Slavery in Ancient Israel – Part One
Slavery in Old Testament (OT) times was very complex and differed greatly from the chattel slavery practiced in the United States and elsewhere. A pitfall we modern observers must avoid is that of anachronistic thinking (i.e., reading today’s sensibilities into ancient cultures). Instead, we must take time to study the Scriptures to find out the “hows and whys” of the practice.
As I’ve indicated, this is a very complex issue. For example, the term “slave” (sometimes translated “servant”) is applied to a broad range of people in the Scriptures. Here are a few examples:
- The patriarchs, prophets, and kings of Israel are often referred to as slaves of God (Ex. 32:13; Lev 25:55; 1 Sam 3:9; Ezra 9:11)
- The people comprising Judah and Israel are called slaves of their kings (1 Sam 17:8; 29:3; 2 Sam 19:5; Gen 27:37; 32:4)
- The Hebrews refer to themselves as slaves when addressing Moses and the prophets (Num 32:25; 1 Sam 12:19)
- Christians are referred to as slaves of Christ (Eph. 6:6; Col. 3:22)
For a more detailed study of the issue of slavery in the Bible, I recommend the following resources from A Christian Thinktank:
In OT times, there were two broad groups of slaves: Hebrew slaves and foreign slaves. I think it’ll be helpful to take a high-level look at each group.
“Foreign” in this context refers to someone who is not Hebrew. There were two ways foreigners became slaves of the Hebrews:
- Their nation was conquered—When the Hebrews were going to lay siege to a people, they would first give them the opportunity to surrender. If they did, the people would become vassals of the Hebrews (Deut. 20:10–11); although the men were sometimes used as conscripts (2 Sam 20:24, I Kings 9.15), they were not slaves in the normal sense of the term. Instead, it was more like Jews being ruled over by the Romans (i.e., the Jews were vassals of Rome).
As an aside, Israel was not allowed to attack countries in lands that the Lord had not given them (i.e., outside of the Promised Land), unless they were first attacked (Duet. 2).
- They were sold—The Hebrews were allowed to buy (not take) slaves from pagan nations (Lev. 25:44–45).
Foreign slaves were well treated by the Hebrews, although without some of the rights enjoyed by Hebrew slaves (more about that later). Here are a few:
- They did not have to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:9).
- They were not to be injured severely or killed (Ex. 21:21-27).
Two notes regarding Ex. 21: In verse 21 the term “his property” is used; this indicates that a foreign slave is in view because the term would be inappropriate if applied to a Hebrew.
Notice that the slave’s rights are on par with those of the freemen; also consider Due. 25:1–3, 2 Sam. 7:14, and Prov. 13:24 where freemen are likewise punished with beatings. This indicates a level of humane treatment that was unheard of in other slave states.
- Runaway slaves were granted right-of-refuge and not allowed to be extradited back to their foreign owners; in addition, they were allowed to live in whatever town they wanted and were not to be oppressed, even though they were foreigners (Deut. 23:15-16).
- If the slave belonged to a priest, he could eat “the holy gift,” something that most Hebrews were not allowed to do (Lev. 22:11).
- The women could be taken as wives with the corresponding rights and privileges, including the right to freedom should she be divorced (Deut. 21:10–14).
- Reminding the Hebrews that they were once slaves, God commanded them to love their foreign slaves and to treat them fairly (Lev. 19:34–35; Deut. 10:19).
In the next post for this series well take a look at Hebrew slavery, so stay tuned for part two!