6. Torah and Slavery: Foreign Slaves

Scriptures: Lev. 25:44-46 and Deut. 23:15-16 (and Exod. 21:16, again, with its parallel Deut. 24:7). As we have observed in this series, slavery was a cultural fact of the ancient Near East. When an Israelite bought a foreign slave or a foreigner residing among them, what were his obligations to care for them and what rights did the slaves have? This post also has two parallel cases in colonial Virginia.

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


44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 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. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. (Lev. 25:44-46, NIV)


In those verses, slaves were purchased from foreign nations. The Israelites could also buy foreigners among them. In their case, they became poor and worked in a more economically stable situation. It seems, further, that they were not liberated in the Year of Jubilee (see Lev. 25:8-13). So the economic environment was not perfect for foreigners. Native-born Israelites enjoyed more privileges of citizenship, like release after six years of indentured service (Exod. 21:2-6; Lev. 25:39-43; Deut. 15:12-18). Once again, the Torah accommodated its culture in this respect.

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

They would not go free on the year of Jubilee. However, the slaves could enjoy life together with their owners in Israel in these ways.

(1) They could enjoy a day off, on the Sabbath (Exod. 20:8-10; Deut. 5:14).

(2) They could not be coveted, as if they were property (Exod. 20:17; Deut. 5:21).

(3) They could celebrate with the family during a sacrifice (Deut. 12:12).

(4) They could enjoy various feasts of celebration with the family they served (Deut. 12:18).

(5) They could enjoy the Festival of Weeks and Tabernacles (Deut. 16:9-15)

(6) They could be punished for a crime (e.g. theft) with a nonlethal instrument, like a rod, but they had rights if the owner became abusive. If, for example, the slave lost a tooth or other bodily member, then he walked away free. The owner lost his economic investment. Sad to say, but if the owner became so abusive that the slave died, he was put on trial and could be executed.

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

(7) In Exod. 21:21, the NIV translates the Hebrew words ki hasbô hû as “since the slave is their property,” but it literally reads “because he is his money.” That is, “the point is not that men are mere chattel (which the NIV rendering tends to suggest), but that the owner has an investment in his slave that he stands to lose either by death (not to mention capital punishment as well) or by emancipation (vv. 27-28)” (Walter C. Kaiser, Exodus: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, p. 435). Slavery was an economic system–an unjust system–but the owner could lose his investment, if he went to extremes.

(8) Refugee slaves did not have to be returned to their original owner:

15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them. (Deut. 23:15-16, NIV)

They had freedom to live wherever they wanted, conducting business dealings, like native-born Israelites. (This is contrasted with American slave policies which did return slaves to their owners at various times in this country’s history.)

See Earl S. Kalland, Deuteronomy: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, comment on vv. 15-16, p. 143).

These verses explain how they were to be treated and loved:

33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:33-34, NIV)

If refugees could not be returned to their owners, then this motivated the owners to treat their foreign slaves well, or else they might run away, and the master could lose them and his investment.

I like John H. Walton’s summary of these slave laws:

In Israel, then the institution of slavery was not the result of bigotry or ethnic exploitation. It was an economic relief structure designed to deal with insolvency and its related threat to life and welfare that was all too common in agrarian society. It was supposed to reflect compassion, not oppression.

However, he then urges caution against sugarcoating how these laws were actually lived out:

This does not mean, however, that it was always successful or that it was somehow a God-appointed institution. God’s interaction with Israel was rarely designed to replace one shape of society with another. God was concerned that, whatever the shape of their social institutions, people should live out the holy status they had been given in association with a holy God. (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Zondervan, 2016,  p. 236)

So please don’t unrealistically expect from the Torah a radical revolution of the entire ancient Near East and its economic connection to Israel, which would transform society beyond what the ancient people could imagine. And don’t believe that God set up slavery as if he approved of it. Instead, God wanted compassion, not oppression. God wants holiness before him, regardless of one’s status back then.

First Comparative Case: Treating Free People Ruthlessly

Virginia: 1623/24

In this and the next case, the servants were not necessarily foreign, but if the slaves were black or Irish, they would have been considered foreign. The Torah said not to treat slaves ruthlessly. However, in colonial Virginia, 1623/24, one new governor, Sir Thomas Dale, was cruel to the citizens. Here is an excerpt from the actual letter, approved by the Virginia assembly, that was sent to King James I, complaining of the governor’s mismanagement and cruelties.

 […] Want [lack] of houses at first landing in the cold of winter, and pinching hunger continually biting made those imposed labours most insufferable, and the best fruits and effects thereof to be no better than the slaughter of his MAJESTY’S free subjects by starving, hanging, burning, breaking upon the wheel and shooting to death, some (more than half famished) running to the Indians to get relief being again returned were burnt to death, some for stealing to satisfy their hunger were hanged, and one chained to a tree till he starved to death; others attempting to run away in a barge and a shallop (all the boats that were then in the Colony) and therein to adventure their lives for their native country, being discovered and prevented, were shot to death, hanged and broken upon the wheel, besides continual whippings, extraordinary punishments, working as slaves in irons for term of years (and that for petty offences) were daily executed. Many famished in holes and other poor cabins in the ground, not respected because sickness had disabled them for labour, nor was their sufficient for them that were more able to work, our best allowance being but nine ounces of corrupt and putrefied meal and half a pint of oatmeal or peal (of like ill condition) for each person a day. […] Under this tyrannous government the Colony continued in extreme slavery and misery for the space of five years, in which time many, whose necessities enforced the breach of those laws by the strictness and severity thereof, suffered death and other punishments.

The fact that this letter was sent to the king indicates that laws were in place to prevent cruelty. My only point is that the Torah also had rules in place to order the masters to be kind, even to slaves and foreigners. The rationale: the Israelites experienced cruel enslavement back in Egypt. Therefore, they should be motivated not to oppress slaves.

Hardship in First Twelve Years in Virginia Colony

Second Comparative Case: Runaway Slaves and Servants

In this case, at a later time in Virginia’s history, many people ran away to Maryland, where the governors were were kinder and life was easier.

Virginia Assembly: April 2, 1677

This is item four in a list of complaints against the province of Maryland, which treated slaves and servants better than Virginia did. This complaint implies that it is the servants’ whims and moods that led them to run away, but life in Virginia was harsh and motivated them to flee.

This is a transcription of the text on record:

Our servants and slaves often run tither [toward Maryland] upon any fault committed, sullen humor [disposition] and disgust of theirs, and though care be taken there for their apprehension yet the charge [cost] and trouble sending after them fees, officers, and unreasonable demands of those who take [catch] them oft[en] exceeds the value of their time of servitude.

The government sent deputized agents to track down the runaways, but the cost of finding and capturing them often exceeded the value of their service. It was not worth the money to track them down.

Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion

The Torah said no one is allowed to return a runaway to his original master. This was a merciful ruling and motivated the master to treat the slave or servant well and kindly, in order to take away his motive to escape.

It surprises me that there are so few verses covering foreign slavery in the Torah. I believe this is because the prosperous Israelites could more easily deal with their native-born Israelites and hired them as indentured servants. They were closer at hand, in the same neighborhood. Foreign slaves may be more prone to run away and then not have to be returned (see point no. 8, above).

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

The ancient peoples of the Near East believed that slavery was normal. The Torah accommodated this brute fact. We should not demand of the Torah, which did not fall down from the sky in its present form, to be so out of touch and outlandish that it must impose an unrealistic, revolutionary utopia on the ancient Near East and replace one society with another one.

Evidently, these ancient people believed that their entire economy depended on the (unjust) institution of slavery. Yet the Torah assumes that abolishing slavery would have been much too disruptive and revolutionary for the economy of the ancient world in its own times. Instead, the Torah, working within this unjust system, regulated slavery.

The Torah’s slave laws were not based on bigotry (as it was in the New World). The following law says that kidnappers operating in the land of Israel must be executed, indicating how serious the crime was:

“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)

So a slaver could not look for a certain race and target them for slavery–or anyone who was weak and powerless. The severity of the penalty indicates the severity of the crime.

But outside of Israel these Misérables were sold on the marketplace. If the ancients had simply stopped the slave markets, then most slavery would have disappeared, over time. In the New Testament, Paul denounced slave traders and their trade in the Roman empire (1 Tim. 1:10). In denouncing the slave trade, he probably had Exod. 21:16 in mind. Paul also said that if a slave could get his freedom, he should go for it (1 Cor. 7:21). So both the Old and New Testaments accommodated the unjust economic practice of slavery because the people were not powerful enough to abolish it. Too entrenched.

Paul also writes in the slavery section of his epistle to the Ephesians:

[…] the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph. 6:8-9, NIV, emphasis added)

If masters were not allowed to threaten them, then they were not allowed to beat them. God will settle the accounts if a master treats the slave unkindly. So Paul regulated the brute fact of the Roman empire, just as Moses did in his own culture.

In summary and substance, the Torah restricts the absolute authority of the owner and offers rights to the slaves. The owner did not have total control over them.

The Torah accommodates and fits in with its culture–which a fair reader should expect from an ancient text–but it also rises above its culture and implements all sorts of laws which honors the dignity and humanity of the slaves.

And so it is not true that American slave laws and practices were based completely on the Torah. In fact, in my multipart series, I have learned that it is hard to find an American colonial law or practice which is better or even equal to the Torah. The opposite is true: The ancient slave laws were often better than American slave laws and practices, relatively speaking.


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

7. Torah and Slavery: Marrying Captives of War


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

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

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

As for the link 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 slavery. Let’s not go backwards.


Works Cited


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