Ethics in the Law of Moses: slavery

The ethics and legislation relating to servitude and slavery

Slave market in Cairo

Servitude in the Ancient Near East

Servitude in the Ancient Near East operated on a spectrum of greater or lesser obligation to another person, and greater or lesser personal protections. Everyone in the Ancient Near East was considered to be the servant of someone, with the key difference being the extent to which you were independent and protected from the imposition of another’s will.

“Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.’1

The definition of slavery

Slavery is the involuntary, coercive subjection of an individual to the will of another, virtually always without any means of obtaining liberty. An essential feature of slavery was the dehumanization of the person. Stripped of their kinship and ability to create new kinship ties, and typically without legal protection from harm, they were treated as property rather than people. However, this definition does not apply to individuals who entered into servitude under other conditions, as Tikva Frymer-Kenski explains here.

“Guterbock refers to ‘slaves in the strict sense,’ apparently referring to chattel slaves such as those of classical antiquity. This characterization may have been valid for house slaves whose master could treat them as he wished when they were at fault, but it is less suitable when they were capable of owning property and could pay betrothal money or fines. The meaning ‘servant’ seems more appropriate, or perhaps the designation ‘semi-free‘. It comprises every person who is subject to orders or dependent on another but nonetheless has a certain independence within his own sphere of active.”2

Servitude in the Law of Moses

Although several forms of servitude existed under the Law of Moses, ‘chattel slavery’ (the form in which the individual is dehumanized), did not exist. In every case of servitude permitted under the Law of Moses, the individual retained their personal identity, and their legal status and protections were maintained unless voluntarily relinquished (Exodus 21:5-6, Deuteronomy 15:16-17). The Law of Moses ensured they retained their original kinship,3 were able to marry, 4had legal protection from physical harm and from breach of contract,5 and had freedom of movement and access to liberty.6

Unlike any neighboring society, the Law of Moses commanded that servants enjoy at least one day a week free from every kind of labour. Masters were accountable to the law for their treatment of all their servants, whether Hebrews or foreigners. Involuntary slavery was illegal.7 Servants fleeing their master automatically gained their liberty and were free to live wherever they chose.8 It was illegal to return them to their master. These laws were far superior to the laws of Israel’s neighbors.

“This law-the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters-is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation.”9

“This provision [in the Law of Moses] is strikingly different from the laws of slavery in the surrounding nations and is explained as due to Israel’s own history of slaves. It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution.”10

Footnotes

  1. Raymond Westbrook and Gary M Beckman, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Volume 1 Volume 1, Handbook of Oriental studies. Section 1, Near and Middle East ; Handbuch der Orientalistik 72 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 40.
  2. Tikva Frymer-Kenski, “Anatolia and the Levant: Israel”, Raymond Westbrook and Gary M Beckman, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Volume 1 Volume 1, Handbook of Oriental studies. Section 1, Near and Middle East ; Handbuch der Orientalistik 72 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 632.
  3. Exodus 21:3, 9, Leviticus 25:41, 47-49, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants.
  4. Exodus 21:4, 10-11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage.
  5. Exodus 21:8, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind, and Leviticus 25:39-41, providing for Hebrew indentured servants.
  6. Exodus 21:8, 11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Leviticus 25:40-45, 48, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants, and Deuteronomy 15:1, 12; 23:15, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind.
  7. Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7.
  8. Deuteronomy 23:15-16.
  9. Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus(The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 124.
  10. Tikva Frymer-Kenski, “Anatolia and the Levant: Israel”, Raymond Westbrook and Gary M Beckman, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Volume 1 Volume 1, Handbook of Oriental studies. Section 1, Near and Middle East ; Handbuch der Orientalistik 72 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 975.