Slavery in ancient Israel

by James Johnson

In 2006 a film entitled 'Amazing Grace' was released. It was the story of William Wilberforce and the campaign to abolish slavery. Or rather to abolish the Slave Trade. Slavery itself has continued to this present day, even in the Western World.

What is not generally known is that slave owners in 1833 were compensated for the loss of the services of slaves. It amounted to £20 MILLION. In today's money that would be the equivalent of £22.6 TRILLION. The British Government took out a loan to pay out that £20 MILLION and it was only repaid in 2013 - 180 years later. The main recipients of this compensation were members of the House of Lords and Commons, and the Church and rich landowners. Britain was the world's largest slave dealers.

We think of slavery with abhorrence. - no nation or group or individual should own slaves. So a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ may find it difficult to accept the laws on slavery in the Hebrew Scriptures.

We are not troubled by the Egyptians having slaves, but when God's people, Israel, entered the Promised Land we may be troubled by the practice of slavery. We should not, however, equate Israelite slavery with slavery in the United States, for example. That involved kidnapping West Africans from their homeland for sale as slaves, followed by the perpetual enslavement of their descendants. The Old Testament condemns this kind of practice (Amos 1:6), and makes it punishable by death (Deuteronomy. 24:7; Exodus 21:16).

Israelites became slaves to one another not through kidnapping or unfortunate birth, but because of debt or poverty. Poverty may be caused by a disease epidemic or earthquake which are obviously beyond human control. Major causes are war and inept and corrupt government. "When the righteous are in power the people rejoice; when the wicked rule the people groan" (Proverbs 29:2).

Real grinding poverty is not necessarily caused by laziness or lack of education. Another cause is the death of a husband and father, leaving a widow and orphans.

For these reasons there will always be poverty, but wouldn't it be wonderful if a nation acted on laws which would mitigate the worst effects? That is the purpose of the laws given to Moses. Christ Himself said, in Matthew 26:11 that we would always have poor people.

Slavery was preferable to starvation, and people might sell themselves into slavery to pay off a debt and at least have a home. But the slavery was not to be lifelong. "If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free" (Deuteronomy. 15:12).

Upon release, former slaves were to receive a share of the wealth their work had created. "When you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you" (Deut. 15:13-14).

Unhappily, Ancient Israel was not consistent in following the laws God gave them at Mount Sinai. But when they were followed, the nation was blessed. Land is an important asset, especially in an agricultural nation like Ancient Israel. Land there was not held on freehold or leasehold agreements. Yahweh Himself allotted the land to the Twelve Tribes. They were not owners of the land, but tenants, as described in Leviticus 25:23.

If a man had to raise money he did not have, he could sell himself as a servant or mortgage his allotment. A relative could redeem him, in other words, pay off his debt. In any case, when the jubilee year came, he was released.

Israel was told to consecrate the 50 year and proclaim liberty throughout the land. This ensured that the family's allotment continued.

The law in Leviticus 25:39 protects the bond servants. He is not to be treated as a slave.

Verse 43 provides further protection: "Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God."

There are many protections for slaves or better, bondservants, including female slaves. The nation had to remember that they also had been slaves in Egypt. They knew what it was like.

Slave owners would be blessed by God if they dealt kindly with their slaves. Incredibly to us, there were slaves who wanted to stay that way, because their owners treated them well.

Immediately after the Ten Commandments, as recorded in Exodus 21, the very first thing He says is: "When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,' then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever."

Why piercing, why a door post, why blood, why the ear? Those questions are worthy of further study, but I will just mention the word we don't use much in everyday speech - 'hearken' as used in the King James Version. One example will suffice to explain it. Exodus 15:26: "If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes. "

So 'hearken' isn't just listen absent-mindedly in the background, but to actively hear and obey.
There is the story of Naomi returning to her home as a widow with her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth. They had no man to support or protect them. In Ruth's case it wasn't enough to acquire the allotment on redemption. On her death the family line would have ceased anyway. This is what the levirate law sought to prevent; a brother could provide offspring to continue the family name.

Many lessons can be learnt from this beautiful story of Ruth and her redeemer Boaz. But it is easy to forget that Boaz also needed a Redeemer.

(The English words "redeem" and "ransom" are often used interchangeably. In Hebrew, there are two words - PHDE and GAL. If we use the word PHDE to mean "ransom" and GAL to mean "redeem" we shall avoid confusion.

So what's the difference? "Ransom" relates to the claims of Yahweh, especially regarding the first born of man and beast. "Redeem" is properly used for human rights.

Why did Boaz need a Redeemer? Because "all have sinned and are wanting of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Boaz, like all human beings needs to be freed from the slavery of sin.

Humanly speaking, if these ancient laws were enforced everywhere, we would see real grinding poverty eradicated in one generation. The problem is Man does not have the means or the power to bring it about. Logically, if Man could do it alone, he would not need a Redeemer.

Thankfully, the answer does not depend on human beings. God will bring an end to poverty and every human woe in His own time. Cruel slavery will be ended, praise the Lord!

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© James Johnson

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