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The Bible and slavery

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum

The Bible contains several references to slavery, which was a common practice in antiquity. The Bible stipulates the treatment of slaves, especially in the Old Testament.[1][2][3] There are also references to slavery in the New Testament.[4][5] Male Israelite slaves were to be offered release after six to seven years of service, with some conditions.[6][7][8] Foreign slaves and their posterity became the perpetual property of the owner's family,[9] except in the case of certain injuries.[10]

The Bible was cited as justification for slavery by defenders.[11][12] Abolitionists have also used text from the New Testament to argue for the manumission of slaves.[13][14][15][16]


  • Enslavement 1
    • Debt slavery 1.1
    • Sexual and conjugal slavery 1.2
  • Manumission 2
    • Permanent enslavement 2.1
  • Working conditions 3
    • Injury and compensation 3.1
  • Slavery in the New Testament 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


In the Ancient Near East, captives obtained through warfare were often compelled to become slaves, and this was seen by the law code of Deuteronomy as a legitimate form of enslavement, as long as Israelites were not among the victims;[17] the Deuteronomic Code institutes the death penalty for the crime of kidnapping Israelites to enslave them.[18][19][20]

The Israelites did not generally get involved in distant or large scale wars, and apparently capture was not a significant source of slaves.[21] The Holiness Code of Leviticus explicitly allows participation in the slave trade,[22] with non-Israelite residents who had been sold into slavery being regarded as a type of property that could be inherited. Foreign residents were included in this permission, and were allowed to own Israelite slaves.[23]

It was also possible to be born into slavery.[24] If a male Israelite slave had been given a wife by his owner, then the wife and any children which had resulted from the union would remain the property of his former owner, according to the Covenant Code.[25] Though no nationality is specified, 18th century theologians John Gill (1697–1771) and Adam Clarke suggested this referred only to Canaanite concubines.[26][27]

Debt slavery

Like that of the Ancient Near East, the legal systems of the Israelites divided "slaves" into different categories: "In determining who should benefit from their intervention, the legal systems drew two important distinctions: between debt and chattel slaves, and between native and foreign slaves. The authorities intervened first and foremost to protect the former category of each--citizens who had fallen on hard times and had been forced into slavery by debt or famine."[28]

Poverty, and more general lack of economic security, compelled some people to enter debt bondage. Furthermore, in the ancient Near East, wives and (non-adult) children were often viewed as property, and were sometimes sold into slavery by the husband/father for financial reasons. Evidence of this viewpoint is found in the Code of Hammurabi, which permits debtors to sell their wives and children into temporary slavery, lasting a maximum of three years. The Holiness Code also exhibits this, allowing foreign residents to sell their own children and families to Israelites, although no limitation is placed on the duration of such slavery.[29]

The earlier[30][31][32][33] Covenant Code instructs that, if a thief is caught after sunrise and is unable to make restitution for the theft, then the thief should be enslaved.[34] Children of a deceased debtor may be forced into slavery to pay off outstanding debts;>[31][35] similarly, it is evident that debtors could be forced to sell their children into slavery to pay the creditors.[31]

Sexual and conjugal slavery

Sexual slavery, or being sold to be a wife, was common in the ancient world. Throughout the Old Testament, the taking of multiple wives is recorded many times.[36][37] An Israelite father could sell his unmarried daughters into servitude, with the expectation or understanding that the master or his son could eventually marry her (as in Exodus 21:7-11.) It is understood by Jewish and Christian commentators that this referred to the sale of a daughter, who "is not arrived to the age of twelve years and a day, and this through poverty."[38]

And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.
— Exodus 21

The code also instructs that the woman was to be allowed to be redeemed[39] if the man broke his betrothal to her. If a female slave was betrothed to the master's son, then she had to be treated as a normal daughter. If he took another wife, then he was required to continue supplying the same amounts of food, clothing, and conjugal rights to her.[40] The code states that failure to comply with these regulations would automatically grant free manumission to the enslaved woman,[41] while all Israelite slaves were to be treated as hired servants.[42]

The betrothal clause seems to have provided an exception to the law of release in Deuteronomy 15:12 (cf. Jeremiah 34:14), in which both male and female Israelite servants were to be given release in the seventh year.[43]

The penalty if an Israelite engaged in sexual activity with an unredeemed female slave who was betrothed was that of scourging, with Jewish tradition seeing this as only referring to the slave,[44][45] (versus Deuteronomy 22:22, where both parties were stoned, being free persons), as well as the man confessing his guilt and the priest making atonement for his sin.[46]

Women captured by Israelite armies could be adopted forcibly as wives, but first they had to have their heads shaved and undergo a period of mourning. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) However, "If you are not pleased with her, then you must let her go where she pleases. You cannot in any case sell her; you must not take advantage of her, since you have already humiliated her."


In a parallel with the Sabbatical Year system, the Covenant Code offers automatic manumission of male Israelite slaves, after they have worked for six years;[47] this excludes non-Israelite slaves, and specifically excludes Israelite daughters, who were sold into slavery by their fathers, from such automatic seventh-year manumission. Such were bought to be betrothed to the owner, or his son, and if that had not been done, they were to be allowed to be redeemed. If the marriage took place, they were to be set free if her husband was negligent in his basic marital obligations.[48] The later[31][32][33] Deuteronomic Code is seen by some to contradict[31] elements of this instruction, in extending automatic seventh year manumission to both sexes.[49] Others see the latter as a general decree, with the aspect of female manumission not being applicable within the specific circumstances of the former case, with marriage taking the place of manumission.[50][51]

The Deuteronomic Code also extends[52] the seventh-year manumission rule by instructing that Israelite slaves freed in this way should be given livestock, grain, and wine, as a parting gift;[53] the literal meaning of the verb used, at this point in the text, for giving this gift seems to be hang round the neck.[31] In Jewish tradition, the identified gifts were regarded as merely symbolic, representing a gift of produce rather than of money or clothing;[31] many Jewish scholars estimated that the value of the three listed products was about 30 shekels, so the gift gradually came to be standardised as produce worth this fixed value.[54] The Bible states that one should not regret the gift, for slaves were only half as expensive as hired workers;[55] Nachmanides enumerates this as a command rather than merely as a piece of advice.>[31]

Despite these commandments, Israelite slaves were kept longer than permitted, compelling Yahweh to destroy the Kingdom of Judah as punishment.[56] The text also describes Jeremiah demanding that Zedekiah manumit all Israelite slaves.[57] The Holiness Code does not mention seventh-year manumission; instead[58] it only instructs that debt-slaves, and Israelite slaves owned by foreign residents, should be freed during the national Jubilee[2] (occurring either every 49 or every 50 years, depending on interpretation).

While many commentators see the Holiness Code regulations as supplementing the prior legislation mandating manumission in the seventh year,[59][60][61] the otherwise potentially long wait until the Jubilee was somewhat alleviated by the Holiness Code, with the instruction that slaves should be allowed to buy their freedom by paying an amount equal to the total wages of a hired servant over the entire period remaining until the next Jubilee (this could be up to 49 years-worth of wages; in 2009, this would roughly equate with £750,000 sterling). Blood relatives of the slave were also allowed to buy the slave's freedom, and this became regarded as a duty to be carried out by the next of kin (Hebrew: Go'el).[62]

Permanent enslavement

In contrast to the Covenant Code and Deuteronomy, which contain no explicit description of manumission for slaves of non-Israelite origin, the Holiness Code states that non-Israelite slaves shall serve forever. Even the master's death did not free such slaves - they were to be treated as inheritable property.

As for Israelite slaves, the Covenant Code allows them to voluntarily renounce their seventh-year manumission and become permanent slaves (literally being slaves forever).[63] The Covenant Code rules require that the slaves confirmed this desire at either a religious sanctuary,[64][65] or in the presence of the household gods[58] (the Masoretic Text and Septuagint both literally say [at] the gods, although a few English translations substitute in the presence of Judges);[66] having done this, slaves were then to have an awl driven through their ear into a doorpost by their master.[67] This ritual was common throughout the Ancient Near East, being practiced by Mesopotamians, Lydians, and Arabs;[58] in the Semitic world, the ear symbolised obedience (much as the heart symbolises emotion, in the modern western world), and a pierced earlobe signified servitude.

Working conditions

The Ethical Decalogue makes clear that honouring the Shabbat was expected of slaves, not just their masters.[68] The later[31][32][33] Deuteronomic code, having repeated the Shabbat requirement, also instructs that slaves should be allowed to celebrate the Sukkot festival.[69]

Although the Holiness Code instructs that during the Sabbatical Year, slaves and their masters should eat food which the land yields, without being farmed, it does not explicitly forbid the slaves from the farming itself, despite restricting their masters from doing so, and neither does it grant slaves any other additional rest from work during these years.[70]

Indeed, unlike the other law codes, the Holiness Code does not mention explicit occasions of respite from toil, instead simply giving the vague instruction that Israelite slaves should not to be compelled to work with rigour;[71][72] Maimonides argues that this was to be interpreted as forbidding open-ended work (such as keep doing that until I come back), and that disciplinary action was not to include instructing the slave to perform otherwise pointless work.[31][73]

A special case is that of the debtor who sells himself as a slave to his creditor; the Holiness Code instructs that in this situation, the debtor must not be made to do the work of slaves, but must instead be treated the same as a hired servant.[74] In Jewish tradition, this was taken to mean that the debtor should not be instructed to do humiliating work - which only slaves would do - and that the debtor should be asked to perform the craft(s) which they usually did before they had been enslaved, if it is realistic to do so.[31][73]

Injury and compensation

The earlier[31][32][33] Covenant Code provides a potentially more valuable and direct form of relief, namely a degree of protection for the slave's person (their body and its health) itself. This codification extends the basic lex talionis (....eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth...),[75] to compel that when slaves are significantly injured by their masters, manumission is to be the compensation given; the canonical examples mentioned are the knocking out of an eye or a tooth.[76] This resembles the earlier Code of Hammurabi, which instructs that when an injury is done to a social inferior, monetary compensation should be made, instead of carrying out the basic lex talionis; Josephus indicates that by his time it was acceptable for a fine to be paid to the slave, instead of manumitting them, if the slave agreed.[77] Nachmanides argued that it was a biblically commanded duty to liberate a slave who had been harmed in this way[31]

The Hittite Laws and the Code of Hammurabi both insist that if a slave is harmed by a 3rd party, the 3rd party must financially compensate the owner.[78] In the Covenant Code, if an ox gores a slave, the ox owner must pay the servant's master a 30 shekel fine.[79]

The Covenant Code clearly institutes the death penalty for beating a free man to death;[80] in contrast, beating a slave to death was to be avenged only if the slave does not survive for one or two days after the beating.[81] Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel, a 12th-century Provençal scholar, Targum, and Maimonides argue that avenged implies the death penalty,[31][73] but more recent scholars view it as probably describing a lesser punishment.[82] A number of modern Protestant bible versions (such as the New Living Translation, New International Version, New Century Version, etc.) translate the survival for one or two days as referring to a full and speedy recovery, rather than to a lingering death, as favoured by other recent versions (such as the New Revised Standard Version, and New American Bible).

The Deuteronomic Code forbids people from handing over fugitive slaves to their masters or oppressing them, and instructs that these fugitives should be allowed to reside where they wish.[83] Although a literal reading would indicate that this applies to slaves of all nationalities and locations, the Mishnah construes it to have the much narrower application to just those slaves who flee from outside Israelite territory into it.[84]

Slavery in the New Testament

In several Pauline epistles, and the First Epistle of Peter, slaves are admonished to obey their masters, "as to the Lord, and not to men".[85][86][87][88][89] However, masters were told to serve their slaves "in the same way"[90] and "even better" as "brothers",[91] to not threaten them as God is their Master as well.

The Epistle to Philemon has become an important text in regard to slavery; it was used by pro-slavery advocates as well as by abolitionists. [92][93] In the epistle, Paul writes that he is returning Onesimus, a fugitive slave, back to his master, Philemon; however, Paul also entreats Philemon to regard Onesimus, who he says he views as a son, not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Christ. Philemon is requested to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul.[94]

See also


  1. ^ Exodus 21:2-6
  2. ^ a b Leviticus 25:39-55
  3. ^ Deuteronomy 15:12-18
  4. ^ Ephesians 6:5
  5. ^ Timothy&verse=6:1&src= I Timothy 6:1
  6. ^ Exodus 21:2-6
  7. ^ Deuteronomy 15:12-15
  8. ^ Jeremiah 34:14
  9. ^ Leviticus 25:44-47
  10. ^ Exodus 21:26-27
  11. ^ Stringfellow, A Scriptural defense of slavery, 1856
  12. ^ Raymund Harris, Scriptural researches on the licitness of the slave, (Liverpool: H. Hodgson, 1788)
  13. ^
  14. ^ Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House
  15. ^ John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay, Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery
  16. ^ George B. Cheever, D.DGod Against Slavery, p. 140
  17. ^ Deuteronomy 20:10-16
  18. ^ Deuteronomy 24:7
  19. ^ Exodus 21:16
  20. ^ Exodus 21 - Pulpit Commentary. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  21. ^ Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman (main ed.), DoubleDay:1992
  22. ^ Leviticus 25:44-46
  23. ^ Leviticus 19:33-34
  24. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Exodus 21:2-11
  25. ^ Exodus 21:1-4
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2 vols). Raymond Westbrook (ed). Brill:2003
  29. ^ Leviticus 25:44
  30. ^ Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
  31. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Law, Codification of
  32. ^ a b c d Anthony Campbell & Mark O'Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch (2000)
  33. ^ a b c d William Edward Addis, The Documents Of The Hexateuch (2006), Volume 2
  34. ^ Exodus 22:2-3
  35. ^ 2 Kings 4:1-7
  36. ^ Gn. 25:1; cf. 1Ch. 1:32; Gn. 30:4; 31:17; cf. Gn. 35:22; 2Sam. 12:11; cf. 2Sam. 20:3
  37. ^ David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible, p. 273
  38. ^ , Exodus 21:7John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
  39. ^ cf. Leviticus 25:47-55
  40. ^ Exodus 21:7-10
  41. ^ Exodus 21:11
  42. ^ &verse=25:46&src= Leviticus 25:46 cf. 1Kings 9:11
  43. ^ Gill, Deuteronomy 15:12
  44. ^ , Leviticus 19:20John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
  45. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Leviticus 19:20-22
  46. ^ Leviticus 19:20-22
  47. ^ Exodus 21:2
  48. ^ Exodus 21:7-11
  49. ^ Deuteronomy 15:12; cf. Jeremiah 34:9,14
  50. ^ Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, Ex. 21:7
  51. ^ Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Ex. 21:7-11
  52. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Deuteronomy 15:12-18
  53. ^ Deuteronomy 15:13-14
  54. ^ Kiddushin 17a, baraita
  55. ^ Deuteronomy 15:18
  56. ^ Jeremiah 34:8-24
  57. ^ Jeremiah 34:9
  58. ^ a b c Thomas Kelly Cheyne and John Sutherland Black, Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903), article on Slavery
  59. ^ Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, Lev_25:36-41
  60. ^ Dr. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, Lev 25:40
  61. ^ Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, Lev 25:39-40
  62. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Go'el
  63. ^ Exodus 21:6
  64. ^ New American Bible, footnote to Exodus 21:6
  65. ^ Thomas Kelly Cheyne and John Sutherland Black, Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903), article on Slavery
  66. ^ The text uses the Hebrew term elohim. Translations that render this in the presence of Judges include the King James Version and the New International Version. Translations that use to the Gods or to God include the English Standard Version, New Living Version, American Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, and New American Bible.
  67. ^ Exodus 21:5-6
  68. ^ Exodus 20:10
  69. ^ Deuteronomy 16:14
  70. ^ Leviticus 25:1-13
  71. ^ Leviticus 25:43
  72. ^ Leviticus 25:53
  73. ^ a b c Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
  74. ^ Leviticus 25:39
  75. ^ Exodus 21:24
  76. ^ Exodus 21:26-27
  77. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:35
  78. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on Exodus 21:18-27
  79. ^ Exodus 21:32
  80. ^ Exodus 21:12
  81. ^ Exodus 21:20-21
  82. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), article on Avenger of Blood
  83. ^ Deuteronomy 23:15
  84. ^ Gittin 45a
  85. ^ Colossians 3:22-25
  86. ^ Ephesians 6:5-8
  87. ^ 1 Timothy 6:1
  88. ^ Titus 2:9-10
  89. ^ 1 Peter 2:18
  90. ^ Ephesians 6:9
  91. ^ 1 Timothy
  92. ^ Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, by John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay
  93. ^ God Against Slavery, p. 140, by Rev. George B. Cheever, D.D
  94. ^ Philemon 1:1-25

External links

  • Nave's Topical Index - Slavery
  • Slavery in the Bible. Glenn M. Miller
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