Thursday, May 9, 2019

Slavery in the Bible

"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" (Exodus 21:2).

The fact that God did not abolish slavery in the Old Testament has been a concern to many people. Realize first that the condition of slavery came into the world because of man’s sin. Slavery is man’s fault, not God’s. When we consider the fire of hell, which is the just desert of sin, by comparison, enslavement is a very light punishment.

The second thing to bear in mind is that Biblical “slavery” was much milder than the kind of chattel slavery formerly practiced in some parts of the United States. A better translation than “slave” might be “bond-servant.” A person who stole money and owed a large restitution might be sold into service for a few years to pay off his fines (Exodus 22:3), or a person might become so poor that he sold himself or a child into service (Leviticus 25:39). In the latter case, the servant went free in the sabbath year because that was when debts were canceled (Exodus 21:2).

Slaves were protected by law. Families were not to be broken up. Even if the wife remained under the protection of the master until the freedman earned enough money to buy her, the husband still had conjugal rights and privileges (Exodus 21:3–4). If a master beat a slave to death, the master was put to death for murder (Exodus 21:20–21). If he destroyed a slave’s eye or tooth, the slave was to be freed (Exodus 21:26–27).

If a Hebrew bond-servant did not want to go free because he loved being attached to the household of his new master, he was adopted into the household by a blood ritual (Exodus 21:4–5). If a master purchased a girl with the intention of marrying her to himself or one of his sons—a point that would be specified in the sale contract—he could not later change his mind and sell her to someone else. If he married her and abused her, she was set free (Exodus 21:7–11).

Virtually every one of the laws has to do with freeing slaves. Such service trained men to work responsibly, the goal of building them up and setting them free (Deuteronomy 15:12–18). As God had freed Israel from Egyptian bondage, so He put laws for freeing slaves first in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21–23).

Many people came to New England as “indentured servants,” working for up to six years to pay a “master” for the cost of the ocean voyage. What do you think of this system of voluntary and compulsory service as a way to get out of debt or to pay for crimes? How does it compare with our “enlightened” system of bankruptcy, prison, and welfare?