Slavery in the Law

Slavery was completely acceptable and even expected in the Old Testament Law. It even seems on the surface to be supported in the New Testament, too. When people tried to abolish slavery in the United States and in England (including Canada as a colony), defenders of the practice didn’t have any problem finding passages to support their view. And yet we pretty consistently today agree that slavery of any type is wrong. So along with the general look at how the vulnerable are protected in the Law, I want to specifically focus on slavery.

Ancient Near Eastern Slavery

First, let’s get a grasp of their context. Slavery in the Ancient Near East was not the same as slavery in the Southern United States, which is what we usually think of when we hear slavery. It was not the same as a lot of slavery that exists today. It definitely wasn’t good to be a slave, so don’t get me wrong there, but it isn’t quite what we jump to. It wasn’t about race where one race enslaved another, as in the British Empire and the United States, although when a nation conquered another they could enslave some of their people as spoils of war.

Map of modern-day human trafficking severity.

The primary reason to be enslaved was economic. If I owed somebody money, I could pay off my debt by working for them for a set amount of time. I remember growing up and going out to restaurants when my family would joke that if we couldn’t pay for the meal we’d have to do dishes to pay it off (we didn’t have a dishwasher so that meant by hand). That’s the general concept – if you don’t have money, you’d pay by labour – but for a longer period of time.

If we were to fast forward to the New Testament, this makes sense of some of the things that Jesus said. He tells one parable where a servant is forgiven his huge debt by his master but refuses to extend that same forgiveness to another servant who owed him money. They are servants because they owe money, so the forgiveness that the master showed the first servant was more than just a $0 on a debt statement – it was freedom from service. Jesus also teaches us to pray that our debts are forgiven as we forgive the debts of others. Some translations change this word from “debt” and we who are free tend to read it as an abstract concept, but in the strictest context it is asking for the removal of literal monetary debts that led to slavery.

The Texts

So what kind of things did God’s Law say in these slavery conditions?

2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he will serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he will go free without any payment. 3 If he came in single, he will leave single. If he came in married, then his wife will leave with him. 4 If his master gave him a wife and she bore him sons or daughters, the wife and her children will belong to her master. He will leave single. 5 However, if the slave clearly states, “I love my master, my wife, and my children, and I don’t want to go free,” 6 then his master will bring him before God. He will bring him to the door or the doorpost. There his master will pierce his ear with a pointed tool, and he will serve him as his slave for life.

7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free. 8 If she doesn’t please her master who chose her for himself, then her master must let her be bought back by her family. He has no right to sell her to a foreign people since he has treated her unfairly. 9 If he assigns her to his son, he must give her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he may not reduce her food, clothing, or marital rights. 11 If he doesn’t do these three things for her, she will go free without any payment, for no money. (Exodus 21:2-11 CEB)

Let’s recap from this text and others:

Male Hebrew slaves serve for 6 years maximum. You could argue that they should be called servants more than slaves, definitely not a good place to be but as family they were treated well enough to survive and be free in a few years. Maybe we could think of it more like prison than slavery.

Female slaves were more complicated. There seems to be some conflict on if or when female slaves are released. The difference is probably whether or not the master has had sex with her. If he has, he is obligated to take her as a wife and treat her as well as any other wives (in the culture, you could have as many wives as you could afford to take care of). In today’s Western culture we might read this and think that it is forcing a woman to marry her rapist, something we definitely would not condone, but we should think in contrast to other nations at the time where women were bought for sex and then discarded whenever the buyer had had enough. Yes, she is considered property, but this law guarantees that she continues to live and live a reasonably good life rather than being forced into prostitution or begging. If the master hasn’t had sex with her, she can return to her father who would still be able to find a husband for her.

Foreigners could be enslaved for a longer period of time (Lev 25:44-46), but they were also protected in some ways. There may be some conflict here as well. In the Old Testament, when they are commanded to love their neighbour (Lev 19:18), it meant fellow Israelites, but this is something that Jesus would expand (Luke 10:25-37). Only slightly less blatant than the command to love neighbours, though, is Leviticus 19:33-34:

When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (CEB)

It is not directly saying that foreign slaves would have the same protections as Hebrew slaves and there is no evidence I’m aware of that the Ancient Israelites read it that way, but if you have to treat them like one of your own citizens, it isn’t a stretch to conclude that they still had to be treated reasonably well (with no details of what that means).

Finally, sanctuary was provided to any escaped slaves (Deut 23:15):

Don’t return slaves to owners if they’ve escaped and come to you. (CEB)

Hospitality was a big deal in the Ancient Near East. This wouldn’t have meant a simple passive not turning them in while not helping them either. If somebody comes to you for help, you help them in real practical ways like food and a place to rest.

Why Not Abolish?

The obvious question is why God wouldn’t have just commanded the end of slavery entirely. This is God’s chance to set the Law on what righteous living looks like. So assuming that slavery is a bad thing, why would God settle for regulating it instead of abolishing it entirely? This goes back to the idea of the heart of the Law. As Jesus demonstrated with divorce, God sometimes sinks to our hard-hearted levels for what is realistic in our context instead of the ideal. It isn’t that God’s ideal changed, just that God works with the level that we are at. Now, we are past the age where slavery was simply assumed. There are extremely few people who would suggest that we need to take these laws literally by reimplementing (regulated) slavery. But we can look at this principle of dignity for all – regardless of income, race, gender or anything else – and work in ways that best encourage this dignity.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.