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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Leviticus Goes Further

"If your kinsman under you continues in straits (lit. if your brother becomes poor) and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave. He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding. For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God."

"If your brother becomes poor" is the crucial clause. Even in early Israelite tribal society, "brother" was not only the son of your parent ("Am I my brother's keeper?" Genesis 4:8-9) but also a kinsman (Genesis 13:8; 14:14; 29:12 etc.). Just as an Israelite was obligated to protect, redeem, and avenge his brother, he also had these obligations to a kinsman (Exodus 2:11; Judges 14:3; Isaiah 65:20).

No Such Thing as an Israelite Slave

Here in Leviticus 25, however, the term "brother" means all Israelites. This is a breakthrough of earthshaking proportions. I am my brother's keeper and all Israelites are my brothers. If one of them falls into destitution, I must do everything I can to raise him out of his desperate straits.

No Israelite may become a slave. All Israelites are servants of God. God took the people out of the House of Bondage in Egypt to be free, not to be slaves. Just as the earth is the Lord's and is not ours to possess, so all Israelites belong to God and may not be possessed by other human beings, not by other Israelites and especially not by non-Israelites.

Leviticus is very clear: There is no such thing as an Israelite slave.

Why These Differences?

Deuteronomy, it would seem, is more humane than Exodus but less humane than Leviticus. Deuteronomy, for instance, states that the owner should give provisions to the freed servant, whereas Exodus does not have anything about this. In Deuteronomy, however, there is such a thing as the permanent bondage of an Israelite. Deuteronomy does not seem to have the same anti-slavery ideal as Leviticus.

This is not the moral trajectory that we would prefer. We would rather have Deuteronomy, the later text, as the more abolitionist text.

[Biblical scholar] Sara Japhet shares our concern [in an article in Scripta Hierosolymitana Studies in Bible] that Deuteronomy seems to be a step backwards from Leviticus. She wonders "...what might have prompted Deuteronomy, with its emphasized humane tendencies, to retain permanent bondage." Japhet explains that Deuteronomy is more realistic about life and society, that it takes "into account the exigencies of real life."

[Another scholar] Jeffrey Tigay. makes the crucial point that while Exodus and Deuteronomy require the manumission of servants after six years of service, Leviticus only requires the release of slaves in the Jubilee, the 50th year. Why would Leviticus not have the system of seven-year cycles?

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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.?