Biblical Studies Preview

Excursus: Slavery and the Law in Ancient Israel

All it takes is a quick scan through a few internet forums. In the midst of the shallow conversations against Christianity’s “bigoted” beliefs, one surely finds a re-occurring topic: if it’s not about how Christians are heretics for wearing wool with cotton, it’s about how we read a slavery-promoting Bible. How can Christians serve a loving God who advocates such horrid slavery like that found in the 1700-1800s?

Of all the problems that people have with the OT law, slavery ranks near the top (along with homosexuality and genocide). Yet, should both slaveries be counted equal? Was the OT slavery equally as horrible as that found in the 1700s? Or is our YouTube generation committing the fallacy of anachronism: when one takes a modern concept/definition and imports it into the word/concept of an earlier time.

This would be like painting a picture of Moses and giving him a wristwatch. Or thinking that when the man in Ruth 4.8 gave Boaz his shoe, he handed over some Nike Elites.

That’s anachronism.

What is Old Testament Slavery?


I’ve looked already at Frank Thielman and what he says about slavery in the NT, so I now turn my attention from the New to the Old Testament. In Exodus 21.1-11, the Laws on Servants, in Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus (NAC), Stuart provides the reader with a three page excursus titled “Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Israel.”

The various Hebrew terms translated… as ‘servant,’ ‘slave,’ ‘maidservant,’ occur more than a thousand times in the Old Testament…. Although the laws in Exod 21:1-11 address primarily the circumstances of six-year contract servants, they do not implicitly distinguish among categories of employees. The most common vocabulary word for the servant is ‘ebed, which can mean ‘worker,’ ’employee,’ ‘servant,’ pr ‘slave.’ Anyone in any of these categories come under the protection of Yahweh’s covenant law…. Similarly, the words translated ‘buy’ [21.2]… and ‘sell [21.7-8]… can refer to any financial transaction related to a contract (474).

In the Ancient Near East ([ANE] the time during much of the OT), as Stuart will go on to explain in his excursus, there were no corporations in this age. Pretty much “all industry…was ‘house’ or ‘cottage’ industry” (475). The business world was always family owned. The “financial transaction” that took place could be likened to that of a sports team. The players are not the property of the team/manager who owns them. The manager has the exclusive right to the employment of his players.

These “servants/slaves/workers/employees… signed” a six-year contract for their job. While they couldn’t expect 401(k)’s and retirement pension to comfort them in their old age, they could choose to serve longer than the required six years. In fact, they might actually like their boss and his family. This is quite different from slavery in the Western world.

In addition, some of the misunderstanding of biblical laws on service/slavery arises from the unconscious analogy to modern Western hemisphere slavery, which involved he stealing of people of a different race from the homelands, transporting them in chains to a new land, selling them to an owner who possessed them for life without obligation to any restrictions and who could resell them [to] someone else (although such did occur in the ancient world) [475]. 

Egypt vs. Israel

YHWH brought Israel out of the land of Egypt just a few months before. The memories of their forced slavery in Egypt were still fresh on their minds. The back-breaking work. Little pay (if even that). Little food. Whippings and beatings in the beating heat of the sun. Why would YHWH bring Israel out of bondage simply to put them under more bondage again?

The Egyptians made the Israelites slaves based on their ethnicity, forced them to serve as slaves for life, did not compensate them properly, if at all, and worked them unbearable hard as a means of keeping them weak and/or causing at least some to die under the burden of their slavery (1:9-14). 

Against this sort of historical experience, the Bible’s laws protect all sorts of workers, guaranteeing them the right to gain their freedom after a set period of time (21:1-4) as against the Egyptian practice of permanently enslaving Israel. Biblical law allowed service out of love rather than out of necessity (21:5-6) as opposed to involuntary service under oppressive masters in Egypt. Biblical law also gave immediate freedom to those who had in any way been physically abused (21:26-27) as opposed to the severe abuse the Egyptians had imposed on Israel.

Though there are many texts and issues left uncovered, here we can get an idea of the OT world and its context. Biblical slavery was not the slavery experienced in the 1800s. Here, people needed work. People went into debt. People needed to pay bills. They would work for a family for six years and be released, and they could choose to stay longer if they wanted.

But God’s Law was there not to completely overthrow the cultural system (the Law wasn’t written on iPads), but to shape the culture they lived in to God’s ideal. It gave the opportunity for each and every person to show that he loved the Lord with all of his heart, soul, strength, and mind, and his neighbour as himself.

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