Slavery in the Old Testament

It was remarked to me recently that the Bible (specifically, the Old Testament) says very little about slavery, with the implication that it is one of those “silent issues” that we cannot particularly judge. I did a little searching, and I found some interesting things about slavery in the Torah. Perhaps you’ll find them interesting too…

First off, the Israelites were absolutely forbidden to make slaves of fellow Israelites. If an Israelite wished to sell his labor as an indentured service this was permissible, but the purchaser was not allowed to treat him like a slave, period. Furthermore, he should be released after seven years (Deut. 15:12) or during the Year of Jubilee.

Leviticus 25:39 & 42 :: If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave.

He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee…

Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.

Exodus 21:12 :: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.

Anyone who violently kidnapped a slave of any nationality was considered a criminal with a death warrant.

Exodus 21:16 :: Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.

Deuteronomy 24:7 :: If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.

Any runaway slave was required to be freed, he could neither be taken as property by another owner nor handed back to the old master. Whether the original owner was an Israelite or not seems not to matter.

Deuteronomy 23:15,16 :: If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.

However, it was permissible to purchase a slave from a non-Israelite – and yet they were still required to treat them kindly.

Leviticus 25:44-46 :: 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. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

But most of all, all slaves were to be released during the Year of Jubilee. At this time, I can only conclude that all slaves of any nationality were to be released, otherwise the law doesn’t really make sense, since Israelites could not be slaves at all. Furthermore, other scholars have come to this conclusion for a quite a while.

Now, another interesting point emerges if one considers incorporation into Israel. You see, anyone who was willing to come under the rule of Yahweh was permitted to literally become a part of Israel, God’s chosen people. Case in point – the prostitute Rahab becomes part of Israel (Joshua 6:25) and even is included in the lineage of Jesus Christ! (Matthew 1:5)

So, what would happen if a slave converted to the Israelite faith and adhered to the rule of Yahweh? Simple, he now falls under the rule that he must be released in 7 years.

This presents an interesting set of conclusions. In summary:

  1. Israelites were not ever to be slaves, only indentured servants that must be released in seven years and in the Year of Jubilee.
  2. Those who kidnapped anyone to be a slave were to be killed as criminals.
  3. Runaway slaves were protected in Israel, even if the owner was an Israelite.
  4. Israelites could own non-Israelite slaves, but they were required to be released in the Year of Jubilee.
  5. If a slave converted to the Israelite faith, he falls under the seven year release rule.

Apparently, if you were a slave in ancient times, your best bet would probably have been to be sent to Israel! I find it fascinating how God provided through the Levitical and Deuteronomic law a concrete way for slavery to be curbed in Israelite society – God clearly thinks this is important stuff! In fact, one of the indictments of the nation of Israel when they were exiled to Assyria and Babylon was that they treated their brothers ruthlessly by making them slaves.

I admit that slavery in the Old Testament is a little fuzzy. But any careful observer would also have to admit that God’s law was actually quite favorable to slaves and provided a way out for them. Perhaps in today’s world, we see a little more clearly than the Israelites would have that slavery is wrong, but even then God was working to set captives free.

Yahweh’s people were meant to be free from bondage. That’s why he brought them out of Egypt and gave them the Torah, which instructed them in how to treat one another. How, then, can we not announce freedom to everyone everywhere?

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land!” (Leviticus 25:10)