How the Mosaic Law Viewed Slavery

6/29/12

In our previous saint's-eye view, we recalled that Barack Obama has on occasion sought to discredit the Bible. In the 2008 Presidential campaign, he alleged that the law of Moses encouraged slavery. The definitive answer was provided by the constitutional lawyer Hayim Simha Nahmani, an esteemed jurist fifty years ago in the state of Israel. In Human Rights in the Old Testament, he concluded that "slavery in the Israelite society was discouraged." It was tolerated in some degree only because "it was a universal institution at that time" (1). Many separate lines of evidence establish clearly that slavery was not only discouraged, but viewed as a social evil:

  1. The law created a theocratic society, where the rightful owner of every man was God Himself (Lev. 25:55). Under a law treating men as God's property, no man could belong soul and body to another man (2).
  2. The only form of slavery that existed was voluntary servitude to pay off a debt or other obligation. In the modern sense, this could hardly be called slavery, since it was essentially a business arrangement. As Nahmani observes, "When ill luck visited a person, . . . he would sell his services and the services of his family for a number of years, sometimes indefinitely. . . . The Mosaic law allowed this kind of slavery because it was concerned only with the acquisition of rights to a person's labor, and not with ownership of body and life which belong to God" (3).
  3. The law limited the term of servitude to six years (4). At the arrival of the seventh year, any slave who was a fellow Israelite was to be set free (Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18). Notice that he was to take his whole family with him if his wife belonged to him before his service began.
  4. A slave could refuse his freedom after six years of service. No doubt the law included this provision as a gesture of mercy toward those slaves whose only alternative to serving in a wealthy household was abject poverty. Yet to remain in a good man's service, a slave had to endure a humiliating ritual (5). An awl was driven through his ear into the doorpost of the house where he desired to serve (Ex. 21:5-6). This provision was probably meant to make freedom look more desirable. It spurred slaves out of a comfortable setting into a world of uncertainties, where they would have to work industriously on their own behalf as free men. In other words, it was an incentive to free enterprise.
  5. In the Jubilee year, which came every fiftieth year, all slaves were to be set free, whether or not they desired to go (6).

It is evident that in its view of slavery as in its view of all social relations, the law of Moses at the foundation of Israelite society was unique in its day. No other ancient society was built on a legal code so imbued with concern for human rights. More comment on this appears in our essay, "Evidence That the Bible Is True and Reliable."

Footnotes

  1. H. S. Nahmani, Human Rights in the Old Testament (Tel Aviv, Israel: Joshua Chachik Publishing House Ltd., 1964), 80.
  2. Ibid., 78-80.
  3. Ibid., 80.
  4. ibid., 68-69.
  5. Ibid., 80.
  6. ibid., 70-71.