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The Fate of Slaves in Ancient Israel

With this week’s Torah reading, called Mishpatim or “Rules,” the presentation of the laws of ancient Israel formally commences. Earlier sections of the Torah have occasional laws imbedded in them, such as the law of circumcision in Genesis 17 or the laws pertaining to Passover in Exodus 12. But these items are few in number and are directly related to the narrative at large (in these two instances: Abraham’s life story and the Exodus from Egypt). The laws of Mishpatim and of many ensuing portions, by contrast, are large collections of diverse laws often worded in ancient legal formulae akin to our present-day legalese, and they are not necessarily tied to the large narrative that the Torah tells.

In the past century-and-a-half, archaeologists working in the Near East have uncovered the law codes of various peoples of antiquity — in particular, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Hittites. These law codes, the most famous of which is Hammurapi’s Code of Babylonia, allow us to place the laws of the Torah in historical and cultural perspective. Not surprisingly, many of the laws included in Mishpatim (and in other sections of the Torah) closely parallel laws known from the other law codes of the ancient Near East. The paradigm example is the law against harming a pregnant woman so that she miscarries (Exodus 21:22-25); parallels to the biblical text appear in the law codes of all the peoples enumerated above. This and other examples demonstrate that ancient Israel shared a common legal tradition with the peoples of the ancient Near East.

Much more interesting, however, is the manner in which the laws of the Torah depart from the legal traditions of the greater ancient Near East. For it is these departures or contrasts (as opposed to the similarities) that point the way to revealing what was truly unique about ancient Israel, especially in regard to law.

Space does not allow a full treatment of this very important subject, but we can illustrate the point by concentrating specifically on the laws of slavery. The institution of slavery was recognized throughout the Near East in antiquity, including Israel. But an important difference exists in the way slaves were treated in other countries and in Israel. From the legal and other texts in our possession, it appears that the condition of slaves in the Near East in general was at times quite harsh. Not so in Israel, as a glance at several crucial laws indicates.

The opening of Mishpatim states that a slave shall serve only six years, after which he gains his freedom (Exodus 21:2). No such provision exists elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Slaves could gain their freedom through other means, but there was no automatic end to their enslavement. Next, the law states that a slave who was devoted to his master could opt to remain with this master; a ceremony of piercing the ear marked this decision (Exodus 21:5-6). In all the legal texts from antiquity we have no similar statement. Quite the opposite, we only have laws that deal with the reverse situation, when a slave denies that he is the slave of his master. In such cases an ear ceremony also was carried out, but quite a severe one. The ear of such a slave was cut off, as a sign that he had denied his enslavement.

The Torah also provides for the occasions on which a master kills or injures his slave (Exodus 21:20, 21:26-27); in the former case the master receives the death penalty, and in the latter case the slave gains his freedom. Here a sharp distinction is seen, for nowhere else in the entire corpus of ancient Near Eastern legal texts do slaves gain protection from abusive masters.

Not in this week’s portion, but later in the Torah, we read: “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deuteronomy 23:16). Elsewhere in the Near East, assisting a slave in his escape was an offense punishable by death. Slaves were property belonging to others, and assisting a runaway slave was akin to theft or worse. In Israel, theft was a punishable offense, too, of course, but a distinction was made between theft of items and harboring runaway slaves. The latter were human beings and did not fall into the same category as stolen property.

These and other laws indicate that in Israel the fate of slaves was not nearly as harsh as their condition elsewhere. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the entire formal presentation of law in the Torah begins with the laws of slavery. After the introductory verse in Exodus 21:1, “These are the rules that you shall set before them,” the Torah commences with the laws of slavery discussed above. This is unique among the law codes of antiquity.

The reason for this placement of slavery laws in primary position, and for the relatively beneficent treatment of slaves in Israel, is clear. Israel’s national experience had been one of slavery. Indeed, the people had emerged as a unified nation during the period of slavery in Egypt. This experience was so central to Israel’s consciousness that it never forgot its roots. It permeates the Bible, and thus explains both the position and the particulars of the laws of slavery in the Torah.

Gary A. Rendsburg is chair of the department of Jewish studies at Rutgers University.

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