Slavery, Debt and Society in Ancient Israel

Slaves of State & Temple

Household slaves

Biblical and Near-Eastern attitudes to slavery

Words for "slave" and "servant" are not distinguished in most biblical usage. The ordinary words for "young man" or "young woman" are sometimes used to mean slaves.

Important people spoke of themselves as "slaves" of both kings and gods.

So slavery, in the biblical world, was not sharply distinguished from other forms of servitude - for example young cousins living in the household of a rich relative (cf. Lev 22:11).

Two kinds of slavery operated in distinct ways. So we shall treat household slaves separately from those in "public service".

Slaves of State & Temple

Slaves of the establishment institutions of temple and palace were mainly prisoners of war (Num 31:25-47; Josh 9:23), they were used in building projects and other more regular duties alongside other laborers (1 Kgs 9:21).

There was a kind of semi-slavery where a group of people owed a certain amount of labor, but otherwise lived as free people. This seems to have been what happened to the Gibeonites in (Josh 9:23).

Subject peoples often became slaves in this sense (2 Sam 8:2, 14; 1 Chron 18:2, 6, 13).

Household slaves

Debt was the main factor in transforming a peasant farmer or artisan into a slave (Ex 22:2; 2 Kgs 4:1) - though poverty that did not involve debt to the new master might also cause people to sell themselves as slaves (Lev 25:39).

In theory such slaves in Israel returned to free status at jubilee, however they could choose to remain in the household of the master (Ex 21:5-6; Dt 15:16-17). In practice as Jer 34:8ff. clearly shows this by no means always occured. Though the king and people agreed to release their slaves nevertheless they reneged!

Biblical and Near-Eastern attitudes to slavery

Ancient Near-Eastern treaties and collections of laws suggest that a slave was primarily viewed as property.

The laws deal with compensation for third parties hurt by the slave's actions. The treaties provide for mutual extradition of runaway slaves.

In Israel, escaped slaves were to be given asylum (Dt 23:15-16). However, slaves were still seen as property (Ex 21:32; Lev 25:46). The master's rights were limited and the slave's interests protected. Although severe beating was allowed (Ex 21:20), excessive force was punished, by the slave being set free (Ex 21:26-27). Sabbath rest applied to slaves as to free people (Ex 20:10; Dt 5:14).

Hebrew debt-slaves were to serve for a 6 year term only (Ex 21:2; Dt 15:12; but cf. Jer 34:14ff.) and freed slaves were to receive gifts (Dt 15:14). Slaves were also to be freed in the Jubilee Year (Lev 25:13, 40) though this passage refers to particular circumstances.

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos , if you have reached it as a standalone page, to view it in context, go to
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.