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5.1.24

A cursory survey of slavery in the Bible

A cursory survey of slavery in the Bible

Genesis

Slavery is portrayed as a generally accepted institution. God ordains the enslavement of the Canaanites (9.25–27; cf. 27.30–38). The divinely-blessed success of the households of Abraham and his discendants includes the presence of slavery (12.16; 20.8, 14; 26.19; 30.43; 50.2). The relationship of the patriarchs to Yhwh is analogous to that of slaves to their master (18.3; 32.10). The patriarchs use slaves for sex (16.1–4; 30.3, 9). Abraham punishes one such sex-slave for his own wrongdoing (21.10–14).


Exodus

Similar to the above, the relationship of Moses and Yhwh is analogous to slave and master (4.10). Yhwh rescued Israel from slavery (20.2). The presence of people enslaved by the newly-freed Israelites is taken for granted (12.43–45; 20.10, 17; cf. Deut 12.12). After this, the book lays out some of God’s laws which formalize slavery as an institution for the nation of Israel. Israelites may be enslaved by other Israelites, but with certain stipulations (21.1–11):

  • A male slave must be freed after six years. He has no debt when freed.
  • If a man is single or married when he becomes a slave, he is the same when he is freed.
  • If a man becomes married and has children while he is enslaved, when he is freed after six years, his wife and his children remain slaves forever.
  • If a man refuses to be freed without his wife and children, he remains a slave with them forever.
  • If a man sells his daughter to be enslaved, she is not freed after six years.
  • If the slavemaster does not like her, he may sell her, but not to a gentile.
  • If the slavemaster does not like her, he may give her to his own son to be the son’s wife. If the son marries again and prefers the next wife, the slave-wife must be freed. She has no debt when freed.

A further set of laws, the ‘eye for eye’ passage, concern accidental injuries or deaths, and the penalties for the person at fault for these injuries or deaths. Several of these make stipulations specifically for when the victims are slaves.

  • If a slavemaster beats his slave severely enough the slave dies immediately, the slavemaster must be punished, but if the slave dies only after a few days have passed, the slavemaster is not at fault (21.20–21).
  • If someone dies at the fault of another person, that other person must be killed, ‘a life for a life’ (21.23). Likewise, if someone loses an appendage, the other person at fault must be punished by having the same appendage removed: ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’, etc (21.24–25). If the harmed person is a slave, their slavemaster is not punished ‘eye for eye’, though the slave must be freed (21.26–27).
  • If someone’s ox kills a person, the owner is not punished. If the ox kills on multiple occasions, the negligent owner must be killed. If the ox kills a slave, the owner must monetarily compensate the slavemaster (21.28–32).

These laws, mandated by God through Moses, consistently devalue the lives of slaves compared to free Israelites. They also devalue the lives of women and children compared to men.


Leviticus

A man who has sex with a female slave who has been reserved for another man must give an offering to Yhwh (19.20–22). A poor man may sell himself into slavery (25.39–46):

  • The Israelite slave must be freed in the Jubilee year.
  • The Israelite slave’s family must also be freed.
  • The Israelite slave may not be sold.
  • A gentile slave, or a foreigner living locally who has been made a slave, remain slaves forever (not freed in the Jubilee year).
  • The Israelite slave may not be treated harshly.

These laws acknowledge the problem of poverty, but treat slavery as a valuable solution to escape poverty. These laws also devalue the lives of gentiles compared to Israelites.


Deuteronomy

This book somewhat softens the institution of slavery, resulting in some light contradictions with the previous laws. Female Israelite slaves must also be freed after the sixth year, and freed slaves must be given provisions; however, slaves who refuse to leave their slavemasters do so because they ‘love’ their slavemaster, and they must remain slaves forever (15.12–18). Slaves who escape to live among the Israelites (resident gentiles? slaves from foreign lands who escaped into the land of Israel?) must not be returned (23.15–16). If Israel as a whole fails to obey the laws, Yhwh will return the Israelites to slavery in Egypt (28.68).


Other books of the Hebrew Bible

The relationship of David, Solomon, Job, or Israelites altogether and Yhwh is analogous to slave and master (2 Sam 7.8; 1 Kings 3.7; 8.36; Job 1.8; Isa 41.8). David, Solomon, Job, etc, owned slaves (2 Sam 12.18; 1 Kings 5.6; Job 19.15–16). Solomon enslaved gentiles to build Yhwh’s temple (1 Kings 9.15–22). Slaves worked in Yhwh’s temple (Ezra 2.58). It is better to be hated and own a slave, than to be self-important and be hungry (Prov 12.9). It is wrong for a slave to become a ruler, because it overthrows proper social order (Prov 19.10; 30.21–23). Wealth is a reward from Yhwh, and the correct social order is for the wealthy to rule the poor, and for borrowers to be slaves of their lenders (Prov 22.4, 7). Slaves must not be punished with only words and must not be pampered (Prov 29.19, 21). Yhwh will punish the world by overthrowing the proper social order, bringing the socially superior down to the level of their subjects, such as bringing slavemasters down to the level of slaves (Isa 24.1–2).


New Testament

The disciples and other followers of God and Jesus must be like slaves (Mark 10.44; 13.34; Matt 10.24). God’s and Jesus’ followers are encoded as slaves in parables (Mark 12.1–12; Matt 18.23–35; Luke 15.11–32). Angels are like slaves (Matt 13.24–30, 36–43; 22.1–13). God’s followers, both productive and non-productive, are like slaves, and it is justified for non-productive slaves to be physically punished (Matt 25.14–30). Slaves should not be invited to dine at the table, nor even be thanked for doing what they were commanded to do; instead, slaves must recognize they are ‘worthless’ and must simply do what they are commanded (Luke 17.7–10).

Paul identifies himself and fellow Jesus-followers as God’s slaves (e.g. Rom 1.1; 6.16). Slaves should not care about their freedom, nor seek it out; even if they end up freed, they should continue living as if a slave (1 Cor 7.21–24). God’s followers comprise Judeans, gentiles, slaves, and free people (1 Cor 12.13; cf. Gal 3.28; the major debate in Paul’s letters is that gentiles do not become Judeans upon becoming a follower of Jesus, but slavery was not a contested issue). Paul instructs Philemon that he must treat his slave Onesimus as a ‘brother’, but Paul does not instruct Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery (Phm 16). Slaves must obey and honor their masters (Col 3.22; Eph 6.5; 1 Tim 6.1; Titus 2.9).

God’s followers are slaves (Rev 1.1).


Conclusion

The Bible does not merely acknowledge slavery as an institutional reality in an ancient world, let alone disapprove of the practice. The Bible presents slavery as an institution mandated by God. Divine blessings to patriarchs and kings manifest, in part, in the form of slaves under their authority. The intrinsic human value of slaves is rejected in the dichotomy of how the laws requires they be treated compared to non-slaves. This intrinsic human value is further rejected for gentiles, women, and children slaves, who are subjected to much harsher treatment in accordance with the laws. (Several of these laws are also more severe when compared to slavery in the legal systems of neighboring countries, such as the Code of Hammurabi.) Jesus and Paul consistently normalize slavery, showing no interest in overturning the institution or denouncing it on ethical grounds.

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