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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.—

  • 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)
  • 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.
  • 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.—
  • 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)
  • That the slave might be manumitted appears from (Exodus 21:26,27; Leviticus 19:20)
  • 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.
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