In part 1 of this series, we saw that the Bible does not condone the kind of slavery we normally think of, but deals with a much more humane version, especially within Israelite society. But instead of ripping slavery out of the society all at once, in the Old Testament Law God begins to undermine the firmly economically entrenched institution of slavery by stopping abuses and commanding fair, humane treatment of those who enter into the slavery system.
But hold on, the skeptic says! There are some verses that, at first glance, seem to indicate approval of some unfair treatment of slaves. So let’s look at some of these passages:
Exodus 21:20-21- Is beating a slave OK?
This verse seems to say that if a man beats his slave and the slave doesn’t die for a day or two, then it’s OK, because “he is his money”. But first we must look at the context of the entire passage. It deals in general with injuries inflicted by one man onto another. Verse 12 teaches that a man who strikes another (not his slave) and kills him merits the death penalty. But verse 20 says the same thing concerning a man who strikes his slave and kills him, since the word for “punished” referring to the master always implies the death penalty. (1)
We also see in verses 18-19 that if the one stricken does not die, the striker must still pay him money for his lost wages and his health care. But again, in verse 21, we actually have a similar situation. If the slave died right away, the master was tried and put to death. If the slave “continued a day or two”, the master was given the benefit of the doubt that he was disciplining his slave and did not intend to kill him. But the master was far from getting away with it. Any physical discipline that caused permanent injury, such as the loss of an eye or tooth would result in mandatory release of the slave debt free (verses 23-27- These verses imply the same treatment whether the person stricken is slave or free.) And this also means, as we saw in the first article, that a slave does not have to stay with an abusive master.
So even if the master was not killed for it, he suffered heavy economic penalties. Part of the confusion concerning this passage comes from the phrase translated “for he is his money”. The proper translation of this part of the passage should be: “that is his money”, “that” referring to the money paid to the doctor for the injured servant, all the rest of his health care, and also the fact that the master was without the benefit of the servant’s labor. So in the case of striking the free man, the striker had to pay for health care and loss of the man’s work time, and for the slave, the health care costs and the loss of the slave’a labor. The fact that the master pays for these things factor into the determination of whether or not there was murderous intent on the master’s part.
Was this the final rule in the matter for God’s instruction to man? Of course not! Men’s hearts were still too hard for a drastic, all at once change. But this was the beginning. In surrounding societies there still was little to not restrictions on what a master could do to a slave, and so was a major step in God’s gradual plan to destroy the very notion of slavery. More on this in the part 3 article.
Leviticus 19:20-21- The Servant Girl: a double standard?
What we have here is a man who seduces a servant girl who is engaged to another man. The man is likely taking advantage of the superior/subordinate relationship to pressure her into doing what he wants. The seeming problem is in this verse, it says “they shall not be put to death, because she was not free”. But in Deut. 22:23-27, which talks about a man committing adultery with an engaged free woman, they are both put to death.
So does he get pardoned because she was just a slave woman? Hardly! This law was, as others in the Torah, designed to protect the vulnerable, in this case a servant girl who in her position would be an easy mark for sexual harassment and pressure to capitulate to a superior’s will (2). The girl isn’t punished like she would have been if they were two “consenting adults”, but the man has to make some expensive restitution in the form of a sacrificial ram. This law protects young girls who are sold into slavery for their debt or that of their parents. So God didn’t abolish slavery at this time, but again gave laws to prevent abuses.
Leviticus 25:42-49- Were Foreign slaves considered property?
If you read this passage it sounds like there is a distinction between native Hebrew slaves and foreign slaves, and that the foreign slaves are regarded as chattel, or property, as in the American South. But this was no where near the situation. Foreigners who came to Israel could not own land (Lev. 25:23) since it belonged to God who lent it to Israel. Yet if they embraced the God of Israel, they went from a status of a foreigner (nokri) to an alien (ger) who could eventually go from a household servant to a free person with wealth, although they would not be allowed to have Hebrew servants (Lev. 25: 42, 47-49).
Even if they didn’t embrace the God of Israel, they were to be treated with kindness:” but the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). But at the same time, it made sense that those who were prisoners of war or otherwise potentially hostile to Israel would not be put in positions of power right away, but rather start as servants. Unlike fellow Hebrews, they were charged interest for loans (Deut, 15:3, Exodus 22: 25, Lev. 25:36-37) because rather than needing money to keep from starving or to pay debt, they were often there for business only.
But how about the verses about being bought or sold as bondslaves if they were foreigners (Lev. 25:44-46)? The word for “acquire” does not necessarily mean to buy property. The same word was used of Ruth when she was “acquired” by Boaz (Ruth 4:10) as his wife (3). Boaz didn’t regard his wife as property! The buying and selling here were of their services, more along the lines of the trading of modern sports athletes. The foreign slave was still at a lower level than the Israelite slave, but again, as always, this is not the final decree by God in this matter.
Slaves, whether foreign or native, were to be given days off (Deut 5:13, and, unlike any other society, they ate at the master’s table with his family (Deut 12:18).
In the final article we will briefly look at slavery in New Testament times and also the overall trajectory of scripture on the slavery matter.
(1) Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2011, p. 135.
(2) Ibid. p. 139.
(3) Ibid., p. 146.
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