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2015

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The Hebrew Slave: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-hebrew-slave-exodus-leviticus-and-deuteronomy

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Zev Farber

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The Hebrew Slave: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy

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TheTorah.com

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2015

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-hebrew-slave-exodus-leviticus-and-deuteronomy

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עבד עברי

The Hebrew Slave: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy

A Classic Example of Source Criticism Applied to Torah Legislation

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The Hebrew Slave: Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy

Babylonia Jews engraved portrait. By Neuville after photo of unknown author, published on Le Tour du Monde, Paris, 1867. Antonio Abrignani - 123rf

Introduction: Biblical Law Collections

When we think of Jewish law, most of us conjure up the image of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah or R. Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch. These books are organized by topic and treat an area of halacha systematically. The Torah, however, does not work this way.

The Torah does not contain codes, but collections, i.e., incomplete treatments of topics in a loose order. More significantly, the Torah does not have one collection, but multiple collections. These overlap on a number of laws—sometimes agreeing and sometimes contradicting. Academic biblical scholarship has argued that these collections were each compiled by different editors/authors, in different times and places in ancient Israelite history. Although all sources draw from Israelite common law—similar to the Ancient Near Eastern common law from which codes like Hammurabi and Eshnuna draw—the editor/author who penned each collection reflects a different historical and geographical perspective and has his own interpretation of what the law should be.

Unlike certain narratives (like Noah or the Israelites by the Sea), the Torah’s redactor(s) did not combine these collections into a single document. Instead, each collection remains distinct. Thus, the laws as presented in each collection are easily compared to see the similarities and differences.

In this piece, we will look at several presentations of Hebrew slave laws, exploring where they overlap and where they contradict, to try to understand how each presentation viewed Hebrew slavery.

Part 1

The Six-Year Slave – Exodus vs. Deuteronomy

The עבד (Slave) Law: Exodus

Parashat Mishpatim begins with the slave law:

כא:ב כִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י שֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים יַעֲבֹ֑ד וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם: כא:ג אִם בְּגַפּ֥וֹ יָבֹ֖א בְּגַפּ֣וֹ יֵצֵ֑א אִם בַּ֤עַל אִשָּׁה֙ ה֔וּא וְיָצְאָ֥ה אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ: כא:ד אִם אֲדֹנָיו֙ יִתֶּן ל֣וֹ אִשָּׁ֔ה וְיָלְדָה ל֥וֹ בָנִ֖ים א֣וֹ בָנ֑וֹת הָאִשָּׁ֣ה וִילָדֶ֗יהָ תִּהְיֶה֙ לַֽאדֹנֶ֔יהָ וְה֖וּא יֵצֵ֥א בְגַפּֽוֹ: כא:ה וְאִם אָמֹ֤ר יֹאמַר֙ הָעֶ֔בֶד אָהַ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת אֲדֹנִ֔י אֶת אִשְׁתִּ֖י וְאֶת בָּנָ֑י לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א חָפְשִֽׁי:
כא:ו וְהִגִּישׁ֤וֹ אֲדֹנָיו֙ אֶל הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ֙ אֶל הַדֶּ֔לֶת א֖וֹ אֶל הַמְּזוּזָ֑ה וְרָצַ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֤יו אֶת אָזְנוֹ֙ בַּמַּרְצֵ֔עַ וַעֲבָד֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽם: ס
20:2 When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. 20:3 If he came single, he shall leave single.
If he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. 20:4 If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. 20:5 But if the slave declares,
“I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” 20:6 his master shall take him before Elohim. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

The law has three main parts:

  1. A Hebrew slave serves 6 years, and must be freed after that (v. 2).
  2. He leaves without payment – with a wife if he had one before he came, but not with a slave wife or slave children (vv. 2bγ-4).
  3. If he volunteers to stay, the master pierces his ear at the doorpost and he becomes a slave for life ( 5-6).[1]

This law about male slaves is followed by a second law, also introduced by “when (כי),” that concerns females:

The אמה (Slave-Wife) Law

כא:ז וְכִֽי יִמְכֹּ֥ר אִ֛ישׁ אֶת בִּתּ֖וֹ לְאָמָ֑ה לֹ֥א תֵצֵ֖א כְּצֵ֥את הָעֲבָדִֽים: כא:ח אִם רָעָ֞ה בְּעֵינֵ֧י אֲדֹנֶ֛יהָ אֲשֶׁר לא ל֥וֹ יְעָדָ֖הּ וְהֶפְדָּ֑הּ לְעַ֥ם נָכְרִ֛י לֹא יִמְשֹׁ֥ל לְמָכְרָ֖הּ בְּבִגְדוֹ בָֽהּ: כא:ט וְאִם לִבְנ֖וֹ יִֽיעָדֶ֑נָּה כְּמִשְׁפַּ֥ט הַבָּנ֖וֹת יַעֲשֶׂה לָּֽהּ: כא:י אִם אַחֶ֖רֶת יִֽקַּֽח ל֑וֹ שְׁאֵרָ֛הּ כְּסוּתָ֥הּ וְעֹנָתָ֖הּ לֹ֥א יִגְרָֽע: כא:יא וְאִם שְׁלָ֨שׁ אֵ֔לֶּה לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה לָ֑הּ וְיָצְאָ֥ה חִנָּ֖ם אֵ֥ין כָּֽסֶף:
21:7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. 21:8 If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. 21:9 And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. 21:10 If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her shelter.[2] 21:11 If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.

The slave-wife law is also in three parts, but reverses the structure of the male slave law:

  1. A man never need free his slave-wife.
  2. If he doesn’t want her he can let her be redeemed (but he may not sell her), or he may marry her to his son, and if he marries someone else he must continue to support her.
  3. If he violates her rights, he must free her without any payment.[3]

The אשה (Woman) in the Slave Law

The slave law references a “woman,” owned by the master, who can be temporarily given to the Hebrew slave for the production of children. Since we know, from the אמה law, that a Hebrew girl sold by her father may not be treated in this manner, it leaves two possibilities for who this woman might be. Either she is a non-Israelite woman (sold or captured in war), or she is an Israelite woman without a male protector, like a father, that sold herself or was sold by someone else, into slavery.[4]

Deuteronomy

Another slave law is found in the Deuteronomic Collection, after the discussion of shemitah, the requirement to forgive debts every seven years, and the requirement to offer poor people loans, even if the shemitah year is close:

טו:יב כִּֽי יִמָּכֵ֨ר לְךָ֜ אָחִ֣יךָ הָֽעִבְרִ֗י א֚וֹ הָֽעִבְרִיָּ֔ה וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תְּשַׁלְּחֶ֥נּוּ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵעִמָּֽךְ:
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.
טו:יג וְכִֽי תְשַׁלְּחֶ֥נּוּ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵֽעִמָּ֑ךְ לֹ֥א תְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ רֵיקָֽם: טו:יד הַעֲנֵ֤יק תַּעֲנִיק֙ ל֔וֹ מִצֹּ֣אנְךָ֔ וּמִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶ֑ךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר בֵּרַכְךָ֛ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ תִּתֶּן לֽוֹ: טו:טו וְזָכַרְתָּ֗ כִּ֣י עֶ֤בֶד הָיִ֙יתָ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֖ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ עַל כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ אֶת הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה הַיּֽוֹם:
15:13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 15:14 Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which Yhwh your God has blessed you. 15:15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and Yhwh your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
טו:טז וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי יֹאמַ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יךָ לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֤י אֲהֵֽבְךָ֙ וְאֶת בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ כִּי ט֥וֹב ל֖וֹ עִמָּֽךְ: טו:יזוְלָקַחְתָּ֣ אֶת הַמַּרְצֵ֗עַ וְנָתַתָּ֤ה בְאָזְנוֹ֙ וּבַדֶּ֔לֶת וְהָיָ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֶ֣בֶד עוֹלָ֑ם וְאַ֥ף לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ תַּעֲשֶׂה כֵּֽן:
15:16 But should he say to you, “I do not want to leave you”—for he loves you and your household and is happy with you—15:17 you shall take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity. Do the same with your female slave.
טו:יח לֹא יִקְשֶׁ֣ה בְעֵינֶ֗ךָ בְּשַׁלֵּֽחֲךָ֙ אֹת֤וֹ חָפְשִׁי֙ מֵֽעִמָּ֔ךְ כִּ֗י מִשְׁנֶה֙ שְׂכַ֣ר שָׂכִ֔יר עֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֶֽׂה: פ
15:18 When you do set him free, do not feel aggrieved; for in the six years he has given you double the service of a hired man. Moreover, Yhwh your God will bless you in all you do.

The Overlap Between Exodus and Deuteronomy

The structure of this legislation is more complex than that of the one in Exodus, but the two laws share a similar structure and some common language:

Exodus

כא:ב כִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י שֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים יַעֲבֹ֑ד וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י…
20:2 When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free…
כא:ה וְאִם אָמֹ֤ר יֹאמַר֙ הָעֶ֔בֶד אָהַ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת אֲדֹנִ֔י אֶת אִשְׁתִּ֖י וְאֶת בָּנָ֑י לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א חָפְשִֽׁי: כא:ו וְהִגִּישׁ֤וֹ אֲדֹנָיו֙ אֶל הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ֙ אֶל הַדֶּ֔לֶת א֖וֹ אֶל הַמְּזוּזָ֑ה וְרָצַ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֤יו אֶת אָזְנוֹ֙ בַּמַּרְצֵ֔עַ וַעֲבָד֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽם:
20:5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” 20:6 his master shall take him before Elohim. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.

Deuteronomy

טו:יב כִּֽי יִמָּכֵ֨ר לְךָ֜ אָחִ֣יךָ הָֽעִבְרִ֗י א֚וֹ הָֽעִבְרִיָּ֔ה וַעֲבָֽדְךָ֖ שֵׁ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֑ים וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תְּשַׁלְּחֶ֥נּוּ חָפְשִׁ֖י מֵעִמָּֽךְ…
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…
טו:טז וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי יֹאמַ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יךָ לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֤י אֲהֵֽבְךָ֙ וְאֶת בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ כִּי ט֥וֹב ל֖וֹ עִמָּֽךְ: טו:יז וְלָקַחְתָּ֣ אֶת הַמַּרְצֵ֗עַ וְנָתַתָּ֤ה בְאָזְנוֹ֙ וּבַדֶּ֔לֶת וְהָיָ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֶ֣בֶד עוֹלָ֑ם וְאַ֥ף לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ תַּעֲשֶׂה כֵּֽן:
15:16 But should he say to you, “I do not want to leave you”—for he loves you and your household and is happy with you—15:17 you shall take an awl and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall become your slave in perpetuity. Do the same with your female slave.

The linguistic similarities include:

  • He is a Hebrew (עברי)
  • Work for six years (שש שנים), free on the seventh (שביעית)
  • Going free (חפשי)
  • Loving the master (אהב)
  • The awl (מרצע)
  • The ritual of piercing at the door (דלת)
  • Lifetime service (לעלם)

Differences between Exodus and Deuteronomy

Despite this overall similarity, many of the details are different even in this overlapping section. In Exodus, he is called a “slave” (עבד). In Deuteronomy, he is referred to as “your brother.” In Exodus, in addition to his master, he loves his slave-wife and kids, while in Deuteronomy, the slave loves his master’s house and the situation, which is “good” for him.

Paying the Freed Slave Upon Release

But the difference runs even deeper when comparing the other sections of these laws. According to Exodus, the slave leaves without payment. According to Deuteronomy, the freed man must be furnished with livestock, grain, and wine.

The text goes on to justify this requirement with a number of points: That which you have is a blessing from God; you were once slaves in Egypt and God freed you; he has worked for you like a hired, wage-earning worker does, so he deserves compensation.[5]

Female Slaves

The conceptualization of the female slaves differs greatly between these two texts.

In Exodus, a daughter of an Israelite male becomes a slave-wife and is never freed unless maltreated. Other woman, presumably non-Israelites or not under the protection of an Israelite male, are slaves for life and used to produce slaves for the next generation.

In Deuteronomy, the Hebrew female slave is equivalent to the male Hebrew slave. She serves for 6 years and is freed on the seventh, and nothing in the text suggests that—in contrast to Exodus—she should marry her master or may serve to breed new slaves for her master.[6]

The Time of Release

Exodus is clear; the male slave is released after six years of service. Deuteronomy, is less clear, because it places the slave law after the law of the sabbatical (שמיטה). According to the sabbatical laws, there is a seven-year cycle for debts and loans; every seven years, all debts are cancelled. The cycle is fixed such that the cancellation does not occur six years after the loan but on the sabbatical year.[7]

Thus, when Deuteronomy claims that the (male or female) slave should be released on the seventh year, it may very well intend for them to be released on the sabbatical year, not after seven years of service.[8] This is logical in Deuteronomy only, which views the sabbatical year as a return to previous states, similar to the jubilee law in Leviticus 25;[9] Exodus has no comparable law.

Where the Slave is Marked

According to Exodus, the slave who wants to stay beyond six years is brought “to God (אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים)” which most likely refers to a local shrine. Exodus never insists on centrality of worship; in fact the end of the previous chapter (20:24) notes in reference to constructing altars “in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned (בְּכָל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת שְׁמִי).” In contrast, the same ritual, according to Deuteronomy 15:17, is simply performed at the door (בַדֶּלֶת) most likely at the house of the master; הָאֱלֹהִים is lacking.

Explaining the Differences

The two treatments have too much overlap to be coincidence, and most academic scholars see Deuteronomy as taking the core law in Exodus and recasting it in an image more acceptable to the Deuteronomic school. Thus instead of a Hebrew slave that the master must free, we have a Hebrew brother, working for you, that is freed and compensated upon release, presumably so that he will not find himself immediately in straits and enslaved again. This must be done because of God, who blessed the mater and freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, a major theme of Deuteronomy.

In addition, several scholars suggest that Deuteronomy improved the plight of women, and thus is abolishing the law of Exodus 21:7-11, where a father commodifies his daughter, and instead treats the female slave in parity with male one.[10]

Finally, since Deuteronomy insists on centralization of worship (see esp. ch. 12), it would have been too complicated to bring the slave who wanted to stay to Jerusalem to pierce his ear there, so what in Exodus is a religious ritual, practiced at a temple, become a secular rite.[11]

Part 2

7th or 50th Year – Exodus/Deuteronomy vs. Leviticus

The third treatment of slavery, in Leviticus 25, is very different than the first two in style and content. The broader context of Parashat Behar (Lev 25) describes the institution of the Jubilee, when every 50 years all land returns to the originals owners or their kin. All purchases of land must be made with this fixed date in mind (vv. 15-16). The Leviticus slave law appears in this context, describing what happens when a kinsman who has already sold you his property, and lives under you as a serf, runs out of money:

כה:לט וְכִֽי יָמ֥וּךְ אָחִ֛יךָ עִמָּ֖ךְ וְנִמְכַּר לָ֑ךְ לֹא תַעֲבֹ֥ד בּ֖וֹ עֲבֹ֥דַת עָֽבֶד:
25:39 If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave.
כה:מ כְּשָׂכִ֥יר כְּתוֹשָׁ֖ב יִהְיֶ֣ה עִמָּ֑ךְ עַד שְׁנַ֥ת הַיֹּבֵ֖ל יַעֲבֹ֥ד עִמָּֽךְ: כה:מא וְיָצָא֙ מֵֽעִמָּ֔ךְ ה֖וּא וּבָנָ֣יו עִמּ֑וֹ וְשָׁב֙ אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֔וֹ וְאֶל אֲחֻזַּ֥ת אֲבֹתָ֖יו יָשֽׁוּב:
25:40 He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. 25:41 Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding.
כה:מב כִּֽי עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לֹ֥א יִמָּכְר֖וּ מִמְכֶּ֥רֶת עָֽבֶד: כה:מג לֹא תִרְדֶּ֥ה ב֖וֹ בְּפָ֑רֶךְ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
25:42 For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude. 25:43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God.
כה:מד וְעַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִהְיוּ לָ֑ךְ מֵאֵ֣ת הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם מֵהֶ֥ם תִּקְנ֖וּ עֶ֥בֶד וְאָמָֽה:כה:מה וְ֠גַם מִבְּנֵ֨י הַתּוֹשָׁבִ֜ים הַגָּרִ֤ים עִמָּכֶם֙ מֵהֶ֣ם תִּקְנ֔וּ וּמִמִּשְׁפַּחְתָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹלִ֖ידוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם וְהָי֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם לַֽאֲחֻזָּֽה:כה:מו וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֜ם לִבְנֵיכֶ֤ם אַחֲרֵיכֶם֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֲחֻזָּ֔ה לְעֹלָ֖ם בָּהֶ֣ם תַּעֲבֹ֑דוּ וּבְאַ֨חֵיכֶ֤ם בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אִ֣ישׁ בְּאָחִ֔יו לֹא תִרְדֶּ֥ה ב֖וֹ בְּפָֽרֶךְ:
25:44 Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 25:45 You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: 25:46 you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.

This text emphasizes in a variety of different ways that an Israelite (the word Hebrew is not used) cannot be a slave:

  1. You may not treat your kinsman like a slave (v. 39).
  2. Your kinsman must be treated like a hired laborer (v. 40).
  3. Your kinsman, and his family, returns to his ancestral land on the Jubilee year (v. 41).
  4. God freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, so they cannot be slaves (v. 42).
  5. Do not mistreat them, if you fear God (v. 43).
  6. You may have permanent male and female slaves, but they must be non-Israelites (v. 44-46).[12]

Despite these significant differences, the jubilee year of Leviticus seems functionally similar to the sabbatical year in Deuteronomy, especially if Deuteronomy is understood as mandating that the Hebrew slave be released at the sabbatical (=seventh) year, and not at the beginning of the seventh year of servitude.

7 years versus 50 years

The logic of the 49-year maximum for servitude in Leviticus is explicit. Leviticus describes an institution of a jubilee cycle, where every 50 years, land returns to its original owners. Since the land will be returned, it only makes sense that the owner should be freed to work his land again. Since the jubilee cycle is fixed, this means that different indentured servants will have different amounts of servitude, depending on when in the cycle they are sold into bondage.

Leviticus, Exodus and Deuteronomy

As we saw above, the law in Deuteronomy is likely a revision of the law in Exodus. Leviticus is totally different than Exodus, and the two share very little in common. Although in many basic areas the law in Leviticus differs from Deuteronomy as well, the two share certain elements.

First, both avoid using the term עבד for the servant, preferring to refer to the man as אחיך (your kinsman.)

Second, both make reference to the fact that Hebrews/Israelites cannot be slaves because God took them out of bondage in Egypt, so they are God’s slaves.

Third, both refer to him as akin to the hired worker. Thus, although Leviticus has not rewritten the Deuteronomy law in the same way that Deuteronomy has rewritten the Exodus law, it looks like the slave law in Deuteronomy has had some influence on Leviticus.[13]

Conclusion

Ancient Near Eastern legal collections, whether the biblical Covenant Collection in Exodus or the Middle Assyrian Laws, are not systemic or comprehensive, and little evidence suggests that these collections were used in the law courts. “Common law” as opposed to “legislation” dominated the legal system of the Levant in this period. The biblical collections are separate entities, reflecting the overall emphasis or project of their editors—just like the Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1930 B.C.E.) and Hammurabi (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) do.

In contrast to the Deuteronomic law collection and the Holiness Collection (Lev 17-23), the Covenant Collection does not have a clear origin or ideology (most say it was an independent text incorporated by E—or J—into his own work with little editorial tampering), the other two collections have clear fingerprints. The Deuteronomic Collection forms the core of the Deuteronomy (D) and reflects this school’s way of thinking, incorporating such ideas as the prominence of the exodus and the importance of the underclasses, the text in Leviticus is part of the Holiness Collection (H), and reflects the Priestly philosophy of the Holiness school.

Although the three slave laws may not represent exactly the same cases, the differences between them are indicative of different laws, from different times and places, reflecting different ideas of slavery. Exodus is the harshest version, and Deuteronomy, with its humanitarian view, ameliorates somewhat the fate of the Israelite slave. This tendency is continued in Leviticus, which more or less abolishes slavery, turning slaves into bondsmen, but extending their period of servitude. In addition, Deuteronomy and Leviticus each develop slightly different social-calendrical institutions, the shemitah or yovel, which help improve the lot of slaves and debtors.

Although there are cases in the Torah where differences between the law collections could be due to different emphases or simple lacuna,[14] this does not appear to be the case with the slave law.[15] The differences between the presentations of the slave laws in the different collections offer strong justification for some form of source criticism. The laws contradict in significant ways, such as whether the slave should be paid upon release and when the slave must be released. This latter, fundamental difference suggests that these different laws reflect different norms from different times and places. It is even possible to see in this case how the later laws were, to varying extent, influenced by earlier ones which they revised.

Most tellingly, the laws dealing with slavery have not been brought together in the Torah in a single place, and presented as cases and sub-cases, as we might expect in a single-authored text. Instead, they are presented in three different places, and present laws based on different conceptions of slavery. Similar differences between the Covenant Collection, the Deuteronomic Law Collection, and the Holiness Collection abound.

The basic premise of source criticism, that the different collections come from different authors in different times and places, remains a critical tool for understanding these texts and the one book that incorporates them all.

__________

Read an alternative approach by Dr. Aaron Koller:
The Law of the Hebrew Slave: Reading the Law Collections as Complementary

Published

February 10, 2015

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Last Updated

December 13, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).