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Human slavery

Supportive passages from the Hebrew
 Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament)

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Passages from the Hebrew Scriptures that sanction slavery:

There are many Bible passages which directly sanction and regulate slavery. Quoting from the KJV (except as noted) some of these passages are:

bulletThe Ten Commandments: Rabbi M.J. Raphall (circa 1861) justified human slavery on the basis of the 10th commandment. It places slaves

"... under the same protection as any other species of lawful property...That the Ten Commandments are the word of G-d, and as such, of the very highest authority, is acknowledged by Christians as well as by Jews...How dare you, in the face of the sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments--how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job--the men with whom the Almighty conversed, with whose names he emphatically connects his own most holy name, and to whom He vouchsafed to give the character of 'perfect, upright, fearing G-d and eschewing evil' (Job 1:8)--that all these men were slaveholders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?" 1

bulletExodus 20:17"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's."
bulletDeuteronomy 5:21"Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbor's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbor's.
bulletBeating and Killing Slaves: Although an owner could beat a male or female slave, she/he would have to avoid serious injury to eyes or teeth. The owner would have to avoid beating the slave to death. But it was acceptable to beat a slave so severely that it only disabled him or her for two days:
bulletExodus 21:20-21 "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money [property]."
bulletExodus 21:26-27 "And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake. And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake."
bulletEmancipation of Slaves: Slaves in ancient Israel were automatically emancipated after 6 years of slavery, but only if they were Jewish. However, if the slave owner "gave" the slave a wife, the owner could keep the wife and any children as his property.

Passages in Exodus state that female slaves who were sold into slavery by their fathers would be slaves forever. A corresponding passage in Exodus contradicts this; it required female slaves to be given their freedom after 6 years.

One could purchase a slave from a foreign nation or from foreigners living with them. These slaves would remain in slavery forever, unless the owner chooses to frees them An Israelite who was a slave could be freed by a family member or by himself if he had the money. The cost of freeing a slave was computed on the basis of the number of years to the next Jubilee Year; this could be 1 to 50 years. Male Israelite slaves were automatically freed during the Jubilee Year. Depending upon which verse was being followed, female Israelite slaves might also have been freed at that time as well. Foreign slaves were out of luck.
bulletExodus 21:1-4: "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself."
bulletDeuteronomy 15:12-18: "And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him."
bulletExodus 21:7: "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do."
bulletLeviticus 25:44-46: "Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly." (NIV)
bulletLeviticus 25:48-53: "After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself. And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he was sold to him unto the year of jubilee: and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years, according to the time of an hired servant shall it be with him."
bulletRestrictions on the Re-selling of Slaves: A slave was considered a piece of property, and thus could normally be resold to anyone at any time for any reason. However, special rules applied for Hebrew slaves. If a person bought a female slave from her father and she displeased him, he had no right to sell her to a foreign owner. If the owner required her to marry his son, then the owner was required to treat her like a daughter-in-law. If the owner marries his slave and later marries another woman, he was required to treat his slave as he previously had. If he violates any of these requirements, then she must be emancipated. But she would leave without any money or means of supporting herself; she would be free, but abandoned.
bulletExodus 21:8: "If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money."
bulletSexual Activity with an Engaged Female Slave: A man who rapes or engages in consensual sex with a female slave who is engaged to be married to another man must sacrifice an animal in the temple in order to obtain God's forgiveness. The female slave would be whipped. There is apparently no punishment or ritual animal killing required if the female slave were not engaged; men could rape such slaves with impunity.
bulletLeviticus 19:20-22: "And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the LORD for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him."

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bulletPurchasing a Brother as a Slave: If a man is sold into slavery due to poverty and his brother purchases him, then the man must be treated as a hired hand or as a guest of the brother. He would be not be free to leave, but was required to serve until the Jubilee Year, which occurs every 50 years. This would often require him to serve his brother for the rest of his life. Some translations (e.g. Living Bible) refer to"a fellow Israelite" rather than "brother." The fate of a woman being bought by her brother is unclear.
bulletLeviticus 25:39: "And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee: And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return."
bulletPunishment for Criminals or Debtors: A person who kidnaps a fellow Israelite and makes him a slave or sells him into slavery would be stoned to death. If a thief is caught and cannot make full restitution, he would be sold as a slave. A debtor who could not pay back creditors might be sold into slavery or have his children sold.
bulletExodus 21:16: "And he that stealeth [kidnaps] a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."
bulletDeuteronomy 24:7: "If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you."
bulletExodus 22:3: "...he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft."
bulletII Kings 4:1: "Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the LORD: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen."
bulletEnslaving Women Captives: In a foreign war, an Israelite could take any woman as a slave-wife, even if it were against her will. He would put her through what could be regarded as a period of ritual abuse. If he later dislikes her, he can grant her freedom, but cannot sell her to another slave owner.
bulletDeuteronomy 21:10-14: "When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her [i.e. rape her or engage in consensual sex], and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."
bulletDeuteronomy 20:14" "But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself"
bulletRunaway Slaves: If a slave runs away from his owner and comes to you, then you are not to return the slave to his owner. Rather, you are to let him live in any town in your area.
bulletDeuteronomy 23:15-16: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him."
bulletCircumcision of Slaves: A male slave would be required to undergo circumcision. This would be a very painful operation for an adult. It was life-threatening in the days before modern medical techniques. A small percentage of slaves would die from infection caused by the operation.
bulletGenesis 17:13: "He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant."
bulletGenesis 17:27: "And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him."
bulletPriests as Slave Owners: God ordered Moses to wage war against the Midianites, because the latter had attempted to convert the Israelites to their religion. They Israelite soldiers killed every male Midianite, but initially spared the lives of the women and children. Moses was angry at this act of mercy, and in an act of near genocide, ordered that all of the women and children be murdered in cold blood, allowing only 32,000 female virgins to live. All of the booty, including the surviving girls and virgin women, was then divided into two equal portions: one for the soldiers and the rest for the people of Israel. 0.1% of the slaves from the first half and 2% of the slaves from the second half were considered the Lord's share. i.e. they were to be given to the priests. The priests ended up with 365 female virgins; one for each day of the year.
bulletNumbers 31:28-47: "And levy a tribute unto the LORD of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep: Take it of their half, and give it unto Eleazar the priest, for an heave offering of the LORD.And of the children of Israel's half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD."
bulletSlaves Owning Slaves: Saul's slave Ziba owned 20 slaves of his own:
bullet2 Samuel 9:10: "...Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants."
bulletRaping Slaves: Being property, female slaves could be required to engage in sexual intercourse and become pregnant against their will. The perpetrator could be their owner, or anyone that their owner designates:
bulletGenesis 16:1-2: "Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai."
bulletGenesis 30:3-4: "And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her."
bulletGenesis 30:9-10: "When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife. And Zilpah Leah's maid bare Jacob a son."
bulletSlaves Given the weekly Sabbath off: Slaves were not required to work on Saturday.
bulletExodus 20:10: "But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:"

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Reference used:

  1. M.J, Raphall, "The Bible view of slavery," 1861-JAN-15, at: http://www.jewish-history.com/

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Copyright 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on ReligiousTolerance
Latest update: 2005-JUL-29
Author: B.A. Robinson

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