The Bible’s Evolving Effort to Humanize Debt Slavery
Exodus 21:1-24:18 presents the first of ancient Israel’s law codes, both synchronically (its position in the present literary form of the Torah) and diachronically. The Covenant Code, as these chapters are called by modern critical scholars, was likely once an independent document that functioned as an active law code in northern Israelite society during the mid-eighth century B.C.E. Only when it was incorporated into the northern Israelite E text as its law code, and then later into its current place in Exodus, did it begin to serve as a literary element of the Pentateuchal narrative as well, introducing the account of Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai.
Debt Slavery in Ancient Israel
The first two laws in the Covenant Code deal with debt slavery, an institution in which a person who is extremely poor or in debt can sell himself into bondage for a certain amount of time to pay off his debts or to achieve basic subsistence.
- A man can be sold into slavery for up to 6 years; he cannot be acquired permanently unless he chooses to do so (Exodus 21:2-6).
- A man in debt (or poverty) may sell his daughter to another man, but only if the purchaser agrees to take her as a wife, not as a slave (Exodus 21:7-11).
Kicking off a law code with debt slavery may imply that the problem of debt slavery was foremost in the mind of the author. When looking at other sources stemming from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, we can see why this might be.
The Story of Elisha the Poor Widow
The book of Kings contains cycles of stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha, which take place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and which are almost certainly Northern in origin.In one of these stories, a widow comes to the prophet Elisha with a serious problem:
מלכים ב ד:א וְאִשָּׁ֣ה אַחַ֣ת מִנְּשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־הַ֠נְּבִיאִים צָעֲקָ֨ה אֶל־אֱלִישָׁ֜ע לֵאמֹ֗ר עַבְדְּךָ֤ אִישִׁי֙ מֵ֔ת וְאַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתָּ כִּ֣י עַבְדְּךָ֔ הָיָ֥ה יָרֵ֖א אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וְהַ֨נֹּשֶׁ֔ה בָּ֗א לָקַ֜חַת אֶת־שְׁנֵ֧י יְלָדַ֛י ל֖וֹ לַעֲבָדִֽים:
2 Kgs 4:1 A certain woman, the wife of one of the disciples of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know how your servant revered YHWH. And now a creditor is coming to seize my two children as slaves.”
It is unclear whether the creditor was following the official laws of the time or if this was an example of the power of the wealthy. Either way we can appreciate the legislation in the Covenant Code to protect the rights of such servants against the background of this practice. Furthermore, the Covenant Code specifically forbids a moneylender to be “like a creditor (נשה)” (Exod 22:24) – the exact term used by the widow in the story.
Amos’ Critique of Debt Slavery
Another example of a reference to this practice in Northern Israel comes from the Judean Prophet, Amos of Tekoa, who spoke at the northern sanctuary at Beth El during the mid-eighth century B.C.E. He begins his critique of the Israelite people with the accusation that they are aggressive in their taking debt slaves.
עמוס ב:ו כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה֙ פִּשְׁעֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְעַל אַרְבָּעָ֖ה לֹ֣א אֲשִׁיבֶ֑נּוּ
עַל מִכְרָ֤ם בַּכֶּ֙סֶף֙ צַדִּ֔יק
וְאֶבְי֖וֹן בַּעֲב֥וּר נַעֲלָֽיִם:
Amos 2:6 Thus said YHWH: For three transgressions of Israel, For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have sold the just for silver,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.
At its simplest, Amos is accusing creditors of selling innocent poor people into slavery for silver. Amos highlights the unethical behavior of the Israelites by his use of the “pair of sandals” imagery: not only do the Israelites sell the poor as debt slaves when they default on payments, but they do so even for the sum of the price of a pair sandals!
Bribery in Amos and the Covenant Code
It is further worth noting that while he is criticizing the Israelites for the institution of debt slavery, he is also likely taking a jab against corruption and bribery. It is striking that the prophet and the Covenant Code include the same pair of people: the innocent (tzaddiq) and the needy (evyon).
שמות כג:ו לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ: כג:ז מִדְּבַר שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע: כג:ח וְשֹׁ֖חַד לֹ֣א תִקָּ֑ח כִּ֤י הַשֹּׁ֙חַד֙ יְעַוֵּ֣ר פִּקְחִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽים:
Exod 23:6 You shall not subvert the rights of your needy (evyon) in their disputes. 23:7 Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right (tzaddiq), for I will not acquit the wrongdoer. 23:8 Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right (tzaddiqim).
The term “righteous,” tzaddiq, in the Hebrew Bible is a legal term for one innocent of crime in a court of law. Amos accuses the Israelites of taking silver in exchange for finding the innocent person guilty—exactly what the Covenant Code forbids! He then ups the accusation in the parallel stich by saying that for a poor person, who has no money to pay any fine required of them by a court, they will even sell into slavery for a pair of sandals!
Amos made his living off growing figs and raising cattle (Amos 1:1; 7:14). Thus, as a Judean farmer, who would suffer crop losses to locusts and late-summer wildfires but nevertheless had to pay his share of Judah’s tribute to Israel, Amos knew fully well about the abuse of the poor in northern Israel, and shared the Covenant Code’s ethical concerns as a basis for his own indictment of the northern kingdom.
Balancing the Religious with the Ethical
Amos reiterates the critique of corruption and debt slavery later in in the book as well.
עמוס ח:ד שִׁמְעוּ זֹ֕את הַשֹּׁאֲפִ֖ים אֶבְי֑וֹן וְלַשְׁבִּ֖ית (ענוי) [עֲנִיֵּי] אָֽרֶץ: ח:ה לֵאמֹ֗ר מָתַ֞י יַעֲבֹ֤ר הַחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ וְנַשְׁבִּ֣ירָה שֶּ֔בֶר וְהַשַּׁבָּ֖ת וְנִפְתְּחָה בָּ֑ר לְהַקְטִ֤ין אֵיפָה֙ וּלְהַגְדִּ֣יל שֶׁ֔קֶל וּלְעַוֵּ֖ת מֹאזְנֵ֥י מִרְמָֽה: ח:ו לִקְנ֤וֹת בַּכֶּ֙סֶף֙ דַּלִּ֔ים וְאֶבְי֖וֹן בַּעֲב֣וּר נַעֲלָ֑יִם וּמַפַּ֥ל בַּ֖ר נַשְׁבִּֽיר:
Amos 8:4 Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, 8:5 saying, “If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale, using an ephah that is too small, and a shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, 8:6 and selling grain refuse as grain! We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.”
In this critique, in addition to piling on more ethical violations, Amos adds a new element. It isn’t merely that the Israelites cheat the poor and sell them into bondage, but they plan it during holidays that they—hypocritically—celebrate by refraining from business. This lack of balance between the “sacred” and “secular” dimensions of the people’s lives is also a primary concern of the Covenant Code.
Sacred Dimension of the Covenant Code
The Covenant Code combines both what moderns would consider to be secular law, including both civil and criminal matters, with sacred law concerned with the holy dimensions of ancient Israelite life. Immediately after the laws of planting and the day of rest (in this Collection presented as civil law) comes a list of laws describing religious rules (23:13-19). Specifically, the Covenant Code forbids swearing in the name of other gods, and specifies the requirements for proper observance of the three pilgrimage festivals. The message of the Covenant Code seems to be that both elements are required as a prerequisite for living in line with God’s will.
Revising the Covenant Code Over Time
The Covenant Code was the first but not the final law code of the ancient Israelites and Judahites. In fact, the other two main law codes found in the Pentateuch seem to be revisions of the Covenant Code, designed to address its weaknesses, and not purely independent collections. One of the best illustrations of this is in their treatments of the debt slave.
Deuteronomic Revision of the Covenant Code
Deuteronomy 15, written as part of the Judean King Josiah’s reforms in the late-seventh century B.C.E., improves upon the situation of the debt slave in a number of areas:
- It stipulates that creditors supply a released debt slave with a portion of the wealth that the master had earned during his term of service so that the newly-released slave would not soon find himself back in debt slavery for lack of resources to start life anew.
- It calls for the release of female debt slaves after six years as well, as opposed to their permanent status in CC as (second-class?) wives to their masters.
The Holiness Code’s Revision of the Covenant Code
The Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) contains a number of modifications as well, the most stark being its refusal to use the term slave. Leviticus 25 refers to the debtor who must sell himself as “your brother” never “your slave.” There is no such thing as an Israelite slave in the Holiness Code’s conception. Practically speaking, according to this version:
- Debts are forgiven in the seventh year.
- Land sold to pay debt would be returned to its original owners after seven weeks of years or the fiftieth year, designated as the Jubilee year.
Thus, the Covenant Code was the first extant step in creating ethical legislation in Israel, but the process continued on into the other codes, and eventually into the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Shulchan Arukh, and continues even now with Mishpat Ivri.
Abuse of these Laws: The Message of Haftarat Mishpatim
Just as Amos accuses Israel of abusing the position of debt slaves, Jeremiah, in Haftarat Mishpatim (Jer 34:8-22), indicates that two centuries later, in the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah, the abuse of debt slaves was still a reality.
During the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 588-587 B.C.E., King Zedekiah of Judah proclaimed a “release” (Hebrew, deror) of male and female slaves, presumably so that they might participate in the defense of the city.
ירמיהו לד:ח הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר הָיָ֥ה אֶֽל יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ מֵאֵ֣ת יְ-הֹוָ֑ה אַחֲרֵ֡י כְּרֹת֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ צִדְקִיָּ֜הוּ בְּרִ֗ית אֶת כָּל הָעָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּירֽוּשָׁלִַ֔ם לִקְרֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם דְּרֽוֹר:לד:ט לְ֠שַׁלַּח אִ֣ישׁ אֶת עַבְדּ֞וֹ וְאִ֧ישׁ אֶת שִׁפְחָת֛וֹ הָעִבְרִ֥י וְהָעִבְרִיָּ֖ה חָפְשִׁ֑ים לְבִלְתִּ֧י עֲבָד־בָּ֛ם בִּיהוּדִ֥י אָחִ֖יהוּ אִֽישׁ: לד:י וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ֩ כָל הַשָּׂרִ֨ים וְכָל הָעָ֜ם אֲשֶׁר בָּ֣אוּ בַבְּרִ֗ית לְ֠שַׁלַּח אִ֣ישׁ אֶת עַבְדּ֞וֹ וְאִ֤ישׁ אֶת שִׁפְחָתוֹ֙ חָפְשִׁ֔ים לְבִלְתִּ֥י עֲבָד בָּ֖ם ע֑וֹד וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֖וּ וַיְשַׁלֵּֽחוּ:
Jer 34:8 The word which came to Jeremiah from YHWH after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim a release (dror) among them—34:9 that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female, and that no one should keep his fellow Judean enslaved. 34:10 Everyone, officials and people, who had entered into the covenant agreed to set their male and female slaves free and not keep them enslaved any longer; they complied and let them go.
From this opening, we learn that the Judahites had not been freeing their Hebrew slaves, but that they obeyed Zedekiah’s command to do so. (The term for freeing here, dror, is the term used in the Holiness Code (Lev 25:10), but was also the standard Akkadian term (andurāruor durāru) for remitting debts and freeing slaves in the Ancient Near East.)
But Zedekiah’s reform did not last long. Soon afterwards, the people took back their slaves. Presumably, once the Babylonian army withdrew to face the Egyptian army’s failed attempt to relieve Jerusalem, Zedekiah lost interest in the slaves, and allowed their masters to retake them.
ירמיהו לד:יא וַיָּשׁ֙וּבוּ֙ אַחֲרֵי כֵ֔ן וַיָּשִׁ֗בוּ אֶת הָֽעֲבָדִים֙ וְאֶת הַשְּׁפָח֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֥ר שִׁלְּח֖וּ חָפְשִׁ֑ים ויכבישום וַֽיִּכְבְּשׁ֔וּם לַעֲבָדִ֖ים וְלִשְׁפָחֽוֹת:
Jer 34:11 But afterward they turned about and brought back the men and women they had set free, and forced them into slavery again.
To his cynical move, Jeremiah responds:
לד:יג כֹּֽה אָמַ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אָנֹכִ֗י כָּרַ֤תִּֽי בְרִית֙ אֶת אֲב֣וֹתֵיכֶ֔ם בְּי֨וֹם הוֹצִאִ֤י אוֹתָם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִ֖ים לֵאמֹֽר:
34:13 Thus said YHWH, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, saying:
לד:יד מִקֵּ֣ץ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֡ים תְּֽשַׁלְּח֡וּ אִישׁ֩ אֶת אָחִ֨יו הָעִבְרִ֜י אֲשֶֽׁר יִמָּכֵ֣ר לְךָ֗ וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֙ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְשִׁלַּחְתּ֥וֹ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵֽעִמָּ֑ךְ
34:14 “In the seventh year each of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you; when he has served you six years, you must set him free.”
וְלֹֽא שָׁמְע֤וּ אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם֙ אֵלַ֔י וְלֹ֥א הִטּ֖וּ אֶת אָזְנָֽם: לד:טו וַתָּשֻׁ֨בוּ אַתֶּ֜ם הַיּ֗וֹם וַתַּעֲשׂ֤וּ אֶת הַיָּשָׁר֙ בְּעֵינַ֔י לִקְרֹ֥א דְר֖וֹר אִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ וַתִּכְרְת֤וּ בְרִית֙ לְפָנַ֔י בַּבַּ֕יִת אֲשֶׁר־נִקְרָ֥א שְׁמִ֖י עָלָֽיו: לד:טז וַתָּשֻׁ֙בוּ֙ וַתְּחַלְּל֣וּ אֶת שְׁמִ֔י וַתָּשִׁ֗בוּ אִ֤ישׁ אֶת עַבְדּוֹ֙ וְאִ֣ישׁ אֶת שִׁפְחָת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר שִׁלַּחְתֶּ֥ם חָפְשִׁ֖ים לְנַפְשָׁ֑ם וַתִּכְבְּשׁ֣וּ אֹתָ֔ם לִֽהְי֣וֹת לָכֶ֔ם לַעֲבָדִ֖ים וְלִשְׁפָחֽוֹת: לד:יז לָכֵן֘ כֹּה אָמַ֣ר יְ-הֹוָה֒ אַתֶּם֙ לֹֽא שְׁמַעְתֶּ֣ם אֵלַ֔י לִקְרֹ֣א דְר֔וֹר אִ֥ישׁ לְאָחִ֖יו וְאִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵא֩ לָכֶ֨ם דְּר֜וֹר נְאֻם־יְ-הֹוָ֗ה אֶל הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ אֶל הַדֶּ֣בֶר וְאֶל הָרָעָ֔ב וְנָתַתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ לזועה לְזַעֲוָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל מַמְלְכ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ:
But your fathers would not obey Me or give ear. 34:15 Lately you turned about and did what is proper in My sight, and each of you proclaimed a release to his countrymen; and you made a covenant accordingly before Me in the House which bears My name. 34:16 But now you have turned back and have profaned My name; each of you has brought back the men and women whom you had given their freedom, and forced them to be your slaves again. 34:17 Assuredly, thus said YHWH: You would not obey Me and proclaim a release, each to his kinsman and countryman. Lo! I proclaim your release—declares YHWH—to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine; and I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
Jeremiah loudly condemned the people for their disingenuous move freeing slaves only to recapture them, arguing that Zedekiah and Judah would pay the consequences by violating the divine will with such a vile action. In fact, the Judahites did suffer tragedy shortly after. The Babylonians dispatched the Egyptian relief column and quickly resumed their siege of Jerusalem.
For our purposes, it is worth noting how closely Jeremiah’s words adhere to the Deuteronomic version of debt slave law.
- Deuteronomy’s debt slave law
דברים טו:א מִקֵּ֥ץ שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה שְׁמִטָּֽה: … טו:יב כִּֽי־יִמָּכֵ֨ר לְךָ֜ אָחִ֣יךָ הָֽעִבְרִ֗י א֚וֹ הָֽעִבְרִיָּ֔ה וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תְּשַׁלְּחֶ֥נּוּ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵעִמָּֽךְ:
Deut 15:1 At the end of seven years you shall practice remission of debts…. 15:12 If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free.
- Jeremiah’s debt slave law
ירמיהו לד:יד מִקֵּ֣ץ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֡ים תְּֽשַׁלְּח֡וּ אִישׁ֩ אֶת אָחִ֨יו הָעִבְרִ֜י אֲשֶֽׁר יִמָּכֵ֣ר לְךָ֗ וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֙ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְשִׁלַּחְתּ֥וֹ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵֽעִמָּ֑ךְ
Jer 34:14 In the seventh year each of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you; when he has served you six years, you must set him free.
Moreover, Jeremiah specifically cites this rule as a divine covenant taught to Israel after the exodus from Egypt.
Violating the Covenant
Thus, according to Jeremiah, the covenant has come full circle. After taking Israel out of Egyptian bondage, God makes a covenant with Israel which begins with protecting Hebrews from becoming slaves ever again. Yet, the Israelites and now the Judahites, have violated this covenant, and now God is forced to allow them to be taken captive by their enemies and return to bondage. As the haftarah for Parashat Mishpatim, the message of the rabbis is as stark as it is timeless: a life of holiness begins and ends with the ethical commitments that form the basis of the covenant.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 2, 2016
February 27, 2024
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. His Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of sixteen volumes, such as Tanak: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Jewish Bible; Reading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology; and Jewish Mysticism: From Ancient Times through Today.
Essays on Related Topics: