General treatment of slaves
The law protected slaves from being abused by their masters:
- Killing a slave merited punishment.1 (Ex 21:20)
- Permanently injured slaves had to be set free (Ex 21:26-27)
- Slaves who ran away from oppressive masters were effectively freed (Dt 23:15-16)
Hebrews could become slaves of a fellow Hebrew if they committed a crime such as theft and had no other way of paying the fine (Ex 22:1-3) or if they became impoverished and sold themselves and/or their family into slavery. (See also Did slavery take advantage of the poor? below.) Kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery was forbidden (Dt 24:7).
When one Hebrew owned another Hebrew as a slave, the law commanded lenient treatment:
- Slaves were to be treated as hired workers, not slaves (Lev 25:39-43)
- All slaves were to be freed after six years (Ex 21:2, Dt 15:12)
- Freed slaves were to be liberally supplied with grain, wine and livestock (Dt 15:12-15)
- Every fiftieth year (the year of jubilee), all Hebrew slaves were to be freed, even those owned by foreigners (Lev 25:10, 47-54)
In special cases, slaves could choose to remain with their masters if they felt it was in their best interests (Dt 15:16-17).
While foreign slaves could be made slaves for life, the laws regarding the general treatment of slaves applied to them as well (Lev 24:22, Num 15:15-16). The law made it clear that foreigners were not inferiors who could be mistreated (Ex 23:9); instead they were to be loved just as fellow Israelites were (Lev 19:33-34). For more information, see the article on Gentiles in the OT.
In some cases, fathers could sell their daughters as a maidservant and wife. Since they were then married to their master, they were not automatically set free after six years (though unmarried female slaves were freed, as Dt 15:12explicitly states). However, they were still protected by the law:
- If the husband divorced his wife, the law labeled it “unfair treatment” and allowed for her to be freed (Ex 21:8)
- If someone bought a wife for his son, he was to treat her as his daughter (Ex 21:9)
- Neglected wives were automatically freed (Ex 21:10-11)
Captives of war apparently became slaves, and men could choose to marry female captives. There were similar laws for the protection of these women, even though they would have been in the lowest class of society:
- Captive women were given a month to mourn their families and adjust to their new home before marrying (Dt 21:13)
- If divorced by their husband, they were freed (Dt 21:14)
- They could not be sold to anyone else (Dt 21:14)
See also Were female slaves raped? below.
Dt 21:10-11: Were female slaves raped?
The law explicitly condemned all of the following:
- Rape (Dt 22:25-27)
- Prostitution (23:17-18)
- Sex outside of marriage, whether consensual or not (Ex 22:16-17, Dt 22:28-29)
- Sex with a slave who was betrothed or married to someone else (Lev 19:20-22)
Therefore any forced intercourse would have been against both the letter and the spirit of the law.
Ex 21:20-21: Could masters beat slaves to death?
The NIV translates Ex 21:21 as, “…but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” While there is an argument for this translation,2 it is not necessarily the correct translation, so I am using the standard meaning of “he is not to be punished if the slave survives for a day or two.”
Most likely, this law was intended to distinguish between cases where a slave died as a direct result of their master’s mistreatment and where they died of natural causes. It could of course be the case that a slave was severely beaten but didn’t succumb to their injuries for a few days. In that situation, the case could have been brought before the priests and they could have used common sense and ruled that it was murder (cf. Dt 17:8-11). One should keep in mind that the laws given in the OT are examples, not legalese. For instance, Ex. 21:33-34 mentions only an ox or donkey falling into a pit, but that hardly means that if another animal fell into someone’s pit the owner wouldn’t receive compensation.
Lev 25:39: Did slavery take advantage of the poor?
Skeptics have objected that poverty would force people to sell themselves as slaves; impoverished Hebrews could not then be said to have chosen slavery of their own free will. However, the law provided several safety nets for the poor within society:
- Gleanings left over from harvest were left for the poor to pick up (Dt 24:19-21)
- Towns had the equivalent of food pantries for the poor, which were stocked using tithes (Dt 14:28-29)
- People were commanded to lend generously to the poor and provide for them (Dt 15:7-11, Lev 25:35-37), without charging interest (Ex 22:25)
Finally, the law was adamant about providing justice for the poor and not taking advantage of them (Dt 27:19, Ex 22:22-27). Only under extreme circumstances would someone be forced to sell themselves into slavery because of their poverty. If the Israelites had followed the law faithfully, there would not have been any financial need at all (Dt 15:4-5).
Ex 21:5-6, Dt 15:16-17: Were slaves forced to say they “loved” their masters and/or serve them for life?
The law plainly states that Hebrew slaves were to be freed after serving six years (Ex 21:2, Dt 15:12). If a slave wished to remain, it was his free choice. Since Hebrews typically became slaves only due to poverty, some may have felt they were better off working for a rich family and being provided for rather than struggling to make it on their own (cf. Dt 15:16).
Slaves weren’t forced to say they loved their masters if they wanted to stay; the speech given in Exodus 21:5 is only an example. A parallel passage in Deuteronomy 15:16 only has the slave saying he doesn’t want to leave.
As for whether slaves could be forced into lifelong slavery, Exodus 21:6 says the ceremony for lifelong slaves was to take place in front of a judge. Slaves had to publicly state their intention to remain as slaves; their master couldn’t lie and say they’d expressed their intentions privately. While an evil master could force his slaves to make the proclamation by threatening them, it was the responsibility of the priests/judges and the community at large to observe masters’ treatment of their slaves (cf. Lev 25:53). This observation was also in their best interests, since one person’s disobedience brought guilt on those who knew what was going on and failed to do anything about it (Lev 19:17), which in turn would result in adverse consequences for the entire community (Dt 11:26-28).
1. What punishment was given to a master who killed a slave? In an earlier version of this article, I said it was death, based on Ex 21:12. However, I don’t think this is necessarily the case. For one, the preceding verses 21:12-17 list multiple crimes that were explicitly punishable by death, yet 21:20 does not explicitly say the master should be put to death. For another, 21:28-32 says that when the owner of an ox is culpable for its goring someone to death, he is to be killed, but if the victim was a slave, he is only subject to a fine. (Back to article)
2. I received this explanation from GotQuestions.org (quoted with permission):
The Hebrew word translated “gets up” in the NIV, “remains alive” in the NKJV, and “survives” in the NASB literally means “arise, endure, remain, raise up”. So, the differences in translation result from debate on whether the verb in this passage means to literally “stand up” or metaphorically to “remain” as in stay alive. I lean towards the meaning of “live” taken by the NKJV and NAS. Punishment of slaves was considered the right of the owner (Pr 10:13; 13:24), but this did not allow for violence. An owner who caused the death of a slave was to be punished (Ex 21:20). If the slave lived a few days it was evidence that the owner had no intent to kill. Any permanent injury brought freedom to the slave (Ex 21:26-27). The master’s power over the slave was limited, which made these laws unprecedented in the ancient world.