for the LORD's fierce anger rests on you." 12 Then some of the leaders in Ephraim -- Azariah son of Jehohanan, Berekiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amasa son of Hadlai -- confronted those who were arriving from the war. 13 "You must not bring those prisoners here," they said, "or we will be guilty before the LORD. Do you intend to add to our sin and guilt? For our guilt is already great, and his fierce anger rests on Israel." 14 So the soldiers gave up the prisoners and plunder in the presence of the officials and all the assembly. 15 The men designated by name took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing balm. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow countrymen at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria.

In this passage we see a victorious Northern Kingdom of Israel taking "war captives" of the Southern Kindgom of Judah. The prophet speaks for God and specifically condemns the practice.

·        The abuse of the poor by the elite in the Southern Kingdom (Amos)

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, 5 saying, "When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?" -- skimping the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, 6 buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. (Amos 8.4ff)

One can see here that the ruling elite had begun to exploit and abuse the poor--just another example of how we tend to take acceptable structures and exploit them for selfish ends. No exception here. The fact that the prophets consistently rebuke these oppressive practices should indicate that God NEVER intended them for His people at all!
 
 

·        The Fiasco of Jeremiah 34!


This is one of the saddest stories in the bible--a story of hope and freedom, dashed by the greed of men.

The word came to Jeremiah from the LORD after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. 9 Everyone was to free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Jew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. 12 Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 13 "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 14 `Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrew who has sold himself to you. After he has served you six years, you must let him go free.' Your fathers, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to his countrymen. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. 17 "Therefore, this is what the LORD says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom for your fellow countrymen. So I now proclaim `freedom' for you, declares the LORD -- `freedom' to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. (Jer 34)

This was the major point in the revival under Zedekiah (with the Babylonian army outside the door!), and illustrates both (1) God's intent for freedom and (2) Israel's failure to obey this FROM THE START. This incident was even solemnized by another covenant ceremony! Needless to say, God's response is quite clear in this passage, and his attitude toward permanent servitude is obvious.
 
 

·        The Post-Exilic Political Situation (Ezra, Neh)

9 Though we are slaves, our God has not deserted us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem. (Ez 9.9)

"But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress. (Neh 9.36-37)

In this case, the term 'slavery' is being used more loosely, as a national-political term. Israel as a group was under the authority of the Persian government. As a captive nation, they were subservient, but this certainly was a far cry from the individualistic, western-style slavery that we are discussing.

What is interesting is that this type of 'group captivity' has a distinct analogue in what Judea will have under the Roman government during NT times, as well as the situation in which the Church will find itself in the same timeframe.

In other words, Israel would not have been 'free' to FULLY practice the Mosaic law under Persian rule. Stipulations about land redemption, debt cancellation, sacrificial tithes, for example, would not be necessarily allowed by the ruling government (although Persia is generally noted for its tolerance of captive cultures). Similarly, in 1st century Judea, we have a Roman captive state, attempting to maintain a large degree of cultural independence, but still struggling with the invasive and often oppressive Roman restrictions. (The NT church will find itself 'captive' to this same Roman world, and will face similar constraints in practicing what it knows life in the New Creation will be like.)
 
 

·        The 'Status' associated with Servanthood.


In the OT, the 'status' associated with the role of servant was directly proportional to the status of the "master" (as it is today, in more traditional cultures). For example, the highest title of importance that could be given to a human by God was that of 'my servant'. It is given to Abraham (Gen 26.24), Moses (Num 12.7), Caleb (Num 14.24), David (2 Sam 3.18), Eliakim (Is 22.20), the Messiah (Is 42.1,et.al.), Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 25.9!), Zerubbabel (Hag 2.23), and the prophets (2 Kings 9.7; 17.13, et. al).

And, 'servant' could be used of virtually ANY subordinate (in the sense of authority) or anyone seeking something from a more powerful figure, as some of the following examples might indicate:

He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way -- now that you have come to your servant." (Gen 18, Abraham to YHWH)

Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. "Who are these with you?" he asked. Jacob answered, "They are the children God has graciously given your servant." (Gen 33, Jacob to his brother Esau)

Then Judah went up to him and said: "Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself. (Gen 44, Judah to his disguised and powerful younger brother Joseph)

"May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord," she said. "You have given me comfort and have spoken kindly to your servant -- though I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls." (Ruth 2, Ruth to Boaz)

Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief." (I Sam 1, Hannah to the priest Eli)

David said to Saul, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him." (I Sam 17, David to King Saul)

Ahimelech answered the king, "Who of all your servants is as loyal as David, the king's son-in-law, captain of your bodyguard and highly respected in your household? 15 Was that day the first time I inquired of God for him? Of course not! Let not the king accuse your servant or any of his father's family, for your servant knows nothing at all about this whole affair." (I Sam 22, a priest to king Saul)

Then David said to Achish, "If I have found favor in your eyes, let a place be assigned to me in one of the country towns, that I may live there. Why should your servant live in the royal city with you?" (I Sam 27, a fugitive David to a Philistine King)

Now there was a servant of Saul's household named Ziba. They called him to appear before David, and the king said to him, "Are you Ziba?" "Your servant," he replied. 3 The king asked, "Is there no one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God's kindness?" (2 Sam 9, Saul's servant Ziba to King David)

Absalom went to the king and said, "Your servant has had shearers come. Will the king and his officials please join me?" (2 Sam 13, Absalom to his father King David)

Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant." (2 Kings 5, Naaman the syrian military commander to Elisha the prophet).

Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, "I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me." 8 And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. 9 The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it. He deported its inhabitants to Kir and put Rezin to death. (2 Kings 16, the king of the Northern kingdom to the king of Assyria)
 
 

The point of these examples is to show that the term 'servant' could refer to kings, military leaders, patriarchs, priests, servants, and the general populace. In general parlance, it merely reflected a relative (and sometimes temporary) position of authority or influence.
 
 

·        Slavery as a 'judgment' on Tyre (Joel 3) There is one passage in which YHWH indicates his abhorrence of slave-trading, and actually uses it as a judgment on a nation (along the lines of 'what you reap, you sow' and 'eye for eye')

`Now what have you against me, O Tyre and Sidon and all you regions of Philistia? Are you repaying me for something I have done? If you are paying me back, I will swiftly and speedily return on your own heads what you have done. 5 For you took my silver and my gold and carried off my finest treasures to your temples. 6 You sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, that you might send them far from their homeland. 7 `See, I am going to rouse them out of the places to which you sold them, and I will return on your own heads what you have done. 8 I will sell your sons and daughters to the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, a nation far away.` The LORD has spoken. (Joel 3.4-8).

This passage shows the divine displeasure over foreign capture of Israelites for slave trade, and of the 'repay in kind' motif of judgment concerning those nations who mistreated Israel (cf. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; , Gen 12.3).

As such, it clearly shows God's displeasure toward forced servitude . (Unlike the Hebrews, the Phonenicans DID practice 'chattel slavery'.)

These sample passages from the OT should clearly indicate that God was NEVER in favor of 'chattel' slavery, and even instituted Hebrew semi-slavery as a concessive means to help the poor. His careful regulation of the institution (e.g. "forced" freedom at 6 years) shows how concerned He was about abuses. And the abuses DID surface in the nation of Israel, as the above situations indicate.

It might be instructive to remind the reader again of how different this is from New World Slavery. A generic, scholarly statement of this would be:

"Naturally there were the usual social distinctions, e.g., “master” and “servant,” but even servitude for the Hebrews was very different from the slavery elsewhere in the ancient Near East or from modern concepts of slavery". [ISBE, s.v. “Law in the OT”]

But a more vivid way of seeing this would be to contrast real Israeli/Hebrew possibilities with their analogies in New World slavery. Consider this statement of possible slave/master relations in OT Israel:

"In the absence of legal heirs, his master sometimes appointed him (a slave) as his successor (Gen 15:3). Where the master had only daughters, he could perpetuate his name by giving one of them to the slave and adopting him as a son (1 Chron 2:34; b.Pesahim 113a)."[OT:HLBT:115]

Now, take the phase "In the absence of legal heirs, his master sometimes appointed him as his successor". Try to visualize this scenario in light of what you think Old South slavery was like: is it even remotely conceivable that a wealthy, traditional Plantation owner--with a wife, daughters, brothers, but no sons--would take one of his slaves, write him into his Will, and bequest the entire plantation (and the future welfare of his remaining family!) to him?!! In the Old Testament, it happened; in the Old South--?

Try this one, too, of "Where the master had only daughters, he could perpetuate his name by giving one of them to the slave and adopting him as a son". Try to visualize that one: the wealthy, spotless, traditional Plantation owner -- with daughters but no sons--adopting one of the slaves as a son, and giving one of his daughters to the slave in marriage?!! In the Old Testament, it happened; in the Old South--?

No, it is entirely inappropriate and inaccurate to map the New World slavery 'social malignancy' onto the ANE servitude systems, and especially off-base to map it onto the biblical law codes, OT ethics, and the heart of Israel's God.

……………………………………………………

 

Summary: In the OT we have NO REASON to believe that God condoned chattel slavery, and indeed, we have substantial bodies of data and argument to support the contrary--that God desired the freedom of all men and women within the covenant community ruled by Him.
 

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Pushback: "Well, Glenn, I think I can agree that this system was certainly different/better than New World slavery, and in several areas, such a non-extradition policy, much better than ANE slavery, but that only means its comparatively better. It's good from a human standpoint, but you have to admit its not perfect-enough-to-be-from-a-god. I would expect a real God could have done much better, and precluded ANY type of slavery-dependency arrangements (or whatever you want to call it).

 

Well, this actually runs up against a philosophical problem known as 'supererogation'. It’s a common scenario one considers: "given some situation X, couldn't God have improved it incrementally by at least 1% more? And if He could and didn't, doesn’t this say something negative about God?" The supererogation problem arises in such an arguement when it becomes obvious that that statement may be too vacuous/vague to stand as an argument. For example, if X humans are good (in the biblical system), can't God improve the universe incrementally by making just one more person (one more instance of goodness), giving an even better X+1 persons? And then, if X+1 persons are good, couldn't He make X+2, etc, etc, etc…you see the problem? Some goodness-sets are not bounded in themselves but only by other constraints (e.g., resources to sustain population, overcrowding psychological problems). But, one might ask, why can't God also make the Earth bigger, and make the resources more abundant? He could, and then the infinite regress would continue--increase the population by 10% more, inflate the earth by 10% more, increase the natural resources by 10%…and on and on and on and on…

 

Philosophers know that such arguments are too questionable/slippery to work either positively (e.g., God, who already made a lot of people, could have made one more person but didn’t--therefore He is not really interested in maximum goodness), or negatively (e.g., God, who already prevents a lot of crime, could have prevented one more crime but didn't--therefore He is not really interested in minimizing evil). These arguments don’t work because they do not have a 'context' in which to bound the infinite regress.

 

Instead, discussions focus more on notions of 'constrained optimality' or 'best-of-all-possible-worlds". Such notions presume some given situation, with some given boundary principles. For a whimsical example, God could, upon each sale of a person into slavery, turn that person into a butterfly so they can fly off in freedom. Or, God could, upon each sale of a person into slavery, kill the purchaser with some horrible death (or turn them into a frog). But real-world discussions have to operate on the basis of the givens (e.g., poverty occurs, dependency is a familiar part of life--given the parenting process, some individuals have/retain more resources or skills than others), and then ask--"what is the best way to solve for all the simultaneous constraints?" One hopes that the solution is 'aimed high' (e.g., provision & protection for those who need it, escape and exit for those who need that, flexibility in the arrangements, emphasis on human worth in ALL "transactions" and resultant states, prescribed tenderness for clients and feedback mechanisms for the patrons, community benefits instead of corrosiveness because of the institution, etc), so that the inevitable failures of us humans will yield a 'net higher' result that we would have achieved shooting for something incrementally better.

 

So, its not that easy to say that what we have in the OT is NOT the 'perfect-enough' solution to the multiple-variable problem, because of the constraints of multiple value targets, and multiple levels of sensitivity of the human heart to others, and the different levels of selfishness and avarice in human society. If a solution set--again, given the situation of that history and the status of the participants--is (1) significantly better than all historical alternatives, and (2) still upholds ethical ideals which would clearly be present in any superior-enough-to-be-from-God  system, and (2) cannot be significantly improved by systemic changes (theoretically)--and these proposed improvements could be 'tested' to see what side-effects might be co-generated [the cure being worse than the disease, or ecosystem 'tweaking' which throws the system into a worse state], then one would have to come up with a real data-advancing argument (and not just a supposition--"SURELY a perfect God could improve it?") to make this into a real argument.

 

And, it is irrelevant to the objection/discussion here to argue that a perfect God would have made a different situation (as a way to preclude the problems addressed in the biblical servitude laws). To argue that God should not have allowed poverty, war, misfortune, locusts, predators, etc is an altogether different argument than our subject of slavery. As such, as much merit as that argument could have, and as much attention as it deserves (I have tons of pages on the Tank devoted to the various forms of that question), it is irrelevant to our question here: "given the situation/context, is OT slavery legislation below par for a good-hearted and omni-competent God?" Without (a) a clear description of what God should have done differently  in this given context, (b) a strong defense that this proposed set of operations is 'worthy of a deity', and (c) some evidence/argument that these alternative approaches would have not have produced worse problems somewhere in the overall system, then the argument that "God could have done better" is speculation at best, and meaningless at worse (under the supererogation problem).

………………………………………………………………..

 

Pushback: "We'll that's a lofty, Pollyanna view of the situation--the reality would have been quite different than this 'easy view' of slavery, Glenn. In spite of your arguments this situation would still have been true: Imagine a girl born to a gentile slave.  By Jewish law, she is never freed, may be raped at the master's whim until she becomes engaged (you didn’t even discuss the slave-rape law of Lev 19!!), may be beaten regularly as long as the master is careful around the head, and may be sold -- thereby shattering the slave family when it suits the master."
 
Well, let's look at your scenario and see how realistic it is, for the biblical world…

 

"imagine a girl born to a gentile slave": This could arise in two different circumstances: (1) the slave is a concubine of the 'owner' or the owner's son, which would make the girl free [but not in the official line of inheritance--remember the data about the difference between concubines and 'regular' wives]; or (2) the slave is a wife of another slave (male) in the household. In this latter case, the owner has all the financial, medical, legal, and training responsibility for the child indefinitely.

 

"By Jewish law, she is never freed": This is not actually true, on at least three counts: (1) she could, should the situation be intolerable, simply run away and seek asylum elsewhere in Israel (as HI:HANEL noted earlier, this essentially made this relationship 'voluntary'); (2) Jewish law only said that Israelites COULD maintain a master-slave relationship past the 7-year mark/Jubilee mark for non-Israelites--it did NOT say that it was automatic, necessary, free, expected, or 'standard'; and (3) there is simply no reason to believe that an owner could not "marry her off" into marriage-based freedom (just as the Hebrew fathers did), should times get hard or it make overall sense to do so. It is simply unwarranted to state that 'she is never freed'. They might always seek the shelter and security of such a household,  but there are no restrictions in Jewish law upon freeing ANYONE. The only restrictions extant are that Jewish servants MUST BE freed periodically. There are no statements mandating 'perpetual Gentile slavery' at all!

 

"may be raped at the master's whim until she becomes engaged": I can see how this might have been done under New World slavery, but this is a serious misunderstanding of the social realities of the ANE/Biblical world, on several counts. (1) If this girl were EVER to be engaged to someone, her virginity had to be demonstrable! If the owner EVER wanted to the 'free of the economic responsibility' for her--for good reasons or greedy reasons-- he had better protect her virginity flawlessly. (2) There were HUGE marital complications between regular wives and concubines--and not just about inheritance! The rivalries described in the bible between Rachel and Leah, the prohibitions about marrying a woman and her sister, the problems between Sarah and Hagar, and the rivalry/taunting of Hannah all illustrate the realities of inter-family conflict over sexual 'exclusivity' and/or 'preference' of one wife over/by the husband. This provides a strong argument against some 'accepted practice' of sex between a male owner and a girl slave (assuming the master was married). (3) one of the earliest points of visibility into this possibility gives us indication that the practice was quite the opposite: Sarah had to 'give' the Egyptian servant Hagar to Abraham, before he could have sex with her (Similarly with Rachel and Leah's female servants)--if the 'master' could have raped all he wanted, this recorded practice makes no real sense; (4) Households struggled to survive in that world--everybody had to pull together. There was simply not much room for animosity, subterfuge, abuse, and/or 'sabotage'. Ancient, small, households simply did not have enough "excess resources" with which to make up for the "lost productivity" which historically has been entailed in slave-abuse. (5)  Societies (especially many ancient ones) have strong honor/shame value structures, and the culture orients almost everything in support of those structures. Honor is good; shame is bad--and both exists on spectra. This is true in the biblical world, as well as in the ANE. Rape was considered a crime throughout the ANE, which varied in consequences from capital punishment (e.g, stoning an adulterer), vicarious punishment (not in the bible, but elsewhere in the ANE a man who raped someone else's wife had to give HIS wife to the offended husband for HIM to rape/abuse!!!), down to simple fines and religious requirements. But in all cases it was seen as 'shameful' and NOT as something "neutral" and especially not something "honorable". Even without some explicit penalty in the law codes, even "small" instances of sexual violation would have been (a) easily known!; and (b) a source of lowered honor-status for the perp. The way that social values exist on spectral lines (and not simply "yes" and "no" bifurcations) argues that some shame was attached to even 'smaller', less community-destructive acts such as slave-rape.

 

This latter point, btw, can be seen in the ethical literature of pre-NT Israel. Good treatment of servants is listed by Job in 31.13ff as one of his "good points" (illustrating the honor attached to righteous treatment of servants): "

 

If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves, when they brought a complaint against me;

14 what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?

15 Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb?

 

Hartley notes:

 

"Job contends that he has treated his slaves fairly and kindly. He insists that he has never refused to listen to a just complaint from either his male or his female slaves, including a complaint against himself. He has accepted the responsibility of treating his slaves justly as a God-given obligation, convinced that in the time of judgment God, either as a judge or a witness, will rise (qum) to their defense…" [NICOTT, in loc.]

 

Later ethical writers hold this same point:

 

"Ethical writings of the period view this sexual exploitation of a defenseless maidservant as a lurking danger. In his essay on women to be avoided, Ben Sira warns: "(Take heed, sons, … and be warned against) having any relations with your maidservant." (41.22). Hillel supposedly said, 'the more maidservants, the more lewdness,' (mAbot 2.7). And a parable tells of 'a royal prince who sinned with a s slave-girl, and the king on learning of it expelled him from courth' (Gen R. 15.7, p. 140 ed Theodor-Albeck); thus the prince's action was disapproved of not only by his father but the authors of the source."  [WS:JWGRP, 206]

 

The Sirach passage is very clear: "(Be ashamed…) of meddling with his servant-girl--and do not approach her bed" [NRSV]
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Now, let me interject a practical/cynical note about 'ethics':

Ethics has a social 'coercion' mechanism surrounding it. That is, if I disregard the 'ethics', then someone (the violated) might "de-ethics" me back! In the ANE, this was KNOWN to apply in 'slave relations'. A thousand years before our Mosaic law, ANE literature warned others about sex-with-slaves! So, in the Advice from a Father to His Son, the text advises thus: "Do not have sexual intercourse with your slave girl, she will call you 'Traitor'" [OT:RIAM:113, Bottero]. The point is clear: the slave girl has the reprisal weapon of falsely accusing the master of rebellion against the magistrate! Who else could know what is really going on inside the household, eh?! [This factor becomes VERY powerful in Roman times, and has always been powerful under paranoid rulers.] This is yet another 'contraint' on owner/master behavior. Okay, back to the more 'high moral' considerations...
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And (6) The case of children is even more strictly dealt with in the ANE law codes ["Intercourse with a married woman is deemed rape when she has offered firm resistance (MAL A 12). By contrast, any form of physical or psychological violence amounts to rape when the victim is a child (MAL A 55)." HI:HANEL:556]…thus, this assumption of 'rape-at-will' is unfounded (in the culture under discussion) and even contra-indicated by numerous and clear data points.

 

(you didn’t even discuss the slave-rape law of Lev 19!!) Well, that's because either (a) it supports my view; (b) is too unclear to really comment on the issue; or (c) doesn’t deal with rape at all…"to wit":

 

Here is the passage in the NASV: "Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed, nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment; they shall not, however, be put to death, because she was not free. 21 And he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord to the doorway of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. 22 The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him."

 

1. It might not even be talking about rape at all (but seduction instead):

 

"The ANE laws, as pointed out above, do not have a parallel case to Lev 19:20–22 dealing with adultery with a consenting slave wife" [ABD, s.v. "Crimes"]

 

2. It might be including the owner in the guilty parties, and since the crime was one of 'lowering' the girl's desirability, this principle would apply long before she was betrothed:

 

 "The law also is ambiguous as to who slept with the slave, the owner or another, and may include all circumstances." [HI:HANEL:1005]

 

3. The absence of death penalty 'because she was a slave' is NOT due to her 'servile' status, but to her non-married status (the capital crime version only applied to fully/legally married people--until the deal was done, she was still under the economic rubric of the owner):

 

 "The present case concerns a slave woman who is about to be set free so that she can be married. The prospective husband had not yet 'redeemed' her, that is, purchased her freedom from her master; and the latter has not liberated her of his own accord. If at this point she has sex relations with another man, neither of them is subject to the death penalty for she is still a slave and therefore not legally married." [A Modern Commentary on the Torah]

 

4. It's also unclear who gets the punishment money--the owner or the groom-to-be. If it’s the owner (most likely), the reason is for the continued financial support of  the now-no-longer-about-to-leave-in-marriage servant girl:

 

"Some legal background is required by way of explanation. The law of Exodus 21:7-11 allows a father to sell his preadolescent daughter as a slave to another Israelite. This was usually done out of extreme deprivation or indebtedness. When the slave girl reached marriageable age, her master were required to do one of three things: marry her himself, designate her as his son's wife, or allow her to be redeemed. This last option was interpreted to mean that the master could pledge the girl to another Israelite. Although Exodus 21:8 prohibits the master from selling the girl to a non-Israelite, it does no prohibit such arrangements as would involve another Israelite man. The latter would redeem the girl by a payment to her master and take her as his wife… The situation projected in our passage is as follows: An Israelite slave girl, here called shifhah, was pledged by her master to another Israelite man. The designation had already been made, but had not been finalized by payment to the girl's master or, possible, the man had not yet claimed his bride. Legally, the girl was still a slave and unmarried. If at this point, an outsider had carnal relations with her, he would have caused a loss to her master because, no longer a virgin, would be less desirable as a wife, and the prospective husband would undoubtedly cancel the proposed marriage… In parallel circumstances, Exodus 22:15-17 stipulates that one who seduced a free maiden who was not yet pledged as a wife had either to marry her himself or pay her father the equivalent of the marriage price (mohar). In our case, the option of marriage was ruled out because the girl had been pledged to another man--leaving only one way to deal with the situation. The man who had had carnal relations with the girl had to pay an indemnity to her master to compensate him for his loss. Presumably, since the marriage was called off, and the young woman rendered undesirable, the owner would have to continue maintaining her in his household… " [JPStorah]

 

5. We can also see, btw, the honor/shame principle at work here. Whoever raped this servant girl (including the owner, if the passage includes him) was seriously exposed to the public eye(!): there is a public inquiry by elders and 'significant peers'; there is a public monetary transaction done 'at court'; there is repudiation by the offended groom-to-be-and-family, and there is a public religious ceremony held in front of all for this sin!!! (This is NOT like 'telling your secret sins' to some priest in a confessional booth!). Besides the honor-loss, there are the more tangible losses of (a) the compensation/payment; and (b) the guilt offering [only a male sheep was allowed--a serious cost to the future of the flock, and therefore 'pension plan' for the perp].

 

So, there's nothing really 'embarrassing' about this verse--it falls more into 'marriage/family' law than into 'public crimes'

 

 

may be beaten regularly as long as the master is careful around the head: Not sure where this comes from. The 'eye and tooth' passages are considered by commentators to be representative of all 'body parts', just as the lex talionis ('eye for eye and tooth for tooth') is not considered to allow 'regular beatings of free Israelites, as long as you are careful around the head'!!!  And besides this, the passage we looked at above in detail about "if he gets up after a couple of days" in no way restricted the blows to the head area--so this 'being careful about the head' comment is off-base.

 

and may be sold -- thereby shattering the slave family when it suits the master: Again, this might have been relevant in New World slavery, in which the slave community was not intimately entwined in the household survival task, but in the ANE this was of limited applicability. You just couldn’t afford to alienate your one or two servants by doing such a thing--it would put everyone at jeopardy. When the girl was old enough, of course, she could be 'sold into marriage', but this isn’t normally considered 'shattering a family'--when a daughter leaves to get married. We know of fathers selling their own daughters and sons and wives (in the Bible and in the ANE)--shattering a family due to economic necessity--so I am not sure the situation is much different (or worse?) here with servants. One normally wouldn’t part with someone raised, trained, fed, cared for within a household, unless it were under dire circumstances. So, again, this has limited relevance to the culture in which we are discussing this.

 

So, all in all, I don’t really think the scenario in the pushback is any more 'realistic' than the ones I documented above. The pushback scenario is much more representative of New World Slavery, but it shows a basic lack of familiarity with both the social setting (and actually, even the Jewish law structures) dealing with ANE/biblical "slavery". The situation described in this article, rather, is documented well from ANE and biblical sources, so I stand by the accuracy and fairness of its representation.

 

At the end of the day, Israel was just not allowed to mis-treat ANYBODY:

 

 "Although slaves were viewed as the property of heads of households, the latter were not free to brutalize or abuse even non-Israelite members of the household. On the contrary, explicit prohibitions of the oppression/exploitation of slaves appear repeatedly in the Mosaic legislation.  In two most remarkable texts, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19, Yahweh charges all Israelites to love ('aheb) aliens (gerim) who reside in their midst, that is, the foreign members of their households, like they do themselves and to treat these outsiders with the same respect they show their ethnic countrymen. Like Exodus 22:20 (Eng. 21), in both texts Israel's memory of her own experience as slaves in Egypt should have provided motivation for compassionate treatment of her slaves. But Deuteronomy 10:18 adds that the Israelites were to look to Yahweh himself as the paradigm for treating the economically and socially vulnerable persons in their communities." [HI:MFBW:60]

 

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6.      The issue of 'slavery' in the NT/Apostolic world (esp. Paul) is in another location: www.Christian-thinktank.com/qnoslavent.html
 


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