Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.
Does God approve of slavery? If not, why do we find so much legislation in the Old Testament on how to treat slaves?
There were basically two types of slaves in the Old Testament: the fellow Hebrew who sold himself in order to raise capital (Lev 25:39-55; Deut 15:12-18) and the foreign prisoner of war. In the postexilic days, during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, there was a third type known as the nt n m. Their origins were probably the same as those Gibeonites of Joshua's day who became cutters of woods and carriers of water rather than risk losing their lives in further miliary opposition to Israel.
Never, however, did Israel ever enter into the capture and sale of human life as did the Phoenician and Philistine traders and later the European nations. The third class of slaves called the nt n m never were real serfs, but instead formed a clerical order attached to the temple with positions ranking just below that of the Levites, who also assisted in the services at the temple.
A fellow Israelite who needed to raise money to pay for debts or the like could not borrow against his property (for that was owned by the Lord according to Leviticus 25:23) but had to sell the only asset he possessed: his labor power. However, there were strict rules that governed his or her treatment during the maximum of six years that such a relationship could be entered into with another Israelite. Should any master mistreat his slave with a rod, leaving an injury, the owner forfeited his whole investment (Ex 21:20-21, 26) and the slave was immediately released, or if the master caused the slave's death, the master was subject to capital punishment.
What about the status of non-Hebrew slaves? These captives were permanent slaves to the Israelites, but that did not mean that they could treat them as if they were mere chattel. The same rules of Exodus 21:20-21, 26 applied to them as well. One evidence of a mistreatment and they too went free. The foreign slave, along with the Hebrew household, had a day of rest each week (Ex 20:10; Deut 5:14).
A female slave who was married to her captor could not be sold again as a slave. If her master, now her husband, grew to hate her, she had to be liberated and was declared a free person (Deut 21:14).
The laws concerning slavery in the Old Testament appear to function to moderate a practice that worked as a means of loaning money for Jewish people to one another or for handling the problem of the prisoners of war. Nowhere was the institution of slavery as such condemned; but then, neither did it have anything like the connotations it grew to have during the days of those who traded human life as if it were a mere commodity for sale. This type of slavery was voluntary for the Hebrew and the nt n m ; only the war prisoner was shackled involuntarily. But in all cases the institution was closely watched and divine judgment was declared by the prophets and others for all abuses they spotted.