Servants and Slaves

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Many thanks to Rick Phillips for his helpful comments on slavery, servitude, and manstealing.  The topic seems especially appropriate in 2007, which is the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.  In support of what Rick has already said, here are some additional comments:

While slavery was widely practiced in the ancient Near East, there are some striking differences between the practice of slavery in the Old Testament and that which was found under Greek and Roman law. Under the Hebrew system, the slave always maintained a limited set of rights and was viewed as a person made in God’s image. David’s kindness to an abandoned Egyptian slave who was suffering from illness illustrates the contrast between the pagan view that slaves were expendable and the Hebrew view that they were persons deserving of care (1 Samuel 30:13). Under the Roman system it was easy to view a slave as a person below the rank of citizen, and thus slaves became simply chattel, or property of the slave owner.

The practice of slaveholding varied tremendously from region to region and across time. For instance, warfare often resulted in the enslavement of prisoners of war. As a result, during peaceful and stable eras the number of slaves entering a country would drop dramatically. Again, at times in ancient Rome there were large farms that were tended by slaves, while at the same time slavery in Egypt was almost never for agricultural purposes. Some forms of slavery were permanent, while others were temporary; some were voluntary, others were involuntary. It is especially important to know that the slavery described in the Old Testament was never precisely equivalent to the racially-based servitude that became pervasive in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Most New Testament references to "slave" and "servant" are to indentured servants (employees who willingly contracted to work for an employer and gave up some of their personal rights to do so).

People became slaves in the ancient Near East for a number of reasons: by capture; by purchase; by birth; as restitution; by default on debts; by the free choice of the slave (indentured servanthood), and by abduction. The Bible seems to accept at least some of these forms of slavery as legitimate economic relationships, especially when slaves had the real opportunity to gain their freedom (as was often the case in New Testament times). However, kidnapping people to serve as slaves—which perhaps most closely parallels the kind of slavery later practiced in the Western world—is expressly forbidden in the Scriptures (see Deut. 24:7; 1 Tim. 1:10).

Posted January 29, 2007 @ 8:26 AM by Phil Ryken
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