Slavery in the Bible

Deuteronomy's legal treatment of slavery is more humane than the parallel laws in Exodus, and more practical than those in Leviticus.

Mentions of slavery in Exodus: 

“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).

Deuteronomy: A More Humane Version

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.

Leviticus is very clear: There is no such thing as an Israelite slave.

Why These Differences?

Deuteronomy, it would seem, is more humane than Exodus but less humane than Leviticus. Deuteronomy, for instance, states that the owner should give provisions to the freed servant, whereas Exodus does not have anything about this. In Deuteronomy, however, there is such a thing as the permanent bondage of an Israelite. Deuteronomy does not seem to have the same anti-slavery ideal as Leviticus.

This is not the moral trajectory that we would prefer. We would rather have Deuteronomy, the later text, as the more abolitionist text.

[Biblical scholar] Sara Japhet shares our concern [in an article in Scripta Hierosolymitana Studies in Bible] that Deuteronomy seems to be a step backwards from Leviticus. She wonders “…what might have prompted Deuteronomy, with its emphasized humane tendencies, to retain permanent bondage.” Japhet explains that Deuteronomy is more realistic about life and society, that it takes “into account the exigencies of real life.”

[Another scholar] Jeffrey Tigay. makes the crucial point that while Exodus and Deuteronomy require the manumission of servants after six years of service, Leviticus only requires the release of slaves in the Jubilee, the 50th year. Why would Leviticus not have the system of seven-year cycles?

Leviticus seems to care less about the individual than the family. At the end of the 50 years, the family would go free. The descendants of the individual would benefit and would regain their property. Leviticus is concerned that the clan’s land should be returned to the clan. This is why a kinsman of the man in debt is allowed to buy the land earlier than the Jubilee.

From Tribal to National

In these texts, we see the move from tribal to national consciousness. The Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23 reflects a tribal society. Leviticus is still concerned about the family. By the time of Deuteronomy, the nation-state has replaced the family/clan/tribe as the key entity.

To review the outline of Israelite history: David and Solomon changed the tribal inheritances into federal districts, the northern tribes split into a second kingdom, many from those northern tribes were transplanted to Assyria. What was left, at least according to biblical history, was the kingdom of Judah.

What we need to understand in this context is that these events created a profound change that is reflected in the laws of Deuteronomy. This text asks: “Now that all Israelites are responsible for one another, now that we have seen our co-religionists and co-Israelites taken off to a foreign land, how will we respond? How will we keep the nation and the people intact and alive? How do we deal with the issue of slavery?”

Leviticus seems to be more humane than Deuteronomy, but in fact it is not. Following Tigay, Deuteronomy is the more humane text. The main issue is not status but time. Fifty years, to emphasize the obvious, is a very long time. If one becomes a slave at the beginning of the cycle as an adult, he would be a slave for the rest of his life. Six years as a hired laborer is manageable; 49 years is not.

Returning to Japhet’s appeal to Deuteronomy’s sense of reality, I will refer to the release of all slaves in 597. There was a brief emancipation of all slaves in this time of crisis. The Babylonians were at the gates. The slaves were released, apparently to help fight off the enemy. As soon as the crisis was over, the slaves were enslaved again. Jeremiah deplored these developments (Jeremiah 34).

This incident reflects the reality of slavery in the ancient world. Given this reality, given the human propensity to indebtedness, Leviticus looks like an impossible dream. Deuteronomy humanizes the Covenant Code (in Exodus) and works for significant reforms given the realities of its time.

Leviticus says that there is no such thing as an Israelite slave. Deuteronomy understands that there will be slaves and they must be treated well until they will be released. Combining the laws of the Covenant Code with the antipathy for the enslavement of an Israelite in Leviticus, Deuteronomy forged a compromise that was workable for its time.

Excerpted with permission from Conservative Judaism, volume 51:3, Spring 1999.


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