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Slavery In The Bible (2/5)

Slavery In The Law Of Moses

This article examines which of the various forms of servitude common to the Ancient Near East existed under the Law of Moses, and how they were regulated:

* Chattel slavery (definition)

* Indentured servitude (definition)

* Bride sale (definition)

* Vassalage (definition)

Chattel Slavery

Chattel slaves had no kinship rights, no marriage rights, no 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).

Israel did not make chattel slaves of defeated nations, and the Law of Moses made no provision for any kind of mass service aside from vassalage. Plantation style slavery was impossible for the Israelite in any case, as family groups did not have the capacity to house, secure, and provide for large groups of chattel slaves. Chattel slaves were expensive because they had no capacity to sustain themselves, and had to be fed and clothed at the expense of their master.

Even Abraham’s servants, before the Law of Moses, were certainly not chattel slaves, despite being born in his own house, else he could not have afforded to keep them and certainly could never have risked arming them and using them for war (Genesis 14:14-15). Large scale chattel slavery was totally impossible for the nomad. Abraham’s servants, though born in his house, were not chattel slaves. One of them (Eliezer), was not only master of his household (Genesis 24:2), but was also his heir (Genesis 15:3). This is not the position of a chattel slave.

Chattel slavery did not exist under the Law of Moses. There was no form of servitude under the Law of Moses which placed them in the legal position of chattel slaves. Legislation maintained kinship rights (Exodus 21:3, 9, Leviticus 25:41, 47-49, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), marriage rights (Exodus 21:4, 10-11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage), personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of contract (Exodus 21:8, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind, and Leviticus 25:39-41, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), freedom of movement, and access to liberty (Exodus 21:8, 11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Leviticus 25:40-45, 48, 54, providing for Hebrew intendured servants, and Deuteronomy 15:1, 12; 23:15, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind).

Though several forms of servitude existed under the Law of Moses, in every case all rights were maintained unless voluntarily relinquished (Exodus 21:5-6, Deuteronomy 15:16-17).

The Law of Moses commanded that servants, of whatever origin (Gentile or Hebrew), were to be treated as human beings who were part of the family and community. Unlike any other ANE society, the Law of Moses commanded that servants enjoy at least one day a week free from every kind of labour, participating in the Sabbath day of rest together with the free members of the community:

Exodus 20:
10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates.

Deuteronomy 5:
14 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On that day you must not do any work, you, your son, your daughter, your male slave, your female slave, your ox, your donkey, any other animal, or the foreigner who lives with you, so that your male and female slaves, like yourself, may have rest.

The commandment in Deuteronomy 5:14 specifies that one reason for this injunction is that male and female servants may enjoy the same privilege of leisure as their free masters. This commandment was unique to the Law of Moses. No other ANE society provided its slaves, servants, or even hired workers, with a legally protected day of rest every 6 days.

In addition, the Law of Moses required that servants be incorporated into the community festive activities. One was the thanksgiving feast in memorial of God’s deliverance:

Deuteronomy 12:
12 You shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord your God, along with your sons, daughters, male and female servants, and the Levites in your villages (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you).

Another was the grain harvest festival:

Deuteronomy 16:
10 Then you are to celebrate the Festival of Weeks before the Lord your God with the voluntary offering that you will bring, in proportion to how he has blessed you.
11 You shall rejoice before him – you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites in your villages, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows among you – in the place where the Lord chooses to locate his name.
12 Furthermore, remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and so be careful to observe these statutes.

It is worth noting that the text specifically reminds the Hebrews to observe the commandment to include their servants in this festival, on the basis that they were once slaves in Egypt, and should therefore take care of those less fortunate than themselves.

The Festival of Temporary Shelters (celebrated at the grain and grape harvest), was another community feast in which servants were commanded to be included:

Deuteronomy 16:
13 You must celebrate the Festival of Temporary Shelters for seven days, at the time of the grain and grape harvest.
14 You are to rejoice in your festival, you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows who are in your villages.

The inclusion in these feasts of servants and socially disadvantaged groups such as the resident foreigners, orphans, and widows demonstrates that these individuals were not to be marginalised by the community, but included with the free community, and provided with the same benefits as equal citizens. This explicit emphasis on the humanity of servants encouraged strong personal and emotional bonds between servants and the households they served, and prevented them from being viewed as mere chattels or being dehumanized, as they frequently were in other ANE socities.

Priests under the Law of Moses had no income other than that which they received from the community tithe (a tax of ten percent of the community’s produce), and from certain of the offerings made under the sacrificial code. Ordinarily, the food of the offerings was permitted to be eaten only by the priests. Since it had been ritually sanctified, it could not be eaten by a non-priest. A priest could not offer it to his guest, his lodger, or his hired worker:

Leviticus 22:
10 “‘No lay person may eat anything holy. Neither a priest’s lodger nor a hired laborer may eat anything holy,

However, both an indentured servant owned by the priest, or a servant who was born in his own house, were permitted to eat of the food which was ordinarily reserved only for the priest:

Leviticus 22:
11 but if a priest buys a person with his own money, that person may eat the holy offerings, and those born in the priest’s own house may eat his food.

This remarkable law provided uniquely for the servant of the priest, treating their welfare as equally important as that of the priest himself. The servant had the right to share the ritually sanctified food which was otherwise reserved only for the priest, who belonged to the most privileged class in the community.

Masters were accountable to the law for their treatment of all their servants, whether fellow Hebrews or foreigners (Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27), and the death of a servant caused by a domestic animal had to be compensated (Exodus 21:32), though the death of a freeman caused by a domestic animal did not have to be compensated unless the animal was previously known to be dangerous (Exodus 21:28-29). These laws were far superior to the laws of other ANE societies, most of which permitted chattel slavery, and provided little or no protection for servants of any kind.

For example, the Law of Moses placed an equal value on the life of the slave as on the life of a free born man, which the Code of Hammurabi did not do:

* The Code of Hammurabi exacted no penalty for the murder of a slave, but the Law of Moses proscribed the death penalty for the murder of any man (Exodus 21:12)

* The Code of Hammurabi exacted no penalty for injuring a slave, but the Law of Moses required a master to set his slave free if he inflicted permanent injury (Exodus 21:26-27)

* The Code of Hammurabi held the life of a slave to be of less value than the life of a free born man, but the Law of Moses valued them equally (Exodus 21:12, 19)

No servant under the Law of Moses, of whatever status (Hebrew or foreigner), was subjected to the terms of ANE or New World chattel slavery:

‘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

‘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. [sic]‘

‘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

Several laws in the Law of Moses which applied to servitude are unique, having no counterpart in any other ANE society:

* Servants were protected from injury by their masters, and were set free if they were injured

* Murdering a slave incurred the death penalty

* It was illegal to capture individuals and place them in coercive servitude as property (chattel slavery)

* Any servant who ran away from their master automatically gained their liberty and were free to live wherever they chose; not only was it illegal to return them to their master, it was also forbidden to oppress them in any way

Under the Law of Moses, the master who struck his servant and knocked out an eye or tooth, had to let the servant go free (Exodus 21:26-27), a law understood by the Jews as referring to any permanent injury. In contrast, under the Code of Hammurabi a man who struck an even ex-slave and knocked out their eye or tooth had only to pay a monetary fine, and there was no penalty for injuring a slave at all. Other ANE law codes also failed to provide any such protection for servants and slaves:

‘The above prescription is hugely instructive, in comparison to the ANE: In some ANE codes, a master could literally put out the eyes of his slaves![HI:HANEL, e.g., at Mari, 1:383; at Nuzi, 1:586]. This represents a MASSIVE departure from ‘conventional morality’ of the day!’

The ANE, however, did NOT have the same ‘respect’ for the face of slaves–besides eye-gouging, they resorted to branding, cutting of the ears, mutilating the nose, etc– IN THE LAW CODES!. These practices are NOT in Israel’s law codes, and they are implied to be prohibited by the focus on penalties for striking the face.’

Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘This law-the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters-is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social and human values and expresses itself once again in the provisions of verses 26-27.’

Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Exodus 21:21-27, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘Although slaves were viewed as the property of heads of households, the latter were not free to brutalize or abuse even non-Israelite members of the household. On the contrary, explicit prohibitions of the oppression/exploitation of slaves appear repeatedly in the Mosaic legislation. In two most remarkable texts, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19, Yahweh charges all Israelites to love (‘aheb) aliens (gerim) who reside in their midst, that is, the foreign members of their households, like they do themselves and to treat these outsiders with the same respect they show their ethnic countrymen.’

‘Marriage and Family in the Biblical World’, 2003, Ken Campbell (editor), page 60, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Under the Law of Moses, murdering a slave incurred the death penalty:

Exodus 21:
20 “If a man strikes his male servant or his female servant with a staff so that he or she dies as a result of the blow, he will surely be punished.

The term for ‘punished’ here is ‘avenged’, indicating the standard ‘lex talionis’, the law of equivalent retribution (Deuteronomy 19:21, ‘principle will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot’). The earliest Jewish commentaries on the passage makes this clear:

‘And when a man hath smitten his Kenaanite man‑servant or maid‑servant with a staff, and he die the same day under his hand, he shall be judged with the judgment of death by the sword.’

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Mishpatim, commentary on Exodus 21:20, 1st century AD

‘And when a man smiteth his servant or his handmaid with a staff, and he die under his hand, condemned he shall be condemned.’

Targum Onkelos, Mishpatim, commentary on Exodus 21:20, 2nd century AD

Modern commentaries agree:

‘He must be avenged The master is criminally liable and faces execution, in keeping with the law of verse…The verb n-k-m is popularly taken to signify “revenge.” Actually, it means “to avenge,” that is, to vindicate, or redress, the imbalance of justice. Its use in the Bible is overwhelmingly with God as the subject, and in such cases it always serves the ends of justice. It is employed in particular in situations in which normal judicial procedures are not effective or cannot be implemented.’

Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Exodus 21:20, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

“The second case involved a master striking his slave, male or female. Since the slave did not die immediately as a result of this act of using the rod (not a lethal weapon, however) but tarried for “a day or two” (v. 21), the master was given the benefit of the doubt; he was judged to have struck the slave with disciplinary and not homicidal intentions. This law is unprecedented in the ancient world where a master could treat his slave as he pleased.

When this law is considered alongside the law in vv. 26-27, which acted to control brutality against slaves at the point where it hurt the master, viz., his pocketbook, a whole new statement of the value and worth of the personhood of the slave is introduced. Thus if the master struck a slave severely enough only to injure one of his members, he lost his total investment immediately in that the slave won total freedom; or if he struck severely enough to kill the slave immediately, he was tried for capital punishment (vv. 18-19). The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the master’s mercy but to restrict the master’s power over him (cf. similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi 196-97, 200).’

Expositor’s Bible Commentary Old Testament’, 1992, note on Exodus 21:20, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Under the Law of Hammurabi, the death penalty was not enforced on a master murdering his own slave. The only penalty enforced for the death of a slave was if the slave died as a result of mistreatment in prison, in which case a fine was imposed:

116. If the prisoner die in prison from blows or maltreatment, the master of the prisoner shall convict the merchant before the judge. If he was a free-born man, the son of the merchant shall be put to death; if it was a slave, he shall pay one-third of a mina of gold, and all that the master of the prisoner gave he shall forfeit.

Under the Law of Moses, it was illegal to capture individuals and place them in coercive servitude as property (chattel slavery). The punishment for such a crime was death:

Exodus 21:
16 “Whoever kidnaps someone and sells him, or is caught still holding him, must surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 24:
7 If a man is found kidnapping a person from among his fellow Israelites, and regards him as mere property and sells him, that kidnapper must die. In this way you will purge evil from among you.

In contrast, the Law of Hammurabi only punished the kidnap of a minor son of a freeman, and offered no protection for anyone captured and placed in coercive slavery:

14. If any one steal the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.

Under the Law of Moses, any servant who ran away from their master automatically gained their liberty and were free to live wherever they chose. Not only was it illegal to return them to their master, it was also forbidden to oppress them in any way:

Deuteronomy 23:
15 You must not return an escaped slave to his master when he has run away to you.
16 Indeed, he may live among you in any place he chooses, in whichever of your villages he prefers; you must not oppress him.

The Hebrew word here translated slave is ‘ebed’, and refers generally to any servant, no matter what form of servitude they were under, and regardless of their nationality. This is arguably the most remarkable law regarding servants in the entire Law of Moses. No other ANE society had any such law, and most contemporary societies actually punished those who protected or supported runaway slaves. The Law of Hammurabi was particularly vindictive regarding this matter, enforcing the death penalty on anyone who sheltered a runaway slave, or who even concealed knowledge of their whereabouts:

16. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

17. If any one find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.

18. If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to the palace; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.

19. If he hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.

Other ANE law codes were equally cruel, and the Law of Moses stands out as uniquely humanitarian:

‘Wherever slavery existed, there were slaves who escaped from their masters. Ancient Near Eastern law forbade harboring runaway slaves, and international treaties regularly required allied states to extradite them. The present law, in contrast, permits escaped slaves to settle wherever they wish in the land of Israel and forbids returning them to their masters or enslaving them in Israel.’

Nahum M Sarna, ‘Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary Series: Exodus’, 1991, note on Deuteronomy 23:15-16, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

‘A slave could also be freed by running away. According to Deuteronomy, a runaway slave is not to be returned to its master. He should be sheltered if he wishes or allowed to go free, and he must not be taken advantage of (Deut 23:16-17). This provision is strikingly different from the laws of slavery in the surrounding nations and is explained as due to Israel’s own history of slaves. It would have the effect of turning slavery into a voluntary institution.’

‘A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law’, Raymond Westbrook (editor), 2003, volume 2, page 1006, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Indentured Servitude

Indentured servitude did exist under the Law of Moses, and both fellow Hebrews and foreigners could be contracted as indentured servants. 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. Indentured servants under the Law of Moses 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).

Unlike the other ANE societies, the Law of Moses did not permit family members to sell each other into indentured service to recover family debts. The head of the household sold himself into indentured service, and whilst his family certainly joined him as members of the master’s household, they were not the property of the master as the man himself was, and nor were they contracted to serve.

The Law of Moses went to great lengths to reduce the necessity of indentured service for the payment of debt, providing various means by which an impoverished man could profit from the sale of his property or land, without losing it permanently. Hebrews were not to charge interest when loaning money to other Hebrews (Deuteronomy 23:19), which reduced the possibility of large debts accruing. In other ANE cultures there was no limit on interest rates, which often resulted in unpayable debts:

‘Pentateuchal prescriptions are meant to mitigate the causes of and need for such bondservice. Resident aliens, orphans and widows are not to be abused, oppressed or deprived of justice. When money is lent to the poor, they are not to be charged interest. (Elsewhere in the ancient Near East exorbitant interest rates on loans were the chief cause of people being sold into slavery).’

Article ‘Slavery’, in ‘Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch’, 2003, T Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (editors), as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

Every fifty years, in the Jubilee year, the property or land which a man had sold to relieve himself from debt, returned to his possession without penalty (Leviticus 25:8-10, 13-14). An impoverished man could sell his land to a fellow Hebrew for a sum equal to the value of the produce it would generate in the years left until the next Jubilee (Leviticus 25:15-16), and the land would return to him in the Jubilee year.

Even before the Jubilee year, a man’s property or land was to be repurchased for him by a kinsman (Leviticus 25:25), or could even be repurchased by the man himself if he obtained sufficient funds to do so (Leviticus 25:26-27). This repurchase was considered a compulsory acquisition which the new owner of the land was not permitted to refuse (Leviticus 25:23-24). In any case, the land would return to the man in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:13).

The exception was a residential house in a walled city, which could be redeemed within a year but no later, and did not return to the original owner in the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:29-30). Residential houses outside the urban area, however, were protected by both the permanent availabilty of redemption and the compulsory return in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:31), which clearly favoured the less wealthy rural dwellers over the more wealthy and financially secure urban dwellers.

In the event that a Hebrew became so impoverished that he had sold his property or land, his fellow Hebrew were forbidden to take advantage of his position. They were to provide care and support for him even if he was in debt to them, and money was to be loaned to him without interest:

Leviticus 25:
35 “‘If your brother becomes impoverished and is indebted to you, you must support him; he must live with you like a foreign resident.
36 Do not take interest or profit from him, but you must fear your God and your brother must live with you.
37 You must not lend him your money at interest and you must not sell him food for profit.

This protected the Hebrew debtor from being sold into slavery or indentured service against his will, an act which his debtor had no right to do. The only way for the Hebrew debtor to enter indentured service to pay his debts was by his own choice. Even when this occurred his fellow Hebrews were to treat him as an employee, and were forbidden to treat him as a chattel slave (‘you must not subject him to slave service’, verse 39, a term different from that used of the hired employee or the indentured servant). Both he and his family would be released in the Jubilee year:

Leviticus 25:
39 “‘If your brother becomes impoverished with regard to you so that he sells himself to you, you must not subject him to slave service.
40 He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee,
41 but then he may go free, he and his children with him, and may return to his family and to the property of his ancestors.
42 Since they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, they must not be sold in a slave sale.
43 You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God.

Importantly, the Hebrew who purchased his fellow Hebrew as an indentured servant was not permitted to sell him to another person to recover their debt (‘they must not be sold in a slave sale’, verse 42), and had to remain in the custody of the Hebrew who had purchased them. This ensured that the man remained within the Hebrew community, which provided him with legal protection from abuse, and prevented him from being sold to a foreign nation. All Hebrew indentured servants were explicitly protected by law from harsh treatment at the hands of their masters (‘You must not rule over him harshly’, Leviticus 25:43, ‘no man may rule over his brother harshly’, Leviticus 25:46, ‘The one who bought him must not rule over him harshly in your sight’, Leviticus 25:53).

This was in direct contrast to the Law of Hammurabi, which permitted a master to give away his servants for forced labour or lease them out to another master, who could sublease them or even sell them:

118. If he give a male or female slave away for forced labor, and the merchant sublease them, or sell them for money, no objection can be raised.

In the event that a Hebrew man sold himself to a resident foreigner, he could be repurchased from the foreigner by a kinsman at a price calculated on his value as a hired employee, and recompensate his kinsman either through monetary payment or service, during which time he was to be treated as a hired employee and not taken advantage of by his kinsman (Leviticus 25:47-53).

If he was unable to be redeemed from the resident foreigner, he would nevertheless be released with his family in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:54-55). Of course, there would be many cases in which the Jubilee year was still very far off, and it would seem pointless for a 30 year old man to sell himself into service (even as a hired employee), hoping for relase in another 40 years time, since he would be unlikely to live that long. But the Law of Moses not only provided the Jubilee as a year of debt cancellation. All financial debts were automatically cancelled every seven years:

Deuteronomy 15:
1 At the end of every seven years you must declare a cancellation of debts.
2 This is the nature of the cancellation: Every creditor must remit what he has loaned to another person; he must not force payment from his fellow Israelite, for it is to be recognized as “the Lord’s cancellation of debts.”

This legislation ensured that the impoverished Israelite would never have more than seven years to wait before his debts were cancelled, whether or not he could pay them. Given this extremely generous provision in the Law, it was natural that creditors would be reluctant to lend money to their less wealthy fellow Hebrews, knowing that the closer the seventh year was the less chance there was of them being repaid.

However, the Law explicitly required the wealthy to lend to those in need, regardless of the close proximity of the year of debt cancellation:

Deuteronomy 15:
7 If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the Lord your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition.
8 Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs.
9 Be careful lest you entertain the wicked thought that the seventh year, the year of cancellation of debts, has almost arrived, and your attitude be wrong toward your impoverished fellow Israelite and you do not lend him anything; he will cry out to the Lord against you and you will be regarded as having sinned.
10 You must by all means lend to him and not be upset by doing it, for because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you attempt.

The Law of Hammurabi required debt cancellation after only three years instead of six, but the terms were not as favourable:

117. If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.

Firstly, the Law of Hammurabi lacked the many safeguards included in the Law of Moses to prevent the debtor having to resort to indentured service in the first place. Secondly, the Law of Hammurabi did not require its citizens to provide and care for those who were in debt without insisting they become indentured servants, as the Law of Moses did (Leviticus 25:35-37).

Thirdly, debtor was compelled by law to enter indentured service if he could not pay his debt, which was not required by the Law of Moses. Fourthly, a man could sell his family members as indentured servants whilst he remained free, whislt the Law of Moses expected the man who was the head of the household to sell himself into indentured service, and whilst his family certainly joined him as members of the master’s household, they were not the property of the master as the man himself was.

Fifthly, the Law of Hammurabi permitted a man to give his family members away to forced labour in exchange for debt cancellation, which was not permitted under the Law of Moses, and subjected the family members to the conditions of chattel slaves without the legal protections enjoyed by the Hebrew indentured servant. But of course, the Law of Hammurabi had no such laws providing for the protection of the indentured servant as the Law of Moses had.

Not only did the Law of Moses protect the Hebrew indentured servant from exploitation and permanent debt, when the servant was releaed in the year of debt cancellation the master was required to present them with a substantial gift of property from his own belongings, in order to help him recover from his poverty:

Deuteronomy 15:
13 If you set them free, you must not send them away empty-handed.
14 You must supply them generously from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress – as the Lord your God has blessed you, you must give to them.
15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you to do this thing today.

At the end of the seven years, therefore, the indentured servant not only had his debt cancelled (no matter how large it had been), but he actually made a substantial profit from his service. No other ANE law code required such extraordinary generosity from those who purchased an indentured servant.

One other way for a Hebrew to become an indentured servant to another Hebrew was through theft. If a thief could not repay what he had stolen, he was subjected to indentured service unti lhe had paid for the property he had stolen (‘A thief must surely make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he will be sold for his theft’, Exodus 22:3). Yet both the seventh year of release and the Jubilee year applied even to the thief, so that he could not become responsible for a debt he could never repay.

The laws for servants who were non-Hebrews were slightly different. For them there was no automatic release, either in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:44-46), or the seventh year of debt cancellation (Deuteronomy 15:3). These foreign indentured servants were outside the covenant community, and did not receive the benefit of debt cancellation. The Hebrews were permitted to pass them on as an inheritance to the next generation until their debts were repaid, which is the meaing of ‘olam’ in Leviticus 25:46 (translated ‘perpetually’). The text does not mean they were permanent possessions, but is an explanation as to why they do not go out at the seventh year of release or the Jubilee as the Hebrews do (the reason being that their debts are not cancelled).

However, the Law of Moses still maintained their personal legal rights relating to physical protection (Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27), freedom of movement, and access to liberty (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Any bondservant purchased from the Gentiles had the right to flee their master, and receive the protection of the Law of Moses if they did so:

Deuteronomy 23:
15 You must not return an escaped slave to his master when he has run away to you.
16 Indeed, he may live among you in any place he chooses, in whichever of your villages he prefers; you must not oppress him.

Thus even for bondservants purchased from the Gentiles, servititude was not a permanent institution.

Importantly, the Law of Moses made no provision for any slave trade. It was permissible to purchase men and women who voluntarily sold themselves into indentured service, but not to sell them (Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:39, 42, 45, Deuteronomy 15:12). Taking men and women and enslaving them against their will, or selling them into slavery, was expressly forbidden on pain of death (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7).

It is a simple fact that obedience to two of the commandments regulating servititude within the Law of Moses would have prevented every form of slave trade in which Western civilization became involved. The South American, East and West Indian, and African slave trades would have been totally prevented if Western societies had passed laws expressly forbidding involuntary slavery and sale on the one hand (such as Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7), and granting an escaped slave their full liberty and freedom of movement whilst forbidding the community to return them to their master or take advantage of their marginalized position (such as Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Although many Christians campaigned against slavery for centuries, laws in Western society unfortunately did not become as civilized as the Law of Moses in this regard until around the 19th century.


Bride sale

Strictly speaking this was not a form of servitude, since when a daughter was ‘sold’, the ‘sale’ actually constituted a marriage contract intended to place the daughter in a position of financial security and a superior socio-economic position:

‘Older views held that Mesopotamian marriage was basically a commercial arrangement in which the groom purchased the bride, and it is true that extant texts are interested in the economic relations that were being forged by the new union. But it is not helpful to see marriage as purchase because the bride’s family too usually presented gifts to the groom’s family; instead, marriage seems more a change in status for both parties, like adoption.

Daniel C Snell, ‘Life in the Ancient Near East, 3100-332 BCE’, 1997, page 52, 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. She did not become the property of her ‘master’, nor was she an indentured servant:

‘The mōhar was a sum of money or its equivalent, which the fiance paid to the girl’s father as a compensation to the family. It was not, strictly speaking, the purchase price, but the customary wedding money.’

Harris, RL, Archer, GL, & Waltke, BK, ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ‘, 1999, page 492

‘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

Until the daughter’s marriage was finalized, she remained in the master’s household and custody:

Exodus 21:
7 “If a man sells his daughter as a female servant, she will not go out as the male servants do.

The word here translated ‘female servant’ is the word ‘amah’. It is not the word for a chattel slave, or even the word for a hired employee, and although it is a word used for a female servant, it is not used in that sense here but in the sense of one who is under obligation to a master:

‘The Hebrew term ‘amah used here, does not mean a slave girl in the usual sense, since her status is quite different from that of the male slave. The following laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation.’

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

She does not ‘go out as the male servants do’, because she is not free to leave until the marriage has been completed and her contract has been fulfilled:

The sale presupposes marriage to the master or his son. Documents recording legal arrangements of this kind have survived from Nuzi.’

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

‘The parents of the bride had given their consent to what amounted to an adoption of their daughter by her prospective bridegroom and his household. They had agreed to a riksa4tim, “a contract concerning their daughter,” [51] after receipt of a bride-price.

[51] Westbrook, Old Babylonian Marriage Law, p. 31.’

However, this is not to say that she was to be considered chattel, or that the marriage agreement was treated in the same light as the sale of land or other property.’

Victor H Matthews, ‘Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East’, in ‘Marriage and Family in the Biblical World’, 2003, Ken Campbell (editor), page 10

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). If she had been contracted to his son, the master was to treat her as his own daughter, even before the marriage took place:

Exodus 21:
9 And if he designated her for his son, then he will deal with her after the manner of daughters.

If the master failed to marry her as he had promised he was considered in breach of the contract, and the daughter was free to be redeemed by her family. The master had no right to retain her or to sell her to recover the cost of the ‘bride price’:

Exodus 21:
8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to a foreign nation, because he has dealt deceitfully with her.

Finally, if the man to whom she was married took another wife, he was not to neglect the woman who had been contracted to him. If his support for her diminished, she was free to leave him and had no further contractural obligations:

Exodus 21:
10 If he takes another wife, he must not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marital rights.
11 And if he does not provide her with these three things, then she will go out free, without paying money.

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

There is nothing in the entire passage about this daugther being sold into perpetual slavery. The passage speaks of a marriage contract between a freeman’s daughter and another freeman or his son, with a list of obligations to be fulfilled by both parties, and a careful legal protection of the woman’s rights if the contract is breached or if her husband does not provide sufficient care for her:

‘Though an owner may be unhappy with a female slave he has bought for himself, he is to permit her to be freed by the payment of a price, apparently by her family, or he is to make provision for her to remain within his own family, perhaps as a daughter-in-law. Despite his own dissatisfaction with her, he has no right to sell her to “a strange family”, a family unknown to her, perhaps even one outside the covenant community of Israel. If he keeps her within his own family, yet takes another woman as his own wife or concubine, he is not to deny her the basic rights which his purchase of her for himself guaranteed in the first place.’

‘If the owner refuses to provide the female slave with these fundamental rights, he waives his claim of possession, and she is free to go her own way. The provisions here stipulated for such a woman make it very likely that she was not sold into slavery for general purposes, but only as a bride, and therefore with provisions restricting her owner-husband concerning her welfare if he should become dissatisfied with the union. Mendelsohn has cited Nuzian sale contracts which almost exactly parallel the Exodus provisions. Such an interpretation makes clear why the provisions for such a slavebride are given in sequence to the “guiding principles” for the protection of the male temporary slave: the slave-bride had special rights, too, and if they were violated, she too could go free.’

‘Word Biblical Commentary’, volume 2, note on Exodus 21, as quoted by Glenn Miller, ‘Does God condone slavery in the Bible?’, 2005

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

This was arguably the least rigorous and most advantageous form of servitude in the ANE, since it involved an agreement between two states, and generally affected the daily life of the individual member of the community very little. Members of the vassal state were regarded as ‘slaves’ in the sense that they were under servitude to their suzerain and their liberties were ultimately dependent on him, 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. The treaty sometimes even mentioned the obligation of the suzerain to ‘love’ the vassal:

‘Beginning outside the Old Testament, we may point to texts from the 18th to the 7th centuries BC, in which we find the term love used to describe the loyalty and friendship joining independent kings, sovereign and vassal, king and subject. However, a similar love also binds sovereign and vassal. The Pharaoh is expected to love his vassal.’

‘To love Pharaoh is to serve him and to remain faithful to the status of vassal…Continuing down to the first millennium, we find this terminology still in use. A vassal mst [sic] still love his sovereign. The vassals convoked by Esarhaddon to insure loyalty to his successor Assurbanipal are told: “You will love as yourselves Assurbanipal.” In another text we find a similar declaration under oath: “…the king of Assyria, our lord, we will love.”‘

(Pp.104-105, William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy.” Frederick E. Greenspahn, Editor. Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East. New York. New York University Press. 1991 ISBN 0-8147-3037-X. Originally published in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 1963. Vol 25, pp.77-87)’

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, ‘The Decalogue, a 2nd or 1st Millennium BCE Creation?’, 2002

Vassalage existed under the Law of Moses, and cities which surrendered to the Hebrews were normatively placed under vassalage:

‘There existed two types of covenants in Israel, as well as in the ancient Near East. The promissory covenants bound the suzerain (master) to the vassal (servant) unconditionally. The obligatory covenants, also known as the suzerainty treaties, bound the vassal (servant) to be faithfully obedient to the suzerain (master).’

René Lopez, ‘Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Covenants’, Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, volume 10, Spring 2004

Deuteronomy 20:
10 When you approach a city to wage war against it, offer it terms of peace.
11 If it accepts your terms and submits to you, all the people found in it will become your slaves.

The text here from the New English Translation does not adequately describe the situation, since the passage actually uses the Hebrew word ‘mas’, referring explicitly to vassals who are placed under tribute, and the Hebrew phrase here is actually ‘become as a vassal and will serve you’. This does not describe the personal enslavement of the individuals of the city, to be sold among the Hebrews as household slaves, but refers to the city being placed under vassalage to Israel. The citizens would retain their city and place of residence, continuing their lives as they had before, with the difference that now they were required to supply tribute (usually through a tax of money or goods), and service in the form of manual labour (it appears that the Hebrews did not require military service of their vassals). They retained their personal liberty and property, but were now subject to Hebrew law, tribute, and service.

This same term (‘mas’), is also used for the ‘taskmasters’ who were set over the Hebrew slaves by the Egyptians (Exodus 1:11), and also for the Israelites who were conscripted by the king of Israel into civil service for public works (2 Samuel 20:24, 1 Kings 4:6; 5:13-14; 9:15, 21; 12:18, 2 Chronicles 10:18), proving that it did not involve entire populations being broken up and sold as chattel slaves or even as indentured servants, nor did it involve a loss of personal liberty or property. The Hebrews are recorded as having subjected a number of cities and states to vassalge (Joshua 9:3-27; 16:10; 17:13, Judges 1:28, 30-35), and are also recorded as having fulfiled their obligations to the suzerainty treaty by protecting their vassals from military attack by hostile forces.

In the following passage, the Israelites come to the military aid of the Gibeonites, their vassals:

Joshua 10:
6 The men of Gibeon sent this message to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, “Do not abandon your subjects! Rescue us! Help us! For all the Amorite kings living in the hill country are attacking us.“
7 So Joshua and his whole army, including the bravest warriors, marched up from Gilgal.

Unlike usual ANE suzerainty treaties however, the Hebvrews did not rqeuire their vassal to attack their enemies, or to raise armies in defence of Israel. Nor did they even require their vassals to raise armies in their own self defence. Their vassals enjoyed the benefits of Hebrew military protection without the disadvantage of having to contribute to it themselves.

Suzerainty treaties always included clauses invoking the vengeance of the gods on the vassals if they did not obey the terms of the treaty, but remarkably the Hebrew suzerainty treaty actually placed the burden of Divine punishment for breach of treaty on the Hebrews, not their vassals. When the Gibeonites were persecuted and murdered by one of the families of the tribe of Benjamin, God punished the Hebrew nation for their breach of the suzerainty treaty (2 Samuel 21:1), and the king of Israel was required to compensate the Gibeonites for their loss (2 Samuel 21:2-9). This demonstrates that the Hebrew suzerainty treaty placed a higher order of obligation on the suzerain (in this case Israel), than it did on the vassal (in this case the Gibeonites), a situation unique in the ANE.

66 comments

  1. This is a great article! I am working on a YouTube series on this very topic using similar resources. We need more people doing their homework and coming to an understanding of what’s going on in the Bible.


  2. In Leviticus 25:44-46 it says you can buy slaves. Who recieves the money for this? Was it slave traders, the person becoming a servant, or someone else?

    Also, does the Bible simply explain the Mosaic law, or is it literally God’s commandments to his people?


  3. ‘In Leviticus 25:44-46 it says you can buy slaves. Who recieves the money for this? Was it slave traders, the person becoming a servant, or someone else?’

    Hebrews were permitted to purchase people who had sold themselves into indentured service to another individual. Sometimes that individual would sell them off in order to recover their debt more quickly. Hebrews were permitted to purchase such indentured servants, who would work off their purchase price as servants to the Hebrew who bought them.

    ‘Also, does the Bible simply explain the Mosaic law, or is it literally God’s commandments to his people?’

    The Mosaic law is explained throughout the Bible.


  4. Although I admire the depth of your research, the problem here is that in the end the answer is still that God condones slavery. The Mosaic Law does not apply to Gentiles, nor is chattel slavery condemned if it only involves gentiles. The institutions of enslavement maintained by other ANE cultures are therefore approved by God, since they are not on the list of “detestable practices” for which those nations were destroyed. The Bible does not say that chattel slavery is wrong, only that it is wrong to reduce Jews to this status. Besides all this, your view of Deut 15:3 and 20:11 are completely unjustified. You have incorrectly defined the words in question. Both are in support of the permanent enslavement of pagan slaves (who can only be lawfully acquired through non-compulsory war).


    • I also read this article with much interest. I noted that the author did make a point of stating that if those laws regarding slavery here in the west, it would have been abolished long before the 1860′s.

      Still, I agree with you very strongly with regard to how and why He condoned slavery at all. This just re-affirms my position as “weak agnostic” with my love and trust in God diminishing every day, now that I’m a free thinker with a great deal of scientific knowledge and education.

      I ran another search the other day that research has confirmed that the better educated and higher intelligence you posess, the less likely you will be religious or believe all of the super “fairy tales” that are written by man, reportedly by “divine inspiration” (boy, that K2 is GREAT)! Or my dear older brother, who passed away in 2009, would tell me on a daily basis that he had just spoken with God. And he was convinced of this! Poor, sweet, darling – he had been diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia in his late teens…wonder how many of those “divinely inspired” writers were also afflcited.?!


  5. Above I stated that your view on
    our view of Deut 15:3 and 20:11 are completely unjustified. I meant Leviticus 25:46 and Deut 20:11


  6. As you can see, I take an evidence based approach to these issues, so let’s see what you provide in the way of evidence:

    * ‘in the end the answer is still that God condones slavery’: You don’t actually define what you mean by ‘slavery’ in this sentence, but it seems from your next comment that you refer to chattel slavery. You don’t provide any evidence that God condones chattel slavery.

    * ‘The Mosaic Law does not apply to Gentiles, nor is chattel slavery condemned if it only involves gentiles’: I provided evidence that the Law of Moses made no provision for any slave trade. It was permissible to purchase men and women who voluntarily sold themselves into indentured service, but not to sell them (Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:39, 42, 45, Deuteronomy 15:12). Taking men and women and enslaving them against their will, or selling them into slavery, was expressly forbidden on pain of death (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7).

    I can’t see any passages which say that the Israelites were permitted to make chattel slaves of the Gentiles, and you didn’t provide any, so I’m not sure what evidence you’re relying on. What I have demonstrated in the articles is that the Law of Moses did not reduce anyone (Israelite or Gentile), to the position of chattel slavery, and that standard scholarly literature confirms this. The Law of Moses permitted servants to flee from their masters, and granted them liberty when they did so. This is the opposite of chattel slavery.

    Chattel slavery did not exist under the Law of Moses. There was no form of servitude under the Law of Moses which placed them in the legal position of chattel slaves. Legislation maintained kinship rights (Exodus 21:3, 9, Leviticus 25:41, 47-49, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), marriage rights (Exodus 21:4, 10-11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage), personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of contract (Exodus 21:8, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind, and Leviticus 25:39-41, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), freedom of movement, and access to liberty (Exodus 21:8, 11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Leviticus 25:40-45, 48, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants, and Deuteronomy 15:1, 12; 23:15, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind).

    * ‘The institutions of enslavement maintained by other ANE cultures are therefore approved by God, since they are not on the list of “detestable practices” for which those nations were destroyed’: You’re committing the fallacy of the false dichotomy. Just because it isn’t on the list of ‘detestable practices’ doesn’t mean it was approved by God. On the contrary, taking men and women and enslaving them against their will, or selling them into slavery, was expressly forbidden on pain of death (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7). How can you say these practices were approved by God, when they are forbidden on pain of death?

    * ‘Besides all this, your view of Deut 15:3 and 20:11 are completely unjustified. You have incorrectly defined the words in question’: You later clarify ‘I meant Leviticus 25:46 and Deut 20:11′, but you haven’t actually specified the ‘words in question’, nor provided any evidence that I have incorrectly defined them.

    It seems you mean that I was wrong to suggest that ‘olam’ referred to a limited rather than a permanent duration. To you this looks like 21st century Christian apologia. But it is not simply my view. It is a view found within the scholarly community (Sarna, ‘JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus’, 1991, page 120, Christiansen, ‘Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy’, 2002, page 321).

    Evidence for this view comes from some of the earliest Jewish commentaries, which interpreted it in this way (Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael in Mishpatim 2, Kiddushin 15b, and Targum Jonathan at Exodus 21:6). Note that Targum Jonathan is one of the earliest extant commentaries on the passage, dating to around the 1st century.

    The argument I am making therefore is firmly evidence based. It is recognized within the relevant scholarly community, and supported by the earliest historical commentaries on the passages.

    * ‘Both are in support of the permanent enslavement of pagan slaves (who can only be lawfully acquired through non-compulsory war)’: As we can see, and as you seem to have realized, pagan servants could lawfully be acquired through indentured service (Leviticus 25:45), not only by non-compulsory war. As for the permanence of that servitude, see above.


  7. This is the one I meant to post originally.

    1. Nowhere in the Bible does Yahweh explicitly say that it is a sin to own other human beings as property. Do you deny this?

    2. Yahweh declares that it is wrong to own Jews permanently but this law does not apply to the goyim. Do you deny this?

    a. I don’t own the books you mentioned but I do have a BDB, which clearly defines “olam” as “perpetuity” (for ever). This obviously implies permanent slavery.

    b. The discussion in Kiddushin 15b refers to the redemption of Hebrew servants. Neither goyim nor permanence are mentioned at all. Are you sure that that was the right reference?

    3. The Goyim are only bound to keep the Noahide Laws, which do not mention slavery. Are you saying that the Noahide Laws prohibit slavery? If so, show me. Or are you saying that the goyim are responsible for obeying additional laws beside the Noahide ones? If so, you stand against the consensus of the rabbis.

    4. Masters are prevented from killing or from permanently injuring their slaves but beating them is still ok. Do you deny this?

    5. You mentioned that there are no obvious references to a slave trade, and from that you assume that slaves bought from other nations must’ve sold themselves into slavery. Where did you get this idea since Lev 25:45 does not say anything about those people having sold themselves?

    6. All of the verses you cited in your response refer specifically to Jews. Why are you assuming that these laws also apply to the goyim? I am sure that you don’t think the goyim should be circumcised (since the relevant passages specifically refer to Jews) so why are do you treat these passages differently?

    7. Even if the Jews had no slave trade of their own, they could still take advantage of someone else’s slave trade. Do you deny this?

    8. Exodus 21:16 refers to kidnapping. Slaves taken in war were not kidnapped. You said that the Mosaic does not allow for involuntary slavery. Are you saying that people defeated in war want to be taken as slaves?

    9. You asked “How can you say these practices were approved by God, when they are forbidden on pain of death?” Are you not aware that the death penalty is proscribed for Sabbath breakers? And surely you aware that this law does not apply to the Goyim?


  8. I have deleted your previous posts for you. Let’s see what we have this time. I note still an absence of actual scholarly references, and a failure to address all the academic works I quoted. Will this change in future posts, or will you just stay with unsubstantiated assertions? I note in particular that you have abandoned your original claim that the Hebrews were permitted by God to keep chattel slaves, which is an improvement. So let’s continue.

    1. I see you’re changing the goal posts here from your original claim. But yes, I believe that Yahweh does say explicitly that it’s a sin to own other human beings as property. The condemnation of kidnapping and selling people into slavery by the Law (not to mention the legal requirements of the humanitarian treatment of servants), constitutes such a statement.

    2. I do deny this. I haven’t seen any evidence from you that Yahweh says ‘It’s wrong to own Jews permanently, but this does not apply to the Gentiles’.

    2a. If you have BDB, do you have the abridged edition or the full edition? I have the full edition of BDB, as well as HALT, TWOT, and Swanson. Let’s look at them:

    * BDB: ‘long duration, antiquity, futurity’ (these are the opening words in the BDB reference, and yes BDB also states that the word can refer to eternity, but I did not dispute this meaning)

    * HALOT: ‘long time, duration’ (these are the opening words in HALOT under the first entry in the definition; HALOT also states that the word can refer to eternity)

    * TWOT: ‘Both words [Hebrew olam and Greek AIWN] came to be used to refer to a long age or period’ (TWOT also states that the word can refer to eternity)

    * Swanson: ‘for a duration, i.e., an undetermined duration of time without reference to other points of time, with a focus of no anticipated end, but nevertheless may have limits’ (Swanson also states that the word can refer to eternity)

    So that’s the four standard Hebrew lexicons in agreement that the word olam does not necessarily refer to eternity. This is agreement with the scholarly works I cited previously (Sarna, ‘JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus’, 1991, page 120, Christiansen, ‘Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy’, 2002, page 321). Case closed.

    2b. Sarna (‘JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus’, 1991, page 120), says 15b, but that could be a misprint for 15a, thanks for the correction. The point being made from Kiddushin 15a was that olam in reference to a servant did not necessarily mean ‘forever’, and that this was understood by the early Jewish exegetes. This was the point you had disputed. The fact is that Kiddushin 15a says that the servants shall remain in service ‘until the olam of the jubilee’, that is, until the jubilee year. Clearly that is not permanent service.

    I quote now Menachem Elon, ‘Jewish law : History, sources, principles: Ha-mishpat ha-Ivri’, volume 3, page 1031 (1994), which points out that Josephus understood the pierced servant to be free at Jubilee, and that this interpretation is also found in Talmud Babylon, specifically at Kiddushin 15a (which is quoted):

    ‘Josephus wrote:

    ‘[I]f he have a son by a woman servant in his purchaser’s house, and if, on account of his good will to his master, and his natural affection to his wife and children, he will be his servant still, let him be set free only at the coming of the year of jubilee, which is the fiftieth year.’

    Josephus thus interprets “forever” as meaning “until the jubilee year,” which is the interpretation given in the Talmud:

    “And he shall then remain his slave forever.” Rabbi [Judah Ha-Nasi] said, “Come and see that ‘forever’ means only fifty years, since it [Scripture] states, ‘he shall then remain his slave forever’—[but he remains in service only] until the jubilee year.”55

    55 Mekhilta, Mishpatim, sec. 2 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 254); see also TB Kiddushin 15a: “‘le-olam’—to the olam of the jubilee [i.e., until the next jubilee].”’

    Note there the citation of Talmud Babylon Kiddushin 15a, which explicitly identifies the ‘olam’ not as ‘forever’, or the life of the servant, but as ‘until the next jubilee’.

    What about Deuteronomy 24:14, ‘You must not oppress a lowly and poor servant, whether one from among your fellow Israelites or from the resident foreigners who are living in your land and villages’? What about Leviticus 19:34, ‘The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt’? What about Deuteronomy 10:19, ‘So you must love the resident foreigner’?

    So much for Israelite laws concerining servants only applying to Hebrew servants, not Gentile servants.

    3. I see nothing in the Bible which says that the Gentiles were only to keep the Noahide laws (as you should know, Gentiles living in the land of Israel had to keep the same laws as Israel, Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:42, Numbers 15:16; 35:15, Deuteronomy 1:16), but this is irrelevant in any case. You’re supposed to be proving that God permitted chattel slavery, and that servants could be kept forever (I note again that you avoid mentioning servants were free to flee their masters and would be liberated and protected by law if they did so). The fact that God explicitly forbad chattel slavery in the Law of Moses proves that God does not approve of chattel slavery.

    4. Yes, masters were permitted to discipline their slaves with beating. I note that once again you’re changing the subject to something new. This punishment was the same as the punishment for a freeman.

    5. Israelites were forbidden to enslave people against their will by kidnapping, and were forbidden to sell people into slavery against their will.

    6. Gentiles living in the land of Israel had to keep the same laws as Israel (Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:42, Numbers 15:16; 35:15, Deuteronomy 1:16).

    7. I don’t agree that the Jews could ‘take advantage of someone else’s slave trade’, since they could only purchase slaves as indentured servants, were not permitted to sell them, were not permitted to treat them as chattel slaves, had to acknowledge their legal rights, and had to acknowledge that they were free to flee their masters if they wished (at which point they would be granted full liberty and protection from the Law).

    8. Actually Exodus 21:16 refers to kidnapping people with the aim of making them slaves. This was forbidden. As Sarna says (page 123):

    ‘The prevalence of the slave trade clearly spurred this item of legislation. The principal motive for kidnapping was to coerce the victim into servitude, either to the kidnapper himself or to another master who is willing to pay for the human merchandise.’

    When you can find the passages in which the Law of Moses instructed the Jews to enslave people by taking them in war, please show them to me. Conquered enemy nations were submitted to corvee labor (see the section I wrote on corvee labor), but were not enslaved. Israel had absolutely no capacity to enslave such a number of people, let alone feed them.

    A handful of passages saying that it’s lawful to enslave someone against their will would be good. Actually even one such passage would give us something to discuss.

    9. You haven’t answered my question. Here it is again. How can you say these practices were approved by God, when they are forbidden on pain of death? Yes I’m aware that the death penalty is proscribed for Sabbath breakers. This law applied to the Jews, and to any of the Gentiles living as resident foreigners with the Jews. What’s your point? You’re no longer talking about the practices previously under discussion. Why not?


    • well, if there are verses against kidnapping slaves, they’re inconsistencies at best.

      there are commands from god to do so. i really wish Christians would just own up to the fact that evil men warped God’s word in the past to support cultural norms, and call it wrong, instead of apologizing for practitioners of slavery, rape and polyamorous relationships under the guise of marraige.


      • //well, if there are verses against kidnapping slaves, they’re inconsistencies at best.//

        That is not an adequate response. That is an ad hoc argument which avoids addressing the evidence.


    • 7. I don’t agree that the Jews could ‘take advantage of someone else’s slave trade’, since they could only purchase slaves as indentured servants, were not permitted to sell them, were not permitted to treat them as chattel slaves, had to acknowledge their legal rights, and had to acknowledge that they were free to flee their masters if they wished (at which point they would be granted full liberty and protection from the Law).

      i’m sorry, again, you’re very uninformed. I’m not claiming it to be God’s law, but israelites in biblical days had chattel slaves. the Talmud confirms this, and even gets very nitpicky on the details of buying and selling non hebrew slaves.


      • A handful of passages saying that it’s lawful to enslave someone against their will would be good. Actually even one such passage would give us something to discuss.

        in the story of the slaughter of the midianites, God specifically commands the taking of Virgin females as maidservents/wives.

        and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho. [a]

        13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

        15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.


      • I have supplied numerous references from the relevant scholarly literature. You may disagree with me, you may disagree with the scholarship, but you may not refer to me as uninformed (especially when you cite not a single scholarly reference yourself).

        I’m well aware that the later Jewish community of the Second Temple Era held slaves in the Greek and Roman manner. That is not what is being discussed here.

        I hope I don’t have to tell you that the Talmud (compiled from the 3rd to the 6th centuries CE), is not a reliable record of the Hebrew community and its practices in the Bronze and Iron Ages. You cannot use the Talmud as an accurate historical source for a community which existed 1,400 years before it did. You’re showing you don’t really know what a relevant historical source is.

        I also note you have failed to provide any passages saying that it’s lawful to enslave someone against their will.


  9. After analyzing the relevant portions of Deut 20:11 in the BHS I realized that the remainder of my points were mostly invalidated. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my comments and thank you for writing this article. It and our discussion has been a great help to me.


  10. You’re very welcome. Thanks for the courteous exchange, from which I also have benefited.


  11. This is great information. Thank you for your time and research into this subject. I found your site while researching an answer for an ongoing blog. The author of the blog is planning to add posts regarding slavery and the Bible. You can see the current thread that just started 4/27/10. I think you would provide valuable insights for the upcoming posts. The blog is at
    http://formerfundy.blogspot.com/2010/04/christian-delusion-chapter-seven-what.html?


  12. [...] [...]


  13. Thank you so very much for posting this, it is very inciteful and this is an issue that I have been dealing with for awhile, as some people want to act as if The Bible is an endorsement of chattel slavery. I also want to commend the above poster for retracting their statement as I know many people wouldn’t be that honest.


  14. [...] apologists claim that this “forced labor” is not slavery: “Israel did not make chattel slaves of [...]


  15. Clearly the bible does NOT authorize the 19th Century raced based kidnapping slavery as those who’d attack faith would have you believe. Theirs is a Shock and Awe argument which wants to marry up persons of faith with the klan, nazis, Hitler and eventually state that persons of faith believe in genocide. This of course is foolish and seing how the scripture deals with slavery from a personal based transaction in the Old Testament to one where the slave has rights and should be treated with respect in Colosians 4:1 to 1 Timothy 1:10 where the scripture condemns slavery and slave traders outright should clarify the point. One can go further reading the wording of the Old Testiment to realise that the author is not even condoning slavery so much as permitting its occurence merely for those who wish to part take in it. Clearly God based on the race based enslavement of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians wasn’t approving of the kind of brutal slave oppression that would come to signify New World slavery as was met out to Africans beginning in the 17th Century. Perhaps this is what became of early Jewish and world slavery which is what led to the Lord’s later condemnation of the institution and its handlers in First Timothy. His condemnation of slave trading goes to the point where He denies slave traders eternal salvation. That is significant!


  16. Absolutely amazing article! The author has a mind that is sharp as a knife and also understands logic, rhetoric, and how to deal with trolls.


  17. [...] up under close inspection. See J. Burke, “Slavery in the Bible,” Bible Apologetics. http://bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/slavery-in-the-bible-25/ Chattel slavery did not exist under the Law of Moses.  There was no form of servitude under the [...]


  18. [...] [...]


  19. [...] [...]


  20. Fantastic article. I am participating in a college-level U.S. History course that seems keen on mocking the Scriptures. Since slavery has an unfortunate history in the Untied States, it appears that the Professor has found his opportunity to take a few shots at the Bible. Your research has been of great benefit to me of improving my apologetic and boldness in the Faith! God bless you!


    • Thanks Tony, I’m so glad you found the article useful.


  21. Yes fellow Christians you might want to take note of something regarding the slavery and the bible issue and how it relates to another current debate that being whether or not the bible declares homosexuality a sin.

    Now in the former debate, those wishing to attack the bible attempt to take the words strictly at face value and without any context whatsoever. They make no reference to history or what slavery actually meant during biblical times as opposed to in the modern era. Fast forward to the debate over homosexuality in the binble. Reading the bible word for word and even in its context, the ordinary person would declare that Leviticus, Romans and first Corinthians among other books prohibits homosexuality claims it to be sinful. There are those who are now fowarding the proposition that the Greek word hokosexuality as found in the bible does not correspond to the Greek word for the same thing hence the bible makes no reference (according to these folk) to homosexaulity hence it is okay (they say so). FYI the word in question is arsenkoite, and if you were to do the research you’d find that there’s a literally a war on to claim and define or redefine this word so as to have the bible say what some folk want it to say. Dear I say when researching this topic one must beware to take note of who actually produced the document in question and whether or not they are predisposed to one particular position over the other.


  22. [...] homosexuality to those that allowed a form of slavery – although in practice it was more akin to indentured servitude, usually for the payment of a financial debt — in the Mosaic Law: I believe that in the years [...]


  23. Thank you, Jonathan, for your astute article and responses to responses!


    • You’re welcome Lance, thanks for the encouragement.


  24. Thanks Jonathan for the great article. You said the Hebrew word ‘olam’ can have the meaning of ‘long period’ but it would seem that every English Bible translation I know of has gone with the meaning “for life”; “permanent” or “forever” http://bible.cc/leviticus/25-46.htm
    Have all our English Bible translations let us down at this point of translation?


    • You’re welcome. Of all the translations listed in that link, almost all of them were produced before 1970, and most of them are simply derived from the KJV. But this is a matter of exegesis, not translation.


  25. Thank you for your reply. It would be great if this sort of exegetical insight might be reflected in our Modern English Translations. Leviticus 25:46 seems to speak of the slave as property. To me that sounds like chattel slavery where the master owns the slave. But some commentators suggest what the master buys is NOT the slave, but his labour. What is the evidence for this interpretation, for it unfortunately doesn’t seem to come out of a plain reading of the text (which was one of if not the main text used in support of New World/American) Slavery?


    • Chattel slaves by definition had no legal protections or rights, and masters had no legal or moral responsibilities towards them. This was not the case under the Law of Moses. Additionally, in the Ancient Near Eastern context of this legislation, belonging to someone did not necessarily make you a chattel; citizens were the property of their ruler, but they were not treated as chattel slaves.


  26. So slavery (or it might be more accurate to say indentured servitude, given the rights and protections listed below) was allowed under the law of Moses as long as:
    1) no one is kidnapped or taken against their will (Exodus 21:6; Deut 24:7)
    2) no one, including foreigners, are mistreated or oppressed in any way (Exodus 22:21; 23:9) ;
    3) Injuries caused by a master are compensated with instant release (Exodus 21:26-27)
    4) the slave who runs away is not sent back but instead is given refuge within Israel (Deut 23:15-16);
    5) slaves be released in the year of Jubilee if not earlier (Leviticus 25:10)


    • Yes that would be correct.


  27. [...] slavery as a whole I found well written and when I have time look into these verses in depth. http://bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/slavery-in-the-bible-25/ Look at the blogs at the bottom of the site. It looks like they cover those verse in detail. [...]


  28. Thanks for the valuable information Mr. Burke, I found it enlightening and full of well researched informaton, I appreicate the references you site, as well as your well train of thought, it was clearly written and easy to understand, thanks for taking the time to write it.


  29. Your webpage was VERY helpful for my son, in writing a paper on slavery and the Civil War. Thank you!! Also enjoyed all the banter on the posts.


    • Thanks, I’m glad you found it useful.


  30. Thank you for all of the research you did
    I have one question, in your conversation with Alex, you mentioned BDB, HALT, TWOT, and Swanson what are these?


    • You’re welcome, I’m glad you found it useful. Those acronyms are the names of various professional Hebrew language lexicons and dictionaries; ‘A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament’ (BDB; the acronym comes from the names of the authors Brown, Driver, and Briggs, now out of date, but still used), ‘Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament’ (HALOT, the new standard professional Hebrew lexicon), ‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’ (TWOT), and ‘A Dictionary of Biblical Languages w/ Semantic Domains: Hebrew’ (Swanson; written by James Swanson).


  31. […] VERY informative article on what exactly the OT Law commanded the Israelites regarding that topic. Slavery In The Bible (2/5) | Bible Apologetics 3) As for God commanding the complete eradication of certain tribes in the promised land, I […]


  32. Truly excellent work JB. You might also make the point that when a word such as olam is only used one time, one has to look at the rest of the story even more closely. It is hard to build a case for something such as chattel on one reference.

    My question, however, is only a curiosity. I am curious why there is any distinction at all between Hebrew and Gentile “slaves.” The aspect of debt is not unique to Gentile “slaves.”


    • Btw, I mean instead of olam being used once rather the term perpetual slave is only used once. Why the difference on charging interest to Gentiles and not Jews may have a similar relation to Gentiles’ olam slavery issue.


      • Under the Law of Moses, the Jews enjoyed certain privileges; this was certainly an incentive for other people to convert to the worship of Yahweh and enjoy the privileges of the Law of Moses.


    • but in the NT there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile


      • Correct.


    • is there a distinction in the NT between believer and non-believer


      • Yes most definitely; the unbeliever is not saved.


    • I think the differences in things such as no interest loans and non perpetual slavery helps form an answer to atheists who decry Christianity and the Triune God’s policy on slavery. As Spurgeon says all are enslaved either to sin or to God’s grace. Atheists desire to complain that what kind of God allows perpetual slavery? Answer: you don’t know it but you already are a slave. God’s commands in Exodus and Leviticus limit the evil of slavery but at that time Hebrews and now Christians especially have access to further limits and in fact redemption. You may refuse the blessings of redemption if you wish but that is not grounds for denigrating God.


      • I think also this, sure God allowed/s us to do a lot of things even sinful things, this is part of the “free will” concept. God however desires that we do right according to His will. It is us who are the sinners who from the time of Adam and Eve chose to disobey God in exchange for knowledge which we thought would make us like God. Clearly we tried and failed and have been doing so ever since. This is why Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us “lean not on your own understanding but trust in the Lord with all your heart.” We constantly sin against the Lord, we’re incorrigible and He tries to guide us through our own flawed systems and institutions, slavery, servitude, industrial manufacturing whatever.

        I would conclude in response to such an unbeliever by saying that I don’t try to concern myself trying to understand the mind of Him who made me, the universe and all that is in it as that in and of itself constitutes madness as you’ll never get that level of comprehension. The concept of universal mysteries applies to the believer and non-believer alike which means there are going to be many subjects upon which you shall never get an answer to.


      • Nick, I’ve looked for something similar to the allowance of slavery. The forbidden fruit is not an apt analogy however because the fruit was forbidden so it makes sense that the pair suffered the consequences and so did/do we. But perpetual slavery was not forbidden. It was expressly allowed. Not chattel slavery was allowed we agree but slavery of a sort with lots of restrictions and protections but nevertheless slavery was allowed. I think partly God may see it (and He is God and has the prerogative) that pagans are slaves regardless of how much freedom they perceive for themselves. So perpetual slavery is not a major issue to him. It is interesting to consider the scenario where a pagan slave converts. Philemon seems to answer that along with Paul’s encouragement to be a good slave and remain in the condition you were in at salvation. Paul very subtly encourages Philemon to free Onesimus but slavery is not seen as in itself evil. Furthermore, Jesus was the Father’s slave it says in the NT.


  33. After reading all of Lev 25, it is really difficult to single out olam as long term in the case of perpetual slaves from pagan nations and sons and daughters of sojourners. The application of Jubilee applies to all inhabitants but exception seems to be indicated in case of perpetual slaves. INterestingly the land is God’s. I think it is the point that one forfeits one’s rights as a foreigner and unbeliever. God doesn’t protect the unredeemed. So get redeemed or in Israel, convert to gain the favorable status of Hebrew and sabbatical and jubilee years. It does seem that even slaves get the sabbatical year off to some extent since the land lies fallow for one year in seven.


    • Also New World slavery was based on the Declaration according to the Dred Scott decision and was written by a free thinker (Jefferson, Franklin, Adams) and the Constitution another free thinker Madison also allows it. Blame the extra Biblical sources for slavery in the US not the Bible


      • New world slavery is chattel slavery the term “chattel” is the same as the term “cattle” which we use to label cows which we trade as commodities, work and eventually slaughter for our own consumption. New world chattel slavery was not practiced in the ancient world except for Egypt in relation to the Israelites and we know that God disapproved of that system strongly enough to intervene, just as William Wilberforce and John Brown would say that He did so through people like himself in order to end new world slavery.

        And you’re right, the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 which declared blacks to be three fifths human and the Dredd Scott 1857 which essentially declared that African Americans do not have any rights that a white man need respect, described the slave in a manner that was far different and far less of a person than he/she was in the ancient world.


      • yes, that’s right. The problem remains that perpetual enslavement of pagans by Hebrews is perceived by atheists as a stain or indication that YAHWEH is not a just God or that there is no god at all. I don’t think that the ‘long term” definition of olam is the answer to this question. I think the answer is similar to the answer to “Why does your just God send people to Hell if He loves them?”


    • Also I don’t see a restriction against selling a pagan slave to another person. A Hebrew may not kidnap and enslave but he may acquire slaves from the pagan nations by purchase or spoils of war. But there seems to be no restriction against selling such a slave. there is the allowance to bequeath one’s slaves to one’s sons which is assumed to pass on to each generation keeping that slave in perpetual slavery without sabbatical or jubilee redemption.


      • So Hebrew enslavement of pagans, despite the restrictions, really is slavery.


      • I just came up with an analogy. Someday perhaps, future humans will all be vegans and they will look back at us meat eating omnivores as barbarians. Similarly, free citizens of Rome saw or owned slaves and gave it little thought. But they were probably appalled by abusive treatment of slaves especially in public. God gave clean animals not unclean for their eating enjoyment. God also gave them pagan slaves to mitigate life’s burdens but in a civilized manner. The Garden did not present the need for meat or slavery.


  34. Can we be sure the command to free ALL inhabitants within the land (Leviticus 25:10) does not also apply to foreign slaves modifying and over-ruling the permission given later in the same chapter to keep foreign slaves ‘long-term and pass them on to one’s children (Leviticus 25:44-46)?


  35. that is free ALL inhabitants in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10)


  36. […] For a thorough study of the slavery topic, see “Slavery in the Bible.” […]


  37. […] except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8).  Indentured servitude is often the result of debt. “It was permissible to purchase men and women who voluntarily sold […]


  38. […] except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled thelaw” (Rom. 13:8). Indentured servitude is often the result of debt. “It was permissible to purchase men and women who voluntarily sold […]



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