Biblical Slavery

Deuteronomy's legal treatment of slavery is more humane than the parallel laws in Exodus, and more practical than those in Leviticus.

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The following article is excerpted with permission from Conservative Judaism, volume 51:3, Spring 1999.

Exodus on Slavery

"When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.

"But if the slave declares, 'I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,' his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her.

"And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.

"When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other's property." (Exodus 21:2-11, 20-21).

Deuteronomy: A More Humane Version

Compare this so the parallel text in Deuteronomy:

"If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.

"But should he say to you, 'I do not want to leave you' for he loves you and your household and is happy with you--you shall take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity. When you do set him free, do not feel aggrieved; for in the six years he has given you double the service of a hired man. Moreover, the LORD and your God will bless you in all you do." (Deuteronomy 15:12-18)

The later, Deuteronomic text is more humane than that of Exodus; this is moral progress. I would now like to take this discussion a step farther. To the texts concerning slavery in Exodus and Deuteronomy, I will now add the laws of manumission in Leviticus 25:39-55.

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Benjamin Scolnic

Benjamin Edidin Scolnic is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden, Conn. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the editor-in-chief of Conservative Judaism magazine.?