f The Wittenberg Door: Slavery in Ancient Israel – Part Two

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Slavery in Ancient Israel – Part Two

In Part 1 we learned how foreigners became slaves and how they were treated. In this post we'll take a look at Hebrew slaves. A few things to note regarding Hebrew slavery:

  • The slaves were treated differently (better) than foreign slaves. Reason being, the Hebrews were God's people. Like a king who favors his children over his subjects, so God favors His children over pagans.

  • It was a voluntary institution.

  • It was for the benefit of the slaves.

The Care of the Poor

Slavery was the last resort for the poor. Before the poor had to sell themselves into servitude, God made provisions for their care:

  • The people were to lend money to the poor (Deu. 15:7-8, 11).

    It's interesting to note that the reason for this law was not just to help the poor; it was also to help cultivate a generous heart in the giver and to help stave-off the love of money (Deu. 15:9).

  • Lenders were not to charge interest or sell the poor food for a profit (Lev. 25:36-37).

  • Borrowers were released from their debt every seven years (Deu. 15:1-2).

  • Farmers were to only reap their harvest for six years; the seventh they were to let the poor pick their food from it (Ex. 23:10).

  • Farmers were also not to cultivate the edges of their crop or pick-up fallen fruit so that the poor gather them and be feed (Lev. 19:9-10, 23:22; Deu. 24:19).

  • Every third year the tithe of the people was given to the poor (Deu. 14:28-29).

Hebrew Slavery Benefited the Slaves

When, despite the provisions discussed above, an Israelite found himself in dire straights, he still had recourse: voluntary slavery. This option allowed the poor to maintain not only their physical wellbeing, but also their dignity (i.e., they worked for what they received, instead of becoming a beggar). Listed below are a few other benefits to the slave:

  • The servitude was initiated by the slave and he was the one who received proceeds of the sale; he was also to be treated well and not like a slave, but as a hired worker or a temporary resident (Lev. 25:35-43).

    It should be noted that forced slavery was punishable by death (Ex. 21:16; Deu. 24:7).

  • They were released after six years of service (Deu. 15:12).

    The slave had the option of remaining in his masters house; however, this was completely voluntary. To ensure that the slave was not being coerced, he and his master would have to go before the judge prior to the slave becoming a lifetime servant (Ex. 21:5; Deu. 15:16).

  • When released, the slave was provided with goods so that he wouldn't be poor (Deu. 15:13-14).

In Part 3 we'll conclude with what is generally considered most troubling aspect of ancient Israel’s slavery: daughters being sold as slaves by their fathers.

--The Catechizer

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