Slavery (Deuteronomy 15:12-18)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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A troubling topic in Deuteronomy is slavery. The allowance of slavery in the Old Testament generates a great deal of debate, and we cannot resolve all the issues here. We should not, however, equate Israelite slavery with slavery in the modern era, including slavery in the United States. The latter involved kidnapping West Africans from their homeland for sale as slaves, followed by the perpetual enslavement of their descendants. The Old Testament condemns this kind of practice (Amos 1:6), and makes it punishable by death (Deut. 24:7; Exod. 21:16). Israelites became slaves to one another not through kidnapping or unfortunate birth, but because of debt or poverty (Deut. 15:12, NRSV footnote a). Slavery was preferable to starvation, and people might sell themselves into slavery to pay off a debt and at least have a home. But the slavery was not to be lifelong. “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free” (Deut. 15:12). Upon release, former slaves were to receive a share of the wealth their work had created. “When you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deut. 15:13-14).

In some parts of the world people are still sold (usually by parents) into debt bondage—a form of work that is slavery in all but name. Others may be lured into sex trafficking from which escape is difficult or impossible. Christians in some places are taking the lead in rooting out such practices, but much more could be done. Imagine the difference it would make if many more churches and individual Christians made this a high priority for mission and social action.

In more developed countries, desperate workers are not sold into involuntary labor but take whatever jobs they may be able to find. If Deuteronomy contains protections even for slaves, don’t these protections also apply to workers? Deuteronomy requires that masters must abide by contract terms and labor regulations including the fixed release date, the provision of food and shelter, and the responsibility for working conditions. Work hours must be reasonably limited, including a weekly day off (Deut. 5:14). Most significantly, masters are to regard slaves as equals in God's eyes, remembering that all God’s people are rescued slaves. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deut. 15:15).

When the Guy Making Your Sandwich Has a Noncompete Clause

If you are a chief executive of a large company, you very likely have a noncompete clause in your contract, preventing you from jumping ship to a competitor until some period has elapsed. Likewise if you are a top engineer or product designer, holding your company’s most valuable intellectual property between your ears.

Read the full article in The New York Times here.

Modern employers might abuse desperate workers in ways similar to the ways ancient masters abused slaves. Do workers lose these protections merely because they are not actually slaves? If not, then employers have a duty at least not to treat workers worse than slaves. Vulnerable workers today may face demands to work extra hours without pay, to turn over tips to managers, to work in dangerous or toxic conditions, to pay petty bribes in order to get shifts, to suffer sexual harassment or degrading treatment, to receive inferior benefits, or to endure illegal discrimination and other forms of mistreatment. Even well-off workers may find themselves unfairly denied a reasonable share of the fruits of their labor.

To modern readers, the Bible’s acceptance of temporary slavery seems difficult to accept—even though we recognize that ancient slavery was not the same as sixteenth- through nineteenth-century slavery—and we can be thankful that slavery is at least technically illegal everywhere today. But rather than regarding the Bible’s teaching about slavery as obsolete, we would do well to work to abolish modern forms of involuntary servitude, and to follow and promote the Bible’s protections for economically disadvantaged members of society.