Sunday, February 23, 2014

Debt and Slave Regulations (Leviticus 25)

The following quotes are taken from

"Slavery In The Bible - Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do.  Yet slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible clearly approves of slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves.

"Many Jews and Christians will try to ignore the moral problems of slavery by saying that these slaves were actually servants or indentured servants.  Many translations of the Bible use the word "servant", "bondservant", or "manservant" instead of "slave" to make the Bible seem less immoral than it really is.  While many slaves may have worked as household servants, that doesn't mean that they were not slaves who were bought, sold, and treated worse than livestock.

"The following passage shows that slaves are clearly property to be bought and sold like livestock."

"However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way."  (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

These verses are part of a larger passage concerning the Year of Jubilee and the treatment of slaves, both Israelite and foreigner.  You can read the entire chapter here:

            The first quote claims that the Bible approves of slavery.  This is not the case.  Though God allowed certain conditions to exist for a time period, such as polygamy and slavery, he did not approve of them.  There are no statements in the Bible that praise slavery or even command people to own slaves.  The references to slavery in the Bible are laws concerning how slaves were supposed to be treated. 
            The slavery of the Ancient Near East was different than the slavery in the world over the past few hundred years.  In Western culture over the past few centuries, particularly in the United States, slavery was primarily race-based, and people were kidnapped from their homes and forced into slavery against their will.  They received no monetary compensation for their services, and were often severely physically, verbally and emotionally abused by their owners.  The Bible most definitely condemns this type of slavery.  In the Law, anyone who kidnapped a person in order to sell them into slavery was sentenced to death (Exodus 21:16).  Slavery based on race alone was also discouraged; the Hebrews were made slaves in Egypt simply because of their race, and God was concerned about the way they were being oppressed (Exodus 2:23-25).
            The second quote is also incorrect - In the Ancient Near East, the class system was very different from most cultures today.  Many people, when becoming poor, destitute, or overly in debt, would have to sell themselves and their children into slavery in order to survive [1][2][3].  With this in mind, part of the Law concerned the fair treatment of slaves.  For example, a Hebrew who sold himself into slavery to another Hebrew could not be enslaved for more than 6 years (Exodus 21:2).
            This brings us to the first question presented: Why were the Israelites permitted to own foreign slaves for longer than 6 years, sometimes even for life?  We must consider a few things here.  The foreign slaves living in the land of the Israelites were most likely in the same situation as an Israelite who had become destitute and had to sell themselves as slaves: they had no other choice if they wanted to survive.  In some instances, people sold themselves to the Israelites in exchange for protection from attacks by other nations, as in the case of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9-10).
            Also, though the Law allowed the Israelites to own a foreign slave for life, it wasn't a requirement.  The verse states, "You can (or, you may) bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can (or may) make them slaves for life" (Leviticus 25:46, NIV) - the verse says "you can", not "you must".  It was certainly acceptable to give a foreign slave their freedom after a specified period of time.
            Slaves, whether foreign or Israelite, were not treated like livestock.  The Law prohibited the gross mistreatment or murder of slaves.  Many of these laws in the Bible were actually a step up from other laws concerning slavery in the Ancient Near East during that time period.  For example, in the Code of Hammurabi, if a person permanently injured a slave, they would have to pay one half of the value [4].  In the Law, if a person permanently injured a slave, the slave was to be set free as compensation (Exodus 21:26-27). 
            Other laws in the Bible concerning the fair treatment of slaves are as follows:

Slaves could not be forced to work on the Sabbath; they had a day of rest just as free people did (Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14).

Slaves could celebrate at the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Tabernacles with their masters (Deuteronomy 16:9-15).

Anyone who beat a slave to death would be punished (Exodus 21:20).

A slave must be immediately set free if their master hit and permanently injured them (Exodus 21:26-27).

The Israelites had to protect foreign slaves who had escaped from their masters; they could not turn them in.  The former slaves could then live as free people among them (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

            Slavery was - and is - not an ideal condition, nor is it commended by God.  This is why most of the passages in the Bible referring to slavery are laws regarding their treatment.  Slaves were human beings created in the image of God just as free people were, and their mistreatment was forbidden. 

[1] Life and Society in the West: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Constance Brittain Bouchard, 1988.  Pg. 33.
[2] A History of the Ancient World (Fourth Edition), Chester G. Starr, 1991.  Pg. 43.
[3] Life In The Ancient Near East, Daniel C. Snell, 1997.  Pg. 35-36.
[4] Code of Hammurabi (written circa 1772 BCE), translated into English by L.W. King (1915) #199, see also #16-20

See also:

"Why was slavery allowed in the Old Testament?"