slavery in the old testament

The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd caused something of a stir during an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program when he likened holding on to the notion that marriage should only be between a man and a woman because that’s the Bible’s position with the notion that we should support slavery because the Bible does.

His words were a pale reflection of Jed Bartlett’s words in The West Wing which also sought to establish that much of the Bible is simply irrelevant and outdated. Mr Rudd also mixed up Aristotle (who did argue that slavery, for some, was a “natural condition”) and the Bible (which never makes such a claim).

I don’t want to focus specifically on Kevin Rudd’s comment, but instead I think it worthwhile examining some of the background to slavery in the Bible (and particularly in the OT) to perhaps put things in perspective.

There are a number of relevant passages, the most important of which are Exod 21:20–21; Lev 25:44–46; Deut 20:11–12. But before delving into the texts and their implications, the background information.

First, it is important to note the socio-economic context. In ancient Israel, only Israelites could be landholders. Furthermore, in order for land ownership to continue in a sustainable manner, land ownership was generally patrilineal and inheritance passed (at least primarily) to the firstborn son. If land ownership was divided among each successive generation, fragmentation would quickly have made the system unsustainable.1

Second, there were no coins or similar forms of currency — it hadn’t been invented yet!2 Minted coins were first produced in Mesopotamia in the latter part of the 7th century BC and were not adopted instantly throughout the ancient Near East. Prior to this payment would have been in the form of goods, services, and sometimes in precious metal (usually silver), and for many existence was at the subsistence level. The notion of finding “full-time employment” as we think of it in the modern world was completely unknown. Life was dominated by finding the means to provide food and shelter for oneself and one’s family. This was more difficult for those without land of their own. For such people, the closest to the modern notion of employment was found in the regulated form of “slavery” (of course some modern employees may liken their lot to slavery as well!). I put the term in quotes because, as we shall see, the Hebrew term has a far broader semantic range than the English term is usually allowed.

Life was most difficult for those without any connection to the land — that is, foreigners. While an Israelite could be released from their service and return to their family, that may not have been the case for foreigners whose homeland may no longer have existed or who may not have had the means to return home. For such as these, restrictions on their “release” functioned as much as a safeguard on their wellbeing as a limitation on their freedom. They could rely on security of employment where the alternative would be a homeless existence with no income, no shelter, and no food. Such restrictions would be akin to modern wrongful dismissal laws which prevent employees from being fired without sufficient cause and hence protect the rights of the employee.

Third, as always there are issues of translation. The Hebrew term most commonly translated “slave” in modern English translations is עבד (ʿebed). However, the KJV only uses the English word “slave” once in the Old Testament, and it doesn’t translate this term in that passage (Jer 2:14)! Rather, it uses “servant,” a term with rather different connotations. There is clearly a danger of importing far more semantic baggage into any reading of the Bible when translators adopt a rather loaded term such as “slave” to translate עבד. More recent translations choose “slave” more frequently, although in many “servant” still outweights “slave.” (Reflecting the semantic range of the term, the verb עבד is translated “worship” in a number of places as well, e.g. Deut 6:13.)

One of the more important biblical Hebrew lexicons qualifies its primary definition of עבד as “slave” as villein,3 clearly distinguishing the term from some forms of slavery (HALOT).

What is clear is that the Hebrew עבד has quite a broad semantic range which encompasses everything from “slave” in the most brutal sense all the way through to something akin to what we understand by “employee.” Simply claiming that the Bible endorses slavery based on imputing the most negative connotations to all instances of the Hebrew word is a gross misrepresentation of the meaning of the texts.

There is other language also associated with “slavery” in the OT. In some passages we find the term מס (mas) meaning “forced labour, corvée, conscription,” used to describe foreigners captured during military campaigns (e.g. Deut 20:11) and the experience of Israel in Egypt (Ex 1:11).

Fourth, modern notions of “freedom,” particularly “individual freedom,” are anachronistically applied to the ancient world into which the OT speaks. In the ancient Near East, all people were, at one level, the servants/slaves of either the king or the principal deity (cf. Gen 47:13–26).

Fifth, the notion that the Bible in any way endorses the type of slavery which has been most common in the last few centuries is countered by more of what the Bible itself says, specifically the words of Ex 21:16, “Whoever kidnaps someone and sells him, or is caught still holding him, must surely be put to death” (NET).4 The system that underpinned the African-American slave trade is quite explicitly condemned by the Bible, and an appeal to some sort of inherent contradiction in the Bible because it elsewhere endorses slavery can only be maintained if the above data concerning slavery in the Bible is ignored.

Finally, none of this is to say that the system was not, at times, abused. But that could be said of virtually any aspect of life at any time in human history. The lesson to be learnt is not that slavery in biblical times was sometimes abusive and evil, but that what the Bible says about slavery is far more nuanced that is usually appreciated when it is read without the benefit of some historical background information.


Notes:

  1. Some discussion can be found in Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Family in First Temple Israel” in Leo G. Perdue (ed.), Families in Ancient Israel, 53ff.
  2. For additional discussion, see The Origins of Money.
  3. My dictionary defines this term as “a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he paid dues and services in return for land.”
  4. This point was raised in an article by Andrew Schmidt at The Briefing. See also G. H. Haas’s article on “Slave, Slavery” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.

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