Ancient Israel: Slavery, Servanthood, and Social Welfare
This article corrects the common misconception that slavery/servanthood in the legal code of ancient Israel was comparable to the harsh slavery of other ancient cultures and the early United States. Rather, in ancient Israel the institution served as protection against poverty and included numerous safeguards against abuse. As well as a means of integrating the Caananites Isreal defeated and captured because of their sexual abuse and killing of children (Lev 18:21-30, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-10, Psalm 106:35-38, 2 Chron 28:3). Three main points:
- The Hebrew word עֶבֶד (ebed) can mean a slave, a servant, or even a highly ranked subordinate.[^ebed] Even a king's officials were called "slaves."[^Anchor-page-8246]
- Slave/servanthood was a safeguard against the destitution of poverty. Rather than face starvation, the poor could sell themselves as indentured servants to others. But the law was designed so that if all safeguards regarding social welfare were practiced, then poverty should not exist among ancient Israelites and this practice would be unnecessary (Deut 15:4).
- If every command of the Old Testament were followed, it becomes impossible for masters to treat Israelite or foreign servant-slaves inhumanely:
- Kidnapping people to be servant/slaves was punishable by death (Ex 21:16).
- "You shall not oppress a resident alien" (Ex 23:9), "You shall also love the stranger" (Deut 10:19), "you shall love the alien as yourself" (Lev 19:34), and "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).
- If a servant is released, masters were required to send them away with generous supplies (Deut 15:13-14).
- If they leave, they can go and live wherever they want and it's illegal to force them to return (Deut 23:15-16).
These points are explained in more detail below.
Perspectives of Critics
The moral and legal code for ancient Israel is found in the Old Testament. Some critics of Judaism and Christianity ignore the majority of this legal code in order to misrepresent what is actually commanded. For example:
Christopher HitchensJournalist and atheist[^hitchens-photo]
Sam HarrisNeuroscientist and atheist[^harris-photo]
Sam Harris is referring to verses like Exodus 21:20: "When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property."
Hebrew עֶבֶד (ebed) can mean a slave or a highly-ranked subordinate
The officials who reported to Pharaoh and influenced his decisions were called "slaves" of Pharaoh. So were the officials who had other slaves under them. This can be seen in the following excerpts from Exodus, among others. The words translated from Hebrew עֶבֶד (ebed) are bolded:
|Exodus 5:21||"You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials"|
|Exodus 7:10||"Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials"|
||"In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water"|
"Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried their slaves and livestock off to a secure place."
Here, the same word עֶבֶד (ebed) is translated as either "officials" or "slaves" depending on the context.
|Exodus 9:34||"Pharaoh... sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials."|
"the Lord said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart
of his officials'"
|Exodus 14:5||"When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh
and his officials were changed toward the people,
and they said, 'What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?'"
Yale's Anchor Bible Dictionary also affirms the multiple meanings of
Hebrew עֶבֶד (ebed):
The usual term for "slave" in Mesopotamia was wardum, which at the same time was used not only to designate an actual slave, but also dependence in the broad sense or servility, thus corresponding to Heb ebed, Aram abda, Old Pers bandaka, Gk doulos, etc. In the ANE [Ancient Near East], all subjects of the king including even highly placed officials, were regarded as slaves of the king.[^Anchor-page-8246]
Nature of Servitude in Ancient Israel
Laws to safeguard against poverty and prevent indentured servitude
In ancient Israel, indentured servitude was a consequence of poverty. If "any of your kin fall into difficulty... and sell themselves" (Lev 25:47.) However, many safeguards existed to prevent poverty from happening at all:
- Israelites were required to lend to their fellow countrymen in poverty, "If there is among you anyone in need... you should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.", otherwise "your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt." (Deut 15:7-9)
- When harvesting from the field extra food must be left for the poor: "you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest... you shall leave them for the poor and the alien" (Lev 19:9-10). This was an effective charity. In Ruth 2:7, Ruth requests "Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’" and in one day she was able to gather "about an ephah [21.14 liters] of barley." (2:17)
- Creditors could not charge interest, or keep vital supplies such as blankets during cold nights. (Ex 22:25-27)
- Workers were to be paid the same day of their service. (Lev 19:13)
- It was required that the poor not be ignored in complaints of oppression: "You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits." (Ex 23:6). "Defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Prov 31:9)
- Helping the poor was considered a means to know God: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord." (Jer 22:16)
- Blessings were promised to the generous: "Some give freely, yet grow all the richer;
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want" (Prov 11:24). "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full" (Prov 19:17). "Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse." (Prov 28:27)
- Anyone who injures someone else in a fight must compensate them for loss of time and provide care for them until they are healed. (Ex 21:19)
- Family members were to help each other repurchase their land if they fell into debt and lost it. (Lev 25:23-34)
- Women who became widows with no male heirs had the right to gain an heir by their husbands’ brothers, thereby securing a son to care for them in their old age. (Deut 25:5-10)
- God promised to kill by the sword anyone who hurt widows or orphans. (Ex 22:22-24)
- Foreigners, orphans, and widows were given a tenth of the annual produce once every three years. (Deut 14:28)
- The year of jubilee (once every 50 years) was a comprehensive program of debt cancellation and the complete restoration of each family’s ancestral property, which granted the poor a fresh start. (Lev 25:8-22)
Israel was told that if these failsafes were followed, "There will... be no one in need among you" (Deut 15:4). Without poverty there was no need for the destitute to sell themselves into slavery. Later, God casts judgment on Israel for their failure to care for the poor:
- Amos 2:6-7: Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way"
Laws to protect foreigners
- "You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Ex 23:9). " You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns." (Deut 24:14)
- "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself" (Lev 19:34). " You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deut 10:19)
- Judges were required to give equal treatment to foreigners: "Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien" (Deut 1:16). "You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen." (Lev 24:22)
- Part of the harvest each year was to be left in the fields for foreigners to collect for themselves: "you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien" (Lev 23:22).
- Foreigners, orphans, and widows were given a tenth of the annual produce once every three years. (Deut 14:28)
- Foreigners were legally allowed to own Israelites as servants. (Lev 25:47)
Laws to protect Israelite servants
- "If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit... You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God." (Lev 25:35-43)
- Lifelong servitude of Israelites was forbidden. They must be released after 7 years without debt and their family units must be maintained unless the servant agreed to do otherwise. (Ex 21:2-5, Deut 15:12, Lev 25:40-41, Jer 34:14)
- When they failed to release Israelites after 7 years, the Lord promised them "to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth." And "Their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth." (Jer 34:17-20)
- Capturing Israelites to be slaves during civil war was forbidden (2 Chron 28:10-11)
- After releasing a servant, they must be sent away with generous supplies. (Deut 15:13-14)
- If a servant declared "he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you" (Deut 15:16-17) he can chose to stay for life, presumably to allow elderly or injured servants security in their old age.
Laws to protect both foreign and Israelite servants
- Servant/slaves were required to have a day off once a week on the Sabbath. (Ex 23:12, Deut 5:14)
- If they pack their bags and leave they can go and live wherever they want: "Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them." (Deut 23:15-16)
- Servant/slaves were not to be slandered (Prov 30:10).
- Kidnapping people to be servant/slaves was punishable by death (Ex 21:16).
- Any servant/slave who received a permanent injury was to be freed (Ex 21:26-27). Any masters who killed a servant/slave was to be punished (Ex 21:20), presumably in the way of Ex 21:12, "Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death".
- It was a sin for a master to sleep with a female servant who was pledged to someone else. He must pay her compensation but she is not considered guilty (Lev 19:20-21). Israelite Sexual relations foreigners who followed other gods was forbidden outright (Num 25:1, 5) unless they married them (Deut 21:10-15).
- Children of foreign servant/slaves may have become part of the nation of Israel and fell under the native Israelite laws, since heritage seemed to be determined by the household you were born in (Gen 17:12-13, Lev. 22:11).
- Servant/slaves could likely own property (2 Sam 16:4).
- Servant/slaves could inherit their master's household if there was no other heir (Gen 15:3) and perhaps even if they are more worthy than the true heirs (Prov 17:2).
However, foreigner servant/slaves were not released after 7 years (Lev 25:46, Joshua 9:27). But as mentioned, Deut 23:15-16 allowed for them to run away and settle wherever they chose.
General commands against injustice and oppression
- "Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." (Prov 31:9)
- "learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:17)
- "Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place." (Jeremiah 22:3)
- "The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding." (Prov 29:7)
Servitude in Ancient Israel was unlike early U.S. chattel slavery
Not the same as slavery in Ancient Israel
In 1853, the well-known abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote:
The legal power of the master amounts to an absolute despotism over body and soul, and there is no protection for the slave’s life or limb, his family relations, his conscious, nay more, his eternal interests.[^Stowe-1853]
Likewise, Yale's Anchor Bible Dictionary helps tells us the word translated as "slave" had a much broader definition than the word we use today:
The usual term for "slave" in Mesopotamia was wardum, which at the same time was used not only to designate an actual slave but also dependence in the broad sense or servility, thus corresponding to Heb ebed, Aram abda, Old Pers bandaka, Gk doulos, etc. In the ANE [Ancient Near East], all the subjects of the king, including even highly placed officials, were regarded as slaves of the king.[^Anchor-page-8246]
Passages such as Deuteronomy 15:16-17 support the view that (if all regulations were followed) servant/slavery in the Old Testament could serve the best interest of the servant/slave, presumably by providing security and economic well-being:
But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. You shall do the same with regard to your female slave.
Consider how different slavery would have been in the early United States even if only a small number of the Old Testament regulations were kept:
- Servant/slaves go free if they suffer permanent injuries. (Ex 21:26-27)
- Kidnapping people to be servant/slaves was punishable by death. (Ex 21:16). But slavery in the U.S. south started from kidnapping.
- If a servant/slave ran away, they would not have to return and could live anywhere they chose. (Deut 23:15)
- If slavery were not based on race but instead was a means to avoid destitution in poverty.
In the early U. S. it was Christians who fought hardest for emancipation.
Non-Christian historian Robert Kenny wrote:
Having for most of my life believed that our acceptance of equality—racial, class, gender—was the result of the overthrow of past superstitions and prejudice by reason, I was perplexed: why had the fight against slavery, and the concern for aboriginal peoples, been so overwhelmingly the province of religious? ... Hume, Voltaire, and Kant saw the African—the non-European, generally—as beyond the category of human to which the European belonged; race concerned them (particularly Kant) only to the extent that it could show the superiority of the European. It was not the philosophies of Paris or Edinburgh or East Prussia who fought slavery, but the evangelical Christians and Quakers who drew their inspiration not from philosophy but from 'superstitious religion'. It was from the Evangelical Revival that the loudest claims for what we now call racial equality came.[^Kenny-2008]
Servitude in Ancient Israel was far better than other ancient Near East civilizations
This is not to argue that being relatively better than other ANE civilizations is a justification for slavery/servanthood in the Old Testament in itself. See the arguments above for that.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary:
We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters... In contrast to many ancient doctrines, the Hebrew law was relatively mild toward the slaves and recognized them as human beings subject to defense from intolerable acts, although not to the same extent as free persons.[^Anchor-page-8255]
Historian Paul Johnson:
These dreadful laws [of Hammurabi] are notable for the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, which sprang from it.[^Johnson-2003]
Christian theologian Robin A Perry wrote in 2004:
Consider the centrality of property offences in the Laws of Hammurabi. Despite the fact that the laws in the "Book of the Covenant" are very similar to these laws, they clearly regard crimes against the person as far more serious than property offences.[^Perry-2004]
Old Testament ethicist Christopher Wright wrote in 2013:
Three Old Testament civil laws are quite unparalleled in any other ancient Near Eastern code. Exodus 21:20-21 and 21:26-27 take up the case of slaves injured or killed by their own masters, and Deuteronomy 23:15-16 grants asylum to a runaway slave. No other ancient near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply.[^Wright-2013]
Objection 1: "Exodus 21:7-11 allows selling daughters into sexual slavery"
Does this passage say that "every man is free to sell his daughter into sexual slavery" as Sam Harris argues?[^Harris-2006-page-14] Exodus 21:7-11:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.
Is this prostutution or an agreement of servitute/arranged marriage? Prostitution was forbidden by Lev 19:29, "Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, that the land not become prostituted and full of depravity." The word for prostitute is Hebrew האבת, (zanah) which is defined as "to commit fornication, be a harlot, play the harlot".[^zanah] However the word for "slave" in Exodus 21:7 is Hebrew אָמָה (’amah) which refers to a female handmaid who could become a concubine or wife.[^amah] "If he designates her for his son" indicates this was an arranged marriage, and the financial circumstances of a man selling his daughter suggest this was a plan to get the daughter into a better lifestyle than the poverty of her parents.
Most importantly, verse 11 says she's free to leave if she's not adequately cared for.
Objection 2: "Exodus 21:20-21 allows physically abusing slaves"
Does this give a master free reign to beat his servant as much as he wants so long as he doesn't kill him?
When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.
Critics often claim this verse gives slave/servant-masters the right to unjust physical abuse. But if every command in the Old Testament is followed, it's impossible to treat a servant-slave (Hebrew uses the same word for both) in an inhumane way. Imagine two contexts in which Exodus 21:20-21 can be taken:
- Interpretation 1: Israelites used it as a license for physical abuse against their servant/slaves, for any reason at all, up to but not including death.
- Interpretation 2: It was a regulation governing physical punishment in response to crimes, possibly such as theft, assault, or attempted child sacrifice (popular among the foreigners taken as servant/slaves, Lev 18:21, Deut 12:31).
Acting in terms of the first interpretation violates many other commands in the Old Testament:
- "You must not oppress a foreigner" Ex 23:9
- "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18)
- "The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself." (Lev 19:34)
- "you must love the resident foreigner." (Deut 10:19)
- "Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow!" (Isaiah 1:17)
And many more above. Therefore since interpretation #1 is contradictory, it cannot be correct and we should prefer interpretation #2. Otherwise it must be argued that beating a servant/slave without just cause is still loving him (Lev 19:34,38), promoting justice, and fighting oppression (Ex 23:8, Isaiah 1:17)!
A Hypothetical Scenario
The nations of Canaan had carried out incest with children/grandchildren and performed child sacrifice by fire (Lev 18:6-30, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-10, Psalm 106:35-38, 2 Chron 28:3). Israel was commanded to fight against them and take them as servant/slaves to end these atrocities (Lev 25:44). Suppose a captured Canaanite was found about to throw his infant daughter into a raging fire as a sacrifice to Molech. With no prison system in place, physical beating seems more than appropriate to deter such heinous acts from ever happening again.
Finally, if the punishment causes any permanent bodily damage, the servant is free to go with any debt erased (Ex 21:26-27). Any master who killed a servant/slave were to be punished (Ex 21:20), presumably in the way of Ex 21:12, "Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death." A master that beat a servant/slave within an inch of his life was within an inch of his own life as well.
If discipline was too harsh the servant/slave could simply run away, live wherever they chose, and it was illegal to make them go back: "Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them. They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them." (Deut 23:15-16)
Objection 3: "Leviticus 25:44-46 allows perpetual slaves"
As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.
The nations of Canaan had carried out incest with children/grandchildren and performed child sacrifice by fire (Lev 18:21-30, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-10, Psalm 106:35-38). Removing the children from these situations was a moral imperative. Commands like Lev 19:34 guarded against wrongdoing: "The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself".
As mentioned before, Deut 23:15-16 commands that if these were violated, the slave/servant can simply run away, live wherever they chose, and it was illegal to make them go back. But doesn't "you may enslave them perpetually" contradict this? In terms of a contract, marriage is intended to last until death. But there are still regulations for what should happen if that contract fails, and this interpretation of the "escape clause" seems the most parsimonious in resolving these two commands.
Objection 4: Numbers 31
This objection is addressed in the Warfare and Conquest article.
Objection 5: "Slavery is morally wrong in any circumstance"
Given that Hebrew עֶבֶד (ebed) can mean a subordinate of any priveledge, and that the other Old Testament comamnds make it impossible for masters to treat Israelite or foreign servant-slaves inhumanely, it makes it not only difficult, but ethnocentric to equate it with the modern English connotation of slavery.
Moreso, this objection itself is misguided because it assumes morality can be objectively defined apart from God. Suppose we are the product of evolution alone, and evolution programmed our minds to think that rape and murder were moral acts. We would then condemn the Old Testament for its rejection of them. Perhaps evolution even produced such a conviction very strongly. But God does not exist, there is no objective means to define in which morality we are intended to operate. And one viewof morality is no more right or wrong than any other. Wll morality woudl be no more than personal preference.
But if God designed us for a particular purpose, then morality is merely what God intends for us to do. Since it is a contradiction to freely violate ones own intentions, it is impossible for God intentions (as described in the Old Testament law) to be immoral.
- [^painting]:Brown, Jeff. "Ancient Mesopotamia." Painting also avialable for purchase at Fine Art America. Used with permission from Rodrigo Garcia Carmona and The Gates of Ishtar RPG project. Some aspects may be anachronistic for Ancient Israel.
- [^ebed]:"H5650 - `ebed - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (RSV)." Blue Letter
Also see the listing of word uses at the bottom.
- [^Anchor-page-8246]:"Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 6". Yale University Press,
From page 8246: "The usual term for 'slave' in Mesopotamia was wardum, which at the same time was used not only to designate an actual slave but also adependence inthe broad sense or servility, thus corresponding to Heb ebed, Aram abda, Old Pers bankada, Gk doulos, etc. In the ANE, all the subjects of the king, including even highly placed officials, were regarded as slaves of the king."
- [^harris-photo]:Photo of Sam Harris from Wikimedia Commons.
- [^Harris-2006-page-14]:Harris, Sam. "Letter to a Christian Nation." 2006. Page 14. Mirrors:. Local Screenshot
- [^Harris-2006-page-18]:Harris, Sam. "Letter to a Christian Nation." 2006. Page 18. Mirrors:. Local Screenshot
- [^hitchens-photo]:Photo of Christopher Hitchens from Wikimedia Commons.
- [^Hitchens-2008]:Hitchens, Christopher. "God is Not Great." 2008. Page 102. Mirrors:. Local Screenshot
- [^amah]:"H0519 - 'amah - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (RSV)." Blue Letter Bible, 2016.
- [^zanah]:"H5650 - zanah - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (RSV)." Blue Letter Bible, 2016.
- [^Stowe-1853]:Stowe, Harriet Beecher. "A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin." 1853. Page 39. This book was published to document the veracity of the depiction of slavery in Stowe's 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin
- [^Anchor-page-8255]:"Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 6". Yale University Press. 1992. Pages 8255-8256 Mirrors:. Local screenshots of pages 8255 and 8256
- [^Kenny-2008]:Kenny, Robert. "The Lamb Enters the Dreaming." 2008. Page 74.
- [^Johnson-2003]:Johnson, Paul. "Art: A New History." 2003. Page 33. Mirrors:. Local Screenshot
- [^Perry-2004]:Perry, Robin A. "Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics." 2004. Page 68.
- [^Wright-2013]:Wright, Christopher. "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God." 2013. Page 292. Mirrors:. Local Screenshot