The Bible and Slavery – Some Limitations

In a previous post (link), I discussed the volatile topic of slavery and the Puritans and I mentioned that the Bible does not prohibit slavery, it merely regulates it.  The regulations on slavery include a number of points:

1) Slaves as Household Members

Male slaves who were not Hebrew were to be circumcised and afterwards admitted to the Passover (Exodus 12:44) as distinct from aliens and hired servants who were not welcome to the Passover (Exodus 12:45).

2) Slave Term of Ownership

Hebrew slaves were permitted to be enslaved for a maximum of six years (Exodus 21:2 and Deuteronomy 15:12).  However, the male Hebrew slave could obligate himself to perpetual slavery, perhaps for the sake of a fellow-slave wife and children (Deuteronomy 15:17).

The rationale was essentially that the Hebrews were released from slavery in Egypt by God and were not to be made slaves, but instead treated like hired servants (Leviticus 25:35-42).  The rationale was further that the Hebrews were specifically the slaves of God (Leviticus 25:55).

Moreover, at his release, the Hebrew slave was to be furnished freely with meat, bread, and wine (Deuteronomy 15:13-15).

3) Murder of Slaves Prohibited

If a slave (male or female) was beaten to death, the owner was required to be punished (Exodus 21:20).  There was a limitation on this for the case where the death could not be closely linked to the beating (Exodus 21:21).

4) Maiming of Slaves Prohibited

If a slave suffered the permanent loss of a body part or major function, the slave was to be liberated immediately (Exodus 21:26).

5) Jubilee Release of Slaves

In the year of jubilee, male slaves and their children were to be released (Leviticus 25:39-42 &54).

6) Redemption Permitted

If a Hebrew sold himself into slavery to a foreigner in the land, the Hebrews could redeem him based on the wages of a hired servant for the amount of time remaining until the jubilee Leviticus 25:47-53).

7) Safe Harbour for Escaped Slaves

The Hebrews were not to return foreign slaves to their masters (Deuteronomy 23:15).  Instead, they were supposed to permit the slaves to live within the walled cities of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:16).

8) Foreign Slave Wives Liberation at Divorce

If a female slave was acquired by war and her owner decided to marry her, then he was required to let her go free when he divorced her, as opposed to selling her away (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

9) Limited Manner of Enslavement

It was not permitted for the Israelites to enslave other Hebrews or resident aliens by kidnapping them (Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7).

Perhaps there are more verses that could be brought to bear on the subject.  I’m sure that the regulations above are insufficient for Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment anti-slavery proponents, but the regulations were actually pretty substantial.  While slaves were recognized as property of their owners (see the 10th commandment for example) and while God uses the master-slave metaphor to describe his relationship to us, the regulations on slavery in Israel maintained the fact that the slaves had the image of God and consequently were to receive the sign of the covenant, were to be treated leniently, were not to be killed, and were to be freed in many cases.


P.S. I would welcome in the comment box any further limitations on slavery that I’ve overlooked.  I would not welcome any general anti-slavery comments.  Perhaps there will be a time and place for those comments elsewhere another time.

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