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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Slave, Slavery

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SLAVE, SLAVERY . The Heb. ‘ebhedh , usually tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘servant,’ has a variety of meanings, between which it is not always easy to distinguish. E.g. in 2 Samuel 9:2 ‘servant’ = retainer, in 2 Samuel 9:10 b = bondman, in 2 Samuel 9:11 = a polite expression of self-depreciation (cf. 2 Kings 4:1 and 1 Kings 9:22 ). In a discussion of Hebrew slavery only those passages will be dealt with in which the word probably has the sense of bondage .

1 . Legally the slave was a chattel . In the earliest code (Book of the Covenant [= BC]) he is called his master’s money ( Exodus 21:21 ). In the Decalogue he is grouped with the cattle ( Exodus 20:17 ), and so regularly in the patriarchal narratives ( Genesis 12:16 etc.). Even those laws which sought to protect the slave witness to his degraded position. In the BC the master is not punished for inflicting even a fatal flogging upon his slave, unless death follows immediately. If the slave lingers a day or two before dying, the master is given the benefit of the doubt as to the cause of his death, and the loss of the slave is regarded as a sufficient punishment ( Exodus 21:21 ). The jus talionis was not applicable to the slave as it was to the freeman (cf. Exodus 21:26 ff. with Exodus 21:22 ff.); and it is the master of the slave, not the slave himself, who is recompensed if the slave is gored by an ox ( Exodus 21:32 ). In these last two instances BC follows the Code of Hammurabi [= CH] (§§ 196 199, 252).

In practice the slave as a chattel was often subject to ill usage. He was flogged ( Exodus 21:20 , Proverbs 29:19 ), and at times heartlessly deserted ( 1 Samuel 30:11 ff.). Though the master is here an Amorite, the cases of runaway slaves in Israel bear testimony to their sufferings even at the hands of their fellow-countrymen; cf. the experiences of the churl Nabal ( 1 Samuel 25:10 ), of the passionate Shimei ( 1 Kings 2:39 ), and of Sarah ( Genesis 16:6 ); the implications as to the frequency of such cases in the law of Deuteronomy 23:15 ff. and in later times ( Sir 33:24-31 ). The position of the maid-servant was in general the same as that of the manservant. In the BC it is assumed that the maid-servant is at the same time a concubine ( Exodus 21:7 ff.; cf. Hagar, Zilpah, and Bilhah in the patriarchal narratives). Even in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] the idea of the slave-girl as property is still retained ( Leviticus 19:20 ). Here the punishment ‘for the violation of a slave-girl was almost certainly a fine to be paid to the master, if we may judge from the analogous law in Exodus 22:16 = Deuteronomy 22:28; i.e. it is an indemnity for injury to property. In practice the maid-servant, though the concubine of the master, is often the special property of the mistress ( Genesis 16:6 a, Genesis 16:9 , Genesis 25:12 , Genesis 30:3 ), at times having been given to her at marriage ( Genesis 24:56; Genesis 29:24; Genesis 29:29 ). She is subject to field labour ( Ruth 2:8 ff.) and to the lowest menial labour ( 1 Samuel 25:41 , figurative, but reflecting actual conditions).

Slaves were recruited (1) principally from war, at least in earliest times. Captives or subject populations were often employed not only as personal attendants, but also as public slaves at the Temple ( Joshua 9:23; Joshua 9:27 [21 a gloss], Nehemiah 7:57-60 , and see art. Nethinim) or on public works in the corvçe ( Joshua 16:10 , Judges 1:28 ff., 1 Kings 9:20-22 = 2 Chronicles 8:7-9 ), while captive women were especially sought as concubines or wives ( Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ). (2) From the slave-trade, of which the Israelites undoubtedly a vailed themselves (cf. the implications in Genesis 37:26; Genesis 17:12 , Leviticus 25:44 ). This trade was mainly in the hands of the PhÅ“nicians and Edomites ( Amos 1:6; Amos 1:9 , Ezekiel 27:13 , Joel 3:6 ). (3) From native Israelites who bad become enslaved as a punishment for theft ( Exodus 22:1-4 ), whether for other crimes also is not stated; Josephus ( Ant. XVI. i. 1) knows of no other. (4) From native Israelites who, through poverty and debt, had been forced to sell themselves ( Exodus 21:2 , Amos 2:6; Amos 8:6 , Deuteronomy 15:12 , Leviticus 25:39 , Proverbs 11:29 [?] Proverbs 22:7 [?]) or their children ( Exodus 21:7 , 2 Kings 4:1 , Nehemiah 5:6; Nehemiah 5:8 , Isaiah 50:1 , Job 24:9 ) into servitude.

Whether the creditor had the right to force the debtor into slavery against his will is not clear. Exodus 21:2 and 2 Kings 4:1 (cf. Matthew 18:25 ) rather favour this view. The reflexive verb in Leviticus 25:39 a and in Deuteronomy 15:12 , where the same verbal form should probably be again translated by the reflexive, not by the passive as in RV [Note: Revised Version.] , favours voluntary servitude. But possibly the later codes are modifications of the earlier practice. Nehemiah 5:5 is ambiguous.

As to the number of slaves we have no adequate data. Genesis 14:14 cannot be used as evidence. The numbers in the corvçe ( 1 Kings 5:13; 1 Kings 5:15 ) are discrepant, and in any case probably do not refer to slaves proper. The prosperous retainer of Saul has 20 servants ( 2 Samuel 9:10 ). The proportion of slaves to freemen in Nehemiah 7:66 ff. 1 Timothy 6 1 Timothy 6 . The price of slaves naturally varied. The BC ( Exodus 21:32 ) fixes the average price at 30 shekels (about £4). CH in the same law allows but 17 shekels (§ 252, cf. 214). Joseph is sold for 20 shekels ( Genesis 37:26 ). In later times the price in Exodus seems to have been maintained ( 2Ma 8:11; Ant. XII. ii. 3).

2 . But while the slave was a chattel, nevertheless certain religious and civil rights and privileges were accorded him. In law the slave was regarded as an integral part of the master’s household ( Exodus 20:17 ), and, as such, an adherent of the family cult (cf. the instructive early narratives in Genesis 24:1-67; Genesis 16:1-16 ). Accordingly the BC ( Exodus 23:12 ) and the Decalogue ( Exodus 20:10 ) guarantee to him the Sabbath rest. Deuteronomy allows him a share in the religious feasts ( Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 16:11; Deuteronomy 16:14 ), the humanitarian viewpoint being chiefly emphasized. In P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] the more primitive idea of the slave as a member of the family, conceived as a religious unit, is still retained and utilized in the interest of religious exclusiveness. Thus, while the gçr (sojourner) cannot partake of the Passover unless circumcised, the slave must be circumcised and so is entitled to partake ( Exodus 12:44; cf. the narrative Genesis 17:12 ff.). Again, while the gçr in a priest’s family, or even the daughter of a priest who has married into a non-priestly family, may not eat of the holy things, the priest’s slave is allowed to do so ( Leviticus 22:10 ff.).

As to civil rights: In the BC, murder of the slave as well as of the freeman is punishable with death (Exodus 21:12 = Leviticus 24:17; the law is Inclusive). If death results from flogging, the master is also punished, conjecturally by a fine ( Exodus 21:20 ff.). If the slave is seriously maimed by his master, he is given his freedom ( Exodus 21:26 ff.). At this point the BC contrasts very favourably with the CH. The latter does not attempt to protect the slave’s person from the master, but only provides for an indemnity to the master if the slave is injured by another (199, 213, 214). While a man could be sold into slavery for debt (see above), man-stealing is prohibited on pain of death ( Exodus 21:16 = Deuteronomy 24:7 ). Deuteronomy interprets the Exodus law correctly as a prohibition against stealing a fellow-countryman. Deut. also forbids returning a slave who has escaped from a foreign master ( Deuteronomy 23:15 ff.). If the slave in this case were a non-Israelite (which, however, is not certain), the law would be a remarkable example of the humane tendencies in Deut. and would again contrast favourably with CH, which prescribes severe penalties for harbouring fugitive slaves ( Deuteronomy 23:16; Deuteronomy 23:19 ). The humane law for the protection of captive wives ( Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ) is also noticeable.

But practice often went far beyond law in mitigating the severity of servitude. Indeed, slavery in the ancient East generally was a comparatively easy lot. The slave is grouped with wife and child as part of the master’s household ( Exodus 20:17 ). Children are property and can be sold as well as slaves ( Exodus 21:7; cf. Exodus 22:16 = Deuteronomy 22:28 where the daughter is regarded as the father’s property). Children are flogged as well as slaves ( Proverbs 13:24 ). Wives were originally bought from the parents, and wives and concubines are often almost indistinguishable. Hence the lot of the slave was probably not much harder than that of wife or child (cf. Galatians 4:1 ), and the law implies the possibility of a genuine affection existing between master and man ( Exodus 21:5 = Deuteronomy 15:16 ). Accordingly we find many illustrations of the man-servant rising to a position of importance. He may he intrusted with the most delicate responsibilities ( Genesis 24:1-67 ), may be the heir of his master ( Genesis 15:1-4 ), is often on intimate terms with and advises the master ( Judges 19:3 ff., 1 Samuel 9:5 ff.), the custom of having body-servants (Heb. na‘ar , Num 22:22 , 1 Kings 18:43 , 2 Kings 4:12 , Nehemiah 4:22 etc.) favouring such intimacies, and he may even marry his master’s daughter ( 1 Chronicles 2:34 ff.; cf. similar cases in CH § 175 ff.). Especially servants of important men enjoy a reflected dignity ( 1 Samuel 9:22 , 2 Kings 8:4 ). The rise of servants into positions of prominence was so frequent as to be the subject of making-making ( Proverbs 14:35; Proverbs 17:2; Proverbs 19:10; Proverbs 30:22 a).

Whether a servant could own property while remaining a servant is not clear. The passages adduced in favour of it (1 Samuel 9:8 [a gratuity], 2 Samuel 9:2 ff; 2 Samuel 16:1 ff. [Ziba is a retainer], Leviticus 25:49 b [not a real servant]) are not pertinent. Deuteronomy 15:13 makes against it, but not necessarily, and the fact that in Arabia and Babylonia (CH § 176) the slave could own property awakens a presumption in favour of the same custom in Israel.

Under a good house-wife the maid-servant would be well taken care of ( Proverbs 31:15 ). At times she also seems to be the heir of her mistress ( Proverbs 30:23 b [?]). The son of the slave-concubine might inherit the property and the father’s blessing ( Genesis 16:1 ff; Genesis 21:13; Genesis 49:1 ff.), but this depended on the father’s will ( Genesis 25:5 ), as in Babylonia (CH § 170ff.). The effect of occupying such positions of trust was often bad. Proverbs fears it ( Proverbs 19:10; Proverbs 30:21-23 ), and such passages as 2 Kings 5:20 ff., Nehemiah 5:15 , Genesis 16:4 justify the fear. Servants also tended to become agents of their master’s sins ( 1 Samuel 2:13-15 , 2 Samuel 13:17 ).

3 . Thus far no distinction between native and foreign slaves has been observed either in law or in practice, except possibly by implication at Exodus 21:16 = Deuteronomy 24:7 , and Deuteronomy 23:15 ff. The view that the protective laws in Exodus 21:20 ff., Exodus 21:26 ff., Exodus 21:32 apply only to the native slave is without exegetical justification, and Genesis 17:12 , Exodus 12:44 , Genesis 15:2 [if the text can be trusted] Genesis 39:1 ff. [probably equally applicable to conditions in Israel], 1 Chronicles 2:34 ff. and Genesis 16:1 ff. show that the foreign man-or maid-servant may enjoy all the advantages of the native Israelite.

The distinction drawn between the subject Canaanites and the Israelites at 1 Kings 9:20 ff. = 2 Chronicles 8:7 ff. is clearly incorrect (cf. 1 Kings 5:13 ) and belongs to a later development in the ideas of slavery (see below). The distinction drawn in P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] between the ‘home-born’ slave and the one ‘purchased with money’ ( Genesis 14:14; Genesis 17:12 etc.) does not refer to the two classes of foreign and native slaves.

In apparently but one particular, though this is of vital Importance, the native slave is legally better off than the foreign-born, namely, in the right to release . Already in CH (§ 117) provision was made for the release, after three years, of a wife or children who had been sold for debt. In the BC ( Exodus 21:1-6 ) this idea was associated with the Sabbath idea, and a release was prescribed after 6 years of servitude, but the law was extended to cover every Israelite man-servant. Yet in the specifications of the law ( Exodus 21:3-4 ) the rights of the master still noticeably precede the rights of the husband and father. Provision is also made for the slave to remain in servitude if he prefers to do so. In this case the servant is to be brought to the door of the master’s house, not of the sanctuary (the rite would then lose its significance), and have his ear pierced with an awl (a wide-spread symbol of servitude in the East), when he would become a slave for life.

The phrase ‘ unto God ’ ( Exodus 21:6 a) can scarcely refer in this connexion to the local sanctuary, as has usually been held. It signifies the adoption of the slave into the family as a religious unit, and probably referred originally to the household gods (or ancestors?).

In the case of the maid-servant ( Exodus 21:7-11 ) no release was permitted under ordinary circumstances ( Exodus 21:7 ), for it is assumed that the slave-girl is at the same time a concubine, and hence release would be against the best interests both of herself and of the home. Yet she is not left without protection. Her master has no right to sell her to a family or clan not her own (‘foreign people,’ Exodus 21:8 b, probably has this restricted significance, sale of an Israelite to a non-Israelite being out of the question), but must allow her to be redeemed, presumably by one of her own family. Failing this, he may give her to his son, in which case she is to be treated as a daughter ( Exodus 21:9 ). If neither of these methods is adopted, a third way is provided. He may take another (concubine or wife), but must then retain the first, provide for her maintenance and respect her marital rights ( Exodus 21:10 ). If the master refuses to adopt any one of these three methods (‘these three,’ Exodus 21:11 , refers to the three methods in Exodus 21:8-10 , not to the three provisions in Exodus 21:10 ), then, and then only, the maid-servant has a right to release.

The above is but one of several possible interpretations of this passage. Further, the meaning of Exodus 21:8 a is doubtful. The text is corrupt. Instead of the phrase ‘who hath espoused her to himself,’ we should read either ‘so that he hath not known her,’ or’ ‘who hath known her.’ On the first reading the two methods of procedure in Exodus 21:8-9 are allowable if she be still a virgin (in Exodus 21:10 she is no longer such). On the second reading one of the three methods in Exodus 21:8-10 must be followed when she is de facto a concubine. The latter reading is exegetically preferable. The resultant possibility of a father giving his concubine to a son was probably not offensive, at a time when wife and concubine were regarded as property which a son could inherit. Among the Arabs marriage with a stepmother was common till the rise of Islam. In later times these marriages were forbidden both in the Koran and in the Hebrew law ( Deuteronomy 22:30; Deuteronomy 27:20 , Leviticus 18:8; Leviticus 20:11 ).

The Deuteronomic re-formulation of the Law of Release (Deuteronomy 15:12-18 ) is noteworthy. (1) Release is extended to the maid-servant. Consequently the specifications in Exodus 21:8; Exodus 21:4; Exodus 21:7-11 are allowed to lapse, and in the rite-rite only the possibility of the slave continuing in servitude through love of his master is considered. This change is due to the increasing respect for the marriage relation. The slave-husband’s rights over the wife are now superior to the master’s rights, and it is apparently no longer assumed that the maid-servant as such is the concubine of her master. Where concubinage does not exist, the maid-servant can be released without prejudice to the marital relation. (2) In Deut. the rite-rite is clearly only a domestic rite. This confirms the interpretation of the rite given above. The Deuteronomist, who localizes all religious observances at the central sanctuary, consequently drops the ‘unto God’ of Exodus 21:6 a. (3) The characteristic humanitarian exhortation ( Exodus 21:13-14 ) is added, and the reasonableness of the law defended ( Exodus 21:15; Exodus 21:18 ).

Jeremiah 34:8-17 describes an abortive attempt to observe the law in its Deuteronomic formulation. The law had evidently not been observed in spite of its reasonableness, and was subsequently again allowed to become a dead letter.

A third version of the Law of Release is found at Leviticus 25:39-55 . Three cases are considered: (1) that of the Israelite who has sold himself, because of poverty, to his fellow-countryman ( Leviticus 25:39-43 ). Such an one is not to be regarded as a real slave but as a hireling, and is to be released in the year of Jubilee. (2) Actual slaves are to be obtained only from non-Israelite peoples (cf. 1 Kings 9:20 ). For them there is no release ( Leviticus 25:44-46 ). (3) If an Israelite sells himself to a gçr , he may be redeemed at any time by his next of kin or by himself (power to acquire property assumed), but in any case he must be freed at the year of Jubilee (vv. 47 54). The redemption-price is proportioned to the number of years he had yet to serve from the time of his redemption to the Jubilee year, in other words, to the pay he would receive as an hireling during that period. Thus the possibility of an Israelite becoming an actual slave is again obliterated. The differences between this law and the earlier legislation are marked. ( a ) It formulates the growing protest against the idea that an Israelite could be a slave (cf. Nehemiah 5:5; Nehemiah 5:8 ). ( b ) Through the institution of the Jubilee year it provides that even the quasi -servitude which is admitted should not be for life, and consequently it ignores the awl-rite.

A difficulty emerges at this point. The Levitical law, which postpones release till the 50th year, seems to work a greater hardship at times than the earlier laws, which prescribe release in the 7th year. Here three things are to be remembered: ( a ) the earlier law had probably become a dead le tter long before the present law was formulated (cf. Jeremiah 34:1-22 , above); ( b ) the Jubilee law is the result of a theological theory (cf. Leviticus 25:23; Leviticus 25:42; Leviticus 25:55 ), a nd never belonged to the sphere of practical legislation; ( c ) as such it is to be construed, not in antithesis to the 7th year of the earlier laws, but to the lifelong period of servitude often actually experienced. It will not lengthen the time until the year of release, but will theoretically abolish all lifelong servitude. This theoretical point of view so predominates that the prolongation of the time of servitude, if the law had ever become actually operative, is left out of account. The fact that the Israelite in servitude to another Israelite is really worse off than an Israelite attached to a gçr , who could be redeemed at any time, also shows that we are not dealing with practical legislation.

4 . In these three laws of release we have three clearly marked stages in the recognition of the slave’s personality. The BC provides for the release of the Israelite man-servant. Deut., with its humanitarian tendencies, extends this privilege to the maid-servant. Lev., on the basis of its theological conceptions, denies that any Israelite can be an actual slave. But all these laws remain within nationalistic limitations. One step more must be taken . The rights of the slave as a man, and not simply as a fellow-countryman, must be recognized. The growing individualism which accompanied the development of the doctrine of monotheism prepared the way for this final step, which was taken by Job in the noble passage Job 31:13-15 . In the same spirit Joel universalizes the primitive conception of the necessary attachment of the slave to the family cult, and makes him share equally with all flesh in the baptism of the Spirit of God ( Joel 2:29 ).

Note . The relationship of servant to master is a favourite figure in the OT for the relationship of man to God (esp. in the Psalms). The nation, Israel, is also often thought of as the servant of Jehovah (cf. Isaiah 41:8 ff.) a thought which finds its most profound expression in Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-10; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12 . Cf. art. Servant of the Lord.

5 . In the NT it is only the attitude of Jesus and St. Paul towards slavery that demands attention. Jesus was not a political agitator, or even a social reformer. In nothing is this fact more strikingly illustrated than in His allusions to slavery. He refers to it only for purposes of illustration ( e.g. Mark 12:2; Mark 12:4 , Matthew 24:45 , John 8:35 etc.). He never criticizes it, even when it violates, as He must have realized, His own principles of love and brotherhood ( Matthew 18:25 , Luke 17:7 ff.; contrast the figurative picture in Luke 12:37 ). But, as Christianity reached into the world and developed into a social force, it became increasingly necessary to consider what its attitude towards slavery should be, especially as many slaves became Christians (in Romans 16:10-11 , 1 Corinthians 1:11 , Philippians 4:22 ‘them of the household’ are the slave-retainers). In this connexion St. Paul enunciates just one great principle In Christ all the distinctions of this world disappear; the religion of Jesus knows neither bond nor free ( 1 Corinthians 12:13 , Galatians 3:28 , Colossians 3:11 ). But he did not use this principle to overthrow the institution of slavery. On the contrary, at 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 he counsels one who has been called (into the Christian life) while a slave not to mourn his lot. He even advises him, if the opportunity to become free is offered, to remain in servitude ( 1 Corinthians 7:21 , but the interpretation is doubtful), the near approach of the Parousia ( 1 Corinthians 7:29 ) apparently throwing these external conditions of life into a perspective of insignificance for St. Paul. The Apostle does not seek ‘to make free men out of slaves, but good slaves out of bad slaves’ ( Ephesians 6:5-9 , Colossians 3:22 to Colossians 4:1; cf. 1 Peter 2:18 ). In these passages the corresponding duties of master to man are also insisted upon, as there is no respect of persons with Christ. It is significant that in the later Pastoral Epistles ( 1 Timothy 6:1 ff., Titus 2:9-11 ) the exhortations to the masters are omitted. It would seem as if some slaves had taken advantage of the Christian principle of brotherhood to become insurbordinate. In Philemon we have the classical illustration of St. Paul’s attitude towards slavery exemplified in a concrete case. Here again he does not ask Philemon to free Onesimus; and it is clear from 1 Timothy 6:1 ff. and the subsequent history of the Church that Christians in good standing owned slaves. But in Philippians 1:16 the slave is transfigured into a brother in Christ. For further discussion of this point see art. Philemon.

Though the Church recognized slavery, it is a remarkable fact that in the epitaphs of the catacombs the deceased is never spoken of as having been a (human master’s) slave, though often described as a slave of God. In death, at least, the Christian ideal was fully realized. The slave becomes with the master only the slave of God. Contrast the gloomy equality in Job 3:19 .

Kemper Fullerton.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Slave, Slavery'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/s/slave-slavery.html. 1909.

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