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In the Gates

A Different Institution

A Different Institution--Slavery – here, probably something like indentured servitude – was an option for the poor.

The eighth commandment

Leviticus 25.47-55

If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself. He shall calculate with his buyer from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his sale shall vary with the number of years. The time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired servant. If there are still many years left, he shall pay proportionately for his redemption some of his sale price. If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall calculate and pay for his redemption in proportion to his years of service. He shall treat him as a servant hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee. For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Slavery – here, probably something like indentured servitude – was an option for the poor. They could “sell” themselves, even to someone sojourning in Israel from another country, and thus escape destitution. In such a situation they could also be redeemed, or he could redeem himself (again, note that slaves could accumulate property and even wealth). The redemption price was to be calculated according to the number of years remaining before the Jubilee, and would be adjusted up or down accordingly.

Again we note that masters could not rule ruthlessly over their slaves, and slaves were allowed to marry and have children, who remained their own. All slave owners were to remember that, ultimately, all the people of Israel were God’s servants, entrusted to human owners for a season, and thus were to be treated with the love that God showed His people when He redeemed them from Egypt.

It’s difficult for us, from the perspective of our own American experience, to understand the institution of slavery as it was practiced in ancient Israel. Our idea of the word, “slavery,” is tainted by what we know to have been the practice here. But to see slavery in Israel as another way of escaping poverty, preserving human dignity, contributing to the wellbeing of the community, and beginning a marriage and family and the accumulation of property within a protected environment – well, that’s just rather difficult for us to envision.

This series of In the Gates we present a detailed explanation of the Law of God, beginning with the Ten Commandments, and working through the statutes and rules that accompany each commandment. For a practical guide to the role of God’s Law in the practice of ethics, get The Ground for Christian Ethics by going to and click on our Book Store.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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