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Why does the Bible tolerate slavery?

Q. I honestly would like to believe that the Bible is the untainted Word of God, but there are several passages that very clearly go against any sane standard of human decency. Two quick examples are Numbers 31, and the commandment that a Canaanite slave must be kept forever. I don’t understand how my God could demand such grotesque acts in the former tale, and condone eternal slavery in the latter bit. Since you are far more learned than I am, I thought you would be able to offer explanations.

A. I enjoyed your question. I wish everyone read the Torah with such a critical eye.

By the way the verse speaking of the Canaanite slave being kept forever is not from Numbers 31 but from Leviticus 25:46. Even there, nothing prevent a slave from having a family member purchase his freedom, or if he is determined to be free, he can choose to run away from his master for the Torah grants the slave instant freedom — even if he is a Canaanite slave!! “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deut. 23:16-17).

I would encourage you to bear in mind that any passage dealing with slavery must be viewed in light of the cultural and social setting of its day, and for this reason, the Sages taught: “The Torah speaks in the language of humankind.” The wisdom of this aphorism is significant. Language is never static, but continues to evolve in new and unpredictable ways. Each new generation must add its own interpretive voice, which will periodically require constant re-visioning and reinterpretation. Although there are numerous precepts that no longer apply to our day, nevertheless, there is wisdom to be gleaned from every precept — even the commandments that from a moral perspective strike a modern reader as offensive (e.g., laws regarding genocide of the Canaanites, “holy” war, the laws regarding slavery, and so on.). Rabbinic tradition in many ways “reformed” many of the more problematic passages of the Torah (e.g., the rabbinic interpretation of the lex tallionis – “the eye for an eye” found in Exodus 21:24) liberators. There are many other examples I could give, but time is limiting.

As an institution, slavery has existed in human societies since the dawn of human history. In societies that endorsed slavery, the number of slaves was always disproportionate to the number of free people. Four-fifths of ancient Athens was considered slaves. To maintain their control over the masses, the aristocracy imposed severe guidelines to ensure that the slave populations remain psychologically dispirited, insecure and fearful of ever staging a rebellion against their masters.

Even in the 21st century, developed and under-developed nations alike still practice slavery in one form or another. In modern Western countries like the United States, Japan, Israel, and the European nations, “white slavery” is a booming business. Arabs continue to sell black slaves while the Western world looks the other way. The Torah recognized its evils, and in the following section, took significant steps to try to ameliorate its dehumanizing power both on the slave, the master, and upon society as a whole. The Torah begins with delineating the laws affecting slavery because in the ancient world, slaves were considered nothing more than property. All the civilizations of antiquity had considerable difficulty separating human personhood from property and this area of social life needed careful defining.

According to Aharon ben Eliahu (ca. 14th century), the various laws of this chapter regarding the Hebrew slaves cannot be viewed apart from Chapter 25 of Leviticus. With respect to the latter, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that the Hebrew servants were not “servants” in the conventional sense of the term—especially when compared to how the Egyptians and ancient Near East nations treated their slaves. The Torah specified that the Hebrew slave was more like a hired worker, than he was an actual slave (Lev. 25:40) Moses created a work system within society where individuals could voluntarily sell their services to another for up to six years, in order to either pay their debts or make restitution, if the person was convicted of theft.

For a newly emancipated people who could easily remember their former experience as slaves, the laws governing slavery proved to be a litmus test as to whether the ethos of the Exodus experience had any effect on the way average people would relate to those who were society’s most marginalized and the disenfranchised members. Rather than banning the institution of slavery altogether, the ancient biblical writers realized that human nature is slow to change; therefore, the Torah imposes many rules and regulations upon a master so as to gradually domesticate the institution of slavery, with the purpose of eventually legislating it out of existence. The biblical ethos stresses: be considerate of your slave’s welfare. Every citizen ought to recall, “Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you; that is why I am giving you this order today” (Deut. 15:15).

The laws regarding the resident alien in ancient Israel is a profound witness to how the ethos of the Exodus inspired the nation to act kindly toward the resident stranger in their midst (Lev. 17:8; 22:17–19; Num. 15:14–16). After Israel became established as a nation and a people, remembrance of Israel’s past alien status justified laws regarding fair treatment of the alien among them (Exod. 22:20; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19). Officially, aliens in Israel enjoyed equal status with regard to worship and Sabbath rest (Num. 9:14; 15:15–16; Exod. 23:12; Deut. 5:14), and, with widows and orphans, protective care (Exod. 22:21–24;20–23; Deut. 24:17, 19–20; cf. Mal. 3:5). If you were resident alien living in ancient Israel, you could expect fairness in every civic area of life, and enjoy equal participation in rituals, participate at the holiday celebrations, and the list goes on. The ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) once wrote regarding the Essenes:

  • And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession of servants of slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature, for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker.” In the Contemplative Life [9:80]

Philo also wrote,

Behave well to your slaves, as you pray to God that he should behave toward you. For as we hear them so shall we be heard, and as we treat them, so shall we be treated. Let us show compassion for compassion, so that we may receive like for like in return.”

Maimonides’s own teaching on this particular subject is illuminating.

  • The quality of benevolence and the paths of wisdom demand that a human being conduct himself mercifully and justly toward his slave. One should not press his heavy yoke on his slave and torment him, but he should give him ample food to eat and drink of everything. The sages of old were in the habit of sharing with their slaves every dish they ate, and they fed the cattle as well as the slaves before they fed themselves. Nor should a master disgrace his slave by hand nor should he verbally abuse him, the Biblical law surrendered them to slavery but not to disgrace (Niddah 47a). Neither should he scream at them angrily, but rather should patiently listen to his complaints. Cruelty is frequently found among the heathens who worship idols, but for the progeny of Abraham however, the people upon whom God bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to observe laws of virtue, we are enjoined to be merciful towards all creatures. So too, when speaking about Divine attributes, He commanded us to imitate God through the mitzvot. As the Psalmist said, “His mercy is upon all His works” (Psa, 145:9) Whoever is merciful will receive mercy, for it is written ‘”He will be merciful and compassionate to you and multiply you’”(Deu. 13:18). (Maimonides, Hilchot Avadim 9:8)