Old Testament Slavery


#1

I am having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that God let the Israelites freely practice slavery. Some of the biblical quotes about slavery seem quite harsh, and contrary to God's nature. It seems as if the writers of the Old Testament manipulated God's words in order to justify slavery and subjugation.

Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Exodus 21:20-21 If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Leviticus 25:44-45 Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.


#2

Regards to Ephesians.
Ephesians is completely out of context, first off. He goes on to write about how husbands must love their wife as Christ loves His Church. That doesn't mean that wives out to be subjugated to a bad husband. Is there anything Christ wouldn't do for the Church? He suffered and died for it. Did he abuse or denigrate it? No. A wife needn't be subject to a bad husband.

Furthermore, correct me if I'm wrong, but the Catholic Church doesn't hold that a wife ought to be submitting to her husband. No more than the husband ought to submit to her, for the husband has no say over his body but she does, and she has no say over her body but he does. They are mutually submitting to each other.

The focus, anyhow, isn't social reform. If that happens, all the better; but, the point of this passage and the passage that follows about slaves in Ephesians, is that no one is better than one another in Christ and in God. It says, if your situation is a slave, if your situation is a woman in a time where women are not held in high regard, instead of "fighting the man" understand that you don't serve your master but you are serving God. Live well with regard to the Lord, for both you and your master answer to the Master, and he is not partial to either of you based on your social status.

Again, let me emphasize:
The point is the impartiality of God to social order. You aren't better than your slave because you're the master. It would be improper and immoral to use this passage to artificially create another point, that slaves and masters are God's will. That is not the point of the text, and creating that artificial point is immoral.


#3

I see what you're getting at, however, my biggest gripe is the fact that humans are considered "property" frequently in the OT and that God seems to make slavery permissible. This whole OT slavery situation is very foggy to me, and I would much appreciate some further clarity.


#4

[quote="YosefYosep, post:1, topic:339946"]
I am having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that God let the Israelites freely practice slavery. Some of the biblical quotes about slavery seem quite harsh, and contrary to God's nature. It seems as if the writers of the Old Testament manipulated God's words in order to justify slavery and subjugation.

Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Exodus 21:20-21 If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Leviticus 25:44-45 Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.

[/quote]

If you key in "Torah, Slavery and the Jews" Chabad.org, there is a very interesting article written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman that responds to some of your concerns about slavery from the perspective of the Torah (Written Law) and Talmud (Oral Law).


#5

[quote="YosefYosep, post:3, topic:339946"]
I see what you're getting at, however, my biggest gripe is the fact that humans are considered "property" frequently in the OT and that God seems to make slavery permissible. This whole OT slavery situation is very foggy to me, and I would much appreciate some further clarity.

[/quote]

Whats more strange is it is often said God has ALWAYS been the same, always has been and always will, he does not change in the way we do, so it is the same God in the OT and the NT, but from reading both, they seem like completely different people....?

But Im tacking all this up to the fact that Gods ways are not our ways and we cannot understand all of his ways, they may seem wrong or even criminal to us, but since he is the creator of everything, he kind of trumps our opinions and we can rest assured his way is 100% the right way and we are the ones that are mistaken and wrong, even though we may not agree or like it, that is the way it is, God is not going to change, so he will always be this way.


#6

The Israelites practiced something more like debt bondage than the chattel slavery seen under the Egyptians, or in the Roman Empire and the American south. Like many of the injunctions, such restrictions were "case law" that was designed to regulate and mitigate the practices of those "whose hearts were hardened," as are all men, but whose social customs were still far and above any of the other people of the era. Think of them like OSHA regulations covering practices like work in asbestos factories or child labor. The existence of the regulations does not mean the government wants people to work in unhealthy occupations or that children should have to work to help support their families, but it recognizes that people will do such things, often out of necessity, and so it strives to reduce the impact of such customs on people.

We know of no culture in ancient times that did not practice some form of slavery. That the Jewish version was so mild, and was designed to prevent people from having to resort to it to stay alive, tells us about the difference between the Jews and all their neighboring people. Even under a system such as debt bondage (basically the same system my Irish ancestors were under when shipped to the New World), in which people who had no other means sold themselves as collateral, the indentured servants (whether Israelite or foreign) enjoyed protections far beyond what any other people granted their slaves.

As Paul Copan has written,

Old Testament legislation sought to prevent voluntary debt-servitude. A good deal of Mosaic legislation was given to protect the poor from even temporary indentured service. The poor were given opportunities to glean the edges of fields or pick lingering fruit on trees after their fellow Israelites harvested the land (Lev. 19:9–10; 23:22; Deut. 24:20–21). Also, fellow Israelites were commanded to lend freely to the poor (Deut. 15:7–8), who weren’t to be charged interest (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:36–37). And if the poor couldn’t afford high-end sacrificial animals, they could sacrifice smaller, less-expensive ones (Lev. 5:7, 11). Also, debts were to be automatically canceled every seven years. In fact, when debt-servants were released, they were to be generously provided for without a “grudging heart” (Deut. 15:10 NIV). The bottom line: God didn’t want there to be any poverty in Israel (Deut. 15:4). Therefore, servant laws existed to help the poor, not harm them or keep them down.

Copan, Paul (2011-01-01). Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Kindle Locations 2617-2624). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If a person was forced into debt bondage by circumstances, they were granted rights by divine decree that protected them. They could not be physically abused, and had to be released if injured by their master. If they were killed by a master, the master was to be put to death (quite different from the Roman Law and the Code of Hammurabi, under which a slave owner could generally rape, beat, maim or kill slaves with impunity.). They were considered as persons, not property (Gen. 1:26–27; Job 31:13–15; Deut. 15:1–18), and retained their human dignity.

Slave-trading - kidnapping a person against their will to keep or sell as a slave, was forbidden under penalty of death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16). St. Paul and St. John also later condemned slave traders in no uncertain terms. (As did St. Patrick and St. Augustine.)

The Israelites were required by Mosaic Law to help and shelter foreign runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16) - unlike other ancient cultures, or the American example, where it was a felony to help a fugitive slave.

It was not a perfect or a perfectly just system (no institution run by humans probably can be), and there were obvious inequities by modern standards, but it was superior to any other system of its time, and certainly to the American experience of slavery.

Jesus said such practices, as the old Mosaic laws on divorce, were against what God wanted for His people, but were permitted in olden times because His people's hearts were hardened, before establishing a new law. Jesus denounced slavery as practiced under the Roman Empire, as he did every form of oppression: Citing Isaiah 61:1, Jesus clearly said His mission was “to proclaim release to the captives, . . . to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).


#7

[quote="Arizona_Mike, post:6, topic:339946"]
The Israelites practiced something more like debt bondage than the chattel slavery seen under the Egyptians, or in the Roman Empire and the American south. Like many of the injunctions, such restrictions were "case law" that was designed to regulate and mitigate the practices of those "whose hearts were hardened," as are all men, but whose social customs were still far and above any of the other people of the era. Think of them like OSHA regulations covering practices like work in asbestos factories or child labor. The existence of the regulations does not mean the government wants people to work in unhealthy occupations or that children should have to work to help support their families, but it recognizes that people will do such things, often out of necessity, and so it strives to reduce the impact of such customs on people.

We know of no culture in ancient times that did not practice some form of slavery. That the Jewish version was so mild, and was designed to prevent people from having to resort to it to stay alive, tells us about the difference between the Jews and all their neighboring people. Even under a system such as debt bondage (basically the same system my Irish ancestors were under when shipped to the New World), in which people who had no other means sold themselves as collateral, the indentured servants (whether Israelite or foreign) enjoyed protections far beyond what any other people granted their slaves.

As Paul Copan has written,

If a person was forced into debt bondage by circumstances, they were granted rights by divine decree that protected them. They could not be physically abused, and had to be released if injured by their master. If they were killed by a master, the master was to be put to death (quite different from the Roman Law and the Code of Hammurabi, under which a slave owner could generally rape, beat, maim or kill slaves with impunity.). They were considered as persons, not property (Gen. 1:26–27; Job 31:13–15; Deut. 15:1–18), and retained their human dignity.

Slave-trading - kidnapping a person against their will to keep or sell as a slave, was forbidden under penalty of death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16). St. Paul and St. John also later condemned slave traders in no uncertain terms. (As did St. Patrick and St. Augustine.)

The Israelites were required by Mosaic Law to help and shelter foreign runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16) - unlike other ancient cultures, or the American example, where it was a felony to help a fugitive slave.

It was not a perfect or a perfectly just system (no institution run by humans probably can be), and there were obvious inequities by modern standards, but it was superior to any other system of its time, and certainly to the American experience of slavery.

Jesus said such practices, as the old Mosaic laws on divorce, were against what God wanted for His people, but were permitted in olden times because His people's hearts were hardened, before establishing a new law. Jesus denounced slavery as practiced under the Roman Empire, as he did every form of oppression: Citing Isaiah 61:1, Jesus clearly said His mission was “to proclaim release to the captives, . . . to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

[/quote]

What an excellent explanation, thank you for this.

I'm still confused over exodus 21:20 "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.

21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

Is this saying that one can strike a slave with a rod and get away with it if the slave recovers? How does one justify this?


#8

You’re very welcome.

The word used for “avenged” (other translations used “punished”) in the original is “naqam,” which always connotes capital punishment when used in the OT. So the injunction is again that if you beat a servant with a rod (variant translation: staff) and he dies, you will be put to death. In context, the next lines refer to “a life for a life,” denoting that the servant is to be regarded as another human being whose life has value, and that he is not a simple piece of property.

Then (as in many cultures today), a servant could be struck with a rod for disobeying an order or theft, etc. The man who held the servant under debt bondage would probably argue that he couldn’t fire the bonded servant for misbehavior, and he was not allowed to starve him or her by depriving the servant of food, so how else would he discipline him or her? This is not just in our eyes and from our modern perspective, although many people nowadays, including many Christians, argue for corporal punishment as an option for disciplining their own children, or for children in school. I don’t agree with such policies, but the point is that many modern people do argue for the use of physical force as reprimand, so it is not an unusual viewpoint even now, and it was common in schools (both public and parochial) within recent memory. I was struck in grade school, and it was not uncommon for a private to get struck by an NCO as discipline in the military (although officially against regs) until recently. As a trainee in the Army in the early 1980s, I once got whipped repeatedly with a static line (a nylon cord) by an NCO in jump school until I could perform a landing fall to his standards. Older veterans could probably tell you similar stories of times when a punch in the stomach or eye was the lesser, non-judicial alternative to an Article 15. Not a pleasant experience for me, but again, such corporal punishment is not something totally outside our ken today.

If the man struck the servant badly enough to maim him or her, such as by knocking out a tooth or damaging an eye, his or her remaining debt was discharged and he or she was to be set free immediately. This would seem to serve as a powerful incentive NOT to abuse your servants, as you would forfeit any financial right to their services.

Compare this Jewish law to the Code of Hammurabi, which allowed masters to cut off a slave’s ear for punishment, and which required only that a man who harmed another man’s slave must pay the master for the injury:

From the Code of Hammurabi:

  1. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.
  1. If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.
  1. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
  1. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.
  1. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.
  1. If a slave say to his master: “You are not my master,” if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

Unlike the Jews, Hammurabi didn’t like people helping slaves, BTW:

  1. If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.
  1. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

Regarding the rather troubling passage, “for the slave is his money,” does this mean the indentured servant was considered his property? Ancient Near Eastern scholar Harry Hoffner of the University of Chicago argues that a superior translation of that passage is “that [fee] is his money/ silver.” Hoffner offers that the “fee” reading is based on the context of the previous passage, Exodus 21:18–19 (which is part of a section on punishments dealing with quarrels and accidental killing): “If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.”

Like the modified Hittite law that required masters who had harmed their slaves to pay a physician to provide medical treatment, so here the employer had to pay the medical bills for the servant he had wounded. As evidence, in verse 21, the Hebrew pronoun “hu” refers not to the servant (“he”) but to the fee (“that”) paid to the doctor tending to the wounded servant. Hoffner wrote in his 2008 article Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Hatti and Israel, “The fact that the master provided care at his own expense would be a significant factor when the judges respond to a charge of intentional homicide.” So, if you abuse someone but not kill them (debt servant or free man), you were not to be put to the death or to be beaten up as you did them, but would instead be required to pay them a fine, and provide or pay for their medical care. That sounds more than a little like…our current system.

Hope this is somewhat helpful to you.


#9

[quote="YosefYosep, post:1, topic:339946"]
I am having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that God let the Israelites freely practice slavery. Some of the biblical quotes about slavery seem quite harsh, and contrary to God's nature. It seems as if the writers of the Old Testament manipulated God's words in order to justify slavery and subjugation.

Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Exodus 21:20-21 If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Leviticus 25:44-45 Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.

[/quote]

Different time and different era. Slavery is not necessary a bad thing in their time; it was the abuse of slaves that was bad. Likewise it is bad for an employer to abuse his employee.

Ephesians speak about husband/wife relationship; I don't see any connection to the Exodus and Leviticus that you mentioned.

The Bible does condone the 'rod' as a form of disciplinary action. It is to be undertaken to correct and for the good of the person.

An ideal and approved slave/master relationship should be according to St Paul in his letter to Philemon. Slaves should be treated well, like a brother, and after he has given many good years of his service he should be set free.


#10

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