Being an observant Jew in the Christian “Bible Belt” of Oklahoma can be difficult, but also profoundly interesting. The conversations I have with Christians and other non-Jews on a regular basis only force me to be a more diligent student of the Hebrew Bible in order to explain my dedication to the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings found in the text. This scenario is just one of such scenarios I have encountered.
In some conversations I have with Christians and other non-Jews, when they ask me what I believe and I say “I strive to keep the entire Hebrew Bible to the best of my ability,” one reply I get back is “Oh, so you’re ok with slavery then? According to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites were permitted to own slaves.”
Ooh, tricky. How do I best handle this?
Let me first clarify that I detest the slavery that took place in the American South prior to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. With that having been said, let me also state that that brand of slavery was not only cruel and unusual, but was not holy according to the Hebrew Bible.
Most American’s concept of slavery is not based on the Bible, but based on the greed of men prior to the existence of the Thirteenth Amendment in America. This definition of slavery is men’s supposed right to kidnap another individual and submit them to forced labor and cruel treatment for their own profit. This is wrong and this is not the style of slavery that was permitted of Israel according to the Hebrew Bible.
During the age of when the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) was given to the People of Israel, slavery was a precaution against poverty or a method of repaying debt. Most who were slaves were poor foreigners who would travel to Israelite cities because they had no means by which to live or were captives of war. If a person was heavily in debt or did not have the means to support themselves in any way, they were permitted to sell themselves into slavery in order to pay back a debt or in order to have a place to live and work as part of acontractual agreement. Part of the agreement of this slave-master relationship was that they were to do all that their master asked of them, keeping in mind that their master was a righteous person according to the Hebrew Bible. Slaves were granted food, lodgings, and were treated with respect. They were permitted to marry, have children, and to even have a day off from their labors once a week on the Holy Sabbath day.
“But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
– Deuteronomy 5:14-15
The Israelites were accustomed to unholy slavery, just as Deuteronomy 5 and many other places in the Hebrew Bible reminded them to be righteous to their slaves because they were once slaves themselves.
There are also many laws of slave owners on how they are to treat their slaves. The beginning of Exodus 21 contains many of these laws, such as:
- A slave can only serve as a slave for six years. On the sixth year, they must be granted their freedom and were even furnished with a portion of their master’s flock so they could start a life of their own.
- If a man was married as a slave, his slave wife must be freed with him after his six years were up.
- If a slave master is not happy with a female slave, he must let her go and cannot sell her.
- If a slave is injured (in this instance, blinded in one eye) by a slave master, they must be let go free.
- Kidnapping anyone and forcing them into slavery was so forbidden that anyone caught doing so or even in the possession of one that was sold into slavery was to be killed.
One of the oddest laws concerning slavery in Hebrew Bible is what to be done with a slave who does not want to be freed once his six years of slavery are up. In most instances, many slaves were treated as one of the family and loved their masters. They lived with them, worked alongside them day-in-day-out, and defended them. Just the fact that there was a law concerning slaves who did not desire a life outside of slavery says that this was an issue to be addressed. When this was the case, a slave wore an earring denoting that he was a slave of his master forever.
To conclude expressing the nature of slavery in the Israelite culture, the one law in the Hebrew Bible that best expresses how Israelite slave culture differs from American pre-Thirteenth Amendment slave culture is the law regarding what to do with a runaway slave. Because slaves were treated with respect by their owners, one who ran away from the slave masters had to have been mistreated in such a way that justified their escape. Still, this is what the Torah says should be done with runaway slaves:
“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.”
– Deuteronomy 23:15-16
Slavery in Israelite culture was not about forced labor, but was about either giving people a means of paying off their debts or escaping poverty and starvation. Yes, slaves could be bought or sold from those who had no use for them or simply preferred goods or currency instead of the services of a slave, but no person could ever be kidnapped and forced into slavery. This is strictly against the Bible with a penalty of death.