Do these verses mean that non Hebrews can be kept as slaves forever and that the regulations on slavery don’t apply to them? This is why I ask cause I’ve read other scriptures that say you are to treat foreigners as natives. So if the regulations do apply to them what does it mean when it’s said that you can keep them forever?
@Luna Great question! I think we must begin by reading Leviticus 24 in context. God has given this promised land to His chosen people, the Israelites. The purpose behind Jubilee is so that no Israelite family may be deprived of their inheritance from the Lord. Foreigners, in contrast, were not members of the covenant and there was no land to be restored. But, if I understand correctly, foreigners could not be mistreated and could be purchased back as well. In fact, Leviticus 24 makes it clear that the laws about harming another person were to be applied to both the foreigner and the native-born.
These laws were given to Israel within the context of a covenant at a particular place and time in history. As we can see in Jesus, these laws do not represent God’s ideal, but God was working within this particular people and culture. God is a missionary in that sense; He comes to us not as we should be, but as we actually are and moves us in a redemptive direction. If you keep the Flood in the back of your mind, you will realize that God is working to redeem a world that did and could fall into great darkness - meeting us in our brokenness and imperfection.
Leviticus 24:17-22 - 17 “‘Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. 18 Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. 19 Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death. 22 You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’”
Leviticus 25:54-55 - Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
God’s Command to Treat Foreigners Well
God commanded the Israelites to treat foreigners well, since they also were foreigners in Egypt. The entire Torah is clear that the Israelites must treat the foreigner, orphan and widow with mercy and justice. We should read the rest of the Torah in light of these fundamental principles.
Exodus 22:21 - Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
Deut 10:19 - And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
Resources from Paul Copan:
1. Anti-Harm Laws: One marked improvement of Israel’s laws over other ANE law codes is the release of injured servants (Exodus 21:26,27). When an employer (“master”) accidentally gouged out the eye or knocked out the tooth of his male or female servant/employee, he/she was to go free. God did not allow physical abuse of servants. If an employer’s disciplining his servant resulted in immediate death, that employer (“master”) was to be put to death for murder (Exodus 21:20) — unlike other ANE codes.10 In fact, Babylon’s Hammurabi’s Code permitted the master to cut off his disobedient slave’s ear (Â¶282). Typically in ANE law codes, masters — not slaves — were merely financially compensated. The Mosaic Law, however, held masters to legal account for their treatment of their own servants — not simply another person’s servants.
2. Anti-Kidnapping Laws: Another unique feature of the Mosaic Law is its condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave — an act punishable by death (Exodus 21:16; cp. Deuteronomy 24:7). Kidnapping, of course, is how slavery in the antebellum South could get off the ground.
3. Anti-Return Laws: Unlike the antebellum South, Israel was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16) — a marked contrast to the Southern states’ Fugitive Slave Law. Hammurabi’s Code demanded the death penalty for those helping runaway slaves (Â¶16). In other less-severe cases — in the Lipit-Ishtar (Â¶12), Eshunna (Â¶49-50), and Hittite laws (Â¶24) — fines were exacted for sheltering fugitive slaves. Some claim that this is an improvement. Well, sort of. In these “improved” scenarios, the slave was still just property ; the ANE extradition arrangements still required that the slave be returned his master. And not only this, the slave was going back to the harsh conditions that prompted him to run away in the first place.11 Even upgraded laws in first millennium BC Babylon included compensation to the owner (or perhaps something more severe) for harboring a runaway slave. Yet the returned slaves themselves were disfigured, including slitting ears and branding.12 This isn’t the kind of improvement to publicize too widely.
So does this mean that non-Hebrew slaves are to be released like Hebrew slaves? When it comes to the specific verse I posted what does it mean when it says forever if they aren’t to be kept forever? Sorry just trying to understand, maybe I missed it.
@Luna Why were Hebrew slaves released in the year of Jubilee? What was the purpose? Hebrew slaves rightfully owned land to which they could return - their inheritance. In contrast, foreigners would not have had an inheritance to which to return.
I am being cautious in my answer because the laws in the Torah are highly situational. For example, let us say that a foreigner, named Lamech, became a slave in Israel forever. But then twenty years later his family came looking for him and wanted to purchase him back. I believe the heart of the law would obligate the Israelite to let Lamech return to his family.
So what I am attempting to say is that sometimes we jump to conclusions about what texts mean without context. Yes, this passage says the foreigner could be kept forever, but the law of God, at its heart, is about loving God and loving neighbor. So a different situation may demand that, to keep the heart of the law, an Israelite not keep the letter of the law but instead its heart.
Does that make sense? That is my perspective
Yes I understand. I just find it unfortunate that it has to be a particular set of circumstances for a non-Hebrew to go free.
@Luna I think we have to remember how hard life was back then - it was so hard that some people chose to remain servants for life even though they were Hebrew because they had a good life. In addition, I am really not sure how this law was actually applied in practice.
Deut 15:16-17 -But if your servant says to you, “I do not want to leave you,” because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant.
We have stories in Scripture such as Ruth where a Moabite was allowed to inherit and about Rahab, where a Canaanite became part of the Jewish people. We have these stories of tremendous grace to those who truly seek God. I think we have to keep those in mind when reading these passages.
Ultimately Jesus says that at the heart of the law is love God and love neighbor. If that is true - if that is really at the heart of the Torah - then I think we absolutely must remember that fact as we read these laws. Each person is an individual with a unique story who is loved by God - including foreigners. None of the laws we read - even the difficult ones like this one - are written in contradiction of the heart of the law.
And I think when we see how the prophets - such as Isaiah - apply the Torah, we can affirm that they too understood compassion to be at the heart of the law.
Quote from Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
As a comparison read Genesis 47 and note the predicament that the Egyptian people found themselves in during the lean years. They had spent all their sliver and livestock for food all that was left was their land and there bodies.
18 When that year ended, they came to him in the following year and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that our money and livestock belong to my lord. Nothing remains before my lord except our bodies and our land. 19 Why should we die in front of you, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, then we and our land will be servants to Pharaoh. Then give us seed and we shall live and not die, and the land will not become desolate.” 20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for each Egyptian sold his field, for the famine was severe upon them. And the land became Pharaoh’s. (Ge 47:18–20 LEB)
Here we have the beginning of the disenfranchisement of the Egyptian people with no apparent remedy. By this I mean the Egyptians sold their land and themselves and did not expect redemption in the form of a return of their land, in Leviticus 25 this is the context. I also thought it ironic that a Hebrew would establish a 20% tax on the Egyptian people as a statute.
26 So Joseph made it a statute unto this day concerning the land of Egypt: one fifth to Pharaoh. Only the land of the priests alone did not belong to Pharaoh. (Ge 47:26 LEB)
A good deal for Pharaoh not so good for the Egyptians.
I hear what you are saying. I tried to address this slavery issue in a respectful conversation with an atheist before. My study on the bible led me to how the Hebrew were treated as slave(or better term is bondservant), and I thought I was done, and did well to represent the slavery issue in the bible.
But then he came back with that exact verse u mention in your headline. How abt the non-hebrews, it isn’t so with them. I know I read around articles that try to do away with this foreign slaves law, by likening them to the Hebrew slaves law. But I found that it is weak argument. Since v46 did state the difference of treatment “they(foreign slaves) shall be your permanent slaves. BUT regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall NOT rule over one another with rigor.”
So when studying the biblical slavery, I find that to fully and faithfully represent the biblical view, we need to lay out the treatment of fellow Hebrew as slaves like @SeanO did so well, then we need to give them an understanding of the historical context of slavery like @Jimmy_Sellers reinforced. Then lastly, is to address what God tried to achieve in general with these Levitical laws.
Building on what Sean and Jimmy already presented, I would like to first mention that more than social reform, or at the heart of it if He does execute, is how God is trying to teach the Israelites, as His representative nation on earth, on the value of human life, and how to treat them with that in mind.
Upon studying the historical context, one must first understand that ancient slavery is nothing like the vicious 20th-century slavery. Back then, it was common as Jimmy pointed out, to sell themselves to be slaves to pay off debt or to be taken care of. So the master taking them in is actually doing them an economical favor and they become the master’s willing possession/asset. Which can be sold or exchange to other masters.
So ancient slavery is a norm in the economic system. A relief option for one who went bankrupt to avoid the indignity of living in the streets, or to seek protection from the people whom they owed money. It could very well be a life and death situation. These slaves are also paid, and can be trusted with important position in the household (just as you see Joseph did when serving Potiphar in Gen 39) or taking care of the master’s many businesses (remember the talents parable by Jesus in Matt 25).Good capable servants could even prosper the master and thus prospering themselves as well, earning back their dignity in the marketplace. There are cases when the slaves has prospered and they are given option to buy out their freedom by their masters (Lev 25:49). So in most ancient cultures, slavery is just another social status.
But yes, there are cruel slavemasters, like the Babylonian Hammurabi or the Pharaoh’s treatment of the Hebrews before the exodus. But it doesn’t mean that all slavery is like that. And Sean already shared some of them to understand biblical take on slavery. The Israelites are not allowed to kidnap and sell ppl as slave. So they can’t take part in negative enforced slavery, but a more regulated positive slavery(I know putting these 2 words together sounds oxymoronic by today’s standards).
How abt the treatment? The Jews cannot harm their servants, like in Exodus 21. injuring their eye or tooth, means they are free. But here’s one more I like in verse 20, if they beat a slave to death, the master must be punished (which is life for life). and even better is verse 21, if they are physically punished, they must recover within a day or two. Can you imagine the limitation of punishment(when they do deserve it) that must be able to recover in a day or two? I sometimes see parents who punished their kids and they still haven’t recover after a week. So yes, God allows disciplinary action on slaves, but not in a way that will harm or put their lives at risk.
This is what God is trying to achieve through this socio-economic system. The Hebrews’ way of taking care of slaves were revolutionary, and very humane. In fact, the Hebrews were the subject of slavery more than they were masters. Jesus came down to a Roman-ruled Jews,and when in 1 Pet 2:18, Peter was addressing the Hebrew servants to submit to their master.
And yes foreigners being owned permanently, as you can see, in its context, is not at all malevolent, in fact beneficial to the slaves. It is not the perfect condition of mankind, but since when has humanity been in perfect condition? Look at the modern day slavery in the free world. We are all economic slaves to the financial institutions, to the major corporations.
An example of this is when a friend of mine who was an ambassador for WHO, was trying to campaign against tobacco, one of the reform is to raise taxes to discourage its use in Indonesia. But bankers rallied and countered that doing so will create economic crippling, and health issues, this is due to survey taken that the majority of tobacco users in Indonesia comes from the poorer and uneducated people, who will rather buy a tobacco than proper nourished meals and become sickly to burden the budget for healthcare, and them buying expensive tobaccos does not help them to be economically responsible to their family. To my friend’s disappointment, WHO dropped the campaign without much fuss. Just one of many examples.
We can’t always blame God for not correcting every injustice or not implementing the perfect social structures, because we are living in a fallen world after all. God is more concerned about something greater than this world. (Otherwise Jesus would come to take down the Roman empire, instead of being crucified) And God is always more concerned about how we treat each other as human beings with intrinsic worth in the image of God, even if it’s through a master-slave relationship.
The beauty is God showed his love through this system, Jesus was betrayed (or bought) at the same slave price paid for Joseph. He demonstrated the need for redemption from bondage, and the people who are familiar with the slavery system, could really appreciate the fact that Jesus paid for our freedom with his own life (Gal 5:1).
Now instead of being a God who condone slavery, He should be more accurately known as a God who free us from slavery… not with mere words, but with His only begotten Son’s priceless blood!
@Luna, sorry to go on longer than I think I should, but I hope you have been enriched and find more than just an answer in trying to understand this part of the Bible.
Blessings in Christ,
@Luna Paul Copan addresses this passage in the following talk around minute marker 30:00. Helpful video to watch.
Serving within Israelite households was to be a safe haven for any foreigner; it was not to be an oppressive setting, but offered economic and social stability. Paul Copan
According to Leviticus 19:33,34, Israelites were expected to love foreigners and not oppress them. The laws found in Exodus 21 protect all servants from mistreatment, not just Israelites. In ancient Israel, kidnapping a person for any reason was forbidden and human trafficking was punishable by death.
Wow thanks @SeanO.
That was really a great video. Started watching at 30:00, but it was so great I ended up watching the whole thing from start, and glad I did. Learnt so much.