SLAVERY IN THE TANAKH (Jewish Bible)

During the last few months our country has seen a number of protests by tens of thousands of women and men marching against the murder of unarmed innocent men and women of color killed by members of our police force. Acts of such egregious discrimination against folk of color bring back memories of the past and the ethical inequities and horrors of American slavery. As far as I know, the question of how to dispose of the many post-civil war monuments celebrating confederate personalities who owned slaves imported like cattle from Africa and sold to slaveholders in this country, has not been solved so far.

This said, the sad and regrettable historical chapter of American slavery has once again been exposed center stage. Once again the unjust treatment of people of color in this country points to a criminal justice system that stands in need of thorough reform. Sadly, these racist events point to the fact that Dr. Martin Luther Jr.’s great “dream” of racial equality in the US, after all these years following his assassination, still waits and cries for fulfillment.

Slavery is an ugly word and concept. It is especially so to those of us who once were slaves ourselves. You must understand that as a biblical scholar and because of my past existential involvement in slavery as a victim of the Holocaust, I thought it meaningful to explore what place it occupied in ancient Israelite history and how past ancient slave systems may have influenced the American experience.

Biblical Palestine, for a period of thousands of years was economically and socially an integral part of the ancient Near Eastern world. Slavery was an economic institution there. In order to evaluate biblical slavery in its proper perspective, we must take a quick look at slavery as it existed in neighboring parts of the Fertile Crescent, the crescent-like geographical area stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

There is extant literature on the subject of slavery in the ancient Near East. This literature contains a number of law codes, the names of which are generally unknown to non-professionals. This documentation covers a period stretching from about 2050 B.C.E (Before the Common Era), the Ur-Namu Code of Sumer to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1700 B.C.E. and on down to court documents from Babylonia and Assyria from the 14th to the 12th cent BCE.

All these codes contain legislation dealing with slavery. This being the case, it is not surprising that our Torah, whose written reminiscences, historical and pseudo-historical, fall into the latter part of the above period of documentation, also contains legislation covering the phenomenon of slavery.

Before continuing with this inquiry, a word of caution. The biblical Hebrew term for a male slave is eved, for a female slave shifchah. In dealing with these terms, it is important to pay attention to the literary context in which they occur, because eved, slave, can also mean servant, bondsman, serf while the word’s female counterpart shifchah, female slave, can also mean maidservant.

This said, what comes to mind is the question: was the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite slave system racist and therefore similar to the American system, begun here in 1619 when the first slave ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort in the English settlement that would become Virginia, and when after landing, the ship’s captain immediately proceeded to sell the Africans kidnapped from their villages in what is now Angola. Regarding the above date, it should be mentioned that documentation exists that African Blacks had been imported as slaves in the English colony of Bermuda already before 1619.

Before we try to respond to the questions as to whether the biblical Israelite slave system was based on racist ideology, let us define race and racism. Race. Britannica. com: “Contemporary scientists hold that human physical variations, especially in those traits that are normally used to classify people racially – skin color, hair texture, facial features, and to some extent bodily structure – must be understood in terms of evolution processes and the long-range adaptation of human groups… Racism, according to the Oxford English dictionary is “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race; belief in the superiority of a particular race.”

These preliminary remarks having been presented, let us now go to one of the more important biblical texts that deals with slavery.

“Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bear him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.”

Exodus 21:1-6

This ordinance is one of great many legal references to slavery in Israel. Notice that this ordinance deals with Hebrew slaves explicitly. This explicitness is not found in many legislative texts dealing with slavery where the slave is designated by the term eved. Given this problem, scholars disagree in their interpretation with regard to which slave is meant: Jewish or foreign. Furthermore, slavery is a broad concept that must be broken down into a number of categories: captives of war; Israelite or foreign slaves; minors sold into slavery; people’s self-sale into slavery; insolvency caused slavery; female slavery; marriage between free men and slaves; manumission; Temple slavery; and the important economic role of slavery.

Obviously, it is impossible to deal here with all the references to slaves enumerated above. What can be said, however, is that while the Bible considers slaves to be a chattel of their master, there are regulations which the master must respect. Here is one such text. Deut. 21.10-14: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”      

There are many other similar legislative stipulations in the Bible. Lev. 25:44 allows the people of Israel to buy and sell slaves; Ex. 21:16 and Deut. 24:7 legislates against kidnapping, stealing and selling a person which carries the death penalty. In Israel, the master/owner was not allowed to harm his slaves. In case this happened, the slave had to be set free (Ex.21:26-27). On the other hand, Ex.21:20-21 seems to me contradictory: “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he died under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”

Clearly, the Israelite law, based on Torah and thus considered to have come from God, is not all that clear about master-slave relationship. To me it is puzzling that nowhere in the Torah God, the master legislator, forbids slavery. Interestingly, this holds true for the New Testament and thus also for Jesus of Nazareth. What can be stated with certainty, on the other hand, is that in the Hebrew Bible the slave has certain rights that protect him from being abused, maltreated, injured or killed. The slave is not hated. He is, rather like a useful machine, to be kept in a good workable state.

While the biblical concept of slavery is nothing to be praised it is a system of slavery seen fit for the economy then in place. Sadly, there is no voice raised, not even that of God, condemning it. It is curious to me that none of the great prophets of Israel, staunch advocates for justice, have anything to say about it. Slavery is a concept accepted and used in the Ancient Middle East and thus Israel accepted it and seemingly also practiced it.

My writing the word “seemingly” above in bold suggests that considering the history of ancient Israel I have a problem accepting the fact that slavery was actually in use there. Why so?

Israel as a geopolitical entity begins with King David, if we accept the biblical Davidic kingship stories as historically accurate. Seen from an archaeological viewpoint questions about the grandiose narratives concerning King David and the Davidic empire leaves many questions unanswered.

It is highly probable that if slavery in ancient Israel existed, the slaves were not prisoners of war but rather fellow Israelites. This is substantiated in I K 5:27-32 where we read that “King Solomon [David’s son] raised a levy of forced labor (Hebrew mas) out of all Israel and the level numbered thirty thousand men. The so-called United Kingdom of David (ca. 1,000 BCE) fell apart with the fiasco of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, against whom the ten northern tribes revolted under the leadership of one Jeroboam in protest against the harsh treatment of the people by Solomon (931 BCE) and Rehoboam’s boasting that his future leadership would be even harsher. This led to the subsequent breakup of the United Kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom ended in 722 BCE when Sargon II, king of Assyria, defeated the ten northern tribes. Judah in the south fell to Babylonia in 586 BCE when Zedekiah, its last king, was defeated.        From then on the geopolitical state of Israel no longer existed. A relatively short resurrection of Israel occurred under Hasmonean/Maccabean rule from 165 BCE to 63 BCE at which time the land became a Roman province. Summarizing the above we conclude that an independent Israel existed for a total of 512 years. After the fall of Israel to Rome, 1,085 years went by with Israel being dispersed and without a homeland until 1948 when Israel was resurrected again and became Eretz Yisrael, the modern state of Israel.

Given the relatively short periods of Israel’s independent existence it is highly unlikely that slavery ever played an important role in Israel. This said, I wonder whether the biblical slavery legislation is little more than wishful thinking of what slavery should look like in a future reconstructed kingdom of Israel, which once again will have become a geopolitical independent entity. Whatever the actual reality of ancient Israel’s approach to slavery was, lived or optimistically envisioned for the future, it seems certain that Israel’s legislation provided rules of law regulating the slave owner- slave relationship. In most cases, these rules provided the slave protection against slave owners’ possible cruelty. There is no display of hatred for slaves to be found in Israel’s slavery legislation. The biblical picture of slavery is not founded on racist ideology.

Remains to be shown where certain Americans, primarily southern clergy and their followers, found justification for slavery in the Bible.

The biblical story of Noah and the Flood is well known to all of us. After Noah’s family survived the worldwide flood in the famous floating ark, Noah planted a vineyard. The story tells how Noah overindulged in his wine and fell fast asleep in his tent in the nude.

Noah had three sons named Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen.9:18-19, 27). A literal interpretation of this Genesis story suggests that the population of the world descended from these three sons and their wives.

The story has it that Ham, the father of Canaan, entered the tent, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers about it. These two, Shem and Japheth, entered the tent and covered their father walking backwards so that they did not see his nakedness. When Noah found out what Ham, his son, had done, he curses Canaan, Ham’s son and his progeny to the effect that Canaan and his progeny will be servants to Shem and Japheth. In the popular version of this bizarre story, known as “the curse of Ham,” Canaan, Ham’s son, disappears and Ham was made black and his descendants, all black, were Africans. This is how the perversion took place.

The Canaanites, throughout Israel’s biblical history, were demonized and their land, Canaan, was occupied under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges and became the “homeland” of the People Israel.

Finally, where does God’s curse of blackness of the people come from? Nothing in the biblical story suggests or refers to the world populations’ skin colors! In Genesis chapter 10, the sequel to the Flood Story, we read, “These are the generations of the sons of Noah,…” with enumerations of their populations and lands. In Genesis 10:6 this reads, “The sons of Ham: Kush, Egypt, Put …” (Don’t be confused by the fact that countries and populations were named after Ham’s sons.) Ham, the perpetrator of the sin of having seen his father’s nakedness is here identified with Kush, the area south of Egypt, today known as the Sudan and Ethiopia, in which the population has pitch black skin color. Also Egypt, the archenemy of ancient Israel falls under God’s curse of Ham.

To the white southern slaveholders it was clear that Ham must have been black and thus right along with him all black skinned people had been cursed by God and destined to serve Shem’s and Japheth’s people who in the southern preachers’ opinion were white.

Here then we find the birth of white supremacism. Interestingly, the human skin color scheme is nowhere mentioned in the Bible story.

Such are the vagaries of biblical interpretation. This one served as the justification for the slavery of about 600,000 American slaves or 5% of the 12 million slaves hunted down and taken from Africa. This, in turn, resulted between 1882 and 1968 in 4,743 documented lynchings with 3,446 of these done to Black People in America.

Clearly, racism and white supremacism are not found in the Bible. What can be found there is religious supremacism which is regrettable. More about that some other time.        Let me end this mini-study of slavery in the Bible with a reminder. One of the Haggadah’s texts we sing at the Pesach (Passover) seder begins with the words avadim hayiynu… or “we were slaves.” Let us never forget our people’s sufferings as slaves in Egypt and the Holocaust and our liberation to become an am chofshi, “a free people.” May these lived experiences of our people, the Jewish people, provide for us the spiritual compass and mandate to stand with all people of color who continue to be threatened by white racists and supremacists.


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