A Question of Slavery

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Please clarify the law of slavery in Exodus 21:2-6. Wouldn’t God be opposed to slavery?

A number of laws in the Old Testament regulate the treatment of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves. I will provide an overview of slavery in Israel and discuss the legislation to which you refer.

1. Slavery in the Old Testament: Slavery was not a social institution established by God, but a common one found throughout the ancient Near East, including Israel. God did not proscribe it, but He did regulate it in order to protect slaves from abuse and exploitation. God does not uproot us from our culture, but takes us where we are and makes us better persons. In fact, some of His laws point to a time that there would not be more slaves (the law of jubilee). The Hebrew term translated “slave,” ‘ebed, means “servant, worker, adviser, slave,” etc.

Most slaves were prisoners of war who served those who defeated them, probably for life. In Israel people became slaves because of poverty (Lev. 25:35, 39) or for committing a crime (Ex. 22:3). In such cases they were not devalued but were still considered a fellow Hebrew (Deut. 15:12). Physical abuse that resulted in the loss of limb (e.g. an eye or a tooth) was compensated by freeing the slave (Ex. 21:26, 27). Slaves had the Sabbath free to serve God (Ex. 20:10). For the poor, slavery was not necessarily that bad, because it assured them food and shelter; consequently they often voluntarily became slaves to pay their debts.

2. A Legal Case: Exodus 21:2-6 is a case law that legislates how to deal with a person who has become a debt slave: “If you buy a Hebrew servant . . .” Such persons would work until the debt was paid. They would work for six years, and on the seventh they would go free “without paying anything” (verse 2, NIV). Two possible scenarios are mentioned and regulated: Those who had a family when they became debt slaves leave with their families. If they did not have a family and the owner gave them a wife and they had children, slaves would leave without their wives and children. In that case they could choose to remain a slave by permanently becoming part of the household. This required taking a vow before the Lord and having the ear perforated to indicate that the person had become part of the household.

3. Significance of the Legislation: When placed within the larger context of Old Testament law, this legislation is concerned with the well-being of slaves.

First, the Lord does not want slavery to be a permanent condition. It is limited to six years. In fact, a redeemer could set slaves free by paying their debt. And the six years could be shortened if, during that period, there was a sabbatical year, when the debts of the poor were remitted (Deut. 15:1-6), or the jubilee was celebrated, granting freedom to all Hebrew slaves (Lev. 25:10).

Second, the family of those who were married when they sold themselves to slavery was cared for by the master. This was not a free service, but was paid by the work of the family members.

Third, after the six years the owner was not to “send them away empty-handed” but to “supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and you winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deut. 15:13, 14, NIV). Former slaves were granted a new beginning.

Fourth, although the person who came alone into slavery could not take his wife and children with him, he had the right to redeem them; but this would be difficult for a poor person. Thus a second option was legally available: He could become a member of the household of the owner. Under this arrangement they would not have to worry about their own subsistence as a family.

Obviously, none of this was ideal. But in the imperfect world, the Lord legislated slavery to make it as humane as possible, while at the same time announcing the coming of a final jubilee when slavery, including slavery to sin, would come to an end (Luke 4:17-19).