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NAVE: Slavery
EBD: Slave
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Slave [EBD]

Jer. 2:14 (A.V.), but not there found in the original. In Rev. 18:13 the word "slaves" is the rendering of a Greek word meaning "bodies." The Hebrew and Greek words for slave are usually rendered simply "servant," "bondman," or "bondservant." Slavery as it existed under the Mosaic law has no modern parallel. That law did not originate but only regulated the already existing custom of slavery (Ex. 21:20, 21, 26, 27; Lev. 25:44-46; Josh. 9:6-27). The gospel in its spirit and genius is hostile to slavery in every form, which under its influence is gradually disappearing from among men.

Slavery [NAVE]

See: Servant, Bond.


The institution of slavery was recognized, though not established, by the Mosaic law with a view to mitigate its hardship and to secure to every man his ordinary rights. I. Hebrew slaves. --
  1. The circumstances under which a Hebrew might be reduced to servitude were-- (1) poverty; (2) the commission of theft; and (3) the exercise of paternal authority. In the first case, a man who had mortgaged his property, and was unable to support his family, might sell himself to another Hebrew, with a view both to obtain maintenance and perchance a surplus sufficient to redeem his property. (Leviticus 25:25,39) (2) The commission of theft rendered a person liable to servitude whenever restitution could not be made on the scale prescribed by the law. (Exodus 22:1,3) The thief was bound to work out the value of his restitution money in the service of him on whom the theft had been committed. (3) The exercise of paternal authority was limited to the sale of a daughter of tender age to be a maidservant, with the ulterior view of her becoming the concubine of the purchaser. (Exodus 21:7)
  2. The servitude of a Hebrew might be terminated in three ways: (1) by the satisfaction or the remission of all claims against him; (2) by the recurrence of the year of jubilee, (Leviticus 25:40) and (3) the expiration of six years from the time that his servitude commenced. (Exodus 21:2; 15:12) (4) To the above modes of obtaining liberty the rabbinists added, as a fourth, the death of the master without leaving a son, there being no power of claiming the salve on the part of any heir except a son. If a servant did not desire to avail himself of the opportunity of leaving his service, he was to signify his intention in a formal manner before the judges (or more exactly at the place of judgment), and then the master was to take him to the door-post, and to bore his ear through with an awl, (Exodus 21:6) driving the awl into or "unto the door," as stated in (15:17) and thus fixing the servant to it. A servant who had submitted to this operation remained, according to the words of the law, a servant "forever." (Exodus 21:6) These words are however, interpreted by Josephus and by the rabbinsts as meaning until the year of jubilee.
  3. The condition of a Hebrew servant was by no means intolerable. His master was admonished to treat him, not "as a bond-servant, but as an hired servant and as a sojourner," and, again, "not to rule over him with rigor." (Leviticus 25:39,40,43) At the termination of his servitude the master was enjoined not to "let him go away empty," but to remunerate him liberally out of his flock, his floor and his wine-press. (15:13,14) In the event of a Hebrew becoming the servant of a "stranger," meaning a non-Hebrew, the servitude could be terminated only in two ways, viz. by the arrival of the year of jubilee, or by the repayment to the master of the purchase money paid for the servant, after deducting a sum for the value of his services proportioned to the length of his servitude. (Leviticus 25:47-55) A Hebrew woman might enter into voluntary servitude on the score of poverty, and in this case she was entitled to her freedom after six years service, together with her usual gratuity at leaving, just as in the case of a man. (15:12,13) Thus far we have seen little that is objectionable in the condition of Hebrew servants. In respect to marriage there were some peculiarities which, to our ideas, would be regarded as hardships. A master might, for instance, give a wife to a Hebrew servant for the time of his servitude, the wife being in this case, it must be remarked, not only a slave but a non-Hebrew. Should he leave when his term had expired, his wife and children would remain the absolute property of the master. (Exodus 21:4,5) Again, a father might sell his young daughter to a Hebrew, with a view either of marrying her himself or of giving her to his son. (Exodus 21:7-9) It diminishes the apparent harshness of this proceeding if we look on the purchase money as in the light of a dowry given, as was not unusual, to the parents of the bride; still more, if we accept the rabbinical view that the consent of the maid was required before the marriage could take place. The position of a maiden thus sold by her father was subject to the following regulations: (1) She could not "go out as the men-servants do," i.e. she could not leave at the termination of six years, or in the year of jubilee, if her master was willing to fulfill the object for which he had purchased her. (2) Should he not wish to marry her, he should call upon her friends to procure her release by the repayment of the purchase money. (3) If he betrothed her to his son, he was bound to make such provision for her as he would for one of his own daughters. (4) If either he or his son, having married her, took a second wife, it should not be to the prejudice of the first. (5) If neither of the three first specified alternatives took place, the maid was entitled to immediate and gratuitous liberty. (Exodus 21:7-11) The custom of reducing Hebrews to servitude appears to have fallen into disuse subsequent to the Babylonish captivity. Vast numbers of Hebrews were reduced to slavery as war-captives at different periods by the Phoenicians, (Joel 3:6) the Philistines, (Joel 3:6; Amos 1:6), the Syrians, 1 Macc. 3:42; 2 Macc. 8:11, the Egyptians, Joseph Ant. xii. 2,3, and above all by the Romans. Joseph. B.C. vi. 9,3. II. Non-Hebrew slaves. --
  4. The majority of non-Hebrew slaves were war-captives, either of the Canaanites who had survived the general extermination of their race under Joshua or such as were conquered from the other surrounding nations. (Numbers 31:26) ff. Besides these, many were obtained by purchase from foreign slave-dealers, (Leviticus 25:44,45) and others may have been resident foreigners who were reduced to this state by either poverty or crime. The children of slaves remained slaves, being the class described as "born in the house," (Genesis 14:14; 17:12; Ecclesiastes 2:7) and hence the number was likely to increase as time went on. The average value of a slave appears to have been thirty shekels. (Exodus 21:32)
  5. That the slave might be manumitted appears from (Exodus 21:26,27; Leviticus 19:20)
  6. The slave is described as the "possession" of his master, apparently with a special reference to the power which the latter had of disposing of him to his heirs, as he would any other article of personal property. (Leviticus 25:45,46) But, on the other hand, provision was made for the protection of his person. (Exodus 21:20; Leviticus 24:17,22) A minor personal injury, such as the loss of an eye or a tooth, was to be recompensed by giving the servant his liberty. (Exodus 21:26,27) The position of the slave in regard to religious privileges was favorable. He was to be circumcised, (Genesis 17:12) and hence was entitled to partake of the paschal sacrifice, (Exodus 12:44) as well as of the other religious festivals. (12:12,18; 16:11,14) The occupations of slaves were of a menial character, as implied in (Leviticus 25:39) consisting partly in the work of the house and partly in personal attendance on the master. It will be seen that the whole tendency of the Bible legislation was to mitigate slavery, making it little than hired service, and to abolish it, as indeed it was practically abolished among the Jews six hundred years before Christ.


SLAVE; SLAVERY - slav, slav'-er-i:

1. Acquiring of Slaves

2. Hebrews as War Captives

3. Freedom of Slaves

4. Rights of Slaves

5. Rights of Slave Masters

6. The New Testament Conception


The origin of the term "slave" is traced to the German sklave, meaning a captive of the Slavonic race who had been forced into servitude (compare Slav); French esclave, Dutch slaaf, Swedish slaf, Spanish esclavo. The word "slave" occurs only in Jer 2:14 and in Rev 18:13, where it is suggested by the context and not expressed in the original languages (Hebrew yelidh bayith, "one born in the house"; Greek soma, "body"). However, the Hebrew word `ebhedh, in the Old Testament and the Greek word doulos, in the New Testament more properly might have been translated "slave" instead of "servant" or "bondservant," understanding though that the slavery of Judaism was not the cruel system of Greece, Rome, and later nations. The prime thought is service; the servant may render free service, the slave, obligatory, restricted service.

Scripture statement rather than philological study must form the basis of this article. We shall notice how slaves could be secured, sold and redeemed; also their rights and their masters' rights, confining the study to Old Testament Scripture, noting in conclusion the New Testament conception. The word "slave" in this article refers to the Hebrew slave unless otherwise designated.

1. Acquiring of Slaves:

Slaves might be acquired in the following ways, namely:

(1) Bought.

There are many instances of buying slaves (Lev 25:39 ff). Hebrew slavery broke into the ranks of every human relationship: a father could sell his daughter (Ex 21:7; Neh 5:5); a widow's children might be sold to pay their father's debt (2 Ki 4:1); a man could sell himself (Lev 25:39,47); a woman could sell herself (Dt 15:12,13,17), etc. Prices paid were somewhat indefinite. According to Ex 21:32 thirty shekels was a standard price, but Lev 27:3-7 gives a scale of from 3 to 50 shekels according to age and sex, with a provision for an appeal to the priest in case of uncertainty (27:8). Twenty shekels is the price set for a young man (27:5), and this corresponds with the sum paid for Joseph (Gen 37:28).

But in 2 Macc 8:11 the price on the average is 90 for a talent, i.e. 40 shekels each. The ransom of an entire talent for a single man (1 Ki 20:39) means that unusual value (far more than that of a slave) was set on this particular captive.

There were certain limitations on the right of sale (Ex 21:7 ff).

(2) Exchange.

Slaves, i.e. non-Hebrew slaves, might be traded for other slaves, cattle, or provisions.

(3) Satisfaction of Debt.

It is probable that a debtor, reduced to extremity, could offer himself in payment of his debt (Lev 25:39), though this was forbidden in the Torath Kohanim; compare 'Otsar Yisra'el, vii.292b. That a creditor could sell into slavery a debtor or any of his family, or make them his own slaves, has some foundation in the statement of the poor widow whose pathetic cry reached the ears of the prophet Elisha: "Thy servant my husband is dead; .... and the creditor is come to take unto him my two children to be bondsmen" (2 Ki 4:1).

(4) Gift.

The non-Hebrew slave, and possibly the Hebrew slave, could be acquired as a gift (Gen 29:24).

(5) Inheritance.

Children could inherit non-Hebrew slaves as their own possessions (Lev 25:46).

(6) Voluntary Surrender.

In the case of a slave's release in the seventh year there was allowed a willing choice of indefinite slavery. The ceremony at such a time is interesting: "Then his master shall bring him unto the judges (margin), and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever" (Ex 21:6). A pierced ear probably meant obedience to the master's voice. History, however, does not record a single instance in which such a case occurred.

(7) Arrest.

"If the thief be found breaking in, .... he shall make restitution: if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft" (Ex 22:2,3).

(8) Birth.

The children of slaves, born within the master's house of a wife given to the slave there, became slaves, and could be held, even if the father went free (Ex 21:4; compare Lev 25:54).

(9) Capture in War.

Thousands of men, women and children were taken in war as captives and reduced, sometimes, to most menial slavery. Such slavery, however, was more humane than wholesale butchery according to the customs of earlier times (Nu 31:7-35). Males were usually slain and females kept for slavery and concubinage (Dt 21:10,11,14). Captive slaves and bought slaves, "from nations round about," forced moral ruin into Israel's early civilization.

See SIEGE, 3.

The two principal sources of slave supply were poverty in peace and plunder in war.

2. Hebrews as War Captives:

The Hebrews themselves were held as captive slaves at various times by (1) Phoenicians (the greatest slave traders of ancient times), (2) Philistines, (3) Syrians (2 Ki 5:2 ff), (4) Egyptians, and (5) Romans. There must have been thousands subjected to severest slavery.


3. Freedom of Slaves:

The freedom of slaves was possible in the following ways:

(1) By Redemption.

Manumission by redemption was common among the Hebrews. The slave's freedom might be bought, the price depending on (a) the nearness to the seventh year or the Jubilee year, (b) the first purchase price, and (c) personal considerations as to age and ability of the one in bondage. A slave could be redeemed as follows: (a) by himself, (b) by his uncle, (c) by his nephew or cousin, (d) or by any near relative (Lev 25:48-55). The price depended on certain conditions as indicated above.

(2) By the Lapse of Time.

The seventh year of service brought release from bondage. "If thou buy a Hebrew servant (margin "bondman"), six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (Ex 21:2-4).

(3) By the Law of the Jubilee Year.

The year of Jubilee was the great year when slaves were no longer slaves but free. "He shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee: then shall he go out from thee, he and his children .... return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers" (Lev 25:40 f).

(4) By Injury.

A servant whose master maimed him (or her), in particular by causing the loss of an eye or even a tooth, was thereby freed (Ex 21:26 f).

(5) By Escape.

(Dt 23:15 f; 1 Ki 2:39). See "Code of Hammurabi" in HDB (extra vol, p. 600) and compare Philem 1:12 ff.

(6) By Indifference.

In case of a certain kind of female slave, the neglect or displeasure of her master in itself gave her the right to freedom (Ex 21:7-11; Dt 21:14).

(7) By Restitution.

A caught thief, having become a bondsman, after making full restitution by his service as a slave, was set at liberty (Ex 22:1-4).

(8) By the Master's Death.

"And Abram said, .... I go childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus .... and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir" (Gen 15:2 f). This passage has been mistakenly supposed to indicate that a master without children might give freedom to a slave by constituting the slave an heir to his possessions. But on the contrary, Abram seems to contemplate with horror the possibility that Eliezer will take possession of his goods in the absence of an heir. In view of the fact that adoption, the adrogatio of the Roman law, was unknown both to Biblical and Talmudic law (see Jewish Encyclopedia, under the word), the statement in Gen 15:2 does not seem to indicate any such custom as the adoption of slaves. If any method of emancipation is here suggested, it is by the death of the master without heir, a method thoroughly discussed in the Talmud (mithath ha-'adhon).

(9) By Direct Command of Yahweh.

"The word that came unto Jeremiah from Yahweh, .... that every man should let his man-servant, and .... his maid-servant, that is a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, go free; that none should make bondsmen of them .... they obeyed, and let them go" (Jer 34:8-10).

The nine methods here enumerated may be classified thus:

A. By operation of law:

1. By lapse of time.

(a) After serving six years or other contractual period. See (2) above.

(b) Upon the approach of the Jubilee year. See (3) above.

2. By death of the master without heirs. See (8) above.

B. By act of the parties:

1. By an act of the master.

(a) Voluntary manumission, including (9) above.

(b) Indifference in certain cases. See (6) above.

(c) Maiming servant. See (4) above.

2. By act of the servant.

(a) Redemption. See (1) above.

(b) Restitution. See (7) above.

(c) Escape. See (5) above.

3. By act of a third party.

Redemption--(1) above.

4. Rights of Slaves:

As noted in the beginning of this article, the Hebrew slaves fared far better than the Grecian, Roman and other slaves of later years. In general, the treatment they received and the rights they could claim made their lot reasonably good. Of course a slave was a slave, and there were masters who disobeyed God and even abused their "brothers in bonds." As usual the unfortunate female slave got the full measure of inhuman cruelty. Certain rights were discretionary, it is true, but many Hebrew slaves enjoyed valuable individual and social privileges. As far as Scripture statements throw light on this subject, the slaves of Old Testament times might claim the following rights, namely:

(1) Freedom.

Freedom might be gained in any one of the above-mentioned ways or at the master's will. The non-Hebrew could be held as a slave in perpetuity (Lev 25:44-46).

(2) Good Treatment.

"Thou shalt not rule over him (Hebrew slave) with rigor, but shalt fear thy God. .... Ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigor" (Lev 25:43,46). The non-Hebrew seemed to be left unprotected.

(3) Justice.

An ancient writer raises the query of fairness to slaves. "If I have despised the cause of my man-servant or of my maid-servant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God riseth up?" (Job 31:13 f). No doubt the true Hebrew master was considerate of the rights of his slaves. The very fact, however, that the Hebrew master could punish a Hebrew slave, "to within an inch of his life," gave ready opportunity for sham justice. "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid ("bondman or bondwoman"), with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his money" (Ex 21:20 f).

(4) Family.

The slave before his release might have his wife and children (Ex 21:5).

(5) Voluntary Slavery.

Even when the seventh year came, the slave had a right to pledge himself, with awl-pierced ear, to perpetual service for his master (Ex 21:5 f; Dt 15:16). The traditional interpretation of "forever" in these passages is "until the next Jubilee year" (compare Kiddushin 21).

(6) Money or Property.

Some cases at least indicate that slaves could have money of their own. Thus, if a poor slave "waxed rich" he could redeem himself (Lev 25:49). Compare 1 Sam 9:5-10, where, however, the Hebrew throughout calls the "servant" na`ar, "a youth," never `ebhedh.

(7) Children.

If married when free, the slave could take wife and children with him when freedom came, but if he was married after becoming a slave, his wife and children must remain in possession of his master. This law led him often into perpetual slavery (Ex 21:3 f).

(8) Elevation.

A chance to rise was allowable in some instances, e.g. Eliezer, a foreign slave in a Hebrew household, and Joseph, a Hebrew slave in a foreign household. Each rose to a place of honor and usefulness (Gen 15:2; 39:4).

(9) Religious Worship.

After being circumcised, slaves were allowed to participate in the paschal sacrifice (Ex 12:44) and other religious occasions (Dt 12:12).

(10) Gifts.

Upon obtaining freedom, slaves, at the discretion of masters, were given supplies of cattle, grain and wine (Dt 15:13 f).

5. Rights of Slave Masters:

The rights of a slave master may briefly be stated as follows: (1) to hold as chattel possession his non-Hebrew slaves (Lev 25:45); (2) to leave such slaves as an inheritance for his children (Lev 25:46); (3) to hold as his own property the wife and children of all slaves who were unmarried at the time they became slaves (Ex 21:4); (4) to pursue and recover runaway slaves (1 Ki 2:39-41); (5) to grant freedom at any time to any slave. This is implied rather than stated. Emancipation other than at the Sabbatical and Jubilee years was evidently the right of masters; (6) to circumcise slaves, both Jew and Gentile, within his own household (Gen 17:13,23,27); (7) to sell, give away, or trade slaves (Gen 29:24. According to Torath Kohanim a Hebrew servant could be sold only under certain restrictions. See 1, (1)); (8) to chastise male and female slaves, though not unto death (Ex 21:20); (9) to marry a slave himself, or give his female slaves in marriage to others (1 Ch 2:35); (10) to marry a daughter to a slave (1 Ch 2:34 f); (11) to purchase slaves in foreign markets (Lev 25:44); (12) to keep, though not as a slave, the runaway slave from a foreign master (Dt 23:15,16. See 3, (5)); (13) to enslave or sell a caught thief (Gen 44:8-33; Ex 22:3); (14) to hold, in perpetuity, non-Hebrew slaves (Lev 25:46); (15) to seek advice of slaves (1 Sam 25:14 ff; but the reference here is open to doubt. See 4, (6)); (16) to demand service (Gen 14:14; 24).

Throughout Old Testament times the rights of both slaves and masters varied, but in general the above may be called the accepted code. In later times Zedekiah covenanted with the Hebrews never again to enslave their own brothers, but they broke the covenant (Jer 34:8).

6. The New Testament Conception:

There were slaves during New Testament times. The church issued no edict sweeping away this custom of the old Judaism, but the gospel of Christ with its warm, penetrating love-message mitigated the harshness of ancient times and melted cruelty into kindness. The equality, justice and love of Christ's teachings changed the whole attitude of man to man and master to servant. This spirit of brotherhood quickened the conscience of the age, leaped the walls of Judaism, and penetrated the remotest regions. The great apostle proclaimed this truth: "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, .... ye all are one man in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). The Christian slaves and masters are both exhorted in Paul's letters to live godly lives and make Christ-like their relations one to the other--obedience to masters and forbearance with slaves. "Bondservants (m), be obedient unto .... your masters, .... as bondservants (m) of Christ .... And, ye masters .... forbear threatening: .... their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons with him" (Eph 6:5-9).

Christ was a reformer, but not an anarchist. His gospel was dynamic but not dynamitic. It was leaven, electric with power, but permeated with love. Christ's life and teaching were against Judaistic slavery, Roman slavery and any form of human slavery. The love of His gospel and the light of His life were destined, in time, to make human emancipation earth-wide and human brotherhood as universal as His own benign presence.


Nowack, Hebrew Arch.; Ewald, Alterthumer, III, 280-88; Grunfeld, Die Stellung des Sklaven bei den Juden, nach bibl. und talmud. Quellen, 1886; Mielziner, Die Verhaltnisse der Sklaven bei den alter Hebrdern, 1859; Mandl, Das Sklavenrecht des Altes Testament, 1886; Kahn, L'esclavagedans la Bible et le Talmud, 1867; Sayce, Social Life among the Assyrians and Babylonians; Lane, Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians, 205; Arabian Nights, I, 64 ff; Thomson, LB; McCurdy, HPM, 1894; Trumbull, Studies in Oriental Social Life, 1894. There is a wealth of material in the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin (pp. 17-22).

William Edward Raffety

Also see definition of "Slave" in Word Study

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