2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

Scriptures: Exod. 21:2-6; Lev. 25:39-42; Deut. 15:12-18. The Torah balances out fairness with generosity, yet it is still obviously situated in the ancient world–its own cultural context. It is always best to evaluate these ancient texts on their own terms and in their own times. Let’s see what we can discover. For comparison, this post includes the case of an indentured servant in colonial Philadelphia.

If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.

In all these three passages the background issue is the poverty of some Israelites and how to pay off debts because of their poverty. Is there any redemption or liberation from servitude? Let’s see how the Torah regulates these ancient conditions and practices–these cultural facts.

Exodus 21:2-6

Let’s start with these verses in Exodus 21, which say that a Hebrew man is bought.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

“But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Exod. 21:2-6, NIV)

Commentary

In this passage, these elements appear: Verse 2: The servant is a Hebrew, not a foreigner. He is an indentured servant, not a permanent slave, serving only for six years and then going free. (This is very much like indentured servitude in colonial America; no doubt England and America got this economic arrangement from the Bible.) There is nothing strange so far.) Verse 3: If he was single and leaves in the seventh year, then he goes alone. If he was married, he can take his wife.

Walter C. Kaiser says that the released man was a free man, indicating a restoration of his status. He truly was no longer a slave or servant (Exodus: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, comment on vv. 2-4, p. 430). Restoration to liberty and high status is always the final goal of indentured servitude.

The Biblical Theology Study Bible adds: “Such restrictions on the length any servant could serve is not found in other ancient Near Eastern legal collections and is the first example in these laws that resist permanent class distinctions between people, an ideal realized (with respect to spiritual status) in the Christian Gospel (Gal. 3:28)” (comment on vv. 2-3). However, this equality will be accomplished when the man has his freedom restored to him at his emancipation. But during his servitude, he indeed has an inferior status. He was not as free as a modern employee working at his modern job.

So far, all of this is reasonable and even improves on the ancient Near East. However, v. 4 seems to strike an odd note to our modern ears. Let’s first summarize the textual facts. The free man who took in the servant man gave him a woman to marry. Yes, this act of permitting marriage speaks of an inferior social position for the servant, but this superior-inferior status is also culturally expected–even in Colonial America. No surprise there. Now the new husband and wife have children. If he chooses to leave, his wife and children cannot go with him. That’s the odd note.

In the ancient Near East, there is a similar situation as the one described in v. 4. First, let’s define our terms. The servant was a pledge for a debt owed. His services were collateral or security until the debt was paid by his labor for six years.

Now for an ancient contract. In the city of Emar (thirteenth century BC) a contract shows that the pledge (the servant) could take his wife and children, but only if he met certain requirements. However, if the pledge failed to fulfill the terms of the indenture, then he could not take his wife and children with him. Evidently, the wife and children provided security for the master until the servant paid the debt or the terms were fulfilled. How does this relate to the passage in Exodus? “This law in in Exodus may be establishing what was standard procedure in these types of situations; modifications were probably allowed if clearly established in a contractual agreement” (John H. Walton, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Zondervan, 2016, comment on v. 4, p. 149).

Here is Douglas K. Stuart’s summary of the options for this indentured servant who has a wife and children. (1) He could wait for them to finish the terms of their agreement.  But where would he live and work when he was released from his indenture? (2) He could find a good job and earn money to redeem them from the master’s contract. But could he find a job good enough to pay for it? (3) He could work permanently for his master. He and his family would then have their basic needs met. But would he want to be a servant all of his life? (Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, the New American Commentary, Holman, 2006, comment on vv. 3-4, p. 480).

The bottom line: this rule in Exodus was mirroring the ancient Near East. The servant could possibly take his wife and children with him, but only if he met all the terms of the original contract. Evidently, however, v. 4 is reinforcing a warning to meet all of the obligations. If not, then the wife and children served as security until the man carried out the terms of the contract. The fact that they remained means the servant could not bolt and run.

Now what about vv. 5-7? It shows that masters and servants could grow attached to each other. The master liked the servant and his labor and therefore treated him well, and the servant liked the master and worked hard for him and appreciated the economic stability. Why not be a servant for life, in unstable economic times?

The custom of the ear piercing was just that–a custom. It visually symbolized permanence. Everyone could see the ultimate “signature” on a contract: a hole in the earlobe. Evidently, the Akkadian culture had a parallel practice, but with a little statue of the servant’s favorite god (Walton, comment on Deut. 15:17). This act served as a symbol of the slave becoming a servant for life and belonging to the master. However, the Hebrew Bible would never allow a statue of a god to serve as a substitute (idolatry was forbidden), so v. 6 ups the commitment, presumably to show to society that the commitment was permanent. An Akkadian, if he decided to escape, could just take his idol with him or leave it there. Not so with the Hebrew servant.

Leviticus 25:39-42 

Further, in the next passage, the servant sells himself, which is different from a man being sold in Exod. 21:2-6. Here he is a debt-slave due to his poverty. But my focus is on the Year of Jubilee acting as a great rescuer from all debts:

39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. (Lev. 25:39-42, NIV)

So the Year of Jubilee–every fifty years–was the Year of Liberation or Emancipation. The Hebrew wife and children could leave with the indentured servant. However, what happens if the man was indentured, say, forty years before Jubilee? Then, the contract spelled out the term of six years.

Verse 39 says that in the Year of Jubilee an insolvent servant could get his land back after he was forced to sell it. He could be released personally, which was coordinated with the release of his land. Walton: “When the man was finally able to repay the debt, along with any interest charges, he could redeem his family member(s) from slavery. If he sold himself into slavery, a relative, such as a brother, might try to redeem him. Redemption of persons was also practiced in Mesopotamia” (comment on 25:39, p. 226).

The Biblical Theology Study Bible is clear: Commenting on the phrase “On the year of Jubilee,” the commentator writes: “Even if the regular six years of the debt slave were not completed (cf. Exod. 21:2; Deut. 15:12), when the Jubilee year came around, all debt slaves were to return to their original family land” […]. So the six-year term is implied in these verses, and if the Jubilee came before the six years were up, the debt-slave walked away free.

In all of these different details, I like how Jubilee reveals the true intent and ultimate outcome of these indenture laws–liberty.

Deuteronomy 15:12-18

Deuteronomy 15:12-18 now mentions Hebrew men and women selling themselves for temporary service, due to their poverty. These verses clarify Exod. 21:2-6, as follows:

12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

16 But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant.

18 Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.

This passage is much more fulsome than Exod. 21:2-6. Verse 12: the same people are in view: Hebrews, but now they are men and women. And the same length of service: six years and liberation in the seventh are in view. Yet vv. 13-14 say not to let the servant depart emptyhanded and then advise the master on how to be generous–sharing from his flocks, winepress (jugs of wine, perhaps) and from the threshing floor (winnowed grain). The Lord has blessed the master with prosperity, particularly through the labor of the servant, so now it is time to return the generosity on the head of the servant.

Verse 15 is excellent, for it is a reminder that God generously redeemed Israel out of the land of slavery. It looks like the redemption was the same as liberation from the indentured servitude. Be like God.

Verses 16-17 is the same as Exod. 21:5-6, though I get the impression that the verses here in Deuteronomy are more generous and revealing of the household atmosphere. The servant loves the master himself and the master’s family, and the servant is prosperous through the master’s household and agricultural business. “In Israel, the slave who desired to pledge perpetual love / obedience to his master, because he loved his master (or more likely because he wanted to preserve a family he established while in servitude …) is highlighted. The master happily “adopts” him forever. The mark on the Israelite’s ear was a sign of mutually desired ownership, a master-slave relationship forever” (John H. Walton, comment on v. 17, p. 322). Walton went a little bit negative, when the text reveals generosity and the real love between the two parties. But his point is true, namely, that they are of the same household as long as they live. Unity and harmony. See Exod. 21:6, above, for more information about a parallel act of puncturing the ear in Akkadian culture.

Finally, v. 18 commands the master who is releasing the Hebrew indentured servant to be generous. The Biblical Theology Study Bible says that this free attitude contrasts with the Pharaoh whose hard heart would not release the Hebrew slaves at first (comment on v. 18). God reminds the master that the economic trade has been more than fair.

How has the service been worth double? Maybe because the servant worked like a hired hand, but did not get paid as a hired hand, so the master got double benefits: labor for free (Earl S. Kalland, Deuteronomy: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, comment on vv. 12-18, p. 106). Whatever the case, the master must be generous in releasing the servant, who now has his status of a freeman restored to him. If the master acts generously, then God will bless him.

I like how Walton summarizes the debt servitude in Exod. 21 and Deut. 15. He says that in Babylonia, a debt-slave could be kept in bondage until the debt was paid. That was the theory, but in practice the debt-slave remained in bondage until someone redeemed him from his slavery, which may never happen. The Code of Hammurabi remedied the bondage by limiting the length of service of a wife and children to three years. However Exod. 21 and Deut. 15 went further by limiting the time or service to six years, regardless of the amount of debt, and for both men and women.

Comparative Case: An Indentured Servant Woman in Colonial Philadelphia

Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1684

Margaret Pearson, a white indentured servant girl, had gumption.  She knew her rights.  Chester County court records for December 1684 say, “She complained against her master John Colbert for his ill usage and beating her contrary to law; ordered [by the court] that she be disposed of for seven pounds.”  Colbert broke the contract.  A month later, the court ordered Randolph Vernon and Robert Eyre, clerk, to look for a suitable master for Margaret.  So it was “contrary to law” for a master to abuse his servant.  She could seek from the court a way out of her indenture and look for a new one with another family willing to buy out the first contract.

The comparative lesson between the Torah and the rights of Margaret Pearson is that, first, indentured servitude has been around a long time, even before the Torah. Laws can evolve, as they did in Philadelphia, yet even the Torah accorded these servants certain rights and diminished the absolute power of the masters.

How does our knowledge of the Bible in its own context of the ancient Near East grow?

The institution of slavery was entrenched in the ancient Near East. It is only natural that the Torah would reflect the laws of its own culture (not ours). We should not demand of this ancient text, which did not fall down from the sky in its present form, to be so odd and outlandish that it must be an unrealistic utopia. Your demand is anachronistic. However, the Torah stepped in and regulated the people’s pre-existing practices. It also improves on its culture in a some of the details. For example, the Torah placed a six-year limit for both Hebrew men and women. In the year of Jubilee, they could go free before the six years expired.

Slavery in the Torah was not based on bigotry (unlike New World slavery), but on economic reality, as the ancients understood economics in their own times. In these laws, what God was doing was ensuring that fairness and generosity–both social virtues together–were the overarching rule or guiding principle within an inferior economic system, slavery, which the ancients engaged in. Whatever the status of the individual, slave or free, they were required to live holy lives before a holy God. So in fact, there is an element that rose above its culture: Strong moral and holy behavior, regardless of status.

In comparison, the New Testament assumes that slavery existed in the Roman empire. The earliest Christians at this time numbered several thousand. They were too politically weak and too few to abolish slavery. However, Paul wrote that if a slave could get his freedom, he should go for it (1 Cor. 7:21). He also denounced slave traders and their trade. Get rid of the traders, and the trade disappears (1 Tim. 1:10). In denouncing slave traders, he probably had these verses in mind:

Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.(Exod. 21:16, NIV)

If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deut. 24:7, NIV)

The severity of the penalty is in proportion to the crime, from the Torah’s ancient point of view.

It is interesting that Paul also said that if a slave could not go free, then he should do his work as unto the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. (Eph. 6:5-8, NIV)

Without a doubt this principle of cooperation and harmony comes from Exod. 21:2-6 and Deut. 15:12-18. Paul wanted the slave and master to get along. If the slave had converted to Christ, which seems to be the case in that passage, then he could be a witness to his unconverted master. Household peace and holy living and the gospel and God-based contentment in any circumstance are what Paul valued. The Lord will reward to each one for his goodness, whether slave or free. Masters better be kind to the servants and be good. Slaves better work well and be good. God was watching both.

ARTICLES IN THE SERIES

1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

3. Torah and Slavery: Impoverished Father Sells His Daughter to Be a ‘Secondary Wife’

4. Torah and Slavery: What Happened When Masters Punished Their Slaves?

5. Torah and Slavery: Protecting Slave Women from Injustice

6. Torah and Slavery: Foreign Slaves

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Slavery and Freedom in the Bible (an overview, for the big picture)

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How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

5 Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

12 Polygamy in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

As for the two links to Islam and the Quran, even though the Quran was written 600 years after Jesus, it still follows a misreading of the Old Testament and permits polygamy, if the husband is rich enough to afford it. In contrast, Jesus endorsed the couple in Eden [Matt. 19:4-6]. Let’s not go backwards.

SOURCES

Works Cited

 

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