Slavery and labour law in the ancient Near East (Exodus 21)

The practice of slavery extends back into the fourth millennium B.C. and is attested widely throughout virtually all documented time periods of the ancient Near East. The institution likely originated when ancient peoples took prisoners of war and was later extended in other ways, such as enslavement for debt or for having committed a crime. Slaves, like livestock, were viewed as a form of property and were used as collateral and in dowries, as well as passed on to heirs.

Laws regulating slavery have been preserved from many ancient cultures (including those of Sumer, Nuzi, Babylonia, Assyria and Israel). The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (eighteenth century B.C.) reveals  much about such laws. According to this code slaves received some rights but clearly held a diminished status compared to the rest of society. This code limited debt slavery to three years and permitted slavery to be imposed upon negligent landowners and even spendthrift wives! Free citizens and slaves could intermarry, according to Old Babylonian law. Evidence dating to the first millennium B.C. also reveals that some slaves actually owned houses and land.

When we compare slavery laws in the broader ancient Near East to those of the Bible, both similaities and differences surface. The Old Testament regulated slavery, but the institution itself was never questioned (the same applies to the New Testament). Even so, limitations placed on slavery often were rooted in the Israelites’ personal experience as slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 15:15):

  • Unlike foreign slaves in Israel, who could be retained indefinitely (see Leviticus 25:44-46), a Hebrew slave (male or female) was to be released during his or her seventh year of servitude.
  • The slaveholder was obligated to supply a departing Hebrew slave with ample provision for a successful reentrance into society (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).
  • Exodus 21:5-6 records a rule (paralleled in Deuteronomy 15:16-17) concerning slaves who opted to remain with their masters for life. Such a slave was to have an ear pierced, a marking that demonstrated his or her voluntary lifelong servitude. Such markings on the ear, along with the practice of branding the skin, were also seen in Assyria.
  • Exodus 21:7-11 addresses the issue of a father selling his daughter into debt-slavery (presumably to become the wife of the buyer or of the buyer’s son), a practice that also occurred B.C. The buyer was not free to sell the girl outside of Israel should he choose not to keep her; he was obligated either to adequately provide for her needs or permit her to go free. Thus the Old Testament law protected not only the virtue of the young woman but also her socioeconomic situation.
  • Old Testament rules governing a female captive of war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) seem harsh to a modern reader but were actually quite humane according to ancient standards, by which such women would in most contexts have become the slave-concubines of enemy soldiers. The Hebrew rules required a captive woman to shave off her hair and trim her nail but also permitted her a month to mourn her situation (during this time the soldier who had captured her was not allowed sexual relations with her). This provision protected the captured woman from rape and gave the Israelite soldier a month long “cooling-off” period, during which he could decide whether or not he truly wanted her as his wife. If he opted not to marry her she was allowed to go free.

Such laws demonstrate the Bible’s alignment with the broader Near-Eastern cultural idea of slavery while, in most cases, uniquely circumscribing the limits of the practice in order to ensure more humane treatment of slaves in Israel.

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