The Bible and Slavery: in the ancient Near East everybody was subject to somebody (but NOT like the African slaves of the West)

Though not popular in highly individualistic cultures like those in the West, in the ancient Near East (ANE) everyone pretty much understood they were subordinate to someone or something.  A mindset of total freedom from outside authority was unthinkable in those days.  Here’s some historical info related to this:

Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.”  [A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, R. Westbrook (ed). 2003. As cited by Glenn Miller in online paper]

This shows how different the ANE idea of “slave” was to that which most usually comes to the mind of typical Americans or westerners.  In the ANE there were so many variations and relationships of subordination. But our minds usually go to only one model or meaning for the word slavery:  the African slave trade of the New World (17-19th centuries).

New World slavery was a distinct combination of features.  Its use of slaves was clearly specialized as unfree labor, producing commodities such as cotton and sugar, for a world market.  By 1850 nearly two-thirds of slaves in the South were engaged in the production of cotton.  This free labor in the South generated profits comparable to those from other investments and was only ended as a result of the Civil War.

In the ANE (and OT), this was NOT the case. The most commonly occurring motivation was economic relief of poverty, often as a result of famine or other hardship. That is, the servitude was initiated NOT by the owner but by the neediness of slave.  And this was usually for domestic (household) type duties.

The definitive work on ANE law today is the 2 volume work History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. This work (by 22 scholars) summarizes numerous legal documents from various periods (a span of 3,000 years!) in the ANE and includes sections on slavery. If you are seriously interested, here’s a link to a review of the massive work written by the author, Dr. Westbrook himself. Here is a sampling of quotes (special thanks to Glenn Miller’s great summary) that helps us see that most instances of slavery were for the purpose of addressing the debts of the poor:

  • Most slaves owned by Assyrians in Assur and in Anatolia seem to have been (originally) debt slaves–free persons sold into slavery by a parent, a husband, an elder sister, or by themselves.” (1.449)
  • “Sales of wives, children, relatives, or oneself, due to financial duress, are a recurrent feature of the Nuzi socio-economic scene…A somewhat different case is that of male and female foreigners, called hapiru (immigrants) who gave themselves in slavery to private individuals or the palace administration. Poverty was the cause of these agreements…” (1.585)
  • Most of the recorded cases of entry of free persons into slavery [in Emar] are by reason of debt or famine or both…A common practice was for a financier to pay off the various creditors in return for the debtor becoming his slave.” (1.664f)
  • “On the other hand, mention is made of free people who are sold into slavery as a result of the famine conditions and the critical economic situation of the populations [Canaan]. Sons and daughters are sold for provisions…” (1.741)
  • “The most frequently mentioned method of enslavement [Neo-Sumerian, UR III] was sale of children by their parents. Most are women, evidently widows, selling a daughter; in one instance a mother and grandmother sell a boy…There are also examples of self sale. All these cases clearly arose from poverty; it is not stated, however, whether debt was specifically at issue.” (1.199)

To sum up: over and over in the OT we read references to someone being someone else’s servant or slave. This occurs in literally hundreds of places. Kings are referred to as slaves, wealthy and powerful people as slaves, military commanders as slaves, as well as Hebrews, foreigners, impoverished folk, etc. And it almost NEVER is referring to the type of slaves or slavery that occurred in the pre-civil war American south. Comparing OT slavery with the Antebellum form, is simply not a fair or accurate thing to do.

I don’t think it is possible to overstate the importance of this fact.  More next time.