On Day 439 Everything Changes: From Spitzer to Peterson
Homo Habilus, Erectus, and Piltdown

Slavery in the Old Testament

People today tend to judge those of prior times in the light of today’s values. It's not a wise thing to do.

The most brilliant and learned people who have ever lived.....namely...us, of course.....come to feel a certain way about this or that practice, so anyone in the past who did not feel that way is barbaric, uncouth, uncivilized, etc. Or, to take the flipside, if we feel a certain way, then the truly learned and wise of prior generations also must have felt that way. But in reality, humankind (yes, even the wise and learned) run with a herd mentality....just like we all wear fat ties one year and narrow ties a few years later.

Slavery is universally condemned today. Yet the most elevated of the ancient world accepted it as a matter of course, and had no qualms about it.  Aristotle, for example, supported slavery as being in accord with natural law. Historians estimate that one of every three persons was a slave in the ancient world.

Sometimes we hear American forefathers like Washington and Jefferson condemned because they kept slaves, without regard for the fact that everyone of their class (wise, refined, prosperous) at the time kept slaves. The fact that they were the most progressive and just of slaveholders means nothing. They kept slaves....damn them..... and so deserve the loathing of today's learned critics, who remain supremely (and absurdly) confident that they themselves would have been immune to the practice had they lived back then.

They kept slaves in Bible times too....in Israelite times....it's codified right there in the Mosaic law....and on that basis today's critics claim moral superiority....again, as if they themselves would have been above it all.

But I'm uncomfortable with making rabid accusations of an ancient society, and much more so judging ancient peoples by today's standards. It seems too much a fulfillment of Proverbs 30:12….

There is a generation that is pure in its own eyes but that has not been washed from its own excrement.

It is OUR world, not theirs, which is on the brink of annihilation from any number of causes: environmental ruin, nuclear annihilation, terrorism, class warfare, economic chaos, and so forth. It is OUR world, not theirs, that lets 20% of its people go hungry, or without clean water, or without any prospects as children other than to become some nutjob’s "freedom fighter." If they were barbaric back there in the OT, our world is 10 times more so. You don't think we should have a better track record ourselves before we go pointing out how rotten they were?

But with regard to slavery, we may divide human history into two periods: when "God's people" were autonomous and when they weren't. For the most part, they were autonomous in the Old Testament (Israel of old was a sovereign nation), however there has never been a Christian nation, neither now nor in New Testament times. Rome was the power of Jesus day and Christianity developed in lands subject to the Roman Empire. Scripture might therefore be expected to be law of the land in OT times, but only a personal code of conduct in NT times. And when scripture was law of the land, we read of a "seven year temporary slavery" arrangement in Israel. How did that work?

Israelites back then, like everyone else, had an economy. And like today, through an interplay of hard work and dumb luck, some would prosper and some would become impoverished. What do you do with those who become impoverished? What do we do with them today? Has today's society found a workable and ideal solution? In ancient Israel, individuals, if they became desperate enough, could sell themselves into slavery to their more prosperous neighbors. (they were never taken by force) That's not so good, some might object, yet is today's solution to poverty really any better?

Though Bible critics rarely mention it, preferring  to take shot after shot at anything religious: after seven years, such slaves were set free! Sooner, if they became slaves before the designated seventh year. And not set free back into poverty. Each Jew was restored to his original hereditary possession, which he may have sold off during periods of poverty. Thus, there would never be generation after generation of permanent poverty, as there is today. Nor would the rich become so entrenchedly rich that ones born into it would come to look at wealth as their right and imagine themselves superior to the less well-off. The obscene lopsided distribution of wealth, characteristic of most societies today, never got a footing in Israel. Of even middle class Americans, one commenter explained: we were born on third base and so we think we have hit a triple.

Not many who rail against the Bible know of this arrangement,  but it compares favorably to anything humans have devised since. We believe it was divine law…..not from humans.

Furthermore, I suspect that many of the outraged who think freeing the slaves after seven years is seven years overdue would immediately rethink their position if they realized it would cost them, as it did those prosperous Jews. They would, instead, raise a clamor about how THEIR freedom was being infringed upon! Free the slaves, as long as its on someone else's dime! Here is a society, unheard of in human history, which regularly, as a matter of course, freed slaves! And all the gripers can do is carry on about how barbarous they were back then! Their system beat anything we have today, mainly because generational, perpetual poverty, the kind that engenders hopelessness and bitterness, never could take root.

Now, this is slavery only in the Mosaic period, the Old Testament. We’ll do the New Testament another time. Moreover, the above does not apply to non-Isrealite slaves, perhaps prisoners of war. Their prospects were less agreeable. True, there is some OT regulation to prevent unchecked cruelty (which is more than existed anywhere else), but even so, slavery is slavery) Now, we may fume over this, but what does the modern world do with enemy combatants? Can you think of any modern nation which has detained enemy combatants for years without trial or even habeas corpus? True, modern nations have (many of them) adopted the Geneva convention, which strictly regulates treatment for prisoners of war. This treaty is scrupulously observed by all signatories during peacetime. Wartime, of course, is a different matter.

There is even a provision in that Mosaic law that allowed for the possibility that the freed slave might renounce his freedom. [!]

But if the slave should insistently say, ‘I really love my master, my wife and my sons; I do not want to go out as one set free,’ then his master must bring him near to the [true] God and must bring him up against the door or the doorpost; and his master must pierce his ear through with an awl [ouch], and he must be his slave to time indefinite.    Exodus 21:5-6

All would see this voluntary slave about town, and would doubtless observe that he must really have a kind, just, fair, agreeable, etc deal, so as to choose servitude. It appears that this arrangement is a foregleam of what would appear in the Christian era. Peter, Paul, James, the early NT writers, all refer to themselves as "slaves" of Christ. Some modern translations soften the term to "servants," but "slave" is the original-language word.


Tom Irregardless and Me              No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'



Who says that this generation doesn't engage in slavery?

I don't have to get into 'nutjob mode' to point out that there is still plenty of slavery to go around in the worldwide sex trade (sorry, no one gets a passing grade on this one) and in portions of the African continent and Latin America. Probably elsewhere.


Though I have nothing else to say at the moment, I can agree immediately with Bill in Detroit that (according to the New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof) the global sex trade is HUGE. (For example, Kristof's "Girls for Sale," January 17, 2004: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0DEEDF1639F934A25752C0A9629C8B63 . Kristof has written probably dozens of other op-ed pieces on sex trafficking.)

I'm not sure whether this fact makes much difference to your article, however, whose point I'm not sure of beyond its seeming to afford you an opportunity to rant a bit.

tom sheepandgoats

Sometimes a guy just likes to rant.


Great post.

I would agree that the Israelite system was superior to our world today. I would even say that there is rampant slavery in the western world today. Economic slavery. People are enslaved to banks through mortgages. How many people actually own their own home outright? People are enslaved through other loans like student loans, which can last many years after schooling is finished, and predatory lending which have affected some very innocent people. All these have forced people become slaves to money and the monetary system. And those who have had some bad luck, well, we(as a scociety) like to forget about them or pretend its not a problem. I bet people in the US facing foreclosure on their homes wish they were living in ancient Isreal where there was a real bail out program for them. You think it would fly Tom?

tom sheepandgoats

The prospect of all reverting to "normal" after (at most) seven years is a prospect I think would appeal to many.

Of course, there is bankrupcy today. Many have been able to get a fresh start in that way. I acually recall reading somewhere that the concept of bankruptcy was originally founded on the OT provision of restoring financial equality.


I really enjoyed it. Yup, economic slavery is rampant. People having to work 2 (sometimes more) jobs to make ends meet puts them working 7 days a week, at least 12 hours a day, which is actually more than Israelite slaves would have worked due to Sabbath observance.

The home mortgage crisis? Well, that was a function of pure greed. People without enough financial education being told how good an adjustable rate mortgage is for them (even when it was obviously not appropriate for them) and then their home value declined, restricting them from refinancing their loan. Where did greed come in? The commissions were higher on the products and because of the lower initial payment, people could get into a larger house.

Of course, slavery is a huge issue today, because we are all in "slavery to sin and death." That is one type of slavery no amount of political will can overcome.

tom sheepandgoats

"...working 7 days a week, at least 12 hours a day, which is actually more than Israelite slaves would have worked due to Sabbath observance"

Thank you, Screech. I never thought of that. I know you have worked in the financial field as well, which gives your words greater authority.

Romulus Crowe

Slaves had a roof over their heads and regular meals. I have to wonder whether the homeless (of which there are many) are really better off being free.

Suppose a homeless guy said 'I'll be your slave for food and shelter until I can get back on my feet'.

Would you help him out? If you did, you'd be a slave owner and therefore villified and reviled. Better to let him die in the cold in an alley? The politically correct reading this must surely say 'yes'.

It's not the same as the sex trade pointed out above, which involves abduction and forced slavery. That 'voluntary servitude' described in the old testament is reasonable to me. If I was down and out, I'd be happy to look after your house and garden just for food and shelter. Better than sleeping in a shop doorway and eating from dustbins.

The mere mention of slavery raises hackles, and often justifiably so. Yet many will have to be at work on time tomorrow, or suffer the consequences. They have to stay until it's time to leave. No option. Is that freedom or slavery?

Yes, they're paid for it and can opt not to do it.

But the pay, in many cases, barely covers the cost of food and shelter. Opting not to do it means doing away with food and shelter. Not much of an option. So how much of a difference between low-paid employment and slavery?

The UK abolished slavery 200 years ago. The whining weak among us want us to apologise to the countries that sold us the slaves. For abolishing it, do they mean? I note that these same sandal-shod morons are relaxed with the current slave trade in a large part of the world. They say nothing about the child-trafficking which is currently at horrific levels in the UK. Worry about the past and the present will just go away, is that how it works?

Well, we didn't abolish slavery. We just changed the name.

These days, we call it 'minimum wage'.


Insightful comments from everyone here.

I live in a rent controlled apartment and there are homeless people that sleep right across the street from my building. It rains in my state nearly everyday so I'm sure things are miserable for them. If it wasn't for my family coming to my aid in the past, I would be one of them.


I'm very glad you brought out how slavery under the Mosaic Law (which was closer to what some would call indentured servitude) was very different from slavery elsewhere. I hear the old "but the Bible supports slavery" nonsense all of the time from those who like to go cherry pickin' through the scriptures. It's old and tired.

tom sheepandgoats

Thanks, Vargas.

This post grew out of a series of comments I once exchanged with one of those "but the Bible supports slavery" cherrypickers. It's a lengthy exchange, and in the end the other fellow (IMO) got pretty insufferable, but I always imagined I might get a good post out of it someday.



Great comments, Vargas and Romulus. I feel the same way. I have also noticed that those who have the strongest opinions tend to have the weakest base. They don't usually look up information beyond what supports their point of view. In fact, their point of view seems to be made up of "sound bites." There are exceptions, of course, but it is still an annoyance to me.

There really is no solution in this world. The minimum wage laws tend to drive up prices whenever they are adjusted, which works out to be just enough to effectively reduce the buying power of the minimum wage over the years.

I do like to think, however, the the Mosaic Law demonstrates how God's law is superior to mans. There are provisions designed to prevent the kind of scenarios that we have today, which shows much forsight. Even if you took the "shirt off their back" you had to give it back at the end of the day.

Another point about modern slavery: Medical costs. In the past, it would make sense to provide your slaves with some basic medical care, if only as a maintenance cost. Today, its only if you can afford it (if you fall between the really poor and the "i can afford it" categories). So it would be like telling a slave of old...Yes you may fix your broken leg, but you don't get to eat tomorrow, and you also lose your bed for a day. Why is that a good analogy? Because not only is there a medical care cost, but there is also lost wages for time off. Ouch!

I know this is lengthy, but consider this final example...In the US minimum wage is currently $5.85 an hour. Lets suppose that you work 2 jobs; one FT and one PT. So 12 hours at that pay is $70.20 before taxes. After taxes are withheld, you have $56.87 a day left. You spend $65 (you have a cheap one) at your doctor's office. You get lucky and only spend $4 on the antibiotics that you need. You also are forced to take 3 days off from both jobs while you recover. Total cost is $239.58. That's four and a half days of pay. So if you have rent of $650 monthly, $135 monthly utilities (phone, electricity), $100 monthly food, $50 transportation costs. Now, in the above scenario, you have $200 left over every month. However, if you lose one of your jobs, suddenly you're short almost $200 monthly. What if you have a kid? 2 Jobs may not be an option and then you have to pay for daycare. Then you hear "go back to school." Yet if you have to take remedial classes to catch up, that adds to the expense (grants alone rarely cover everything). I guess the whole point of this rambling is that to overcome poverty in this world takes an astounding amount of sacrifice and will, with no guarantee of success. In fact, you also don't get real medical attention because the medical bills can pile up. I've seen and experienced the difference in medical care that you receive when you can afford to pay the bill vs not. It's actually a worse situation today...

tom sheepandgoats

Screech....I really get fed up with the pollyannnas..."if I/he/she can do it, YOU can do it!" type. Look, nothing's impossible, and there will always be the guy with the better mousetrap, and perseverance over a long while sometimes pays off. But even then, luck is involved, and there is usually somebody (perhaps family members) who pays a heavy price.

At any rate, thanks for that sober look at obstacles some face today. It really can be compared to slavery, minus physical abuse, but with more than enough emotional and mental abuse and stress to make up for it,

I didn't anticipate a thread going in the direction this one has. Thanks all for excellent thoughts.


Tom, I was just reading one of Edward R. Tufte's books that I received at his all-day seminar in the presentation of data and information a couple of weeks ago. In his book BEAUTIFUL EVIDENCE he gives as example of excellent illustration an 1832 "terrible grid of...The Vigilante, a slave ship captured off the African coast in April 1822," a detail from which can be seen at http://www.iht.com/slideshows/2006/08/18/style/web.0821design21.php?index=4 .

For those interested in seeing the whole engraving and reading Tufte's appraisal of it, I refer them to pp. 22 & 23 of BEAUTIFUL EVIDENCE (Graphics Press LLC, 2006). "Each detail makes the image more horrifying: men sorted out and ordered by size, shackled in pairs; women gathered at left adjacent to the relatively vast Captain's cabin and wine lockers; the fierce microeconomic optimization in packing a cargo of 227 men and 120 women. These conditions contributed to catastrophic death rates among all those it took to yield the 12,000,000 to 20,000,000 slaves eventually imported into America and the New World."

The engraving appeared in "a powerful anti-slavery tract published by the London Religious Society of Friends...[T]he engraving is part of [a] document based on first-hand evidence and a deep caring about the content."

Your readers might like to visit Tufte's own web site: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/ .

tom sheepandgoats

Thanks for that, Morristotle.

Similar details are highlighted in the movie Amazing Grace, which recounts the battles of William Wilberforce, British abolitionist.

You like movies. Have you seen it?

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