“And if the slave shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.”

Exodus 21:5-6

Exodus 21:5-6

What does it mean to be a slave? According to the Vocabulary.com dictionary, slavery is defined thusly: Slavery is the brutal practice of forcing someone to work hard without paying them a fair wage, sometimes without paying them at all. That is a perfectly adequate definition for modern America, but it is far from the reality of slavery in ancient Israel. In fact, the rules and commandments about slaves goes all the way back to Moses, before the people ever crossed into the Promised Land.

As you can see from the definition of avad (above), it actually means doing work that another desires you to do. Moses had just delivered the people from slavery in Egypt; wouldn’t you think they wouldn’t want to subject others to what they just came from? Well, that’s why Moses told them about how they should treat slaves.

The system of slavery in ancient Israel is nothing like the definition from Vocabulary.com. In fact, the word avad was used for both servants and slaves. The difference between the two involved why they were working for their masters. People generally became household slaves because they owed money they could not pay. A thief might become a slave if he could not make restitution. A family who was very poor might sell their young daughter as a slave, but that was the purview of the father alone. The mother had no say in the matter.

In order for a Hebrew to become a slave for debt, a court would have to make an order. The only other way for this to happen was for the slave to voluntarily become a slave. And even then, the period of his slavery could not exceed 6 years.

Reading Hebrew
Photo courtesy of Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

Slaves were members of the master’s household. They were fed, clothed, often given education, and had all their needs met. The Sabbath applied to them, too, so one day a week they were not required to work. They were circumcised and took part in God’s appointed festivals. If there was no heir (and sometimes if there were), a slave could inherit his master’s estate.

While they were living in the master’s household, the master only had limited rights over them. If the master mistreated them, they could be set free by the courts. And all slaves, no matter the reason for their slavery, were set free in the year of Jubilee. Anything that originally had belonged to the slave was returned to him at that point, including landholdings of his family.

If the master ignored the law and mistreated his slave and the slave ran away, others were to give him refuge, not return him to the wicked master.

After a slave was set free, he was not sent away empty-handed but was given gifts like a son leaving home.

“And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing floor, and out of thy winepress; of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee.”

Deut. 15:13–14

When a female was sold into slavery, the son of the master had to marry her. If he refused, she was set free. However, female slaves were only sold into slavery up to the age of 12, and only in the case of abject poverty. As soon as her father could afford to, she must be redeemed.

What about slaves who were not Hebrew? Alien slaves were rarely personal property. They became slaves through war and as such belonged to the king and not an individual. They were in servitude in perpetuity. “Ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession, of them ye may take your bondmen forever” (Lev. 25:46)

Today, slaves are sold, whether male or female, and with indifference to age. They are forced to work for others and are often sold to other owners. The things considered “work” that they must do are often horrific. They are starved, beaten, raped, and made to work for long hours without pay and certainly never allowed a “Sabbath.” But one thing is true: human trafficking and slavery today is nothing like slavery in ancient Israel.

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