Generally speaking the Torah slavery/servitude laws were put in place to alleviate poverty and provide families for orphans and communities for aliens. They are no less than an ancient form of social welfare law.
The Torah instructions concerning slavery or servitude are largely concerned with alleviating poverty within the multi-tribal community of Israel during her wandering period and as a precedent set for moral practice when entering the promised land.
Set against the backdrop of an ancient world where enemy nations sought to wipe out the people of Israel the regulations regarding foreign slaves/servants differed for good reason. Foreign slaves/servants were often the product of both defensive and offensive warfare. Therefore, different laws were needed for the treatment of foreign slaves/servants because the bitterness of war would often lead to resentment and derision in the hearts of those who had become members of the wider commonwealth (community) of Israel as slaves/servants.
God’s plan for Israel as it is revealed throughout the Tanakh (OT) requires her to be a light of morality to the then largely immoral nations who surrounded her. Therefore, as an expression of Israel’s familial tribal unity God made certain that those who were of the tribes of Israel (Hebrews) were given familial treatment when impoverished, whereas those who were foreigners and often enemies of Israel were required to continue to pay their debts to Hebrews while serving the community, and were to be treated justly. God instructed fair treatment of foreigners, reminding Israel that she was “once a slave/servant to Egypt.”
Therefore, generally speaking, if the text of the Torah is properly read from the Hebrew or Greek (Septuagint) the conclusion reached concerning the laws of slavery/servitude is one of justice, restitution, charity and distinction.
In many ways the differences in the laws for native and foreign slaves/servants is similar to the difference in laws between citizens and non-citizens in modern western democracies. In socialist democracies where a citizen may pay taxes for healthcare and thus receive healthcare without additional payment, a foreigner is nonetheless required to pay for healthcare up front to offset the cost. This is not considered unjust or unreasonable.
Much of the modern misunderstanding of the Torah text as it pertains to slavery/servitude comes as a result of viewing history, religion, ethnicity, language, and culture through the lens of a neo-postmodern worldview. This has manifest itself as historical and cultural revisionism and often misapplies new thinking to ancient documents. In this case the Bible.
Slavery – Servitude:
The Hebrew “eved” can mean “servant, slave, paid servant etc.” Context and qualifying words define its meaning within the text. However, the root “avad” literally means “to serve.” Therefore, when we lack qualifying terms we should always read “servant.” This fact alone defuses many of the misunderstandings surrounding the so called “problematic slavery” passages of the Torah.
Correctly reading and understanding Shemot (Exodus) 21:20-21
A Standard English Translation:
20 “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies [a]at his hand, he shall [b]be punished. 21 If, however, he [c]survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his [d]property. -Exodus 21:20-21 NASB
What the Hebrew literally says:
Exo 21:20 וכי־יכה אישׁ את־עבדו או את־אמתו בשׁבט ומת תחת ידו נקם ינקם׃
Exo 21:21 אך אם־יום או יומים יעמד לא יקם כי כספו הוא׃
Verse 20 (Transliterated Hebrew and English)
Vechiy-yakehH And if/because he (leader of the household/father) strikes iyshH a man et-avdoH the paid male servant of his (v.21 qualifies the specific type of servant in question) o_H or et-amatoH the paid female servant of his (see prev. ref.) basheivetH with a branch umeitH and that one dies tachatH under yadoH his hand (leader of the household/father) nakomH avenge/punish yinakeimH with the most severe punishment.
Verse 21 (Transliterated Hebrew and English)
AchH Howbeit if im-yomH within a day o_H or yomayimH a period of days ya’amodH continuing to stand (the paid servant) lo yukamH do not punish (the leader of the house) kiyH because chaspoH he (the leader of the house) is the source of money/income hu_H for him (the paid servant).
A better reading in modern English would be:
And if the father of the household unreasonably disciplines/strikes the paid servant, either male or female with a switch (stick) and kills that one by his own actions, he should be punished to the full extent of the law. However, if in spite of the father’s unreasonable actions the paid servant lives and continues to require financial support and a place to stay. Do not punish the father (leader of the household) to the full extent of the law because the paid servant is reliant upon him (the father) for his or her income, shelter, food and clothing. (Author’s paraphrase)
With regard to ancient Israel and her wandering (nomadic) lifestyle surrounded by enemies as she approached the promised land, the subject of the servitude of foreigners cannot be properly understood through the lens of a modern revisionist view of Biblical history.
In the context of the passage of Scripture in question the servant is not a “Slave” in any sense, modern or otherwise. We know that the Hebrew root “avad” means “to serve” and the Hebrew noun “eved” means “servant. Therefore. The only question is “What kind of servant are we reading about?” The answer is in verse 21 where we read that the servant is reliant on the household leader for his or her income. Thus the servant in question is a paid servant who is a member of the household. Therefore, this law has more in common with domestic abuse laws in modern western democracies than it does with any form of slavery.
In the case of the paid servant it was most common for that person to be considered a member of the ancient Hebrew household and to be reliant on the household leader and the household collectively for shelter, clothing, food and any additional income that might be needed. Therefore, for all intents and purposes this person was no different from the modern live in nanny or gardener.
The “striking” yakeh (strike, hit, beat, slay, smite etc.) has so many meanings that it can convey everything from a light slap to a severe beating. This is why we are best to understand the present passage as a situation where an unreasonable disciplining is performed, and in the case that it leads to death is considered a vile act of murder. That is why the Torah requires the most severer of punishments by doubling the Hebrew root nakam meaning “to avenge”.
Finally, in ancient Israel a paid servant had few prospects outside of the home in which he or she lived, and in the case of being a foreigner was likely to be devoid of familial connection within the community. Therefore, the very existence of that person was reliant on the provision of the household in which he or she resided and worked. This is why the text says, “If the servant survives the beating the leader of the house should not be put to death or maimed because his status, income and property are the means by which the servant survives…” To remove the servant’s means of income and security because of the foolish actions of the leader of the household would be tantamount to punishing both the servant and the other members of the household. The text does not mean to say that the leader of the household will go unpunished but that he will not be punished to the level of severity prescribed in the case of murder. Thus, he remains to provide for all the household including the servant for whom he has an obligation of care.
Correctly reading and understanding Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:45-50
Some complain that the Torah’s treatment of foreigners regarding slavery/servitude in ancient Israel is inequitable and unfair. It is true that it is inequitable and for good reason, as I’ve said previously the majority of foreigners who were living among the Israelites had found their way into the community through warfare and or by fleeing other nations bringing their differing religious views and resentment for Israel with them. God had set Israel apart to be a light of His morality, a light He did not want defiled by false belief and idolatry. Therefore, He made a distinction between the laws concerning the native Hebrew and those concerning foreigners. These laws were intended to protect Israel and teach those foreigners living among her the morality of the One True God. Therefore, it is not true that God’s law in this regard is unfair.
A Standard English Translation:
45 Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have [a]produced in your land; they also may become your possession. 46 You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your [b]countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.47‘Now if the [a]means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient, and a [b]countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to him as to sell himself to a stranger who is sojourning with you, or to the descendants of a stranger’s family,48 then he shall have redemption right after he has been sold. One of his brothers may redeem him,c]if he prospers, he may redeem himself.50 He then with his purchaser shall calculate from the year when he sold himself to him up to the year of jubilee; and the price of his sale shall correspond to the number of years. It is like the days of a hired man that he shall be with him.” -Leviticus 25:47-50 NASB
Given what we have already learned concerning the context of ancient Israel’s servitude laws it is sufficient to use this English translation and illuminate several Hebrew word meanings in order to clarify it for the modern reader.
In this passage the Hebrew kanah translated “buy” essentially means “to create, acquire”. Therefore, it is overly simplistic to translate “buy”.
The Hebrew “achuzzah” meaning “to possess” from the root “achaz” meaning “to grasp, take hold of,” does not mean “to treat as an object” but rather “to take hold of” as a member of the family. In the context of this passage, to bring into the wider family. To make part of the familial inheritance for future generations. This is why the modern people of Israel are so diverse. It is because other bloodlines married into the Hebrew bloodline and have created a convergent blood line based in Hebrew ethnicity. DNA science has now progressed to show a common DNA marker shared by Jews from the east (Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Morocco etc.) and Jews from Europe (Italy, England, Germany, Russia etc.) this even though they also have other differing DNA markers. The reality is that many of the foreigners being spoken of in these texts eventually became a part of the lineage of Israel. We see this in the case of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho and Ruth the Moabitess among others. Therefore, to read “possession” in the sense of ownership is to entirely misunderstand the text and its context.
Leviticus 25:45-47 Line by line
45 Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have [a]produced in your land; they also may become your possession.
Paraphrase for the modern reader:
“Also you may acquire workers (who will eventually become part of your wider family) from the foreigners dwelling among you, and from their descendants too if they need work as servants, because they are with you, and they can become part of all you possess as a people to pass on to the next generation…”
46 You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your [b]countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.
Paraphrase for the modern reader:
You’re welcome to take them as an inheritance to your children so that your children receive them and hold tight to them (grasp = achaz). And they will become generational employed servants. And (not “but”!) in addition, you shouldn’t rule over your fellow Israelites.
NB: the correct translation “And” rather than the mistranslation “But” (which does not appear in the Hebrew) shows that the second clause is entirely separate from the first clause and is a general principal related to the former and following instructions regarding native Hebrews.
47‘Now if the [a]means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient, and a [b]countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to him as to sell himself to a stranger who is sojourning with you, or to the descendants of a stranger’s family,
Paraphrase for the modern reader:
“If a foreigner living among you as a member of your wider community becomes wealthy and a poor Hebrew sells himself to the foreigner in order to survive…”
48 then he shall have redemption right after he has been sold. One of his brothers may redeem him,
Paraphrase for the modern reader:
“Whenever a foreigner purchases a Hebrew brother or sister, that foreigner must always be willing to immediately allow you to redeem that one.”
49 or his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or one of his blood relatives from his family may redeem him; or [c]if he prospers, he may redeem himself.
Paraphrase for the modern reader:
“That goes for any relative, or even if he himself becomes wealthy enough to redeem himself, the foreigner must allow him his freedom…”
50 He then with his purchaser shall calculate from the year when he sold himself to him up to the year of jubilee; and the price of his sale shall correspond to the number of years. It is like the days of a hired man that he shall be with him.”
“You Hebrews are to give the appropriate price in payment to the foreign purchaser of your fellow Hebrew, don’t dupe the foreigner out of what is rightfully his…”
In most cases within the ancient Hebrew community so called “slaves” were in fact “paid servants”, and were eventually “taken hold of” as members of the family and as part of the inheritance of filial corporate wealth, participating in the receipt of that wealth along with their descendants, they were possessed in the sense that a father possess a son and a son a father and not in the sense of an object possessed in ownership. After all, the Torah clearly teaches that objects are for use but people are for relationship.
Generally speaking the Torah slavery/servitude laws were put in place to alleviate poverty and provide families for orphans and communities for aliens. They are no less than an ancient form of social welfare law. In fact, up until recently many western democracies have based their social welfare laws on the principals of the Torah due to the proliferation of Christianity and Judeo-Christian morality throughout the western world. Sadly, the positive affect of the Biblical principal is now being dismantled by a pervasive atheistic neo-postmodern amoral liberalism.
The servitude laws of the Torah differed between Israelis and foreigners as a protection against foreign usurping of Israeli nationhood, religion, culture, ethnicity and identity. This is neither unjust or unfair but it does make a just distinction between Hebrew and foreign servants.
Finally, to read the ancient text of the Torah in English (often poorly translated) with a neo-postmodern western worldview at the driver’s seat is like attempting to fuel a car by putting sand in the petrol tank. Context: historical, literary, religious, linguistic, cultural, local, global, ancient and otherwise is essential to a correct interpretation of the text, of any text for that matter.
Therefore, the Torah does not advocate for slavery but does allow for paid service the redemption of the poor, and the growth of just community as alluded to in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25.
NB: When the just laws of the Bible are replaced by laws resulting from a godless worldview humanity reaps the tragic consequences. Many of the once well-established just laws resulting from the spread of Christianity and Judeo-Christian morality are now being systematically dismantled by the modern amoral agenda of atheistic liberalism and are being replaced by unjust and unbiblical laws that are already producing abhorrent outcomes including but not limited to the lawful ending of the lives of the disabled, elderly and mentally ill, the systematic murder of unborn children up to nine months gestation and into the birth canal, selective murder of unborn children due to the determining of disabilities, the selective murder of unborn children due to determination of sex, and so on.
Perhaps instead of seeking to criticize the Torah based on ignorance we would be better to critique the modern worldview through the lens of Torah.
Copyright 2020 Yaakov Brown
Spiritual leader of Beth Melekh Community, Auckland, Aotearoa, N.Z.