Deuteronomy's legal treatment of slavery is more humane than the parallel laws in Exodus, and more practical than those in Leviticus.
Compare this so the parallel text in Deuteronomy:
"If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
"But should he say to you, 'I do not want to leave you' for he loves you and your household and is happy with you--you shall take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity. When you do set him free, do not feel aggrieved; for in the six years he has given you double the service of a hired man. Moreover, the LORD and your God will bless you in all you do." (Deuteronomy 15:12-18)
The later, Deuteronomic text is more humane than that of Exodus; this is moral progress. I would now like to take this discussion a step farther. To the texts concerning slavery in Exodus and Deuteronomy, I will now add the laws of manumission in Leviticus 25:39-55.
Leviticus Goes Further
"If your kinsman under you continues in straits (lit. if your brother becomes poor) and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave. He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding. For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God."
"If your brother becomes poor" is the crucial clause. Even in early Israelite tribal society, "brother" was not only the son of your parent ("Am I my brother's keeper?" Genesis 4:8-9) but also a kinsman (Genesis 13:8; 14:14; 29:12 etc.). Just as an Israelite was obligated to protect, redeem, and avenge his brother, he also had these obligations to a kinsman (Exodus 2:11; Judges 14:3; Isaiah 65:20).
No Such Thing as an Israelite Slave
Here in Leviticus 25, however, the term "brother" means all Israelites. This is a breakthrough of earthshaking proportions. I am my brother's keeper and all Israelites are my brothers. If one of them falls into destitution, I must do everything I can to raise him out of his desperate straits.
No Israelite may become a slave. All Israelites are servants of God. God took the people out of the House of Bondage in Egypt to be free, not to be slaves. Just as the earth is the Lord's and is not ours to possess, so all Israelites belong to God and may not be possessed by other human beings, not by other Israelites and especially not by non-Israelites.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.