Slaves in the Old Testamant and Ancient Near East

This is another response to rautakky. His original comment is on this page:

Let’s think about the liberty issue. I fear you are forgetting that slavery in the OT was very different from the other types of slavery (in the other ANE nations, the roman empire, the new world, etc.) A slave did not become less human because they sold themselves as slaves in the ANE. It wasn’t about race. (You speak as if you have forgotten that). Let’s go over several points.

These are not data for Israel specifically, but for the Ancient Near East. Some things would have been different in Israel, but this ought to give you an idea of what we are speaking of.

1.The issue of ‘slave’ vs ‘free’

“Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.”- A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law 1.40

2. Slavery in the ANE was implemented for the benefit of the poor, not the rich. It was their escape from poverty. It was initiated by the potential slave, not the potential buyer.

3. Entry was overwhelmingly voluntary.

“A person would either enter into slavery or be sold by a parent or relative. Persons sold their wives, grandchildren, brother (with his wife and child), sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephews and niece…Many of the documents emphasize that the transaction is voluntary. This applies not only to self-sale but also to those who are the object of sale, although their consent must sometimes have been fictional, as in the case of a nursing infant.” [A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law 1.665]
“War is only mentioned as a source of slavery for public institutions. The most frequently mentioned method of enslavement was sale of children by their parents. Most are women, evidently widows, selling a daughter; in one instance a mother and  grandmother sell a boy…There are also examples of self sale.” A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law 1.199

4.Slaves were protected from excessive punishment and abuse and the records of the day generally indicate humane treatment

“[Slaves were generally afforded protection from] Excessive Physical punishment. Even chattel slaves appear to have benefited to some extent from this protection” – A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law 1.43
“First, let us set apart the slaves–the booty of war or in servitude for various reasons–who by definition were totally dependent on their masters, although the latter appear to have treated them fairly humanely, and more like domestic servants.” – Everyday in Ancient Mesopotamia, 114


“Moreover, in general there were probably only a few in each household [in Israel]–there is no indication, for example, that large gangs of them were toiling in deplorable conditions to cultivate big estates, as in the later Roman world” [The Israelites:101]

“Both types (Hebrew, foreign slaves) were domestic slaves living in their owners’ homes, not members of slave gangs working on plantations.” [Notes, Jewish Study Bible, Ex 21]

6. Slaves were regarded as persons and had legal rights. For instance, they could partake in business, borrow money and buy their own freedom

“The definition of slaves as property runs into conceptual as well as empirical problems. ‘Property’ is a shorthand and abstract term for a bundle of very specific and relatively exclusive rights held by a person (or group) relative to a thing (or person). To say that in any given society, something (say, a person) is ‘property’ has meaning only to the extent that the rights involved are specified and understood in the context of other rights prevalent in the society. For example, in many precolonial African societies, the kin group had the right to sell equally its slave and nonslave members, it had equal control over the wealth acquired by either of them, it extracted (or failed to extract) as much labor from one as from the other, and the majority of slaves were quasi-relatives or actual relatives, and, if prosperous enough, could acquire slaves of their own. Here, obviously, one must look at other features to find the difference between the slave and the ‘free’.” Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology 4:1191, s.v. “Slavery”

“Guterbock refers to ‘slaves in the strict sense,’ apparently referring to chattel slaves such as those of classical antiquity. This characterization may have been valid for house slaves whose master could treat them as he wished when they were at fault, but it is less suitable when they were capable of owning property and could pay betrothal money or fines. The meaning ‘servant’ seems more appropriate, or perhaps the designation ‘semi-free’. It comprises every person who is subject to orders or dependent on another but nonetheless has a certain independence within his own sphere of active.” [A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law:1632]

“However, the idea of a slave as exclusively the object of rights and as a person outside regular society was apparently alien to the laws of the ANE.” [Anchor Bible Dictionary s.v. “Slavery, Ancient Near East”]

7. In the ANE, manumission was rare because it wasn’t sought after. Slaves liked the job security, among other things.

“More usually, individual autonomy has meant exposure to danger and predation; safety lay precisely in the protection afforded by the bondage of dependence on groups and patrons. What was desirable was not freedom but belongingness.”  Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology 4. 1191

In fact, the OT law suggests that the slave might want to remain with his master too because being with him is good

“And if it happens that he says to you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you…” Deut 15: 16

I’m trying to make a point with this. You make certain statement like,

“The loss of liberty has a terrible toll on people. When people become enslaved they become apathetic. But they also might become vengefull, they might even engage in terrorist action. As a result the society of the enslaving people becomes militarist. The treshold for violence goes down. Slavery reduces human dignity and the general value of human individuals becomes less in the eyes of all involved. Segragation grows between the two groups. And if there is a legal escape clause from slavery, people who are not slaves start to think it is their own fault that these people are slaves. Such clauses are added to slavery laws to smoothen up the guilty conscious of the owners about the oppression slavery is.”

These statements betray a certain mindset about what you believe slavery to be, how you think slaves were treated and what you think slaves were regarded as. Slaves in the OT were not thought of as sub-human. They had the right to their own lives, they had ‘human dignity’, they had value.  These are things one can easily deduce from the fact that they could buy their own freedom, their murder was punishable by death, the were not allowed to be punished beyond the punishment for other free Hebrews. In addition to all of that, they had their own property (whatever they had owned before selling themselves, the money paid to them for the sale, they could ‘prosper’ and buy themselves back). In the case of Hebrew slaves, their master gave them a portion of all he had made during the time they served him when they went free after 6 years. They were regarded as part of the family and participated in feasts. They could even eat the sacred offerings if they belonged to a priest (something that no one but members of the priest’s family could do). In other words, anyone who has read the Pentateuch well enough should be able to see this.

There were no ‘two groups’, no segregation, no loss of dignity (any more than the people lost dignity by being referred to as slaves of the king), no inhuman treatment, no apathy. In short, you have mistaken slavery in the OT for something else. This is my fault of course. I ought to have laid this groundwork earlier in our conversation.

Now, if you wish to argue that the slavery in the OT, a perfectly humane system implemented to help the poor of the society, affected them adversely when the rules were followed, do so using facts. Also respond to the facts that I cited here, preferably as comprehensively as I have.


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I’m Tracy

4 thoughts on “Slaves in the Old Testamant and Ancient Near East”

  1. Well, well. First of all my name is rautakyy, not “rautakky” as it seems to be sometimes written. I understand that this seems to be a bit of a hardship for the indoeuropean language speaker, and I admit I constantly mispell English, because it is not my native tongue. To explain this the letter “y” represents a vocal in my native Finnish and two of them just make the vocal longer. I have no idea if this is helpfull in any way.

    In your example of your child it is actually your emphaty for him, that tells you to punish him. Because as a human being you do have the capacity to understand the reprecussions of your actions beyond the immidiate results. I ask you not to use corporal punishment, because of my empathy towards both you and your child. My understanding is that this will be better choise for both of you in the long run.

    In my school we were never punished physically and infact there is a law in Finland that forbids such. Why? Because corporal punishment is seen as unethical and is known to often lead to a situation where people learn to obey rules of the society only, if they have some severe punishment awaiting for braking them. We were not unruly kids. Our teachers knew how to gain our respect withoug frightening us by corporal punishments. I am no yougster any more and the teachers I had were mostly quite old people. The tradition of not using corporal punishment in schools is quite old here in Finland and for decades we have had very good results in the PISA learning tests. There is a problem with such kids, whose parents had used corporal punishment, in that they had only learned to respect violence, so other kind of respect was more difficult for the teachers to gain from them, but somehow they allways managed. That sort of kids were allready in my time in the minority and with some special love and care our teachers could bring them into order. Kids are fortunately quite flexible.

    1. In no kingdoms there never were citizens. A citizen means to be an equal partner in a society. Kings have subjects. But if the subject becomes a slave she/he becomes an object.

    2. If a poor person is forced to give up liberty, because of his/her poverty, to put her/his workeffort to support the economy of the rich man, the system is for the gain of the rich man, not the pauper. The fact that the law demands the rich man to take care of the basic needs of the slave does not transmute the system into social wellfare it may only have some sort of charity label as a result, but it does sound like a quite questionable form of charity, does it not? We still have a powertystricken person who is forced to give up freedom and become a slave with no crime committed. Should any other person be forced to give up their freedom, other than a person who has abused the natural state of freedom we have?

    3.No free person gives up their freedom voluntarily. Would you? If you are forced to give up your freedom because of poverty it is not ethical. Not by any logic. Using POWs as labour force, not to speak as slaves, is forbidden in modern world. It is universally accepted as inhumane, and unethical. It would be total cultural relativity to claim this was somehow less wrong in the antiquity, because the obvious reasons why this has been deemed wrong today, existed in those days allready. Human suffering has not changed one bit.

    4. It seems you and I define “humane” differently or then that term is offered in a very ambiguent and relative form. Licence for an owner to beat his property the slaves is not humane in my book and in fact it is not ethical either, because violence is ethical only as a response to violence. But if you actually come from a culture where a teacher has a license to beat students, I guess I can see why you find this hard to understand.

    5. The fact that there has been even a greater evil or more terrible conditions to slaves, than those in OT Levant, does nothing to diminish the fact that owning a nother person is unethical. Does it? In that sense the slavery as in Biblical terms is the most common form of slavery. Most slaves in tribal cultures of the ancient world, were held in “relatively good conditions” in comparrison to what ever worst example you can come up with. Does that somehow justify them being enslaved?

    6. The licence to own a nother person in a sense that you can buy or sell that person is obviously wrong. Right? Do we have the right to restrict the freedom of any person who has not committed a crime of abusing the freedom? Even by making them semi-free. Modern prisons have had good results by punishing first timers and people who have not committed serious crimes by giving them semi-freedom. But we must remember that the alledged “voluntary” slaves in the OT
    had not committed any crimes unless it was a crime to become poor, or be born into a poor family.

    In most slavery cultures the system of possibility for the slaves to supposedly buy themselves free, was not there for the poor, but to satisfy the conscience of the owner. Of course they had bad consciences, for with minimum amount of information and minimum appliance of compassion anyone can come to the conclusion that owning a nother person and limiting their freedom, when they are not guilty of any crimes is unethical and plain wrong.

    7. If the slavery in the OT times was as pleasant as you would describe it to be, then why call it slavery in the first place? The serfs in medieval Christendom had the right to own stuff and supposedly pay themselves free, but they were slaves none the less. They were the property of the landlord and had no say in the society about any descisions. Their freedom was restricted, and they had no allowance to move to other areas in search for better employment or job. Some of them were basicly happy, but only because they feared for the worse, like being outside of society and starving to death. Their masters were licenced to beat them up, but not kill them and the main motivator of the master to beat up his serfs was to make them work harder. Slave labour tends to be innefective, because what does the slave get from it if he/she works harder. A small portion? That rarely motivates anyone to labour harder. Be honest. Was that system OK too? It did not differ much from the OT laws. You see, when the ideal is removed from the religious context, it suddenly might not seem so brilliant at all. I hope at least. 😉

    Should I defend the UN here a bit. It is an international organization that is amalgaming the multitude of cultural morals we have achieved as humanity on this world. They have managed to pick out beneficial parts of the many different aspects to social conduct to form universal rules, that ethically far surpass those of the empires that sought to enslave people or the ancient tribal moralism many religions carry as a cultural heritage baggage. It is the evolution of ethics and morals that is visible in their resolutions. Hence, their opinion on right and worn does matter as a set of rules that forms modern morals that does not justify any sort of slavery.

    I think I have pretty much answered you questions before and in this post, but if it helps, I will play your game for now. Since it is clearly my fault that you have not been able to understand what I mean, from my ongoing rambling… Though I must admit I am getting a bit bored.

    Slavery in tho OT system was quite moral in their society and in comparrison to the surrounding societies. I have not ever claimed it was immoral.

    What I have allready claimed was that slavery in the OT system was unethical because:
    1. Restricting a persons freedom, while that person has not abused that freedom is unethical. Correct?
    2. Licence to violence towards a nother person for any other reason than as a response to violence is unethical. Correct?
    3. Using POWs as a slave work force for the government is unethical. Correct?

    If the law about slavery came from an omniscient and omnipotent god who alledgedly loves humanity, it could have been less culturally relativist and more beneficial. Why not?

    At this point I am perfectly happy to come to the conclusion that we agree to disagree about this issue. What about you?

    1. Oh, I never thought we were going to agree but this was fun while it lasted. Sorry for the misspelling. I speak English so so extra y’s don’t make much sense to me. 🙂 Have a wonderful day.

  2. As I said before, it has been very interresting to have this conversation with you. Just like it should be between two civilized persons. I think I have learned from you a greate deal. I will be very busy for some time from now on, and propably have no time to write much comments here. Besides we have this issue about the OT slavery pretty much covered, at least on my part. Of course if you have additional info I will be eager to read about it.

    A wonderfull day to you also, and may fortune bring you happiness. 🙂

    1. I could never imagine that I had anything covered. There’s always so much more to learn. I do think I understand the both of us better, however. Our difference on this issue is mostly in what we believe slavery to be.

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