In Part 1, we learned that the ancient Israelite version of slavery is far different than the common conception of slavery today. Now, we’ll take a look at some tougher verses that address the practice. We’ll find that these too also affirm the dignity of the person far better than modern slavery does.
In Exodus 21:3, the slave/servant cannot take family members gained after the start of their service out with them at the end of their service, but they can leave with anyone that went in with them. Exodus 21:4-6, on the other hand, explains what happens if a slave is given a wife by his master DURING service. Then the wife (and any children that are born to them) shall not go free when the man does. The wife and kids would still have to fulfill their own terms, but they could be released too in time. Either that, or the man can opt to resume service and rejoin his new family, working for his master for life. Besides being able to stay with his family, the man would also have a motivation to resume service in this way if he believed his master was worth continuing to serve under (because he liked the master and/or he thought remaining would give him more financial stability than otherwise possible).
Exodus 21:7-11 goes over the laws of a daughter sold into slavery by her father (note the terminology here! The father willingly sells his daughter–she isn’t stolen or anything like that). She cannot leave with the same seven-year rule. If the master does not wish to keep her, she is to be set free and not sold to someone else. If, on the other hand, the daughter is wed to the master’s son, she is supposed to be treated well as a daughter, and receives all the privileges that go along with that. If the son gets another wife, the daughter still has the same status (getting food, clothing, and the rights of a wife). If the son cannot provide for her in that way, she goes out free, FOR free.
Lev. 25:39-43 describes an Israelite selling himself to another Israelite. They are to serve as a hired worker, because God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and He desires that they would not be made slaves again as they were in Egypt. Additionally, Deuteronomy 24:7 spells out that an Israelite could not steal and sell a fellow Israelite, as a slave or otherwise. Lev. 25:44-46, however, says that the Israelites could buy foreign slaves. This was not an order to mistreat them—Lev. 19:33-34 commands they be done no wrong. While foreign slaves (being those that were already in the slave trade, as the verses say ‘buy’ slaves, not ‘capture’ them) did have a lower status among the Israelites than Israelites who sold themselves, the foreigners could work their way to financial well-being, as Leviticus 25:47 implies (the verse would be useless without the possibility of strangers becoming rich in Israel). Consider the case of the foreigner Ruth, who, in the book of the Bible named after her, willingly took on the customs and practices of Israel and ended up very blessed!
It is an undeniable fact that life in ancient Israel was different than ours today. Many concepts, and not just those having to do with slavery, have evolved over time, for better or worse. Before coming to a conclusion about a culture, we must make an effort to understand as much of it as possible. The practice of ebed slavery is only one of many areas we’ll look at. We walk away from studying these verses with a different image of slavery than the one our contemporary culture would have it assume. In fact, we’ve just discovered that the majority of people today are in an arrangement not too far from ebed slavery themselves. Jesus would assume a role like this as well, in being a servant to all in order that He could save as many people as were willing to be saved. And Christians, in turn, are servants to Jesus, knowing that He bought us and redeemed us from death.
‘The Image of God Shines Through‘, a locally-given sermon that discusses the inherent value of all people under the Mosaic law, focusing on Exodus 21-23.
The three chapters on slavery in ‘Is God a Moral Monster? Making sense of the Old Testament God’ by Paul Copan
Our Philemon article discusses slavery in the New Testament.
Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0