Slavery in the Hebrew Bible by Zev Farber

Slavery, namely, the ownership of one person by another, was an institution in the ancient Near East and Israel, encompassing both fixed-term indenture of citizens and permanent slave status for outsiders.

What are “Hebrew slaves”? How would they regain their freedom?
An Israelite man might sell himself (or his child) as a slave (eved) to pay off debt (Lev 25:39) or a court might sell him for theft (Exod 22:2). The Pentateuch has three conflicting sets of laws providing for the release of such “indentured” Hebrew slaves.

Periodic manumission (andurāru) of debt slaves was practiced in the ancient Near East. Hammurabi’s Code (#117) assumes that a man’s family, sold to cover debt, would be released after a three-year indenture. The Sumerian king, Lipit-Ishtar, describes how he restored enslaved Sumerian citizens to their rightful place in free society (amargi, “return to mother”).

Lev 25 requires Israelites to be freed from debt or extended bondage and to have their ancestral property returned to them (a process called deror). In ancient Near Eastern tradition, a king would grant this freedom sporadically. In Leviticus, however, manumission automatically takes effect upon the blowing of the ram’s horn on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year since, Lev 25:9-10 claims, Yahweh, the king of kings, built manumission into the social order of Israel.

Nevertheless, manumission may have been an ideal rather than typical practice. During the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah urges the Judeans to free their Hebrew slaves in accordance with the law, which they do, only to retake them afterwards (Jer 34:8-11).

Deuteronomy and Exodus allow the Hebrew slave to choose permanent indenture by submitting to a ceremony in which the slave’s ear is pierced at the doorway (Exod 20:5-6; Deut 15:16-17). This marking of a slave may be related to the ancient Near Eastern practice of using hairstyles unique to slaves that barbers were forbidden to adjust (Hammurabi’s Code #226-227).

Did Israelites have foreign slaves? How would they be treated?
Non-Israelite slaves are acquired either by purchase (Exod 12:44) or captured during war (Deut 20:14) and remain so permanently (Lev 25:44-46). Foreign male slaves are circumcised and allowed to participate in the Passover sacrifice (Exod 12:44), which implies some level of integration.

A master who knocks out a slave’s eye or tooth must let him go free (Exod 21:26-27). A murdered slave is “avenged” (Exod 21:20-21). These biblical laws are designed to protect slaves; but they also demonstrate that slaves were beaten, even severely.

Likewise, a woman taken captive during battle is given time to mourn her family before becoming part of the household, and her master/husband is prohibited from selling her (Deut 21:10-14). This protects women from becoming sexual chattel while taking wartime rape and forced marriage for granted.

The Bible applies the Israelite Sabbath day of rest equally to slaves (Exod 20:10, Exod 23:12; Deut 5:14-15), appealing to Israel’s sacred history: do this “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”

Is the Hebrew Bible comfortable with slavery?

The prophet Amos criticizes debt bondage, referring to it as “selling the poor for shoes” (Amos 2:6). Deut 23:16 forbids the return of a runaway slave to his master. 2Kgs 4:1-7 tells of a widow whose children the prophet Elisha saves from a creditor’s seizure by miraculously producing olive oil that she uses to pays off the debt. Thus, although the Bible takes slavery as a given, it makes attempts to humanize the institution and even sporadically expresses how the world might be a better place without it.

Zev Farber, "Slavery in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 21 Sep 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/slavery-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

farber-zev

Zev Farber
Editor, TheTorah.com

Zev Farber is the editor of TheTorah.com, a website of Project TABS, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Kogod Center. He holds a PhD from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an MA from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period). He also holds rabbinic ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is coeditor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth-Century Judah (SBL Press, 2018) and the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and Their Reception (de Gruyter, 2016).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

property

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

The king of Babylon from 1792-1750 BCE; he distributed a set of widely influential laws, the "Code of Hammurabi," throughout his kingdom.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

release from slavery

The first major civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, arising in the fifth millennium B.C.E. and lasting through the early second millennium B.C.E.; the Sumerians invented the first writing system, cuneiform.

Lev 25:39

39If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves.

Exod 22:2

2(4) When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief's possession, the thief shall pay double.

Exod 21:2

2When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.

Deut 15:12

12If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that pers ... View more

Lev 25:40

40They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.

Exod 21:2

2When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.

Deut 15:13-14

13And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed.14Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor ... View more

Lev 25:41

41Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.

Exod 21:7-11

7When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.8If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then h ... View more

Deut 15:12

12If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that pers ... View more

Lev 25

The Sabbatical Year
1The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you ... View more

Lev 25:9-10

9Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all y ... View more

Jer 34:8-11

Treacherous Treatment of Slaves
8The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make ... View more

Exod 20:5-6

5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the ... View more

Deut 15:16-17

16But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you,17then you shall take an awl and t ... View more

Exod 12:44

44but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised;

Deut 20:14

14You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemi ... View more

Lev 25:44-46

44As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves.45You may also acquire them ... View more

Exod 12:44

44but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised;

Exod 21:26-27

26When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye.27If th ... View more

Exod 21:20-21

20When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished.21But if the slave survives a day or t ... View more

Deut 21:10-14

Female Captives
10When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive,11suppose you see among th ... View more

Exod 20:10

10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or ... View more

Exod 23:12

12Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resid ... View more

Deut 5:14-15

14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox o ... View more

Amos 2:6

Judgment on Israel
6Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for ... View more

Deut 23:16

16They shall reside with you, in your midst, in any place they choose in any one of your towns, wherever they please; you shall not oppress them.

2Kgs 4:1-7

Elisha and the Widow's Oil
1Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servan ... View more

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