Board index Slavery in the Bible

Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby Regnus Numis » Tue Dec 12, 2017 4:40 pm

Just a couple questions:

I've heard atheists claim Exodus 21:4-6 enabled masters to blackmail male Israelites into lifelong slavery by holding their wife and children hostage. How would you refute this accusation?

In addition, according to Exodus 21:20-21 (assuming biblical slavery was actually indentured servitude), was it natural for masters to beat indentured servants as long as they recovered within a day or two? Doesn't it sound more like a penalty for chattel slaves?
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby jimwalton » Tue Dec 12, 2017 4:57 pm

You and I have already had this conversation, or one close to it.

> Ex. 21.4-6

Not blackmail at all, and not a hostage situation. Most slavery of ancient Israel was debt slavery. If the master gives him a wife (marriages were arranged) from a group of others who are also paying off debts, the debt is still owed. The now free person has 3 choices: (1) wait for his wife and kids to finish paying off their debt while he works elsewhere; (2) He can work elsewhere and pay off their debt for them; (3) he can commit himself to working permanently for his employer.

When a free man (the master in this situation) gave a wife to another man who owed him something, certain conditions applied to that marriage. The man in the inferior position (slave; employee) used his labor as collateral for the debt owed. Typically the "employee" could take a wife, and any children they bore, only by satisfying certain requirements.

Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, in "The IVP Bible Background Commentary" write: "The record of a contract from the city of Emar (probably 13th c. BC) presents an example of such a situation. The pledge in this case may take his wife and children with him when he leaves the service of his creditor, but only if he abides by the basic agreement set forth in the contract. When this document addresses the possibility that the pledge might renege on his commitment to abide by the contract, then the pledge 'will have no claim to his wife and children.' This law in Exodus may be establishing what was standard procedure in these types of situations; modifications were probably allowed if clearly established in a contractual agreement."

> Exodus 21.20-21

It was not natural for masters to beat their slaves. In fact, it was rare. If they beat their slaves, they would not be as strong and healthy to work for them. We are not to think of the Japanese work camps in WWII.

As I've mentioned to you before, quoting from a previous post to you about slavery: "all of the law (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) are casuistic. It deals with a wide variety of case studies, which may or may not have been realistic or historic, but which serve as guidelines for judges having to make judicial decisions. They are often characterized by "it...then" clauses to give the judges principles by which to adjudicate. They regulate the general principles for governing society, for fair practice, and for treating people fairly in contentious situations. As persons committed crimes under varying circumstances, it became necessary to go beyond the simple statute like "Do not steal," for instance, to take into account such things as time of day, motive, and the value of what has been stolen.

The law codes of the Torah are not lists of God's mandatory moral commands, nor are they lists of rules to be obeyed. They are not legislation. They are better viewed as *legal wisdom*. They are a collection of legal situations and the appropriate judicial response to guide judges to make wise decisions.

Therefore, they are not intended to be read as rules, but instead to circumscribe the bounds of civil, legal, and ritual order. They are hypothetical examples to illustrate underlying principles, similar to how we use word problems to teach math. The things we make up (two trains are coming towards each other...) are not to teach about trains, buildings, running, or apples, but to learn trigonometry. So we also understand the laws of the Torah. it is to shape society, not to give a list of moral commands."

You'll notice that the text specifies that if a master injures a slave, he is to be punished in like manner (fines, appropriate compensation, legal action; Ex. 21.23-27) and the slave is to go free (Ex. 21.27). The slave is to be treated with dignity. If the servant dies, the master is to be tried for capital crime (Ex. 21.20). If the slave is injured, the debt is presumably voided and the person goes free (Ex. 21.27). With judicial guidance like that, beating of slaves was rare.
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby Regnus Numis » Wed Dec 13, 2017 3:42 pm

Just extra clarification, but I've heard that Exodus 21:4-6 refers to a situation where a male Israelite servant couples with a Canaanite maidservant. Is this true?

Also, I've been wondering since your previous post here, why weren't foreigners allowed to own land in Israel?
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby jimwalton » Wed Dec 13, 2017 4:20 pm

> Just extra clarification, but I've heard that Exodus 21:4-6 refers to a situation where a male Israelite servant couples with a Canaanite maidservant. Is this true?

No it isn't. Exodus 21-23 is known as The Book of the Covenant, written to Israelites about Israelites. There is no implication, hint, or terminology that would lead one to believe he is talking about a mixed marriage of Israelite-Canaanite. I guess I'd have to see the case for it, but I certainly don't see it there and have never read any analysis to that effect.

> why weren't foreigners allowed to own land in Israel?

The land of Canaan, subsequently the land of Israel, was a possession of God that He shared with his covenant people. To prevent poverty in the land, God instituted a policy that each clan was given an allotment, and within that territory each family unit was given a plot that was theirs in perpetuity. It could not be sold permanently (Lev. 25.23). While the text occasionally uses the terms "buy" and "sell," the only thing being bought and sold was the crops (therefore, "sold" should be understood as "lease"). That way no person, and no family, would ever be without land and therefore destitute. If foreigners had been allowed to procure land, it's hypothetically possible that whole tracts could be bought up by foreigners who could create oppressive policies against the Israelites. Instead the Israelites saw the land as belonging to God (Lev. 25.23), with them as stewards (tenants). They couldn't sell it outright to anyone. In the Jubilee Year (every 50th year) all land that had been "sold" (leased) for payment of debts was to be returned to its owners. If a man died, it was the responsibility of his nearest kin to redeem the land so it would remain in the family (Lev. 25.24-25; Jer. 32.6-15).

It was a strategy designed to minimize poverty, prevent the development of a permanent dependent class, and to ward off oppression by the rich and powerful. Therefore if a foreigner wanted to own land, he had to marry into a clan and become part of the covenant people. Otherwise, they could make a living by working as hired labor (the term "slave" in the OT).
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby Regnus Numis » Thu Dec 14, 2017 5:04 pm

I appreciate the lengthy response. Just one more thing: What kind of legal situation did Exodus 21:21 refer to? Did it refer to a situation where a slave survives a day or two after a minor beating, or did it refer to a situation where a slave mysteriously dies over several days after his last beating? What if Exodus 21:21 had been omitted from the Torah? If the master had to release his slave upon injuring the latter, then why was Exodus 21:21 necessary? Isn't the master technically being punished for beating his slave? Or were Exodus 21:21 and Exodus 21:23-27 referring to different situations?
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby jimwalton » Thu Dec 14, 2017 6:16 pm

First I'll ask you to notice that vv. 20-21 are a set. The teaching of v. 20 is radical: the "slave" is considered a person, not a thing (possession). They are considered persons with rights, not property to be treated as the master wishes.

Also, remember that this is casuistic law (hypothetical cases). Such things may never have happened, but they are guiding the judges with ideas for how to render verdicts.

I'll roll through the text for you with what I know.

There's a term that occurs three times in the text: *naqam*. It's a generic word for "hit, spike, smite, beat, attack, punish."

v . 20 "If a man beats his slave with a rod". If a man *naqams* his servant. This is pretty wide open to interpretation. Some Bibles translate it as "beat", but it could be much milder than that. It could be a whack for discipline.

If the slave dies from this hit, or attack, or discipline, or beating, the master is to be punished (*naqam*), meaning he is to be capitally punished for the crime.

But if the slave doesn't die, "he is not to be punished (same word: *naqam*, denoting capital punishment (from v. 20—same word). The master is not to be executed if the slave wasn't killed. It is thought that the loss of his slave (the slave might go free, depending on the injury [v. 26]) and/or the consequent loss of income (if the slave couldn't work, the owner could lose income) were deemed sufficient punishment for the master. If bodily injury resulted, as v. 26 says, the slave was to be set free.

"if the slave gets up after a day or two." This would indicate the master was only correcting him in some way. Sometimes discipline may be necessary, and the master is given the benefit of the doubt if there was no particular injurious or murderous intent. Here is where the judge can consider motive and method.

"since the slave is his property." Unfortunate translation. The Hebrew word is כַסְפּוֹ, "money." Again, the suggestion here is not that servants were chattel, or property. The OT constantly affirms the full personhood of these debt servants. The servant is in the household to work off his debt. The employer (master) stands to lose money (כַסְפּוֹ) if he mistreats his employees; his hard treatment toward a servant could impact his income. This worker is an economic asset.

So we are to consider the principles portrayed here far more than any details. It's casuistic, not real.

At least some of the principles to guide judges:

1. The slave is a person with rights and dignity, not property or chattel at the master's whims.

2. There was a lex talionis situation here: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, freedom for abuse, death for death.

3. The master did have some legitimate authority over the servant to do what he was there to do. Corporeal punishment was not anathema in their society as it is in ours.

4. If the master suffered economic loss because of his behavior, so be it. No more was owed to him by the servant just because the master disciplined him and the servant was not able to work for a period of time.
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby Regnus Numis » Thu Jan 04, 2018 2:04 pm

I have additional questions, based on what you've said.

My first question is: Was Leviticus 25:44 only referring to foreign slaves who voluntarily sold themselves into Jewish servitude, or were foreign slaves also purchased off the market from their previous owners? If the latter, how would an Israelite know whether the foreign slave he purchased wasn't originally kidnapped into slavery?

My second question is: Was Leviticus 25:45 specifically referring to children born in Israel from foreigners, or children accompanying foreigners to Israel? If the latter, I can see how it'd be possible for sojourners (i.e. temporary residents) to sell their children into Jewish servitude, although I question their motive for doing so. It seems strange to bring along your children just to sell them in Israel before eventually returning to your nation. If the former, then I must ask: how would foreigners be able to sell their children? Since foreigners can't own property, they would have to sell themselves unto Jewish servitude. By the time they conceive children (which means foreign slaves must be allowed to mate), such offspring will already be living under the authority of a Jewish household. Am I making a fundamental misconception somewhere?

My third question is: If foreign slaves were to be treated with the same dignity as the Israelites, then what is the meaning behind Leviticus 25:46, specifically the part where the verse says: "but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour"?
My fourth question: If slavery in the Ancient Near East wasn't chattel slavery, then what happened to prisoners of war? Were they subject to corvee labor?

My fifth question: According to Deuteronomy 20:10-15, why were the Israelites allowed to subject neighboring cities to forced labor if they surrendered? This couldn't have been debt slavery, so was it corvee labor? Plus, as prisoners of war, what became of the women and children after their city waged war and lost?

My sixth question: What is the connection between Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7? Why does Exodus 21:16 condemn kidnapping in general, while Deuteronomy specifies the kidnapping of a fellow Israelite?

My seventh question: Exodus 21:4 assumes the male Hebrew slave will go free before his wife, but what if the female slave paid off her debt and goes free first? Were there such cases? If so, did the children stay with the male slave until he went free? For this question, I'm presuming that both male and female Hebrew slaves were indentured servants. That being said, however...

My eighth question: According to pages 22-23 of this source, the wife in Exodus 21:4 was "a freeborn Hebrew girl who was sold by her father on the condition that she be given as a wife to a slave". The source goes on to explain: The girl is married to a slave and lives with him until he is freed in the seventh year. After that she is given into marriage to another slave and so ad infinitum, for she, in distinction to those who were sold with the stipulation that they be married to a freeborn man, remains in the house of her master as long as she lives, and her children are the property of her owner. Hence, my question is: Was Exodus 21:4 only referring to female debt slaves or did certain Hebrew women and their children become the property of their owner?

I would like to extend my appreciation to you for having provided thorough responses thus far to my past questions.
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby jimwalton » Thu Jan 04, 2018 2:53 pm

Before I begin, once again I will remind you a point I have made several times in past posts: the evidence from the ancient Near East, and particularly Israel, is that there was so entity as chattel slavery in those cultures. Chattel slavery was an invention of Greco-Rome, and perpetuated later by the colonial West. We have very little ancient record of any slavery in Israel, and the records we have show them to have been treated quite well, and in influential positions in the community.

As far as we know, the "slavery" of ancient Israel was primarily debt slavery and corvee labor. There are a few records of slavery that seem to be neither of those for individuals who were prominent in the government or military.

The larger question of the slavery issue is to what extent the Israelites participates in the world of their parallel cultures. Many of Israel's practices were unique to Israel, but many others were similar to their neighbors. Where slavery falls on this continuum is difficult to determine.

> Was Leviticus 25:44 only referring to foreign slaves who voluntarily sold themselves into Jewish servitude, or were foreign slaves also purchased off the market from their previous owners?

As I've written before, foreigners were not allowed to own land in Israel and so all such "immigrants" had to align themselves with a family for income. That would speak to the first choice in your question. I am not aware of any historical evidence, either biblical or extrabiblical, describing slaves purchased off the market. If anyone knows of such evidence, I'd be just as glad as anyone else to examine it. (I'm thinking through the OT if there is any story or teaching involving a slave market. I can't think of one. Those are in our mind from Rome, Colonial Europe, and the colonial antebellum US.)

> Was Leviticus 25:45 specifically referring to children born in Israel from foreigners, or children accompanying foreigners to Israel?

It's likely referring to the children of mixed marriages between Canaanites and foreigners (according to Milgrom).

> If the former, then I must ask: how would foreigners be able to sell their children?

Selling the labor of one's children was a common means of acquiring income. If one didn't own land, and so didn't need them on the far, marketing them out for employment/apprenticeship was a way to procure income and get training for later economic productivity. Children were a valuable part of the labor pool, as we learned in a much more abusive labor setting of industrial revolution Europe and America. But that's not the picture of ancient Israel.

> what is the meaning behind Leviticus 25:46

Milgrom says, "Even though this part of the verse may be taken to imply that the foreign slave could be treated harshly, Job 31.13, 15 would indicate that such treatment is not acceptable to YHWH."

> My fourth question: If slavery in the Ancient Near East wasn't chattel slavery, then what happened to prisoners of war? Were they subject to corvee labor?

Deuteronomy says that prisoners of war could be brought into households to become part of the family/economic unit of the family. Other than that, you're right, they could be used as corvee workers. The demands of the government's building projects often exceeded the local population's ability to supply.

> My fifth question: According to Deuteronomy 20:10-15, why were the Israelites allowed to subject neighboring cities to forced labor if they surrendered?

But what other choices are there?

1\. Walk away, don’t attack the city, and leave everything the way it was. If they do that, their country will fall to ruin (18).

2\. Deportation. This is only a practical option for a large empire with enough manpower to administrate the deportation, and enough distant lands to deport them to.

3\. Occupation. This is only a practical option for a large empire with enough manpower and military resources to occupy and subdue.

4\. Slavery. This is the most integrative strategy to bring people into your communities, teach them the ways of the Lord, and bring a halt to idolatry.

> Plus, as prisoners of war, what became of the women and children after their city waged war and lost?

Women and children were integrated into homes and families and made legitimate and productive members of society.

> My sixth question: What is the connection between Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7?

Kidnapping was mostly a practice of human trafficking—the illicit slave trade. Both Mesopotamian and biblical law require the death penalty for this crime. Homer writes that such kidnapping is common among the Phoenicians (that is, the earlier Canaanites).

Both the Exodus text and the Deut. text condemn kidnapping. The Deuteronomy segment is to some extent an elaboration of specific parts of the Mosaic law. This chapter is specifically about laws pertaining to Israelites. (Read a few of the verses before and after 24.7.)

> My seventh question: Exodus 21:4 assumes the male Hebrew slave will go free before his wife, but what if the female slave paid off her debt and goes free first?

Remember Exodus (as well as the rest of the law) is casuistic: hypothetical examples to guide a judge in his decisions. If the wife were to be freed first, the judge can make a reasonable decision based on the examples given. The law doesn't begin to write about every possible contingency. They expect that the judges are thinking people with a good sense of judgment.

> My eighth question: Was Exodus 21:4 only referring to female debt slaves or did certain Hebrew women and their children become the property of their owner?

There is no record of chattel slavery in ancient Israel. These would have been debt slaves. In particular, Hebrew people fell under the laws of Jubilee: Hebrew debt slaves were to be set free every 7 years (so that in Israel there would be no permanent poverty class). In other words, Hebrew women and their children, as far as I know, never become the property of their owner.
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby Regnus Numis » Sun Jan 07, 2018 4:08 pm

> It's likely referring to the children of mixed marriages between Canaanites and foreigners (according to Milgrom).

Am I to assume the Israelites were a subgroup of Canaanites?

> Milgrom says, "Even though this part of the verse may be taken to imply that the foreign slave could be treated harshly, Job 31.13, 15 would indicate that such treatment is not acceptable to YHWH."

I see; it still leaves me wondering why this part of the verse was included, though.

> But what other choices are there?

> Walk away, don’t attack the city, and leave everything the way it was. If they do that, their country will fall to ruin (18).
> Deportation. This is only a practical option for a large empire with enough manpower to administrate the deportation, and enough distant lands to deport them to.
> Occupation. This is only a practical option for a large empire with enough manpower and military resources to occupy and subdue.
> Slavery. This is the most integrative strategy to bring people into your communities, teach them the ways of the Lord, and bring a halt to idolatry.

While I understand your reasoning, I also know modern Christians aren't called by God to subjugate idolaters and unbelievers into slavery just to teach them the gospel, so I must ask: What is different today compared to the ancient era? You say that Israel would have fallen into ruin if they left the cities alone because the latter would've taught idolatrous practices to the Israelites, but aren't Christians today being led astray by atheism and other religions?

> There is no record of chattel slavery in ancient Israel. These would have been debt slaves. In particular, Hebrew people fell under the laws of Jubilee: Hebrew debt slaves were to be set free every 7 years (so that in Israel there would be no permanent poverty class). In other words, Hebrew women and their children, as far as I know, never become the property of their owner.

I see; regarding Hebrew debt slaves, I'm assuming they weren't all simply indentured servants who sold themselves? Some were children sold by their parents and would be released after 7 years, correct?

Just an additional question: Were there cases where a poor Hebrew family sold their son into marriage with the daughter of a wealthy Hebrew family? I've often heard it the other way around, so I'm just curious.
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Re: Exodus 21:4-6, 20-21

Postby jimwalton » Sun Jan 07, 2018 4:15 pm

> Am I to assume the Israelites were a subgroup of Canaanites?

No. Israel Finkelstein's analyses of the new settlements in the Central Hill country of Canaan during the Iron Age is that a new population group had arrived. The Merneptah Stele (1205 BC) refers to "Israel" at this time as a people group (though not necessarily a country or a nation), probably located in the Transjordan. Biblical tradition speaks of the close genetic affinity of the earliest Israelites with the Arameans who lived in the Syrian desert, not with the Canaanites.

> it still leaves me wondering why this part of the verse was included, though.

Yeah, that's the case with a bunch of verses. It's hard to trace back to the ancient mindset in early case where we want to.

> I also know modern Christians aren't called by God to subjugate idolaters and unbelievers into slavery just to teach them the gospel, so I must ask: What is different today compared to the ancient era?

It has to do with the context of theocracy. Their laws were intended for Israel as a theocratic state. When Israel/Judah fell (586 BC), the civil law (subjugation of idolaters and unbelievers into slavery just to teach them the gospel) became defunct with it. The civil law was not intended to be carried out by every government in history. It is no longer something secular governments are responsible to carry out.
The NT doesn't have the job of either affirming or disaffirming the information from the OT. The NT is there to reveal Christ, and therefore it's not a criteria for determining OT law. The more pertinent question is "What is the nature of the OT law?" First of all, it's pertinent to ancient law. Secondly, it's situated in the old covenant, and pertains to that covenant. It's telling how Israel should act based on the culture of the day. Third, it pertains to sacred space. We can't extract the law from those contexts. Just because it's in the OT doesn't mean it's a law for all time. It doesn't legislate for us.

> I'm assuming they weren't all simply indentured servants who sold themselves? Some were children sold by their parents and would be released after 7 years, correct?

That is possibly correct. At times children were farmed out for employment by others as a way of making a living. But their labor in an indebtedness could never be owned in perpetuity; after 7 years the debt was considered paid.

> Were there cases where a poor Hebrew family sold their son into marriage with the daughter of a wealthy Hebrew family? I've often heard it the other way around, so I'm just curious.

Not of which I'm aware. In a culture where the sons were emphasized as they were, I'm not aware of it going the other way around. I could be wrong, but I don't know of any.
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