8 Major Differences Between New World Slavery and Near East Slavery

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“You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. For God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment.” (I Peter 2:18-19)

Most of us read or hear the word slavery and our mind goes immediately to things like the recent film 12 Years as a Slave. All the images and issues portrayed in the movies, history books, and novels are immediately projected onto the word slave. And that’s understandable because our point of reference for slavery is European Colonialism and the African Slave trade, which gave way to an entire race of people living in horrible, often times inhumane and barbaric conditions in the southern states of our country.

Now, slavery is never the optimal condition for human flourishing, but at the outset we need to do our very best to disassociate the African Slave Trade from slavery in the OT if we hope to understand what the Bible says about it.

This is because there are major differences on many levels between slavery, as it existed in the Law of Moses, and the way it existed in the 18th and 19th centuries in America.

Admittedly, I will not be able to handle every text or every issue related to slavery in this blog, but I want to draw our attention to certain texts and realities in the ancient Near East to help us to get a handle on this topic.

 According to the Mosaic Law, slavery was a legal and legitimate institution within the nation of Israel, as it was throughout nearly all of the ancient world. In the Law of Moses, there are several passages that deal with slavery and how it ought to be conducted.

What I’ve done, is compiled the data to highlight most of the major differences that distinguish slavery in the ancient Near East and slavery practiced in the New World.

1. Race differences played no role.

  • This is totally different from slavery in America. Slavers systematically stormed the shores of Africa and captured men of that specific race for the express purpose of selling them as property.
  • The Law of Moses expressly prohibits this kind of action:

o   Exodus 21:16  “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”

  • Slavery, within the nation of Israel, was not race based at all; an enslaved person generally could not be distinguished by appearance.

2. Education was encouraged and it enhanced a slave’s value (some slaves were better educated than their owners).

  • Think of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 3). They were taken captive to Babylon and spent 3 years being educated as slaves only to then serve as advisors and governors of the king. This leads into point number three.

3. Many slaves functioned in sensitive and highly responsible positions.

  • Joseph is a great example here (Genesis 39). He was sold into slavery in Potiphar’s house. Ultimately, he ended up running the whole household, managing all of Potiphar’s assets and personnel. He probably had a high level of freedom, autonomy, responsibility and even wealth.
  • Eventually he became Prime Minister or 2nd in command to Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 41:37-45).

4. People sometimes sold themselves into slavery to escape poverty, pay debts, climb socially, and obtain special jobs.

  • This is a major difference. I don’t think there’s record of one single African ever saying, “sign me up for slavery on the cotton fields.” Ever! New World slavery had zero appeal to Africans. There was no benefit to them in becoming slaves. That’s not true in ancient Israel.
  • Slavery was a viable way of getting back on your feet. If you were desperately in need of work, or had debts you couldn’t pay, slavery was an option that allowed you to get re-established. As a slave, you would learn a trade (doctors, artisans, artists, musicians, etc.) you would be educated, you would earn money and you could eventually earn your freedom again.
  • In some occasions, slaves actually chose to remain in that position because of the financial and social benefits:

o   Deuteronomy 15:16-17 “But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.”

5. The majority of urban and domestic slaves could anticipate being set free.

How could that come about?

  • You could save up money and redeem yourself (purchase your freedom).
  • For a Jew who sold themselves into slavery, after 6 years you would be set free and set up.
  • Deuteronomy 15:12-14 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.”

One way of contextualizing it for our day and age might be like a poor 18yr old in this country joining the military for 4 years. Your life is not your own for those 4 years but it may be the best option for you. A person signing their freedoms over to the federal government will receive real world skills and experience, they’ll have the benefit of the GI Bill to pay for college, and they would get medical coverage, housing, 3 meals a day and all of life’s essentials.

  • Also, at the Jubilee (every 50th year) all Jewish slaves are set free and all property is restored.

6. Slaves could control property (including owning their own slaves).

Why would they do this and not just purchase their own freedom, unless the life of a slave was beneficial to them?

Again, think of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. What are the chances of him being set up like that again out on his own?

7. Jewish slaves were given the Sabbath too, and participated in all Jewish religious festivals/feasts.

  • Deuteronomy 5:12-14 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.”

8. Although technically your property, slaves were still persons and therefore you couldn’t do anything to them.

  • If you killed your slave, your life would be required. Exodus 21:20.
  • If you mistreated your slave in a way that caused serious/permanent damage, that slave was set free.
  • Exodus 21:26-27 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.”

  • The overall rule of how to treat a slave seems to be summed up in Leviticus 25:43 “You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.”
  • Also, at the Jubilee (every 50th year) all Jewish slaves are set free and all property is restored.

Though this has not been an exhaustive investigation into the reality of slavery throughout biblical history, we hope that it helps you to be able to defend the Bible in your secular schools. This is definitely a touchy subject but if we approach it with grace, tact, and truth we are confident the gospel will prevail!

In Him,
Daniel Hooper


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