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The Bible and slavery

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum, Exodus 12:25-31
11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum, Exodus 12:25-31
Frank's casket is an 8th-century whale bone casket, the back of which depicts the enslavement of the Jewish people
Frank's casket is an 8th-century whale bone casket, the back of which depicts the enslavement of the Jewish people

The Biblical texts outline sources and legal status of slaves, economic roles of slavery, types of slavery, and debt slavery, which thoroughly explain the institution of slavery in Israel in antiquity.[1] Each section – Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 15, and Leviticus 25 – provides an outlook into the understanding of recent slave relations and gives guidance to the Israelites on how to further their life in a proper manual.[1] Philo, one of the philosophers of the time, wrote texts on how to properly treat slaves, indicating that slavery was an important part of Jewish life, but also emphasizes the humanitarian perspective offered up by many Ancient Near East scholars.[2] One such way of showing this was through the sharing of products, such as food and cloth, with other, underprivileged members of society.[1]

The Bible contains several references to slavery, which was a common practice in antiquity. The Bible stipulates the treatment of slaves, especially in the Old Testament.[3][4][5] There are also references to slavery in the New Testament.[6][7] Male Israelite slaves were to be offered release after six to seven years of service. If a slave had a wife when he became enslaved,the wife and children would go with him. However, if the master has given him a wife, the wife and any children remain the property of the master indefinitely. In that case the slave could choose his family over his freedom and remain a slave for the rest of his life. [8][9][10] Female Israelite slaves remained enslaved for their entire lives except in cases where the masters took them as wives. If a master lost interest in his wife, she was released. A foreign slave could be bequeathed to the owner's family,[11] and was made to serve for life except in the case of certain injuries.[12] Many of the patriarchs portrayed in the Bible were owners of slaves from the upper echelons of society and enslaved those in debt to them, bought their fellow citizen’s daughters as concubines, and perpetually enslaved foreign men to work on their fields.[2] Masters were men, and it is not evident that women were able to own slaves until the Elephantine papyri in the 400s BC.[2] Also, there is little historic evidence that people from all levels of society were able to own slaves. During certain reigns, especially those of Solomon and David, statewide slavery may have been instituted for large building projects or work that was deemed intolerable for free men to do.[2] Other than these instances, it is unclear whether or not state instituted slavery was an accepted practice. It was necessary for those who owned slaves, especially in large numbers, to be wealthy because the masters had to pay taxes for Jewish and non-Jewish slaves because they were considered part of the family unit. The slaves were seen as an important part of the family’s reputation, especially in Hellenistic and Roman times where the slave companions for a woman were seen as a manifestation and protection of a woman’s honor.[2] As time progressed, domestic slavery became more prominent, and domestic slaves, usually working as an assistant to the wife of the patriarch, allowed larger houses to run more smoothly and efficiently.[2]

In the 19th century, both abolitionists and defenders of slavery often invoked the Bible in defense of their positions.[13][14] Abolitionists used texts from both the Old and New Testaments to argue for the manumission of slaves, and against kidnapping or "stealing men" to own or sell them as slaves.[15][16]

The rabbis are rarely described as having many slaves, but in documents in which they write about slaves, it is always from the master’s point of view, which is seen by scholars as an attempt to distinguish the middle class citizens from slaves who could possibly have held higher positions in society because they were owned by a wealthy man.[2] However, owning many slaves was regular among priests in the First Temple days. This was an especially common practice in Greek religion which was supported by references to high priestly slaves in Josephus’ works. These works painted the priests in a negative light, and showed the end of the institution coming after the Second Temple days in 70 AD.[2]

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  • ✪ Slavery - Crash Course US History #13
  • ✪ Debating Slavery in the Bible (Discovering Religion)
  • ✪ Old Testament Slavery - What was it REALLY like?
  • ✪ The Role of Religions in the African Slave Trade: Ancient and Modern
  • ✪ Does Slavery Really Still Exist? | Moody Bible Institute


Episode 13 – Slavery Hi, I’m John Green. This is Crashcourse U.S. history and today we’re gonna to talk about slavery, which is not funny. Yeah, so we put a lei on the eagle to try to cheer you up, but, let’s face it, this is going to be depressing. With slavery, every time you think, like, “Oh, it couldn’t have been that bad,” it turns out to have been much worse. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, but what about-- Yeah, Me from the Past, I’m gonna stop you right there because you’re going to embarrass yourself. Slavery was hugely important to America. I mean, it led to a civil war. And it also lasted what at least in U.S. history counts as a long ass time—from 1619 to 1865 And, yes, I know there’s a 1,200 year old church in your neighborhood in Denmark, but we’re not talking about Denmark! But slavery is most important because we still struggle with its legacy. So, yes, today’s episode will probably not be funny. But it will be important. INTRO So, the slave-based economy in the South is sometimes characterized as having been separate from the market revolution, but that’s not really the case. Without southern cotton, the north wouldn’t have been able to industrialize, at least not as quickly, because cotton textiles were one of the first industrially produced products and the most important commodity in world trade by the 19th century. And ¾ of the world’s cotton came from the American South. And, speaking of cotton, why has no one mentioned to me that my collar has been half-popped this entire episode, like I’m trying to recreate the flying nun’s hat? And although there were increasingly fewer slaves in the North as northern states outlawed slavery, cotton shipments overseas made Northern merchants rich, northern bankers financed the purchase of land for plantations. Northern insurance companies insured slaves, who were, after all considered property and very valuable property. And, in addition to turning cotton into cloth for sale overseas, northern manufacturers sold cloth back to the south where it was used to clothe the very slaves who had cultivated it. But certainly the most prominent effects of the slave-based economy were seen in the South. The profitability of slave-based agriculture, especially “King Cotton,” meant that the south would remain largely agricultural and rural. Slave states were home to a few cities, like St. Louis and Baltimore, but with the exception of New Orleans, almost all southern urbanization took place in the Upper South, further away from the large cotton plantations. And slave-based agriculture was so profitable that it siphoned money away from other economic endeavors. Like, there was very little industry in the South – it produced only 10% of the nation’s manufactured goods, and as most of the capital was being plowed into the purchase of slaves, there was very little room for technological innovation like, for instance, railroads. This lack of industry and railroads would eventually make the south suck at the civil war, thankfully. In short, slavery dominated the south, shaping it both economically and culturally. And, slavery wasn’t a minor aspect of American society. By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the U.S., and in the South, they made up 1/3 of the total population. Although in the popular imagination, most plantations were these sprawling affairs with hundreds of slaves, in reality the majority of slave-holders owned five or fewer slaves. And of course, most white people in the south owned no slaves at all, although if they could afford to, they would sometimes rent slaves to help with their work. These were the so-called “yeoman” farmers who lived self-sufficiently, raised their own food and purchased very little in the market economy. They worked the poorest land and as a result were mostly pretty poor themselves. But even they largely supported slavery, partly perhaps for aspirational reasons and partly because the racism inherent to the system gave even the poorest whites legal and social status. And southern intellectuals worked hard to encourage these ideas of white solidarity and to make the case for slavery. Many of the founders, a bunch of whom you’ll remember held slaves, saw slavery as a necessary evil. Jefferson once wrote, “As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” The belief that justice and self-preservation couldn’t sit on the same side of the scale was really opposed the American idea and, in the end, it would make the civil war inevitable. But as slavery became more entrenched – and as ideas of liberty and political equality were embraced by more people – some Southerners began to make the case that slavery wasn’t just a necessary evil. They argued, for instance, that slaves benefited from slavery. Because, you know, their masters fed them and clothed them and took care of them in their old age. You still hear this argument today, astonishingly. In fact, you’ll probably see asshats in the comments saying that. I will remind you, it’s not cursing if you are referring to an actual ass. This paternalism allowed masters to see themselves as benevolent, and to contrast their family oriented slavery with the cold mercenary capitalism of the free labor north. So, yeah, in the face of rising criticism of slavery, some Southerners began to argue that the institution was actually good for the social order. One of the best-known proponents of this view was John C. Calhoun who, in 1837 said this in a speech on the Senate floor: “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.” John: Now, of course, John C. Calhoun was a fringe politician and nobody took his views particularly seriously … Stan: Well, he was secretary of state from 1844 to 1845. John: Well, I mean, who really cares about the Secretary of State, Stan … Danica: Ehh, also Secretary of War from 1817 to 1825. John: Alright, but we don’t even have a Secretary of War anymore. Meredith: And he was Vice President from 1825 to 1832. John: Oh my God, were we insane? We were, of course. But we justified the insanity—with biblical passages and with the examples of the Greeks and Romans and with outright racism, arguing that black people were inherently inferior to whites and that NOT to keep them in slavery would upset the natural order of things, a worldview popularized millennia ago by my nemesis, Aristotle. God, I hate Aristotle. You know what defenders of Aristotle always say? He was the first person to identify dolphins. Well, okay. Dolphin-identifier. Yes, that is what he should be remembered for, but he’s a terrible philosopher. Here’s the truth about slavery: It was coerced labor that relied upon intimidation and brutality and dehumanization. And this wasn’t just a cultural system, it was a legal one. I mean, Louisiana law proclaimed that a slave “owes his master…a respect without bounds, and an absolute obedience.” The signal feature of slaves’ lives was work. I mean, conditions and tasks varied, but all slaves labored, usually from sunup to sundown, and almost always without any pay. Most slaves worked in agriculture on plantations and conditions were different depending on which crops were grown. Like, slaves on the rice plantations of South Carolina had terrible working conditions but they labored under the task system, which meant that once they had completed their allotted daily work, they would have time to do other things. But lest you imagine this as like how we have work and leisure time, bear in mind that they were owned and treated as property. On cotton plantations, most slaves worked in gangs, usually under the control of an overseer or another slave who was called a driver. This was backbreaking work done in the southern sun and humidity and so it’s not surprising that whippings or the threat of them were often necessary to get slaves to work. It’s easy enough to talk about the brutality of slave discipline, but it can be difficult to internalize it. Like, you look at these pictures, but because you’ve seen them over and over again, they don’t have the power they once might have. The pictures can tell a story about cruelty, but they don’t necessarily communicate how arbitrary it all was. As for example in this story told by a woman who was a slave as a young girl. “[The] overseer … went to my father one morning and said, “Bob, I’m gonna whip you this morning.” Daddy said, “I ain’t done nothing,” and he said “I know it, I’m going to whip you to keep you from doing nothing,” and he hit him with that cowhide – you know it would cut the blood out of you with every lick if they hit you hard.” That brutality – the whippings, the brandings, the rape – was real and it was intentional because in order for slavery to function, slaves had to be dehumanized. This enabled slaveholders to rationalize what they were doing and, it was hoped, to reduce slaves to the animal property that is implied by the term “chattel slavery.” So the idea was that slaveholders wouldn’t think of their slaves as human. And slaves wouldn’t think of themselves as human. But, it didn’t work. But more importantly, slaveowners were never able to convince the slaves themselves that they were anything less than human. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Slaves resistance to their dehumanization took many forms, but the primary way was by forming families. Family was a refuge for slaves and a source of dignity that masters recognized and sought to stifle. A paternalistic slaveowner named Bennett H. Barrow wrote in his rules for the Highland Plantation: “No rule that I have stated is of more importance than that relating to Negroes marrying outside of the plantation … It creates a feeling of independence.” Most slaves did marry, usually for life, and when possible, slaves grew up in two-parent households. Single parent households were common, though, as a result of one parent being sold. In the Upper South, where the economy was shifting from tobacco to different, less labor-intensive cash crops, the sale of slaves was common. Perhaps 1/3 of slave marriages in states like Virginia were broken up by sale. Religion was also an important part of life in slavery. While masters wanted their slaves to learn the parts of the Bible that talked about being happy in bondage, slave worship tended to focus on the stories of Exodus, where Moses brought the slaves out of bondage, or Biblical heroes who overcame great odds, like Daniel and David. And although most slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write, many did anyway, and some became preachers. Slave preachers were often very charismatic leaders, and they roused the suspicion of slave owners, and not without reason. Two of the most important slave uprisings in the south were led by preachers. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document? We’re doing two set pieces in a row? Alright...The rules here are simple. I wanted to reshoot that, but Stan said no. I guess the author of the Mystery Document. If I am wrong, I get shocked with the shock pen. “Since I have been in the Queen’s dominions I have been well contented, Yes well contented for Sure, man is as God intended he should be. That is, all are born free and equal. This is a wholesome law, not like the Southern laws which puts man made in the image of God on level with brutes. O, what will become of the people, and where will they stand in the day of Judgment. Would that the 5th verse of the 3rd chapter of Malachi were written as with a bar of iron, and the point of a diamond upon every oppressor’s heart that they might repent of this evil, and let the oppressed go free…” Alright, it’s definitely a preacher, because only preachers have read Malachi. Probably African American. Probably not someone from the south. I’m going to guess that it is Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church? Dang it! It’s Joseph Taper? And Stan just pointed out to me that I should have known it was Joseph Taper because it starts out, “Since I have been in the Queen’s dominions.” He was in Canada. He escaped slavery to Canada. The Queen’s dominions! Alright, Canadians, I blame you for this. Although thank you for abolishing slavery decades before we did. AH! So the mystery document shows one of the primary ways that slaves resisted their oppression: by running away. Although some slaves, like Joseph Taper, escaped slavery for good by running away to Northern free states or even to Canada where they wouldn’t have to worry about fugitive slave laws, even more slaves ran away temporarily, hiding out in the woods or the swamps and eventually returning. No one knows exactly how many slaves escaped to freedom, but the best estimate is that 1,000 or so a year made the journey northwards. Most fugitive slaves were young men, but the most famous runaway has been hanging out behind me all day long, Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman escaped to Philadelphia at the age of 29 and over the course of her life she made about 20 trips back to Maryland to help friends and relatives make the journey north on the Underground Railroad. But a most dramatic form of resistance to slavery was actual armed rebellion, which was attempted. Now individuals sometimes took matters into their own hands and beat or sometimes even killed their white overseers or masters, like “Bob,” the guy who received the arbitrary beating, responded to it by killing his overseer with a hoe. But that said, large-scale slave uprisings were relatively rare. The four most famous ones all took place in a 35 year period at the beginning of the 19th century. Gabriel’s rebellion in 1800, which we talked about before, was discovered before he was able to carry out his plot. Then, in 1811 a group of slaves upriver from New Orleans seized cane knives and guns and marched on the city before militia stopped them. And, in 1822 Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom may have organized a plot to destroy Charleston, South Carolina. I say may have because the evidence against him is disputed and comes from a trial that was not fair. But, regardless, the end result of that trial is that he was executed as were 34 slaves. But, the most successful slave rebellion, at least in the sense that they actually killed some people, was Nat Turner’s in August 1831. Turner, was a preacher and with a group of about 80 slaves, he marched from farm to farm in Southampton County Virginia killing the inhabitants, most of whom were women and children because the men were attending a religious revival meeting in North Carolina. Turner and 17 other rebels were captured and executed, but not before they struck terror into the hearts of whites all across the American south. Virginia’s response was to make slavery worse, passing even harsher laws that forbade slaves from preaching and prohibited teaching them to read. Other slave states followed Virginia’s lead and by the 1830s, slavery had grown if anything more harsh. So this shows that large-scale armed resistance was, Django Unchained aside, not just suicidal but also a threat to loved ones, and really to all slaves. But it is hugely important to emphasize that slaves DID resist their oppression. Sometimes this meant taking up arms, but usually it meant more subtle forms of resistance, like intentional work slowdowns, or sabotaging equipment, or pretending not to understand instructions. And, most importantly, in the face of systematic, legal, and cultural degradation they reaffirmed their humanity through family and through faith. Why is this so important? Because too often in America we still talk about slaves as if they failed to rise up, when in fact rising up would not have made life better for them or for their families. The truth is, sometimes carving out an identity as a human being in a social order that is constantly seeking to dehumanize you is the most powerful form of resistance. Refusing to become the chattel that their masters believed them to be is what made slavery untenable, and the Civil War inevitable. So make no mistake: Slaves fought back. And in the end, they won. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan Muller. The script supervisor is Meredith Danko. Our associate producer is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week, there’s a new caption to the libertage, but today’s episode was so sad that we couldn’t fit a libertage in UNTIL NOW. Suggest libertage captions in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course, and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be abolitionist. CCUS 13 -


Old Testament

Slaves had a variety of different purposes. To determine the function, many scholars look at repetitive descriptions in texts that were written around the same time and reports of other cultures from the well-documented Graeco-Roman culture.[2] One of slaves’ main functions was as status symbols for the upper members of society, especially when it came to dowries for their daughters. These slaves could be sold or given away as needed, but also showed that the family was capable of providing generous amounts for their daughters to be married off. They also catered to the needs of the temple and had more domestic abilities such as keeping up the household and raising farm animals and small amounts of crops. Masters often took advantage of their slaves being at their beck and call by requiring them to perform duties in public that the master had the ability to do himself. This showed a level of luxury which extended beyond the private sphere into the public.[2] In addition to showing luxury, possession of slaves was necessary for a good family background, and many wealthy men viewed their colleagues who possessed only few slaves as the type of individual who needed to be pitied.[2]


In the Ancient Near East, captives obtained through warfare were often compelled to become slaves, and this was seen by the Deuteronomic Code as a legitimate form of enslavement, as long as Israelites were not among the victims;[17] the Deuteronomic Code institutes the death penalty for the crime of kidnapping Israelite men to enslave them.[18]Deuteronomy 24:7If the soldier desired to marry a captured foreigner, there were stipulations. She would shave her head and wear no jewelry or cosmetics to mourn the friends and family whom were killed in the war. While the term may be different depending on how many were lost, it would be for a minimum of one month. After the grieving was over, then he was free to make wedding plans. If he wished to end the relationship, the code stipulated he must free her. Because he forced her by the point of the sword or tip of the spear into a sexual relationship, he forfeited the option to sell her into slavery.[19][18] The Israelites did not generally get involved in distant or large-scale wars, and apparently capture was not a significant source of slaves.[20]

The Holiness code of Leviticus explicitly allows participation in the slave trade,[21] with non-Israelite residents who had been sold into slavery being regarded as a type of property that could be inherited. Foreign residents were included in this permission, and were allowed to own Israelite slaves.[22]

It was also possible to be born into slavery.[23] If a male Israelite slave had been given a wife by his owner, then the wife and any children which had resulted from the union would remain the property of his former owner, according to the Covenant Code.[24] Although no nationality is specified, 18th century theologians John Gill (1697–1771) and Adam Clarke suggested this referred only to Canaanite concubines.[25][26]

Debt slavery

Like the rest of the Ancient Near East, the legal systems of the Israelites divided slaves into different categories: "In determining who should benefit from their intervention, the legal systems drew two important distinctions: between debt and chattel slaves, and between native and foreign slaves. The authorities intervened first and foremost to protect the former category of each--citizens who had fallen on hard times and had been forced into slavery by debt or famine."[27]

Poverty, and more generally a lack of economic security, compelled some people to enter debt bondage. In the ancient Near East, wives and (non-adult) children were dependents of the head of household and were sometimes sold into slavery by the husband or father for financial reasons. Evidence of this viewpoint is found in the Code of Hammurabi, which permits debtors to sell their wives and children into temporary slavery, lasting a maximum of three years. The Holiness code also exhibits this, allowing foreign residents to sell their own children and families to Israelites, although no limitation is placed on the duration of such slavery.[28] Biblical authors repeatedly criticize debt slavery, which could be attributed to high taxation, monopoly of resources, high-interest loans, and collapse of higher kinship groups.[2]

Debt slaves were one of the two categories of slaves in Ancient Jewish society. As the name implies, these individuals sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts they may have accrued.[1] These individuals were not permanently in this situation and were usually released after six to seven years. Chattel slaves, on the other hand, were less common and were usually prisoners of war who retained no individual right of redemption. These chattel slaves engaged in full-time menial labor, often in a domestic capacity.[1]

The earlier[29][30][31][32] Covenant Code instructs that, if a thief is caught after sunrise and is unable to make restitution for the theft, then the thief should be enslaved.[33] Children of a deceased debtor may be forced into slavery to pay off outstanding debts.[30][34] Similarly, it is evident that debtors could be forced to sell their children into slavery to pay the creditors.[30]

Sexual and conjugal slavery

There were two words used for female slaves, which were amah and shifhah.[35] Based upon the uses in different texts, the words appear to have the same connotations and are used synonymously, namely that of being a sexual object, though the words themselves appear to be from different ethnic origins. Men assigned their female slaves the same level of dependence as they would a wife. Close levels of relationships could occur given the amount of dependence placed upon these women.[35] These slaves had two specific roles: a sexual use and companionship.[35] Their reproductive capacities were valued within their roles within the family. Marriage with these slaves was not unheard of or prohibited. In fact, it was a man’s concubine that was seen as the “other” and shunned from the family structure. These female slaves were treated more like women than slaves which may have resulted, according to some scholars, due to their sexual role, which was particularly to “breed” more slaves.[35] A father could sell his daughter into this life and she could be released within six years if she was not claimed by or assigned to another man.

Sexual slavery, or being sold to be a wife, was common in the ancient world. Throughout the Old Testament, the taking of multiple wives is recorded many times.[36][37] An Israelite father could sell his unmarried daughters into servitude, with the expectation or understanding that the master or his son could eventually marry her (as in Exodus 21:7-11.) It is understood by Jewish and Christian commentators that this referred to the sale of a daughter, who "is not arrived to the age of twelve years and a day, and this through poverty."[38]

And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.

The code also instructs that the woman was to be allowed to be redeemed[39] if the man broke his betrothal to her. If a female slave was betrothed to the master's son, then she had to be treated as a normal daughter. If he took another wife, then he was required to continue supplying the same amounts of food, clothing, and conjugal rights to her.[40] The code states that failure to comply with these regulations would automatically grant free manumission to the enslaved woman,[41] while all Israelite slaves were to be treated as hired servants.[42]

The betrothal clause seems to have provided an exception to the law of release in Deuteronomy 15:12 (cf. Jeremiah 34:14), in which both male and female Israelite servants were to be given release in the seventh year.[43]

The penalty if an Israelite engaged in sexual activity with an unredeemed female slave who was betrothed was that of scourging, with Jewish tradition seeing this as only referring to the slave,[44][45] (versus Deuteronomy 22:22, where both parties were stoned, being free persons), as well as the man confessing his guilt and the priest making atonement for his sin.[46]

Women captured by Israelite armies could be adopted as wives, but first they had to have their heads shaved and undergo a period of mourning. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) However, "If you are not pleased with her, then you must let her go where she pleases. You cannot in any case sell her; you must not take advantage of her, since you have already humiliated her."


In a parallel with the shmita system the Covenant Code offers automatic manumission of male Israelite slaves after they have worked for six years;[47] this excludes non-Israelite slaves, and specifically excludes Israelite daughters, who were sold into slavery by their fathers, from such automatic seventh-year manumission. Such were bought to be betrothed to the owner, or his son, and if that had not been done, they were to be allowed to be redeemed. If the marriage took place, they were to be set free if her husband was negligent in his basic marital obligations.[48] The later[30][31][32] Deuteronomic Code is seen by some to contradict[30] elements of this instruction, in extending automatic seventh year manumission to both sexes.[49] Others see the latter as a general decree, with the aspect of female manumission not being applicable within the specific circumstances of the former case, with marriage taking the place of manumission.[50][51]

The Deuteronomic Code also extends[52] the seventh-year manumission rule by instructing that Israelite slaves freed in this way should be given livestock, grain, and wine, as a parting gift;[53] the literal meaning of the verb used, at this point in the text, for giving this gift seems to be hang round the neck.[30] In Jewish tradition, the identified gifts were regarded as merely symbolic, representing a gift of produce rather than of money or clothing;[30] many Jewish scholars estimated that the value of the three listed products was about 30 shekels, so the gift gradually came to be standardised as produce worth this fixed value.[54] The Bible states that one should not regret the gift, for slaves were only half as expensive as hired workers;[55] Nachmanides enumerates this as a command rather than merely as a piece of advice.[30]

Despite these commandments, Israelite slaves were kept longer than permitted, compelling Yahweh to destroy the Kingdom of Judah as punishment.[56] The text also describes Jeremiah demanding that Zedekiah manumit all Israelite slaves.[57] The Holiness Code does not mention seventh-year manumission; instead[58] it only instructs that debt-slaves, and Israelite slaves owned by foreign residents, should be freed during the national Jubilee[4] (occurring either every 49 or every 50 years, depending on interpretation).

While many commentators see the Holiness Code regulations as supplementing the prior legislation mandating manumission in the seventh year,[59][60][61] the otherwise potentially long wait until the Jubilee was somewhat alleviated by the Holiness Code, with the instruction that slaves should be allowed to buy their freedom by paying an amount equal to the total wages of a hired servant over the entire period remaining until the next Jubilee (this could be up to 49 years-worth of wages; in 2017, this would roughly equate with £922,500 sterling). Blood relatives of the slave were also allowed to buy the slave's freedom, and this became regarded as a duty to be carried out by the next of kin (Hebrew: Go'el).[62]

Permanent enslavement

As for Israelite slaves, the Covenant Code allows them to voluntarily renounce their seventh-year manumission and become permanent slaves (literally being slaves forever).[63] The Covenant Code rules require that the slaves confirmed this desire at either a religious sanctuary,[64][65] or in the presence of the household gods[58] (the Masoretic Text and Septuagint both literally say [at] the gods, although a few English translations substitute in the presence of Judges);[66] having done this, slaves were then to have an awl driven through their ear into a doorpost by their master.[67] This ritual was common throughout the Ancient Near East, being practiced by Mesopotamians, Lydians, and Arabs;[58] in the Semitic world, the ear symbolised obedience (much as the heart symbolises emotion, in the modern western world), and a pierced earlobe signified servitude.

Working conditions

The Ethical Decalogue makes clear that honouring the Shabbat was expected of slaves, not just their masters.[68] The later[30][31][32] Deuteronomic code, having repeated the Shabbat requirement, also instructs that slaves should be allowed to celebrate the Sukkot festival.[69]

Although the Holiness Code instructs that during the Sabbatical Year, slaves and their masters should eat food which the land yields, without being farmed, it does not explicitly forbid the slaves from the farming itself, despite restricting their masters from doing so, and neither does it grant slaves any other additional rest from work during these years.[70]

Indeed, unlike the other law codes, the Holiness Code does not mention explicit occasions of respite from toil, instead simply giving the vague instruction that Israelite slaves should not to be compelled to work with rigour;[71][72] Maimonides argues that this was to be interpreted as forbidding open-ended work (such as keep doing that until I come back), and that disciplinary action was not to include instructing the slave to perform otherwise pointless work.[30][73]

A special case is that of the debtor who sells himself as a slave to his creditor; the Holiness Code instructs that in this situation, the debtor must not be made to do the work of slaves, but must instead be treated the same as a hired servant.[74] In Jewish tradition, this was taken to mean that the debtor should not be instructed to do humiliating work - which only slaves would do - and that the debtor should be asked to perform the craft(s) which they usually did before they had been enslaved, if it is realistic to do so.[30][73]

Injury and compensation

The earlier [30][31][32] Covenant Code provides a potentially more valuable and direct form of relief, namely a degree of protection for the slave's person (their body and its health) itself. This codification extends the basic lex talionis (....eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth...),[75] to compel that when slaves are significantly injured by their masters, manumission is to be the compensation given; the canonical examples mentioned are the knocking out of an eye or a tooth.[76] This resembles the earlier Code of Hammurabi, which instructs that when an injury is done to a social inferior, monetary compensation should be made, instead of carrying out the basic lex talionis; Josephus indicates that by his time it was acceptable for a fine to be paid to the slave, instead of manumitting them, if the slave agreed.[77] Nachmanides argued that it was a biblically commanded duty to liberate a slave who had been harmed in this way[30]

The Hittite laws and the Code of Hammurabi both insist that if a slave is harmed by a 3rd party, the 3rd party must financially compensate the owner.[78] In the Covenant Code, if an ox gores a slave, the ox owner must pay the servant's master a 30 shekel fine.[79]

The murder of slaves by owners was prohibited in the Law covenant. The Covenant Code clearly institutes the death penalty for beating a free man to death;[80] in contrast, beating a slave to death was to be avenged only if the slave does not survive for one or two days after the beating.[81] Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel, a 12th-century Provençal scholar, Targum, and Maimonides argue that avenged implies the death penalty,[30][73] but more recent scholars view it as probably describing a lesser punishment.[82] A number of modern Protestant Bible versions (such as the New Living Translation, New International Version and New Century Version) translate the survival for one or two days as referring to a full and speedy recovery, rather than to a lingering death, as favoured by other recent versions (such as the New Revised Standard Version, and New American Bible).

Fugitive slaves

The Deuteronomic Code forbids the people of Israel from handing over fugitive slaves to their masters or oppressing them, and instructs that these fugitives should be allowed to reside where they wish.[83] Although a literal reading would indicate that this applies to slaves of all nationalities and locations, the Mishnah and many commentators consider the rule to have the much narrower application, to just those slaves who flee from outside Israelite territory into it.[84][85]

New Testament

Slavery is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament. The word "servant" is sometimes substituted incorrectly for the word "slave" in English translations of the Bible.


Jesus healed the ill slave of a centurion[86] and restored the cut off ear of the high priest's slave.[87] In his parables, Jesus referenced slavery: the prodigal son,[88] ten gold coins,[89] unforgiving tenant,[90] and tenant farmers.[91] Jesus' teaching on slavery was metaphorical: spiritual slavery,[92] a slave having two masters (God and mammon),[93] slavery to God,[94] acting as a slave toward others,[95] and the greatest among his disciples being the least of them.[96] Jesus also taught that he would give burdened and weary laborers rest.[97] The Passion narratives are interpreted by the Catholic church as a fulfillment of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah.[98]

Jesus’ view of slavery compares the relationship between god and humankind to that of a master and his slaves. Three instances where Jesus communicates this view include:

Matthew 18:21-35: Jesus’ “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant”, wherein Jesus compares the relationship between god and humankind to that of a master and his slaves. Jesus offers the story of a master selling a slave along with his wife and children.

Matthew 20:20-28: A series of remarks wherein Jesus recognizes it is necessary to be a slave to be “first” among the deceased entering heaven.

Matthew 24:36-51: Jesus’ “Parable of the Faithful Servant”, wherein Jesus again compares the relationship between God and humankind to that of a master and his slaves.


In Eph 6:5-8, Col 3:22-24, 1Tim 6:1-2 and Titus 2:9-10 Saint Paul instruct slaves to obey their masters.[99][100][101][102] In 1Pet 2:18 Saint Peter also instructs slaves to obey their masters.[103] In Col 4:1 Paul instructs masters to "treat your slaves justly and fairly."[104] In Romans 1:1 Paul metaphorically calls himself a "slave of Christ Jesus,"[105] and in Romans 6:20-21 he writes about the metaphor of slavery to sin.[106] In Gal 3:27-29 Paul says that in the church there is "neither slave nor free person,...for you are all one in Christ Jesus."[107] In Revelation, two angels call themselves fellow slaves (coworkers) of Saint John.[108][109]


The Epistle to Philemon has become an important text in regard to slavery; it was used by pro-slavery advocates as well as by abolitionists.[110][111] In the epistle, Saint Paul writes to Saint Philemon that he is returning Saint Onesimus, a fugitive slave, back to him; however, Paul also entreats Philemon to regard Onesimus, who he says he views as a son, not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Christ. Philemon is requested to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul.[112] According to Catholic tradition, Philemon freed Onesimus.[113]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Tsai, Daisy Yulin (2014). "Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft: Human Rights in Deuteronomy: With Special Focus on Slave Laws". De Gruyter.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hezser, Catherine (2005). Jewish Slavery in Antiquity. Oxford.
  3. ^ Exodus 21:2-6
  4. ^ a b Leviticus 25:39-55
  5. ^ Deuteronomy 15:12-18
  6. ^ Ephesians 6:5
  7. ^ 1 Timothy 6:1
  8. ^ Exodus 21:2-6, Deuteronomy 15:12-15
  9. ^ Deuteronomy 15:12-15
  10. ^ Jeremiah 34:14
  11. ^ Leviticus 25:44-47
  12. ^ Exodus 21:26-27
  13. ^ Stringfellow, A Scriptural defense of slavery, 1856
  14. ^ Raymund Harris, Scriptural researches on the licitness of the slave, (Liverpool: H. Hodgson, 1788)
  15. ^ John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay, Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery
  16. ^ George B. Cheever, D.DGod Against Slavery, p. 140
  17. ^ Deuteronomy 20:10-16
  18. ^ a b Exodus 21 - Pulpit Commentary. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  19. ^ Deuteronomy 21:14
  20. ^ Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman (main ed.), DoubleDay:1992
  21. ^ Leviticus 25:44-46
  22. ^ Leviticus 19:33-34
  23. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Exodus 21:2-11
  24. ^ Exodus 21:1-4
  25. ^ "Exodus 21 - John Gill's Exposition of the Bible - Bible Commentary". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  26. ^ "Adam Clarke's Bible Commentary - Exodus 21". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  27. ^ A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2 vols). Raymond Westbrook (ed). Brill:2003
  28. ^ Leviticus 25:44
  29. ^ Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Law, Codification of
  31. ^ a b c d Anthony Campbell & Mark O'Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch (2000)
  32. ^ a b c d William Edward Addis, The Documents Of The Hexateuch (2006), Volume 2
  33. ^ Exodus 22:2-3
  34. ^ 2 Kings 4:1-7
  35. ^ a b c d Kriger, Diane (2011). Judaism and Jewish Life : Sex Rewarded, Sex Punished : A Study of the Status 'Female Slave' in Early Jewish Law. Brighton MA: Academic Studies Press.
  36. ^ Gn. 25:1; cf. 1Ch. 1:32; Gn. 30:4; 31:17; cf. Gn. 35:22; 2Sam. 12:11; cf. 2Sam. 20:3
  37. ^ David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible, p. 273
  38. ^ "Exodus 21:7 Commentary - John Gill's Exposition of the Bible". Bible Study Tools. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  39. ^ cf. Leviticus 25:47-55
  40. ^ Exodus 21:7-10
  41. ^ Exodus 21:11
  42. ^ Leviticus 25:46 cf. 1Kings 9:11
  43. ^ Gill, Deuteronomy 15:12
  44. ^ "Leviticus 19:20 Commentary - John Gill's Exposition of the Bible". Bible Study Tools. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  45. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Leviticus 19:20-22
  46. ^ Leviticus 19:20-22
  47. ^ Exodus 21:2
  48. ^ Exodus 21:7-11
  49. ^ Deuteronomy 15:12; cf. Jeremiah 34:9,14
  50. ^ Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, Ex. 21:7
  51. ^ Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Ex. 21:7-11
  52. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Deuteronomy 15:12-18
  53. ^ Deuteronomy 15:13-14
  54. ^ Kiddushin 17a, baraita
  55. ^ Deuteronomy 15:18
  56. ^ Jeremiah 34:8-24
  57. ^ Jeremiah 34:9
  58. ^ a b c Thomas Kelly Cheyne and John Sutherland Black, Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903), article on Slavery
  59. ^ Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, Lev_25:36-41
  60. ^ Dr. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, Lev 25:40
  61. ^ Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, Lev 25:39-40
  62. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Go'el
  63. ^ Exodus 21:6
  64. ^ New American Bible, footnote to Exodus 21:6
  65. ^ Thomas Kelly Cheyne and John Sutherland Black, Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903), article on Slavery
  66. ^ The text uses the Hebrew term elohim. Translations that render this in the presence of Judges include the King James Version and the New International Version. Translations that use to the Gods or to God include the English Standard Version, New Living Version, American Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, and New American Bible.
  67. ^ Exodus 21:5-6
  68. ^ Exodus 20:10
  69. ^ Deuteronomy 16:14
  70. ^ Leviticus 25:1-13
  71. ^ Leviticus 25:43
  72. ^ Leviticus 25:53
  73. ^ a b c Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
  74. ^ Leviticus 25:39
  75. ^ Exodus 21:24
  76. ^ Exodus 21:26-27
  77. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:35
  78. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Exodus 21:18-27
  79. ^ Exodus 21:32
  80. ^ Exodus 21:12
  81. ^ Exodus 21:20-21
  82. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Avenger of Blood
  83. ^ Deuteronomy 23:15
  84. ^ Gittin 45a
  85. ^ Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary on Deuteronomy 23, accessed 28 December 2015
  86. ^ Luke 7:2
  87. ^ Lukw 22:51
  88. ^ Luke 15:22
  89. ^ Luke 19:13
  90. ^ Matthew 18:26
  91. ^ Matthew 21:34
  92. ^ John 8:35
  93. ^ Matthew 6:24
  94. ^ John 15:15
  95. ^ John 13:14
  96. ^ Luke 22:26
  97. ^ Matthew 11:28
  98. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 623
  99. ^ Eph 6:5-8
  100. ^ Col 3:22
  101. ^ 1 Timothy 6:1
  102. ^ Titus 2:9
  103. ^ 1 Peter 2:18
  104. ^ Col 4:1
  105. ^ Romans 1:1
  106. ^ Romans 6:20
  107. ^ Galatians 3:27
  108. ^ Revelation 19:10
  109. ^ Revelation 22:9
  110. ^ Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, by John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay
  111. ^ God Against Slavery, p. 140, by Rev. George B. Cheever, D.D
  112. ^ Philemon 1:1-25
  113. ^ Catholic.Com: St. Onesimus

External links

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