Does God Condone Slavery in the Old Testament? Part 4

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 3 of this series, we started to compare New World slavery to Old Testament (OT) slavery and we found that there were radical differences.  Let’s continue with the comparison.

The third characteristic of New World slavery has to do with the treatment of slaves.  From part 2 of the series, we know that “the treatment of slaves was harsh by modern standards, and punishments were extreme.”

What about OT slavery?  According to the Christian Thinktank, “The Law forbade harsh treatment, set stipulations for positive treatment, and set tight boundaries around punishment/abuse of servants.”

This difference is fleshed out in multiple ways by the Thinktank:

  1. “There are several general admonitions in the Law against harsh/abusive/oppressive behavior toward Hebrew servants” – see Lev. 25:43; Lev. 25:46; Lev. 25:53; Deut. 15:18.
  2. “In fact, the Law assumes that the situation may be lucrative enough for some servants to decide to stay with their masters for their lifetime” – see Ex. 21:5; Deut. 15:16
  3. “The general scholarly assessment is that this domestic ‘slavery’ was not very atrocious, went way beyond ‘property only’, and instead created family-like bonds.”
    1. Here is an example quoted from the book The Israelites : “However, domestic slavery was in all likelihood usually fairly tolerable. Slaves formed part of the family and males, if circumcised, could take part in the family Passover and other religious functions. Moreover, in general there were probably only a few in each household–there is no indication, for example, that large gangs of them were toiling in deplorable conditions to cultivate big estates, as in the later Roman world.”
  4. “Interestingly, when a servant was to be released at the Sabbath year (without payment of money!), the master was to send him out with gifts of material possessions!” – see Deut. 15:12-14
  5. “ALL servants were required to take the Sabbath day off–just like the masters. ” – see Ex. 20:9-10; Ex. 23:12; Deut. 5:13-15
  6. “Not only was abusive treatment of servants strictly forbidden, but the Law held masters very accountable!” – see Ex. 21:20; Ex. 21:26-27

The fourth characteristic of New World slavery is legal status.  Recall the following: “Slaves were considered ‘property’ in exclusion to their humanity. That is, to fire a bullet into a slave was like firing a bullet into a pumpkin, not like firing a bullet into a human. There were no legal or ethical demands upon owners as to how they treated their ‘property’. Other than with the occasional benevolent master, only economic value was a main deterrent to abusive treatment.”

What about OT slavery?  According to the Thinktank, “In keeping with the ‘variableness’ of notions of property in the [ancient near east] (as noted by historians and anthropologists), Israel’s notion of ‘property’ was a severely restricted one, and one that did NOT preclude the humanity of the servant nor absolve the master from legal accountability.”

A couple additional points must be made:

  1. Servants were never considered property in the sense of New World slaves.  Accordingly slave “‘property’ is therefore seen not as ‘owned disposable goods’ but as economic output (including labor)” – see Lev. 25:14-16; Ex. 21:18-19; Lev. 25:49-53
  2. Therefore, “as a ‘managed, but not owned’ human resource, servants were NOT thereby rendered ‘disposable, non-human goods’. They were still legal agents in the culture and their masters were legally accountable for how they were treated.”

Finally, the fifth characteristic of New World slavery was the fact of no exit.  “There were never any means of obtaining freedom stipulated in the arrangement. In the cases of an owner granting freedom, it was generally a ‘bare bones’ release–no property went with the freedman.”

What about OT slavery? “One of the more amazing things about Hebrew servant-status was how ‘easy’ it was to get free!”  Here are some things to consider from the Thinktank article:

  1. “Freedom could be bought by relatives” – see Lev 25:49
  2. “The servant could buy his own freedom, whether the master WANTED to let him go or not” – see Lev 25:49
  3. “Every 7th year (the Sabbath year), all servants were to automatically go free–without ANY payment of money to the master” – see Ex.21:2; Deut. 15:12
  4. “Minor injuries due to abusive treatment automatically resulted in immediate freedom (this is actually labeled as ‘to compensate’, implying rights/duties/debt)” – see Ex 21:26-27
  5. “When freedom was granted at the Sabbath year or Year of Jubilee, the master was obligated to send them out with liberal gifts–to allow them to occupy the land in sufficiency again” – see Deut 15:13

Wow!  If you’ve read all four posts, you must now understand that Hebrew “slavery” in the OT is absolutely nothing like New World slavery.  God’s primary purpose for this institution was to help the poor in Israel.  It was to provide a safety net for families that had landed on hard times and there were strict rules about how this poverty program was to be executed.  It is simply incorrect to charge that ancient Israel instituted the same kind of slavery that was found in the New World.

Since we’ve followed the Thinktank this far, let’s end this series with the Thinktank summary:

It should be QUITE CLEAR from the above, that the institution in the Mosaic law involving voluntary, fixed-term, flexible, and protected servant-laborer roles was unlike “western”, chattel labor in almost ALL RESPECTS. To label it as ‘slavery’, except in the most general/metaphorical sense of the word, is significantly inappropriate.