Slaves in the Bible
Be careful when you read the word 'slave' in the Bible. It can mean different things:
Just to confuse matters, the word could mean a slave, someone held in bondage like Hagar, Sarah's slave girl (see her story below).
A slave was property, a possession. This is clear in the list of Commandments in Exodus 20:17 (below), where slaves are lumped in with cattle.
The slave had virtually no rights: he could be beaten until nearly dead, but it was forbidden for his master to actually kill him (Exodus 21:21). If a slave girl was criminally assaulted, compensation was paid to her owner, not her.
A father could sell his daughter as a concubine. The only condition of the sale was that she could not be sold on to another tribe. This happened to Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl of Sarah, wife of Abraham.
Hagar was the Egyptian slave of Sarah, wife of Abraham. She was probably acquired when Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt. When Sarah could not conceive a child, she gave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine, so that the girl might conceive a child that would legally belong to Sarah, and be named as Abraham's successor.
A great deal of holier-than-thou nonsense is written about the injustice of this, but the truth is that Hagar would have leapt at the chance to improve her social status from slave to concubine, with the chance of becoming mother of the next leader of the tribe.
Hagar became pregnant, but it is made clear that Sarah
was still the Queen Bee of the tribe. Hagar still belonged
to her, even though she was the mother of Abraham's child. It seems that female slaves were under the legal jurisdiction of the Alpha Female
of the tribe, and were not considered the property of the male tribal
leader. (Genesis 16, 21).
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, who hated him. He was taken to Egypt where he was auctioned in an open market to the highest bidder. His future looked black, but the subsequent story shows how a clever and skilled slave could rise in the world - Joseph quickly becomes the trusted overseer of large estates belonging to his Egyptian master, Potiphar.
However, the story also shows how vulnerable a slave was. Potiphar's wife mades sexual advances to him, expecting that she, as his owner, could expect him to respond in the same way as a slave girl might submit to her master.
When Joseph rejected her, she was humiliated and outraged, since
his refusal contradicted what she saw as normal practice. She accused
him of attempted rape. Now the slave's vulnerability became clear:
despite his ability and faithful service to Potiphar, Joseph was
immediately cast into prison, without trial, where he languished for
Paul seems to look on Onesimus almost as his own child, and wants the slave to continue in his service. Nevertheless, Paul knows the legal implications of this, and that he is obliged to send him back to his master, Philemon. He wonders whether Onesimus has wronged his former master? Or perhaps stolen something from him?
If this is so, Paul has to tread carefully. He speaks in a deferential way to Philemon, diplomatically asking for the slave to be released.
At the end of the
letter, we get another clue to the situation - Paul is about to visit
Philemon, probably bringing Onesimus with him. When Paul arrives, can he
hope that Philemon will give him Onesimus as a gift?
Rules for the treatment of slaves
Popular modern images of slaves (as in the film Ben Hur) emphasize the worst-case scenarios, ignoring the millions of slaves who in many ways resembled modern workers, tied to their workplace much as ancient slaves were
Slavery was accepted as a normal part of life in the ancient world. People often lived at close quarters with their slaves, and saw them as lower-status, expendable family members.
How did people end up as slaves? In Hebrew society, people often fell into debt. If they could not pay, they might have to sell themselves as a slave, though usually for a limited period. Even then, they would be released on payment of the debt. Children could be sold by their parents, in payment for a debt.
If debt was the reason for a man becoming a slave, he had a special status, and had to be treated as a hired servant. When, every seven years, the Year of Jubilee came, all such slaves had to be given their freedom. But for a girl it was different: she had to stay with her owner.
There were no prisons as there are in the modern world, and a thief was often punished by being made the slave of the person from whom he had stolen. This meant he had to work for them until he had paid for the damage he had caused or the goods he had stolen.
There were other types of slaves as well: foreigners who had been captured in war or a raid, and were bought in the open market or allocated to soldiers of the victorious army. The Law of Moses allowed Hebrews to own slaves provided they were taken as captives from the surrounding countries, and were not Hebrews.
There were also 'houseborn' slaves, children who were born to a woman already a slave - her child automatically belonged to her master.
Slaves did many types
of work. If they had ability and luck they might be physicians or
accountants or business managers. Many slaves achieved wealth and high
status; others were forced to work at less pleasant tasks, for example in
mines or quarries.
Most slaves were, of course, captives of war, though some might be bought from slave traders. Poverty or debt might force the freeborn to sell themselves as slaves.
According to Nehemiah 7:66 ff, the Jewish people after the Exile numbered 42,360 with 7,337 slaves, a proportion of about 1 slave to 6 freemen.
The Ten Commandments granted slaves at least one rest day a week and they took part with the rest of the household in religious feasts. Before being allowed to take the Passover, however, the slave had to be circumcised. Kidnapping a person and forcing them into slavery was forbidden and punishable by death.
But on the whole slaves seem to have been fairly well treated - they were valuable property, after all. The trusted slave was a man of very considerable importance and influence in the household - Joseph's story, for example, shows this. There was nothing to prevent one born to the master by a slave girl from inheriting even the birthright.
There was provision for the release of Hebrew slaves, but not of foreign-born slaves, after six years of bondage. The slave could, however, contract to remain in bondage. If he did this willingly the lobe of his ear was pierced and he remained a slave for life. This law operated for men but not for women.
There is a gradual mellowing of the attitude to slaves, but it is not until Job 31: 13-15 that we find a real change, and some questioning of the moral justification for it.
Jesus said nothing in criticism of the practice of slavery, but in the time of the early Church slavery began to be criticised, because many slaves had become Christian (Romans 16, 10; 1 Corinthians 1, 11), and Paul summed up all the conflicting ideas when he said that in Christ there is neither bond nor free (I Corinthians 12, 13).
When he persuaded Onesimus the runaway slave to return to his master
Philemon (see above), he does not even suggest to Philemon that he should release Onesimus. In short, to the early Church, one's position in society did not matter. This may have been partly due to their expectation of the imminent end of the age, and the second coming of Christ, but there must also have been the conviction that the important thing is not one's standing in the eyes of society, but one's standing in the eyes of God.