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.

The Bible and Slavery: Care and Concern for the Poor

Image result for Refugees in America

As we begin this series, I want to start with a vital foundation.  Regardless of how a person builds a house, if he/she builds on a faulty foundation, it will sooner or later crumble upon itself.  People who argue so vehemently that Hebrew slavery was immoral and cruel, have failed to see the foundation of the Hebrew society’s conduct toward the weak and poor.  Here’s what I think is the bedrock for our understanding of slavery and the Old Testament:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.

He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

The God of Israel is not only a true and living God, but His character is totally unlike the false gods of the nations.  He is above any so-called god or lord.  He is great and mighty because His character and conduct is incomparably superior to all. Being faithful and fair He cannot be bribed or manipulated. He cares for the weakest members of society: the orphans, widows, and the displaced and impoverished.

And God wants (and commands) His people to be and do JUST LIKE HIM.  Hebrews were to demonstrate their love for the aliens, providing food and covering for them.

Over and over again in the Old Testament we find not only compassion but strict and clear commandments pertaining to how God’s people were to generously help and provide for the poor, weak, and strangers around them. Consider how God clearly commanded His people to do their harvesting:

Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, or shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God…When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10,33-34)

Or again,

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow in order that the Lord you God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-20)

It is impossible to rightly understand the concept of “slavery” in the Old Testament until you first have understood the compassion and concern of the Lord for the poor in the land. Understand also that the land was a clearly defined inheritance of the tribes, clans, and families of Israel. The land belonged to the Hebrews. Strangers could not own land.  They could sometimes own property inside walled cities. But they could not be long-term land holders. So when God refers to the stranger who “resides with you in your land”, one must understand the close proximity involved.  The strangers were basically living immediately under the benevolence, watch and care of the Hebrew landowners.  But there is more.

Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your gates, for he has no portion or inheritance among you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your gates. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your gates, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do. (Deuteronomy 14:27-29)

Every third year, the “tithe” of all the produce of the fields was to be brought into the gates of the nearest town, and distributed to those who had no land: the Levites, the poor, and the aliens.  Here is an amazing unspoken comparison.  The Levites were the special priestly tribe of the Hebrews, who were said to have the Lord as their inheritance.  Here God is compassionately elevating the status of widows, orphans, and aliens to that comparable of Levites!  And note that this third year “tithe” was not only a commandment but a promise: “that the Lord God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”

This is evidence of God’s great love for the “least of these”.  But there’s also something very practical happening here.  This is a national benevolence program calculated not only to help the poor but also to reduce the likelihood that the poor would have to sell themselves or their sons or daughters into debtor’s slavery. This is why after giving these laws pertaining to the weak and poor, that we see God saying, “…remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” or, “For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from Egypt.”

This is what I call the Magna Carta in the discussion of Old Testament slavery.  Before we talk about God’s instructions regarding slavery, we must first see all that God commanded to protect the poor and aliens from such an institution.  Many people, even sincere Christians, have never realized the uniqueness of the Hebrew nation in antiquity in terms of its obligation and service to the poor. Perhaps there’s no nation in history that comes close to this level of compassion for the weak, poor, and alien.  This is because the God of the Hebrews exemplifies these virtues and tells His people to be like Him. This must be understood at the outset.

If this an example of “Bronze-age ethics”, as many Bible critics love to say about the laws of Moses, then perhaps our society is not as “progressive” as some think!  Yes, we have a massive system of welfare in the US. But it arguably creates more dependents than it saves.  In contrast, the Hebrew benevolence laws not only protected the dignity but also encouraged the industry of the poor.

More next time.