What About Foreign Slaves?

20 Dec

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The Mosaic Law makes a significant distinction between servants who are Israelites and servants who are not—i.e. foreign servants living among God’s people.[1] Some critics will point this out and conclude that, even if Israelites weren’t considered property, certainly the foreign born servants were treated as though they were property. Nevertheless, I believe this conclusion is read into the text, for I don’t see anything in Scripture to indicate that the Mosaic Law viewed foreign servants in Israel as slaves. Let’s look at a popular text used to support the critic’s point of view:

Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger’s family: After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself. (Leviticus 25:44-49 KJV)

I don’t intend to argue about abuses that may have occurred under the Mosaic Law. There certainly were abuses, and God judged the nation for doing so (Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Malachi 3:5). However, I do hope to show that the Mosaic Law doesn’t permit slavery, nor does it condone abuses that may have occurred. That said, let’s consider the text above.

The text does not say that once a foreigner is bought as a servant that he must remain a servant throughout his life. The Mosaic Law stipulates that one could redeem himself, if he was able, or a relative could do so. The fact is that gentile men servants and women servants were treated better under the Mosaic system than under any other ANE code one could point to. Moreover, it is taken for granted, unless the Scripture says otherwise, that gentiles living among the Israelites were poor. They were always mentioned among the poor, permitting them to glean the fields after the owner has taken his harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Gentiles were not permitted to own land in Israel. All the land was originally distributed among the tribes of Israel, and then to each family within each tribe. If an Israelite had to sell his land, it was returned to him or his descendants in the year of jubilee. There was no land to be had for a gentile, except perhaps a house within a walled city, which could be sold to anyone, and if not redeemed within a year, it became the new owner’s permanent possession. It did not go out in the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:29-30). If a gentile did own any land in Israel as a permanent possession, it would have been a house within a walled city.

Understanding the plight of a gentile in Israel, it becomes clear how one could become the possession of a wealthy Israelite. As a bond servant, a gentile had a sure source of food, clothing and shelter. Otherwise he was on his own and had to hope for gainful regular employment and earn enough to support and lodge both himself and his family.[2] Nevertheless, those who were bought from the nations around Israel, or the gentile aliens who lived in Israel who may have sold themselves to a wealthy Israelite family were treated well under the Law of Moses. They were not to be oppressed (Exodus 22:21; 23:9). Yet, if anyone wanted to be free or return to his native land, the Law of Moses did not prevent him. In fact, the Law stipulated that an escaped slave / servant could not be forcibly returned to his master, if found by another Israelite (Deuteronomy 23:15).

The term slave or possession should not be understood in the same manner it is understood in connection with American slavery in our own history. Rather, the system should be understood, for the most part, more like a business that has its own employees. The business with its employees can be left to one’s descendants, or even sold to another corporation etc. The employees may go with the business, but they are not considered slaves, even though they serve whichever master (employer) that owns the business. In modern America sports figures are bought, sold and traded as commodities are, often having no input in their future, but none of them are slaves to their owners. We need to understand the language in the Bible for what it is and not automatically apply that language as synonyms for early American slave terminology.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Consider the plight of the migrant worker in America, today. He earns a very modest living, undercutting regular American workers. While he earns a seemingly unfair wage and his position is taken advantage of by those who employ him, his earnings are more than what he could have earned in his home country. The system isn’t ideal, but it does exist legally and has its advantages for the poor migrant worker.

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Posted by on December 20, 2015 in apologetics


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