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Slavery In The Bible (1/5)

Due to the infamy of New World slavery, particularly the plantation slavery practiced in North America between the 17th and 19th centuries, the terms ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ invariably invoke images of precisely that form of servitude. Readers both Christian and non-Christian alike recoil from any passage of the Bible in which these words appear. It is wrongly assumed that any reference to ‘slaves’ or ‘slavery’ in the Bible necessarily refers to the New World ‘chattel slavery’ of the plantations. This is simply not the case.

The following article is an examination of the various forms of servitude described in the Bible. It addresses the topic as it is presented in the Old and New Testaments, within their historical and cultural background, together with the Biblical instruction regarding servitude in its various forms.

Considerable use has been made of Glenn Miller’s excellent studies of servitude in the Old and New Testaments.

The Definition Of Slavery

Various forms of servitude existed in the Ancient Near East, all of which are described in the Bible and most of which are commonly translated ‘slavery’ (largely inaccurately). In the list which follows they are described in general terms without reference to the specific manner in which they were addressed by different ANE law codes:

* Chattel slavery

* Indentured service

* Bride sale

* Vassalage

* Chattel slavery: A dehumanising form of servitude which was identical to that practiced on the plantations, and most properly termed ‘slavery’ in its most negative sense. The individual was mere property in the same sense as a piece of furniture and not recognised as a human being. The individual had no kinship rights, no marriage rights, no property rights, personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of contract, no freedom of movement, and no access to liberty.

Because the individual was property in the truest sense, the master was not accountable in any way for his treatment of the individual. He was no more accountable for beating or killing his slave than he was for breaking his own chair. The individual could be bought or sold at the discretion of the master. Chattel slavery was always involuntary, coercive, and terminal (the individual was a slave until death, with no means of obtaining liberty).

‘A [chattel] slave was property. The slaveowner’s rights over his slave-property were total, covering the person as well as the labor of the slave. The slave was kinless, stripped of his or her old social identity in the process of capture, sale and deracination, and denied to capacity to forge new bonds of kinship through marriage alliance. These are the three basic components of [chattel] slavery.’

Peter Garnsey, ‘Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine’, 1996, page 1, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Whilst chattel slavery was present in the ANE, it was not the only form of servitude and it was not the dominant form of servitude:

‘In brief, most varieties of slavery did not exhibit the three elements that were dominant in the New World: slaves as property and commodities; their use exclusively as labor; and their lack of freedom…’

Henry Holt, ‘Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology’, David Levinson and Melvin Ember (editors), volume 4, page 1190, 1996, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens.

The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.’

Brill, ‘A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law’, Raymond Westbrook (editor), 2003, volume 1, page 40, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

* Indentured service: A mutually contracted servitude into which the individual entered voluntarily. They sold themselves into the ownership of a master to whom they owed money (or a master who paid off the debts they owed to another person), and payed off their debt with service. The individual was considered the property of their master in the sense that they were now within their master’s custody and could not leave until the contract has been fulfilled.

They could be inherited by the next generation if the master died before the contract was fulfilled. They were not dehumanized. The individual held kinship rights, marriage rights, personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of contract, freedom of movement, and access to liberty by paying their debt (either through service, or with money). Parents sometimes sold their sons or daughters into indentured service to pay off a family debt.

The master was accountable to the law for his treatment of the servant, and could not treat them as furniture. The term of servitude was limited to the duration agreed to settle the debt. They could also be released by another individual paying the debts for which they were serving (an act usually performed by a kinsman). Because the servant had property rights and economic rights, it was possible for them to gain sufficient money to redeem themselves by paying their debt and thus ending the contract early.

Such servants were not in the same position as chattel slaves, and are better described as ‘indentured servants, or ‘bond servants’ rather than ‘slaves':

‘Guterbock refers to ‘slaves in the strict sense,’ apparently referring to chattel slaves such as those of classical antiquity. This characterization may have been valid for house slaves whose master could treat them as he wished when they were at fault, but it is less suitable when they were capable of owning property and could pay betrothal money or fines.

The meaning ‘servant’ seems more appropriate, or perhaps the designation ‘semi-free‘. It comprises every person who is subject to orders or dependent on another but nonetheless has a certain independence within his own sphere of active.’

Brill, ‘A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law’, Raymond Westbrook (editor), 2003, volume 1, page 632, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘The most frequently mentioned method of enslavement [Neo-Sumerian, UR III] was sale of children by their parents. Most are women, evidently widows, selling a daughter; in one instance a mother and grandmother sell a boy…There are also examples of self sale. All these case clearly arose from poverty; it is not stated, however, whether debt was specifically at issue.’

‘Most slaves owned by Assyrians in Assur and in Anatolia seem to have been (originally) debt slaves–free persons sold into slavery by a parent, a husband, an elder sister, or by themselves.

‘Most of the recorded cases of entry of free persons into slavery [in Emar] are by reason of debt or famine or both…A common practice was for a financier to pay off the various creditors in return for the debtor becoming his slave.’

‘”A person would either enter into slavery or be sold by a parent or relative. Persons sold their wives, grandchildren, brother (with his wife and child), sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephews and niece…Many of the documents emphasize that the transaction is voluntary.’

‘On the other hand, mention is made of free people who are sold into slavery as a result of the famine conditions and the critical economic situation of the populations [Canaan].’

Brill, ‘A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law’, Raymond Westbrook (editor), 2003, volume 1, pages 199, 449, 664, 665, 741, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Sometimes the poor would volunteer themselves as bondservants to wealthy families or royal households, in order to obtain for themselves a superior standard of living and enjoy permanent financial security:

Sales of wives, children, relatives, or oneself, due to financial duress, are a recurrent feature of the Nuzi socio-economic scene…A somewhat different case is that of male and female foreigners, called hapiru (immigrants) who gave themselves in slavery to private individuals or the palace administration. Poverty was the cause of these agreements…’

Brill, ‘A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law’, Raymond Westbrook (editor), 2003, volume 1, page 585, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘Yet many slaves in ancient societies…were more secure and economically better off than the mass of the free poor, whose employment was irregular, low-grade and badly paid…It was not unknown for free men to sell themselves into slavery to escape poverty and debt, or even to take up posts of responsibility in the domestic sphere.’

Peter Garnsey, ‘Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine’, 1996, page 5, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

* Bride sale: Strictly speaking this was not a form of servitude, since the daughter being sold was not sold as a servant, nor did she perform servile duties, though her custody status changed so that she belonged the household to which she was sold rather than belonging to her parents. When a daughter was sold, the sale constituted a marriage contract intended to place the daughter in a position of financial security and a superior socio-economic position:

‘In the ancient world, a father, driven by poverty, might sell his daughter into a well-to-do family in order to ensure her future security. The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived from Nuzi.

The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. A breach of faith gains her her freedom, and the master receives no compensation for the purchase price.’

Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Exodus 21, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘Second, a father arranged for the marriage of his daughter by finding a suitable husband for her and negotiating the terms of the marriage.’

‘Marriage and Family in the Biblical World’, 2003, Ken Campbell (editor), page 55, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

The money paid for the daughter by the master was the ‘mohar’, or ‘bride price’, rather than the purchase price for the daugther as property:

‘When parents deemed their child to be approaching marriageable age, the father of the groom would contact the parents of the potential spouse and negotiate the terms of the marriage, specifically the nature and size of the mohar, “marriage present”.’

‘While some have interpreted the mohar as a purchase price, it is preferable to see it as a deposit delivered to the parents of the bride to promote the stability of the marriage and to strengthen the links between the families of those being married.’

‘Marriage and Family in the Biblical World’, 2003, Ken Campbell (editor), page 57, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘For the groom’s family, the contract concerned payment of the bride-price, which was a considerable sum of silver in the Old Babylonian period. The bride-price was an act of good faith, insuring the grooms’ right to the bride.’

‘Both the bride-price and the dowry could be paid in installments until the first child was born, at which time the balance of both payments was due. The marriage was legally finalized, and the mother assumed the legal rights of ‘wife’.’

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, ‘Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia’, 1998, page 133, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

The daughter entered the master’s household as an adopted daughter belonging to the master’s family, and was contracted as the wife of either the master or one of the master’s sons. The man who purchased her was called her master because she had entered his custody and was not free to leave that custody without fulfilling the marriage contract, but she did not perform servile duties, unlike a son or daughter sold as an indentured servant. Her master was accountable to the law for his treatment of her, she had the legal status of a free woman, and children born to her were automatically free (unlike the children born to a slave):

The Torah stipulates that the girl must be treated as a free woman; should the designated husband take an additional wife, he is still obligated to support her. A breach of faith gains her her freedom, and the master receives no compensation for the purchase price.’

Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Exodus 21, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

If for some reason the master chose not to marry her, or failed to provide a son to marry her as stipulated in the contract, he was considered to be in breach of contract, and was subject to various penalties:

‘If the groom died or had a change of heart, his father could insist that the bride be given to one of the groom’s brothers if one were available and of age. That is, the bride married into her husband’s family–she did not marry an individual.’

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, ‘Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia’, 1998, page 134, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

The daughter purchased in a ‘bride sale’ enjoyed kinship rights, marriage rights, personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of contract, freedom of movement, and access to liberty through the fulfilment of her marriage contract.

* Vassalage: Powerful states placed the entire population of weaker states under vassalage, a form of servitude which bound the subordinate state to serve the dominant state. A ‘suzerainty treaty’ was draw up, binding the members of the vassal state to certain conditions of service to the suzerain (the dominant state), which included providing physical labour for construction works, maintaining diplomatic loyalty to the suzerain, providing military support when the suzerain went to war, and supplying tribute to the suzerain in the form of materials and products (such as gold, livestock and manufactured goods):

Suzerainty treaty

In the ancient near East, a treaty between political unequals, the suzerain or paramount ruler and the vassal or subservient power. (A treaty between equals is a parity treaty.) The purpose of suzerainty treaties, originating in the Hittite Empire of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.E.), was to guarantee that a smaller state remained the faithful ally of the empire and did not pursue an independent foreign policy. Starting with Elias Bickerman in 1951, scholars have compared the resemblance of biblical literature to these suzerainty treaties, which share a common structure known as the covenant formulary.’

DG Myers, ‘Glossary Of Biblical Interpretation’, Department of English, Texas A&M University, 1999

Suzerainty treaties were usually renewed from one generation to the next, with the suzerain sending the treaty to the new king, prince, or governor to acknowledge. In this case they often contained a historical preamble describing the origin of the treaty, the obedience of the previous ruler, and exhorting the current ruler to follow his good example:

‘Aziras[2] was the grandfather of you, Duppi- Tessub. He rebelled against my father, but submitted again to my father. When the kings of Nuhassi land[3] and the kings of Kinza[4] rebelled against my father, Aziras did not rebel. As he was bound by treaty, he remained bound by treaty. As my father fought against his enemies, in the same manner fought Aziras.

Aziras remained loyal toward my father [as his overlord] and did not incite my father’s anger. My father was loyal toward Aziras and his country; he did not undertake any unjust action against him or incite his or his country’s anger in any way. 300 (shekels of) refined and first- class gold, the tribute which my father had imposed upon your father, he brought year for year; he never refused it.

[2] The king of Amurru who is well known from the Amarna letters.
[3] The region between Halba (Aleppo) and die Orontes River.
[4] Qadesh on the Orontes, today Tdl Nebi Mendo.’

Akkadian-Hittite suzerainty treaty between Mursilis And Duppi-Tessub Of Amurru, in James B. Pritchard, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, with supplement’, 1969, page 548

A description of the obligations of the vassal state was always included:

The tribute which was imposed upon your grandfather and your father— they presented 300 shekels of good, refined first-class gold weighed with standard weights—you shall present them likewise. Do not turn your eyes to anyone else! Your fathers presented tribute to Egypt; you [shall not do that!]‘

‘With my friend you shall be friend, and with my enemy you shall be enemy.’

‘As I, the Sun, am loyal toward you, do you extend military help to the Sun and the Hatti land. If an evil rumor originates in the Hatti land that someone is to rise in revolt against the Sun and you hear it, leave with your foot soldiers and your charioteers and go immediately to the aid of the king of the Hatti land!

But if you are not able to leave yourself, dispatch either your son or your brother together with your foot soldiers (and) your charioteers to the aid of the king of the Hatti land! If you do not dispatch your son (or) your brother with your foot soldiers (and) your charioteers to the aid of the king of the Hatti land, you act in disregard of the gods of the oath.’

Akkadian-Hittite suzerainty treaty between Mursilis And Duppi-Tessub Of Amurru, in James B. Pritchard, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, with supplement’, 1969, page 548

Vassalage in the ANE differed from later Western Medieval vassalage in that the suzerain treaty was made between two entire states, rather than between individuals (such as the lord and his serf, as in the case of Medieval vassalage). This meant that the population of the vassal state was not relocated, and continued to govern itself according to its own laws, with its political infrastructure left intact.

As a subordinate state now within the territory of a larger dominant state, its local rulers acknowledged the supremacy of the suzerain by submitting to the suzerainty treaty, and even though these local rulers were usually kings or princes, they were considered ‘slaves’ of the suzerain in the sense that they were subordinate to him and at his command.

In the following letters from governors of vassal states subject to Egypt, the local rulers identify themselves as ‘slaves’ of Pharoah, though they were not his personal property, lived hundreds of kilometres outside Egypt, and ruled local states and provinces:

‘These Canaanite princes also speak of themselves as being Pharaoh’s “SLAVES” (which, in a sense they were, as vassals serving their Lord):

‘To: Pharaoh, ruler of the heavens and earth
From: Biridiya, governor of Meggido

I AM YOUR SLAVE
, and I renew my covenant with you as my pharaoh by bowing before you seven times seven times.’

‘To Pharaoh, ruler of the heavens and earth
From: Labayu, governor of Shechem

I AM YOUR SLAVE, who is less than the dust under your feet, and I renew my covenant with you as my pharaoh by bowing before you seven times seven times…I am, and always have been, loyal to pharaoh. I am neither a traitor nor a rebel. I pay tribute on time, and I obey every order which the representative of pharaoh here in Canaan gives me…”

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, ‘Egypt’s Hebrew/Habiru/Apiru “Slaves” and their “Covenantal” Conquest of Canaan’, 2005

The term ‘slave’ is used here to indicate vassalage, not chattel slavery or even indentured service. Members of the vassal state were likewise regarded as ‘slaves’ in the sense that they were under servitude to their suzerain, though they continued to live their lives as they had before, retaining their existing kinship rights, marriage rights, property rights, contract rights, economic rights, legal rights and protection, freedom of movement, and personal liberty.

The only real change was that they now had to supply an additional tax for the suzerain (usually an annual tribute), and could be drafted en masse by the suzerain for labour projects and military campaigns. In the latter case, they were relocated to the site of the labour project or the suzerain’s army, and their personal liberty was infringed.

Whist vassalage through suzerainty treaties was always to the greater advantage of the suzerain, the vassal state also benefitted from the contract. The suzerainty treaty actually bound the suzerain with certain obligations towards the vassal state, requiring the suzerain to care for his subjects and provide military protection for them from their enemies. Suzerainty treaties usually described the suzerain’s historical care of the vassal state, and even the personal care provided by the suzerain for the subordinate ruler.

In the following Akkadian-Hittite suzerainty treaty the suzerain reminds the ruler of the vassal state of the care which had been provided for him, promises to secure and maintain not only his rulership but that of his son after him, and appeals to these services as the moral basis of the ruler’s obligation to serve the suzerain in return:

‘When your father died, in accordance with your father’s word I did not drop you. Since your father had mentioned to me your name with great praise, I sought after you. To be sure, you were sick and ailing, but although you were ailing, I, the Sun, put you in the place of your father and took your brothers (and) sisters and the Amurru land in oath for you.’

‘When I, the Sun, sought after you in accordance with your father’s word and put you in your father’s place, I took you in oath for the king of the Hatti land, the Hatti land, and for my sons and grandsons. So honor the oath (of loyalty) to the king and the king’s king And I, the king, will be loyal toward you, Duppi- Tessub. When you take a wife, and when you beget an heir, he shall be king in the Amurru land likewise. And just as I shall be loyal toward you, even so shall I be loyal toward your son.’

Akkadian-Hittite suzerainty treaty between Mursilis And Duppi-Tessub Of Amurru, in James B. Pritchard, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Relating to the Old Testament, with supplement’, 1969, page 548

One comment

  1. [...] For some reading on slavery in the Bible, visit here. [...]



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