John J. Collins, What Are Biblical Values? What the Bible Says on Key Ethical Issues (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 133-134:
It is sometimes suggested that slavery in the biblical context was quite different from slavery in other contexts, such as classical Rome or the American South. It is true that there were differences. Except for kings and temples, most people did not have very many slaves. This may be a reason why there were no slave revolts. Most people became slaves through debt and were used in agriculture or domestic service. Slaves could be treated as part of the family. They could be acknowledged as fathers, unlike the situation later in Rome. Yet it is clear from the biblical laws that slaves could be subject to abuse. In fact, the passage…from Leviticus 25:45-46 implies that to treat someone as a slave meant to treat him or her harshly. Female slaves were at their master’s disposal. Sexual use of slaves may not have been rampant in the ancient Near East as it was in Rome, but it was assumed, nonetheless. Most crucially, slaves did not have freedom to pursue their own lives and interest. Harshness of treatment may have varied, but slavery inherently denied the dignity and agency of the enslaved.
1 thought on “John Collins: Slavery in the Biblical Context”
Comparisons in this area are tricky, and necessarily provisional. Time has not left us the quantity and quality of documentary evidence about slave life in ancient Judah and Israel that we have for, say, Greece and Rome. And of course we have little, if anything, from antiquity like the detailed slave memoirs written in the 18th-19th centuries CE, which illuminate the injustice, abuse, despair, degradation, and dehumanization of slavery in a way that no mere law code or chronicle ever could.
When apologists claim that slaves had it better in ancient Hebrew society than in the Americas, they’re (often unintentionally, I suspect) relying on a sort of argument from silence–the silence of the slaves, who were a poor position to commit their experiences to writing in antiquity. Our chief source of information is the Bible, a collection of books composed, compiled, and curated by the literate priestly elite. We’re simply not going to find comprehensive data about the actual lives of slaves there.
Even so, as Collins notes, we do see indications from which inferences may reasonably be drawn. Deuteronomy 20:14 depicts Moses commanding the Israelites to summarily execute conquered men, and take the livestock, women, and children “as plunder”–all the chattel spoils of war.
Exodus 21:20-21 tells us in no uncertain terms that corporal punishment (typically beating or lashing with a rod) was the slave-owner’s prerogative, and later even JC assumed this practice when making a point about willful and ignorant disobedience and unpreparedness in Luke 12:47-48. Etc.
No doubt slave experiences varied, with some slaves being valued household help and some being driven to an early grave, toiling in the fields or mines. Contrary to some apologists’ arguments, OT slavery was not merely a welfare program for debtors, or a humanitarian support mechanism for the young women and orphans of conquered peoples. It was a system of frequent exploitation, deprivation, and forced labor and sex. Whether slavery was better or worse in other locations or times is both debatable and rather beside the point.
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