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 seems to care less about the individual than the family. At the end of the 50 years, the family would go free. The descendants of the individual would benefit and would regain their property. Leviticus is concerned that the clan's land should be returned to the clan. This is why a kinsman of the man in debt is allowed to buy the land earlier than the Jubilee.

From Tribal to National

In these texts, we see the move from tribal to national consciousness. The Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23 reflects a tribal society. Leviticus is still concerned about the family. By the time of Deuteronomy, the nation-state has replaced the family/clan/tribe as the key entity.

To review the outline of Israelite history: David and Solomon changed the tribal inheritances into federal districts, the northern tribes split into a second kingdom, many from those northern tribes were transplanted to Assyria. What was left, at least according to biblical history, was the kingdom of Judah.

What we need to understand in this context is that these events created a profound change that is reflected in the laws of Deuteronomy. This text asks: "Now that all Israelites are responsible for one another, now that we have seen our co-religionists and co-Israelites taken off to a foreign land, how will we respond? How will we keep the nation and the people intact and alive? How do we deal with the issue of slavery?"

Leviticus seems to be more humane than Deuteronomy, but in fact it is not. Following Tigay, Deuteronomy is the more humane text. The main issue is not status but time. Fifty years, to emphasize the obvious, is a very long time. If one becomes a slave at the beginning of the cycle as an adult, he would be a slave for the rest of his life. Six years as a hired laborer is manageable; 49 years is not.

Returning to Japhet's appeal to Deuteronomy's sense of reality, I will refer to the release of all slaves in 597. There was a brief emancipation of all slaves in this time of crisis. The Babylonians were at the gates. The slaves were released, apparently to help fight off the enemy. As soon as the crisis was over, the slaves were enslaved again. Jeremiah deplored these developments (Jeremiah 34).

This incident reflects the reality of slavery in the ancient world. Given this reality, given the human propensity to indebtedness, Leviticus looks like an impossible dream. Deuteronomy humanizes the Covenant Code (in Exodus) and works for significant reforms given the realities of its time.

Leviticus says that there is no such thing as an Israelite slave. Deuteronomy understands that there will be slaves and they must be treated well until they will be released. Combining the laws of the Covenant Code with the antipathy for the enslavement of an Israelite in Leviticus, Deuteronomy forged a compromise that was workable for its time.

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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.?