The Law of the Hebrew Slave

In my study of the Deuteronomic concern about the status of women in Israelite society during the seventh century B.C., I have attempted to demonstrate that the book of Deuteronomy revises several laws in the Covenant Code in order to provide some relief to oppressive situations faced by women in Israel.

In the present post, I want to study how the book of Deuteronomy deals with the Law of the Hebrew slave in Exodus 21:2-6.The law of the Hebrew slave in the Covenant Code reads as follows:

When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.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 bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone.But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,”then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life (Exodus 21:2-6).

This laws is designed to regulate the treatment of Hebrew slaves in Israelite society.The proper understanding of this law requires some identification of the terms used in the text.

Hebrew Slave.The word “Hebrew” is related to the word “Hapiru” (also “Habiru”).The Habiru was not an ethnic group, but the word was used as a pejorative designation to classify a group of people in the Ancient Near East who lived on the fringe of society and who were considered social outcasts.

In the Old Testament the word “Hebrew” is used to differentiate Israelites from Egyptians (Exodus 2:6; 3:18) and Israelites from Philistines (1 Samuel 4:6; 13:3).In the Old Testament the word is used mostly by non-Israelites to describe an individual Israelite. The Israelites used the word to describe themselves to outsiders.The expression “Hebrew slave” was used to designate an Israelite citizen who was sold into slavery (Jeremiah 34:9).

In Israel, many Israelites became slaves because of poverty and the inability to pay their debts (see Amos 2:6-8).Many situations contributed to the impoverishment of people in Israel: heavy taxation, high interest on loans, bad crops, and natural disasters.

A Free Person.The word “free person” (חָפְשׁי [hopshî]) is a technical term, probably related to an Ugaritic word that means “a free commoner.”In the Ancient Near East, the hopshî was an individual whose social status was between a noble and a slave.The word appears sixteen times in the Old Testament and it is generally used to refer to a person who is freed from slavery.

The law of the Hebrew slave in the book of Exodus has several stipulations:

1. The law stipulates that a male Hebrew slave shall be released after six years of labor.

2. After six years of work, that is, in the seventh year, he shall go out a free person, without debt.

3. If the slave comes in single, he shall go out single.

4. If the slave comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.

5. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone.

The law stipulates that if the slave’s master gave him a wife and children were born of this union, only the male slave was to go free in the seventh year, because the woman and her children belonged to the master.The woman was a perpetual slave and considered to be property of her master.

The only way the slave could keep his wife was to renounce his right to go free at the end of his time of servitude and remain a permanent slave in the house of his master.

The Book of Deuteronomy revises the law of the Hebrew slave in the book of the Covenant to allow the woman to be released with her husband.The revised law reads as follows:

If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed;you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press; as the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. But if he says to you, `I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you, then you shall take an awl, and thrust it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your bondman for ever. And to your bondwoman you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you, when you let him go free from you; for at half the cost of a hired servant he has served you six years. So the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do (Deuteronomy 15:12-18).

The law of the Hebrew slave in the book of Deuteronomy is a radical revision of the law that appears in the Book of the Covenant.The revised law allows the female slave to be released together with her husband.The book of Deuteronomy is indicating that through marriage, the wife of the slave has now become an integral part of his life.In addition, the book of Deuteronomy added another stipulation to the revised law.When the slave was released at the end of his time of service, the master should be generous with his former slave and provide him with provisions to help him and his family to begin a new life after their release.

At the end of the law (v.17), the author of Deuteronomy again emphasizes the female slave should enjoy the same benefits as the male slave: “You shall do the same with regard to your female slave.”The reason for this injunction is that the female slave is also “Your brother,” that is, she is a kindred of her master. Thus, the intent of the Deuteronomic law was to place the two sexes in a position of equality.

In addition, the law also favored the woman since it limited the power of a father to sell his daughter as a perpetual slave.The law in the Covenant Code reads as follows: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do” (Exodus 21:7).Daughters were sold by impoverished parents in order to pay family debts.However, when a woman was sold as a slave, she would “not go out as the male slaves do.”The revised law of Deuteronomy is an effort to protect and support the rights of women as full citizens in Israel.

The Deuteronomic law appeals to the experience of the oppression in Egypt to motivate the master to be generous in the manumission of the Hebrew slaves.The word “Hebrew” serves to develop solidarity between the master and his slaves since in the memory of Israel both the master and his servants were slaves in Egypt.

These charitable innovations reflect the Deuteronomic tendency to be interested in the plight of the downtrodden.This “social idealism” present in the laws of Deuteronomy is part of the humanitarian concern that became the hallmark of the Deuteronomic reformation.

To be continued.

Other Posts on Women in Israelite Society:

Part 1: The Status of Women in Israelite Society
Part 2: The Deuteronomic Concern for Women
Part 3: The Tenth Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:21)
Part 4:  The Law of the Hebrew Slave

Note:

If you are unable to see the Hebrew letters on your computer, download the Biblical fonts and install them on your computer. Download the fonts here.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to The Law of the Hebrew Slave

  1. >’Apiru and Habiru are two different readings. At first scholars wanted to read Habiru in order to make a connection with “Hebrew,” however, appearances of this term in cognate languages indicates that it should be read ‘apiru and therefore there is no etymological connection with “Hebrew.”

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  2. >Charles,Thank you for this informative comment. The relationship between the word Hebrew and Hapiru has been highly debated in scholarly circles. Although the general consensus today is that the identification is highly improbable, some scholars believe that there is some kind of relationship. The point I was trying to make is that the word Hebrew “was used as a pejorative designation to classify a group of people in the Ancient Near East who lived on the fringe of society and who were considered social outcasts” as well as the Hebrews. For instance, in 1 Samuel 14:21 the word “Hebrew” is translated as “slaves” in the LXX. Commenting on this passage, D. N. Freedman (TDOT 10:443) said: “The Hebrews are either non-Israelites who join Saul and his son, are a group similar to the habiru/‘apiru, or are both.”Claude Mariottini

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  3. Anonymous says:

    >Where in that passage does it indicate the released slave is also to receive the wife and children?

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