Very soon I’ll be opening up a group study of Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?. Be sure to get a copy if you want to join with us. The idea to study Copan’s book was kicked off, courtesy of Keith, during conversations on slavery in the Bible. I’ve never done a thorough analysis here on what the Old Testament says about slavery, so with this week’s release of Logos 6, I thought I’d take the opportunity to find out how the software could facilitate that study.
In a word, it was more than helpful. A simple “search everything” brought up every reference to slavery in a couple dozen Bible translations, a host of commentaries, and the rather large collection of ebooks that come with my Logos “Scholar’s Library.” (Logos has changed its nomenclature, so that library is no longer offered as far as I can tell.) I read through all the Old Testament-related references and copied most of them over into a word processing document, which resulted in 32 pages of raw information.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says this about Lev. 25:39-46:
… In this instance a man has no credit to obtain a loan. His case is hopeless, and he takes the initiative. But he has his rights; he is not a slave. “A hired worker or a temporary resident” (v.40) is translated by Speiser as “resident laborer” (p. 134), i.e., not a resident alien (cf. comment on v.36).
The notice “until the Year of Jubilee” (v.40) would apply equally well to case 1 of v.35, if that man’s debt were not worked off before the Year of Jubilee. The mention of “resident laborers” brings up the contrasting positions of “slaves” (v.44). Hebrews could not be enslaved by their compatriots. Slaves of the nations were permitted, and these were not released in the Jubilee. The most that could be exacted of a brother Israelite was indentured servitude. Of course, slaves, too, had their rights. Indeed, a runaway slave was not to be returned to his master (Deut 23:15). This would tend greatly to affect a master’s attitude toward his slaves.
And it says this concerning Ex. 21:26-32:
Any slave who suffered a permanent injury from his owner won his freedom immediately (cf. vv.20–21, however, for authorized discipline by the master). Thus a slave was not to be treated with caprice as if he were mere chattel. The economic sanctions against the owner were designed so that the owner would be given plenty of reason to resist any abusive tactics for the sake of his financial investment even if he totally disregarded the slave’s dignity and worth as a human being….
A fifth example of bodily injury involved goring oxen. Men were responsible for the injuries their oxen caused to other people. These laws are closely paralleled by the Code of Hammurabi (250–52) and the Eshnunna Law Code (54–55). The biblical version of these laws, which obviously sprang from the same culture, times, and background, was very different from Hammurabi’s or Eshnunna’s versions in that the Bible’s concern was not economic but moral and religious. The ox, in the case of v.28, and the ox and his owner, in the case of vv.29–30, were guilty of taking another person’s life. Notice that Genesis 9:5–6 requires that the life of a beast that killed a man as well as that of a manslayer be taken, because man is made in the image of God. It made no difference what the age, social status, or gender of the person was (vv.31–32); boys and girls, men and women, male and female slaves are all created in the image of God.
The parallel information concerning other ancient practices is helpful in pointing out the moral background of biblical codes on slavery (though see below). See further the following on Exodus 21:20-21:
The second case involved a master striking his slave, male or female. Since the slave did not die immediately as a result of this act of using the rod (not a lethal weapon, however) but tarried for “a day or two” (v.21), the master was given the benefit of the doubt; he was judged to have struck the slave with disciplinary and not homicidal intentions. This law is unprecedented in the ancient world where a master could treat his slave as he pleased. When this law is considered alongside the law in vv.26–27, which acted to control brutality against slaves at the point where it hurt the master, viz., his pocketbook (see Notes), a whole new statement of the value and worth of the personhood of the slave is introduced. Thus if the master struck a slave severely enough only to injure one of his members, he lost his total investment immediately in that the slave won total freedom; or if he struck severely enough to kill the slave immediately, he was tried for capital punishment (vv.18–19). The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the master’s mercy but to restrict the master’s power over him (cf. similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi 196–97, 200).
I’ve excerpted only a small portion of the commentary, but it’s clear that this is nothing at all like slavery as we think of it. For Hebrews it’s temporary, it’s for the purpose of relieving poverty, it ends with all goods being restored. For all servants and slaves, Hebrew and foreign, there were strict restrictions on cruelty by masters, there was no kidnapping allowed, and runaway slaves were granted automatic amnesty. As the EBC says above, possibly even understating it, “This would tend greatly to affect a master’s attitude toward his slaves.”
The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, also in Logos 6, says,
Old Testament Slavery laws appear in Exod. 21:1–11; Lev. 25:39–55; and Deut. 15:12–18. Most of these concern humane treatment and manumission. A Hebrew sold to another Hebrew or a resident alien because of insolvency was to be released after six years of service and given provisions to start over. If he had come with a wife, she and any children were also released. If the master had given him a wife, she and the children were to remain. If, however, the slave wanted to stay with his wife and children rather than be free, he could enroll himself as a slave for life. A Hebrew who sold himself to another Hebrew or resident alien was to be released during the Jubilee Year. A slave could be redeemed at any time by a relative. A Hebrew girl sold by her father to another Hebrew to become his wife was to be released if that man or his son did not marry her. A slave permanently maimed by his or her master was to be freed (Exod. 21:26–27). A fugitive slave—presumably one who had escaped from a foreign owner—was not to be extradited (Deut. 23:15–16). Foreigners could be enslaved permanently, but they had the right to circumcision (Exod. 12:44–48), Sabbath rest (Exod. 20:10), and holidays (Deut. 16:11, 14). One was to be punished for beating a slave to death (Exod 21:20–21). See Year of Jubilee.
As stated above, the biblical approach to regulating slavery was moral more than economically-based, in contrast to other Ancient Near East codes, and in fact it was morally advanced with respect to its time. I’ve been asked the question here, though, “Why didn’t God just say, ‘no slaves!’?” Hebrews living under servitude among Hebrews actually weren’t slaves at all as we think of slavery, for reasons already stated. The Hebrews were allowed, however, to purchase and to own foreign slaves. This remains a fact to be faced. I’ll come back to it, as will Paul Copan in the book some of us will be reading through together.
By commenting here you agree to abide by this site's discussion policy. Comments support Markdown language for your convenience. Each new commenter's first comment goes into moderation temporarily before appearing on the site. Comments close automatically after 120 days.
Copyright, Permissions, Marketing
Some books reviewed on this blog are attached to my account with Amazon’s affiliate marketing program, and I receive a small percentage of revenue from those sales.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.