Why was slavery allowed in the Old Testament?
Slavery in the Bible is a difficult topic to broach because our paradigm is both horrific and largely unrelated to slavery in the Bible. Slaves in our time and in recent centuries are "chattel" slaves. They were tricked into or forced to work. They received no pay and had no right to refuse to work. Their humanity was owned by another person.
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Slavery in the Old Testament was very different and involved a variety of methods, situations, and restrictions. But the Old Testament is clear about capturing people and selling them as chattel: kidnapping was a crime punishable by death (Exodus 21:16).
The Purpose of Slavery
In an ideal world, slavery would neither be an option nor a necessity. Because of the socioeconomic situation of Old Testament Israel, God did allow slavery, but He allowed it for a simple purpose: to help the poor survive. A person could sell himself into slavery (akin to indentured servitude) in order to pay off debt or provide a basic subsistence. God did not intend for Israel to have poverty (Deuteronomy 15:4), but sin made it inevitable (Deuteronomy 15:5), and God allowed slavery to deal with that reality.
God enacted several laws to prevent the need for slavery in the first place. Many of these laws are found in Deuteronomy 24:
- Verse 6: a piece of equipment used in the survival of a family may not be taken in pledge for a loan.
- Verses 12, 17: if a poor man gives his cloak in pledge, it must be returned at night so he won't be cold; a widow's cloak must not be taken in pledge at all.
- Verses 14-15: a poor hired man must receive his wages daily.
- Verses 19-21: when harvesting wheat, olives, or grapes, some must be left over for the poor to take for themselves.
Slavery was to be a last resort. Israel was to "remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there" (Deuteronomy 24:18).
Sometimes, circumstances were such that the laws requiring care for the poor were not enough. In ancient agrarian societies, it was often extremely difficult to provide for oneself and one's family. Many slaves in Old Testament Israel had sold themselves to prevent starvation; others had been sold by their family so the family wouldn't starve.
Types of Slaves
The Old Testament recognized different types of slaves depending on their circumstances. None of them correspond to modern chattel slaves.
The Old Testament Law gave the procedure for taking foreigners (Deuteronomy 20:10-11). When making war against a city, Israel was to first extend an offer of peace, in which the city's inhabitants could voluntarily bind themselves over as slaves to Israel. This was more like serfdom than slavery. Foreign women and children could be taken in war, but the women could also be taken as wives (Deuteronomy 21:10-13; Rahab—Matthew 1:5).
A poor man could sell himself to a richer man if there was famine and the poor man had no way to provide for himself. Or a debtor could sell himself to the one he owed money to. If the debtor owed money to several people, he could sell himself to a rich man who agreed to pay off the debts. Similarly, the head of a household could sell a family member in exchange for any of the above. Other arrangements were possible; Jacob sold himself to Laban for fourteen years to pay the bridal prices of Leah and Rachel. Some debt slaves were foreigners and lived under slightly different regulations if they were not proselytes (converted Jews).
When a girl was sold into slavery, it was usually to marry into the family when she came of age. A father might sell a daughter to benefit the family or to improve the girl's prospects—usually, the girl married into a higher socioeconomic class. Although abuses undoubtedly occurred, the intent was to improve the girl's future. Every girl in that culture faced an arranged marriage; if she was sold, she moved into her husband's house earlier than usual and was provided for long before her wedding.
Treatment of Slaves
The treatment God prescribed for slaves reflects His concern for the foreigner and the poor. In the case of debt slaves, foreign women, and girls, slaves lived with the family. They did domestic chores and sometimes held responsible, trusted positions (Genesis 24:2-4). Laws that, at first glance, seem to be abusive actually mirror civil law regarding free men.
- If either a free man (Exodus 21:18-19) or a slave (Exodus 21:20-21) is injured, the one who caused injury must provide care for the victim.
- If a man harms his slave's face, the slave is free (Exodus 21:26-27), a fair comparison to the injury of a free man (vs. 24-25).
- An ox who killed a free man (vs. 28) or a slave (vs. 32) was to be stoned—the punishment of a murderer.
Slavery and Religious Rites
Boxing Day was originally intended for servants of rich English land owners, so the servants, too, could celebrate Christmas. Slaves in Israel were not so segregated from the families they served; they celebrated with the family.
- Passover was to be celebrated by slaves if they were Jews or proselytes (Exodus 12:44).
- Observance of the Sabbath was for everyone—free, slave, hired, and foreigner. Everyone got a day of rest (Exodus 20:8-11).
- A slave privately owned by a priest could partake of the food given as an offering to the priest (Leviticus 22:11)—something a free hired man could not do.
- Servants were to celebrate the Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:11) and the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:14) with the family.
Opportunities for Freedom
One of the biggest differences between modern chattel slavery and Old Testament slavery was that no Israelite had to be a lifetime slave. Debt slavery always came with an expiration date.
- A Hebrew slave was to go free after six years (Exodus 21:2) with generous support (Deuteronomy 15:14).
- A Hebrew slave was to go free at the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:40).
- Any foreign slave who escaped to Israel was to be sheltered and not returned to slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
- Note, there is nothing in the Old Testament Law that prohibits an Israelite slave from running away. Slavery was advantageous for the poor, and, apparently, if they thought they could do better elsewhere, they could leave. If, however, the debt was not fulfilled, the slave could be apprehended and sold like any other debtor.
- Foreign slaves were not automatically released after six years; foreigners were not allowed to own land in Israel, and it would have been next to impossible for them to earn a living on their own; to release such slaves against their will may have been cruel.
Slaves and Family
Exodus 21:4-6 is a hard passage. If a man went into debt-bondage with a wife, he could take her with him when he left after his commitment was fulfilled. If his master gave him a wife, though, she had to stay behind if the slave/husband left. There are three scenarios that would make this law sensible:
- The slave's wife was an adult debt-slave who still owed time on her commitment (Deuteronomy 15:12).
- The slave's wife was bought as a girl with the intention of being married. In this case, the master had the role of her father, and a newly freed slave would need to provide a bride-price to claim his wife. The bride-price was often used as a reserve in case the husband divorced the wife, and she needed independent support. In providing a bride-price, the husband proved he was able to support a wife.
- The slave's "wife" was actually a concubine, perhaps a foreigner. A concubine was similar to a wife, but her children were not eligible for inheritance. The master may have given her as a concubine to provide more children for his household.
In any of these situations, a slave could agree to stay permanently in the arrangement. This would ensure he had the support of a wealthy family as well as being able to stay with his wife and family.
A girl sold to a family for the eventual purpose of being married into that family had different rights (Exodus 21:7-11), although, to modern eyes, they look like restrictions. She was not to go free because working to freedom was never the intent. Once she was married to either the master or his son, she was no longer a slave, but a member of the family—a daughter (vs. 9) or a wife (vs. 10). If the master rejected or divorced her (vs. 8, 11), she and her birth-family were forgiven the whole debt.
Leviticus 19:20-22 is puzzling. If a man has sex with a female slave who is engaged to someone else, they will be punished, but not killed. She is not married—the text says "she was not free," which implies that, since she is still a slave of her master's house, she had not yet married her betrothed.
Israelites vs. Foreigners
Leviticus 25:39-46 explains some of the differences between an Israelite slave and a foreign slave. An Israelite slave was to be treated as a cross between family and a hired man, not as a chattel slave. But Israel also had foreigners who had been taken in battle or who, like the Gibeonites, had chosen to become Israel's servants (Joshua 9). These slaves could be held permanently—could be, but it wasn't required. An Israelite who had to sell himself was to be treated respectfully and redeemed as quickly as possible (Leviticus 25:47-55).
Some people categorically condemn the Bible because it does not call for the universal abolition of slavery. What they don't understand are the cultural conditions that made slavery a sad necessity. Even so, this was not chattel slavery—masters did not "own" their slaves' humanity; they leased their work. Like divorce and polygamy, slavery was never in God's perfect plan. But, because of sin, for a time and place, slavery was permitted by God, with certain restrictions.
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