Deuteronomy's legal treatment of slavery is more humane than the parallel laws in Exodus, and more practical than those in Leviticus.
In modern times, the word "slavery" means only one thing: the ownership of one human being by another. In the biblical world, there were two types of slavery; one was this permanent, outright ownership (of foreign captives, for example). But the type of "slavery" to which most biblical law applies is really a type of indentured servitude, whereby an Israelite is for a time a "slave" to another Israelite, usually because he has become impoverished and has no other option. An Israelite him- or herself could choose permanent slavery after a period of indentured servitude, though this was discouraged. An Israelite, in biblical law, is guaranteed certain rights both while a slave and upon manumission.
While rabbinic tradition harmonizes the differences between the various biblical laws on slavery, the author of this article views them independently, in conversation with each other, demonstrating biblical Israel's ongoing struggle with the plight of the poor. The following article is excerpted with permission from Conservative Judaism, volume 51, no. 3, Spring 1999.
Exodus on Slavery
"When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.
"But if the slave declares, 'I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,' his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.
"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her.
"And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.
"When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other's property." (Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21).