Non-Hebrew Slaves


So, I know this has been dealt with frequently, over the past decades: the whole slavery issue.

I know about indentured servitude for Hebrew slaves and so forth, but I see very little mention about the non-Hebrew slaves. Were they also freed in the Year of Jubilee? Or was it just the Hebrew slaves?

What are the implications?

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@Wanda Great question :slight_smile: 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 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.

I’ve provided some additional resources below that I think will help you process through this very complex issue. May the God of the nations grant you wisdom and understanding :slight_smile:

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.

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.

The Importance of Context - Historical and Literary

"Knowledge of the social and legal realities of the ancient Near East, often available only through study of other cultures, such as those of Mesopotamia, are critical for a full understanding of the world of biblical law. As I have tried to demonstrate, some apparent contradictions can be resolved once we understand the range of cases that could be discussed, and once we see that different laws could be addressing different cases. Other differences are real, but explicable as the results of the varying foci of the collections in which they are found.

Many readings of the legal texts in the Bible, both ancient and modern, are in fact acontextual, not attuned to the real world the laws were addressing and not aware of the range of legal precedents and realities open to the legislator. It is important to build our edifices on the basis of full knowledge of both textual and historical realities." Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber

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 (¶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 (¶16). In other less-severe cases — in the Lipit-Ishtar (¶12), Eshunna (¶49-50), and Hittite laws (¶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.

Article from Doug Becker

I found this article and really liked the way he summarized the issue of the treatment of foreign slaves. I think he contextualizes it well.

Having observed the lengths to which the law goes to protect the rights and dignity of Israelites who sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt, it now seems that the same law denies these things to foreigners. There is a degree of truth to this. Most strikingly, while Exodus 21:16 forbade a slave trade within Israel, this passage permits Israelites to engage in the slave trade of other nations. Individuals acquired through these means do become “property,”[16] which can be passed down from generation to generation.

But this law does not exist in isolation, either from other passages regarding the treatment of foreigners, or from the culture to which it was given. It is quite easy to criticize a law from over 3,000 years ago from the comforts and standards of a twenty-first century liberal capitalist democracy, with a worldwide community that is more or less concerned about human rights. But we must remember that this was not the world into which God spoke when he gave Leviticus 25. Ancient Israel was a tiny part of a much larger world, were a robust and often ruthless international slave trade existed.

The Old Testament’s emphasis on the loving treatment of the foreigner is apparent from several important passages. Leviticus 19:33–34 instructs, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Notice that this verse clearly extends the category of “sojourner” to slaves, using the same word (gēr) to refer to the status of the Hebrews when they lived in Egypt (also Deut 10:19). We should not miss the language: He or she shall not be “wronged” (oppressed), and he shall be treated as a native Israelite. In fact, the same wording is used for this person as is used for the “neighbor” in the second greatest commandment, quoted by Jesus (Matt 19:199; 22:39; Mark 12:31; also Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8), which is found originally in Lev 19:18: “You shall love him as yourself.”[17]


I had a feeling you’d come through for me, Sean! This is pretty good stuff and I love your answers. So full of information and insight! I’ll check them all up. May I ask a follow-up question? It’s about the anti-harm law. How do you reconcile the verse that permits masters to beat their slaves with it?


@Wanda One thing I liked about Becker’s response is that he recognized these laws were not ideal; they were not perfect. But early books of the Bible do three things that I think are very important:

  1. They remind the Israelites that they to were once slaves and that they should love their neighbor as they would love themselves. God had mercy on them when they were foreigners in Egypt, so they should treat foreigners well. It is obvious that anyone who took this truth to heart would be kind to their servants and would not beat them.

  2. They set boundaries to protect both the poor, foreigners, women, and servants that were more gracious than the surrounding culture. These laws weren’t perfect, but they were moving in the right direction and provided protections to people who otherwise had no protection.

  3. Give us examples of foreigners who became part of God’s covenant people, such as Rahab and Ruth. And warn the Israelites that they are not above God’s judgment and cannot mistreat other people, or they will suffer the same fate as the wicked nations surrounding them.

I think if we take these three things together, they show us that God has provided truth with a trajectory of righteousness and set boundaries to protect the weak. I know I sometimes wish God would jump straight to the ideal and correct every evil. And He will—its called the Day of Judgment. But without bringing a halt to the whole show (aka the flood) or turning us all into robots, God has to work with us stubborn, culturally fixed creatures to move us in the right direction.

Sometimes we forget how absolutely radical Jesus’ ethic was because it is so much a part of our culture. Love your enemy was not a thing in the world before Jesus (and its rarely followed today). The world used to be violent and dangerous beyond anything most of us can imagine in the modern world. But God has been working to redeem that which is broken and restore the lost to wholeness.


@Wanda Another thing to remember is that the Israelites should not have been reading the law looking for a loophole. As God’s covenant people, they were meant to reflect God’s own heart and His character to everyone they encountered. That is why Jesus was so upset with the Pharisees—they completely missed the point of the law. It was not just a set of rigid rules to be followed. These laws flowed out of the love of God for all people and so could be summarized in love your neighbor as yourself.

If we think of these laws as laws meant to govern an unbelieving society, we miss the whole point. These laws were given specifically to God’s covenant people who were supposed to have God’s heart and be seeking His face.


Wow. I never thought of it that way. You have given me a lot to think about. I’ve been wrestling with this question on and off, but the resources you’ve provided are super helpful!

Thanks so much, man. God bless that good brain of yours!


@Wanda Thanks for asking a great question :slight_smile: I learned a lot today as I thought through this topic as well. Every time the topic of slavery in the Bible comes up on Connect I feel like a grow a little bit in my own understanding, which is a huge blessing! Further up and further in! This community is such a blessing.

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