Slavery was never God’s will. God created humans, male and female, in his image and gave them authority and dignity to take care of the rest of God’s creation but not to rule over each other. When the descendants of Jacob became slaves in Egypt, God heard their cry and liberated them from slavery.
Yet the historical Torah has provisions concerning slavery.
William Webb in a article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (48:2, 2005: 331-49) argued that we need to use a “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic” to understand these texts. What this means is that we need to compare the laws in question to their historical context. When we do this, we will see that the laws are moving in the direction of improving the condition of slaves, moving toward the ultimate abolition of the institution.
The assumption behind this way of reading the Bible is that God met people where they were and moved them in the direction he wanted them to go. Here are some of the improvement in the treatment of slaves found when the Torah is compared to its background:
1) Protection against murder. Unfortunately the law in Exodus 21:20-21 is often mistranslated, giving the opposite impression. The word translated “punished” is from the Hebrew root N-Q-M, which refers to vengeance. The law treats the murder of a slave as any other murder, subject to vengeance. If a slave dies from negligent homicide, it is treated the same as if the slave were a free man. The owner must pay a fine or “ransom” for his own life. Negligent homicide is not a capital crime because there was no intent to commit murder.
2) Protection against beating. In a world where corporal punishment was ubiquitous, a slave who was abused resulting in the loss of a tooth was granted freedom (Exodus 21:26-27).
3) Refuge for runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15).
4) Rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12).
5) Freedom after six years (Exodus 21:2).
Why was slavery allowed at all? Probably because it was so deeply ingrained in the ancient society and economy that people could not even comprehend its abolition. Rather than give an unrealistic ideal, the Torah provides actual help for slaves, while waiting for the day when slavery and all forms of injustice would end.
The most common way one became a slave in ancient Israel was through debt. A slave in effect sold his labor for six years to cancel out debts; it was the ancient form of bankruptcy. People fell into debt for a variety of reasons, but one common reason was crime. For example, someone who stole his neighbors ox was required to pay a five-fold restitution. Debt slavery was a way of working off this fine.
It may seem harsh, but is our system any better? We also deprive thieves of their liberty. Is our system actually better than the ancient Israelite’s system.
See the “Resources” page for more information on ancient laws.