#139. Are Hebrews permitted to have Hebrew slaves OR not? (Ex 21:2; Deut 15:12-18 vs Lev 25:39-43)
#140. How long should a Hebrew work for another Hebrew: for 6 years OR until the Jubilee? (Ex 21:2 vs Lev 25:40)


I suppose an entry about slavery is inline since the Bible’s stance toward it is variously represented by 3 different sources: the Elohist (Ex 21:12-6), the Deuteronomic (Deut 15:12-18), and the Priestly (Lev 25:39-55).

The typical manner in which the slavery contradiction is articulated is to ask if Hebrew slavery was permitted or not—the 2 contradictory texts being Exodus 21:2 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18, which clearly speak of Hebrew slaves (i.e., to other Hebrews), and and Leviticus 25:39-43, whose stance is somewhat more ambiguous, but nonetheless avoids the term. The text claims the following for a Hebrew that has been sold to another Hebrew.

  • you shall not have him work a slave’s work; rather, he shall be like a resident hireling
  • he shall work with you until the jubilee year
  • he and his family shall go out with him
  • you shall not dominate him with harshness

These different treatments for the Hebrew servant, the avoidance of the term slave (‘ebed), and the text’s rationale for why a Hebrew cannot be a slave to another Hebrew—because they are Yahweh’s servants and cannot be sold into slavery since they are Yahweh’s (25:42, 55)—together seem to make a convincing case against the older institution of Hebrew slavery. Through these strokes of the pen, the Priestly writer has abolished it.

There is the flip-side too. Hebrews may have slaves from the non-Israelite population. It is interesting to note that in these cases the slave is treated as a possession that can even be passed down to the next generation (Lev 25:46)! So regardless whether the Torah allows Hebrew slavery (Ex 21:2-4; Deut 12:15-18) or forbids it (Lev 25:39-43), all its traditions seem to allow the Hebrew to terminate his slavery or servitude if so desired after a specific time period: 6 years or the next jubilee year.

The Deuteronomic law (Deut 15:12-18), although also allowing for Hebrew slaves nevertheless contradicts the Elohist version as well by commanding the owner to provide for provisions when the slave is released. We will look at this contradiction more closely when we get to the book of Deuteronomy.

5 thoughts on “#139. Are Hebrews permitted to have Hebrew slaves OR not? (Ex 21:2; Deut 15:12-18 vs Lev 25:39-43)
#140. How long should a Hebrew work for another Hebrew: for 6 years OR until the Jubilee? (Ex 21:2 vs Lev 25:40)

  1. Thank you Steven,

    Yes, the section of the impoverished Hebrew Brother versus the Hebrew Slave is more human, and it is strange that the author(s) of the text would permit this, when the story of Joseph has poor Egyptians willing to sell themselves into slavery and as King #2 he forbids it and establishes a sharecropping system. Ah well, nothing like having some slaves to balance things out!

    If you look at the working about selling the daughter, it works like this (according to Lev.): If the woman was married, they are both killed. If the woman was betrothed, they are both killed unless she fought back, then she is exempt. Now, if the woman is a virgin and not betrothed (non-virgin and not betrothed are not covered in a rape), and the guy gets caught, the guy pays a usage fee. If the father wills it, then the girl is forced to marry the violator, does not receive a ketubah (promise of money if he sends her away), the father gets the cash for a bride fee, and the ownership is forever. If the father chooses to not sell her to the violator, but as a slave to another, that is his choice as well. In any case, the girl gets the raw end of the deal. For while the man will forever own her, her rights are practically nil.

    Glad we evolved from this stuff!

  2. It appears that these texts not only endorse slavery, but expected it to exist in perpetuity. There are, as noted, two different forms of slavery for Jews, and one form for non-Jews. An “eved canani”, or a non-Jewish slave was property to be owned and used as you wanted, with only a few restrictions. For the Jew, there were two terms used: “eved ivri” (Hebrew Slave – Ex. 21:2) and “achecha Ivri” (Your brother, the Hebrew – Deut. 15:12 and Lev. 25:35). The form with “your brother” speaks of him being broke and impoverished, and the “slave” form speaks of working that person and using him/her for your own benefit. Typically this difference is interpreted as one who sells himself or his daughter to get some cash because he is poor, and the other is an acquisition of a criminal that is sold by the court to pay the demanded fees that he owes (such as 500% of what he stole who cannot pay up). This is the classical understanding of the texts as to why a “brother” is treated differently than a “slave”.

    As for the duration. Imagine this: You are a young woman who was sold by your impoverished father. You get used, raped, and have children. According to the text, you do not own those children, so at the end of the period, you can choose to leave with the extra cash reserved for this exit, and in doing so you leave your kids behind and never see them again…or you choose to have an “awl”-like object pierce your ear, marking you as an eternal slave, and thus you get to be with and raise your kids, but never get to have a status above a slave. This also was the case with male slaves, you manipulate the situation where they cannot leave because to do so would mean to leave the woman and children behind. For the woman, it was worse, because it would be unlikely that she would ever marry, and the payment at the end would go to her father, who may choose to sell her again to another.

    If one became hard-hearted, he or she could walk away from all of that at the end of the period. But it was a crummy system that permitted such an abomination to be maintained and the poor to be used and misused in that way. Not a very moral code.

    1. EGross, good to have you back. Your rich and knowledgeable comments are always welcomed. This is a nice summary of slavery as seen by the Elohist. I haven’t yet dealt with the Deuteronomic tradition because I want to do all of Deuteronomy’s contradictions with the older JE material together when we get to that book. But it does seem that the Deuteronomist attempted to soften the harshness of this older law code.

      When the Deuteronomist rewrote the law of the debt slave from his Elohist source (Deut 15:13-14), he made it more humane—at least this is the stance taken in the scholarly community. There are several elements he changes. First, the Deuteronomist explicitly disapproves the releasing of Hebrew slaves without providing provisions for him: “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 Yahweh your god blessed you” (Deut 15:14). Scholars have sought to see this relate to this issue of a married slave as well: the male slave whose wife had been given to him by his master is now eligible to leave with the slave. Granted this is not explicitly stated.

      Second, the Deuteronomist never uses the word ‘master,’ while it is present in the Elohist account 5 times. Third, while the Elohist law code presents the female as a possession—the father can sell his daughter as a slave (Ex 21:7)—the Deuteronomist suppresses all such law codes. Furthermore, in the Elohist law code, a man who violates a virgin must pay the bride’s price to her father (Ex 22:16-17). But in the Deuteronomic code, the focus changes from a discussion of the bride-price to a statement prohibiting the divorce of the violated virgin—almost as if she now has certain rights, or at any rate, not strictly a possession.

  3. I’m confused on how long Hebrews can be slaves/servants. Can they only be a servant/slave for up to 7 years? Or till the year of Jubilee (which will most likely be longer than 7 years)? Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25 seem to contradict eachother in that regard.


    1. That seems to be the case. Although the older law code in Exodus states that a Hebrew servant may be a slave forever! This is presented in a ritualized fashion and is done presumably before the household gods (21:6). Why would a Hebrew elect to be a slave forever? In the case provided, because if given a wife from the master, on the slave’s departure he departs alone. Thus in this case he elects to be a slave forever to remain with his wife! The parallel law in Deuteronomy 15 allows the slave to leave with his wife—another contradiction which we’ll look at later.

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