Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hebrew Servants, Part 2 (Exodus 21:1-11)

The following quote is taken from evilbible.com:

"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years.  Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.  If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year.  But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him.  If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master.  But the slave may plainly declare, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children.  I would rather not go free.'  If he does this, his master must present him before God.  Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl.  After that, the slave will belong to his master forever."  (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT)

Notice how they can get a male Hebrew slave to become a permanent slave by keeping his wife and children hostage until he says he wants to become a permanent slave.  What kind of family values are these?"

A great deal of Exodus chapter 21 concerns the treatment of slaves.  You can read the entire chapter here:

            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).
            In this passage we see the specific situation of a married Hebrew man who became a slave.  The Law protected a married couple who went into slavery together - they could not be broken apart.  If the man was married when he became a slave, he and his wife would be purchased by the same master, serve in the same household and be freed together at the end of six years (verse 3).
            However, the situation of a man who chose to marry a woman of his master's household, whether another slave or perhaps even a relative of the slave owner (the text does not specify, but it would seem more likely that the woman was a fellow slave), was different.  A Hebrew male slave was fully aware of his situation - he was going to be a slave for no more than 6 years.  Therefore, any ties he made to the members of his master's household, whether by marriage or otherwise, would end after that time period.  A slave who married another slave of the household during his period of service would be fully aware of the fact that his new wife and any children they bore together would not be able to leave together at the end of his service.  With this in mind, it would not seem to be an advisable situation to marry during that time period.
            We must keep in mind that this must have been a rather unusual and unlikely situation - the woman in question, if she was a Hebrew slave, would also be set free at the end of six years (Deuteronomy 15:12).  If she and her children had to stay with their master when the man was freed after six years, it was either because she was not Hebrew (foreign women could be enslaved for life, though it wasn't a requirement - see Leviticus 25:45-46), she was a permanent member of the master's household, such as a daughter, sister, niece, etc., or she had already made the decision to permanently stay with her master and be his slave for life.  Male and female Hebrew slaves could voluntarily decide to become permanent slaves if they found that they were in a better situation with their masters than they had been on their own: "But if your servant says to you, 'I do not want to leave you,' because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant" (Deuteronomy 15:16-17, NIV).
            In conclusion, the situation mentioned in Exodus 21:2-6 was an avoidable one.  If a Hebrew man chose to marry a permanent slave of the household while he was in service, they both knew what they were getting into.  In that instance, it would seem that in choosing marriage in the master's household, the man was almost certainly choosing to bind himself to his master's household for life, as well as to his wife.

[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.