Proper interpretation of Bible verses re slavery/circumcision

OK, I’m having a bit of a row with Danielinthewolvesden about the proper meaning of some OT verses. I am particlarly interested in the input of those who have read the OT in the original language, since the two of us are kind of stalling out with the various translations, and I, at least, make no claim to be a Bible scholar. :wink: I am not intending to get into a debate of the morality of OT slavery, nor am I intending to cast aspersions on the treatment of slaves by the ancient Jews; I just want to know for sure what the verses are saying! Here’s the ones in question:

[Lev 25:39] "And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave:
[Lev 25:40] he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee;
[Lev 25:41] then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possession of his fathers.
[Lev 25:42] For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.
[Lev 25:43] You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God.
[Lev 25:44] As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you.
[Lev 25:45] You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property.
[Lev 25:46] You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.

[Exodus 21:7] If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do.
[Exodus 21:8] If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her.
[Exodus 21:9] If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter.
[Exodus 21:20] "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished,
[Exodus 21:21] but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

Gen 17:23 And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him.
Gen 17:24 And Abraham [was] ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
Gen 17:25 And Ishmael his son [was] thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
Gen 17:26 In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.
Gen 17:27 And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.

Now, my contention is that:

1) Only Hebrew slaves were freed at Jubilee. The male and female slaves bought from “the nations that are round about you” were not freed, since it clearly says they were slaves for life.

2) The rule about “not ruling over [slaves] with harshness” only applies to Hebrew slaves as well, and not “foreign” slaves.

3) The Exodus 21:20-1 verses mean that if a master beats a slave and the slave can get up after two days, the master is not punished.

4) The Gen 17 verses simply mean that the male slaves in Abraham’s house were circumcised, and it was not customary to circumcise all foreign slaves.

Daniel’s contention is that:

1) All slaves, Hebrew and foreign, were freed at Jubilee.

2) Jews were commanded to treat NO slaves with harshness, not just their “brothers”.

3) The Exodus 21:20-1 verses mean that if a master beats a slave and the slave can get up after two days, the slave is not punished.

4) The Gen 17 verses mean that it is commanded to circumcise all foreign slaves.

Which one of us has the right of it?

As well, a question of my own: Exodus 21:7 means a female Hebrew slave cannot be subcontracted, right, and if she was promised or betrothed to a man and he marries her, she is to be treated like a daughter. If she was promised or betrothed to a man and he does not marry her, she is freed. Were female Hebrews ever sold into slavery without being promised or betrothed, and if so, what was their status?

To answer your questions according to Jewish law:

  1. Yes, only Jewish slaves were freed after six years or Jubilee.

  2. In the specific verse you mentioned, yes, the prohibition only applies to Jewish slaves. However, there is also a commandment in Exodus (sorry, don’t have chapter/verse handy) that if a gentile slave loses an eye or tooth (and Talmudiclly, this is extended to a number of other body parts as well), then the slave goes free. This only applies to gentile slaves, not Jewish ones.

  3. In a court of law he is not punished with the death penalty (as he would for murder). However, a gentile slave, under Jewish law, is considered “part Jewish” and is bound by some of the commandments. He may be prosecutable for assault under Jewish law. I’d have to defer to Chaim on this one.

  4. Circumcision is required of all male gentile slaves.

  5. Female slavery was very rare, for several reasons. For starters, she could only be sold if she was a minor. In addition, she was only held for six years, or until attaining majority, or until the Jubilee year. In addition, a father is only allowed to sell his daughter as an absolute last resort. He must have literally nothing left. Lastly, if sold, the owner (or his son) could marry her. If they chose not to, she leaves service upon any of the conditions I mentioned above. Lastly, once the father has sold her, he loses any rights to do so again. So, if she was freed by her owner, or by any of the conditions mentioned above, and she is still a minor, the father cannot re-sell her.

Zev Steinhardt

Found it. Exodus 21: 26-27.

And yeah, I know I used “lastly” twice. Gotta remember to proofread. :o

Zev Steinhardt

Thanks for the info, Zev. :slight_smile: I have some more questions, though.

What happened if a Jewish slave lost an eye or tooth?

Ouch. :wink: Is there a OT verse that requires this, or is it in the Talmud? The simple fact that the gentile slaves were circumscised doesn’t “make” them Jewish and so give them full Jewish rights, correct?

How does this happen? I didn’t know you could be “part-Jewish”. What commandments did s/he have to keep?

Again, is this in the Talmud or the OT?

Tooth/eye loss in a Jewish slave

No, he does not go free. He could, however, probably sue his owner for damages.

**Circumcision of non-Jewish slaves **

I don’t know, off the top of my head if there is another verse that requires this. The verse you mentioned in Genesis could be the source of the rule. I’d have to look further.

You are correct insofar as being circumcised does not give him full “Jewish rights.” Just being circumcised does not make one Jewish.

Jewishness of non-Jewish slaves.

I’m afraid I’m guilty of over-simplification. Normally, you can’t be “part-Jewish.” A non-Jewish slave is a different matter, however. What I meant was that they are required to keep some of the commandmetns, but not others. They are required to keep all negative commandments (thou shalt not…) and all non-timebound positive commandments.

**Details of laws **
The details of the laws I mentioned regarding selling one’s minor daughter are all mentioned in the Talmud. Keep in mind, however, that the details of many laws are in the Talmud, and, indeed, in many cases, the written text is sometimes so ambiguous that without the Talmud, you wouldn’t know what to do.

Zev Steinhardt

Could a gentile slave bought from nearby nations, one that God said can be a slave for life, passed on to your children, etc., convert to Judaism and be freed in six years/at Jubilee?

You used the "C’ word!! :eek: JDT is coming sooon!! Run! Run!

A Gentile slave could be freed by his owner at any time. Upon becoming free, the former slave is a full-fledged Jew. He cannot, however, convert on his own.

Zev Steinhardt

Well, that solves the “problem” I foresaw of every gentile slave suddenly becoming a very devout practicer of the Jewish religion once he realized he could be freed in 6 years if he did so. :wink:

Gaudere, don’t know the original, but from the verses quoted I would think yours are all the direct interpretations, and Daniel’s all seem wrong.


[Exodus 21:20] "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished,
[Exodus 21:21] but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

3) The Exodus 21:20-1 verses mean that if a master beats a slave and the slave can get up after two days, the master is not punished.

**3) The Exodus 21:20-1 verses mean that if a master beats a slave and the slave can get up after two days, the slave is not punished.

How could that be about the slave? The verse before clearly says that if the slave dies, “he” must be punished. The rules of English make it clear the “he” means the man, not the slave, but even if not, you wouldn’t bother to punish a dead slave, would you? So it means the owner. So the next verse is the else case. If the slave does NOT die, then what happens? You do NOT punish the owner. Duh.

Regarding circumcision for all slaves, read the rest of that chapter. Genesis 17:7 on.

7 “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlastng covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”

10 "This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised;
11 "and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.
12 "He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any stranger who is not your descendant.
13 “He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.”

What that says is that from now on, all your children and all your slaves and all your childrens’ slaves will be circumcised. Pretty definative. I guess Daniel is right on this one. It wasn’t customary before, but this is the commandment that it is to be a new custom.

Well, Old Zev- one last query remains partially unresolved. Gaud maintains that a Master would apparently be punished if he beat his slave to death-only if the slave dies that day. Thus, mistreatment & beating of slaves to death (as long as they died later) was “perfectly OK” under OT Law. I maintain, that just because no punishments are explicitly provided for beating a slave to death- as long as the slave did not immediatly die- that that does not mean a master, under Law, could mistreat & beat his slaves. Ie, that in general, masters were obligated to not mistreat their servants.

Did the circumcision of the slaves give them some sort of 'special status"?

And thanks for being so helpful here- even if you did not always prove MY points. :smiley: Any chance of you dropping by the GD thread?

Well, some things are common sense, Daniel. There’s no law against beating your car into scraps with a crowbar if it doesn’t start in the morning. Why would there be? You’d just be destroying your property and that would be your own loss.

I am reminded of the tale of the Catholic priest who, after death and transport to heaven, was granted permission to read the original manuscripts of the Bible. He wanted to know if modern Bibles contained any errors. After a few days of study, he left the holy library, screaming. “It doesn’t say we’re supposed to be celibate! It says we should CELEBRATE! Aaaarrgghh!”

Well, for starters, circumcision really has nothing to do with it. The same laws apply to a female slave.

As to the matter of whether or not it is OK to beat your slaves, I would have to say that it is not OK.

There is, for starters, the prohibition of murder. There is also a prohibition of hitting and beating anyone in general. Lastly, there is a commandment to be kind and nice to people.

I don’t know if the owner would be subject to any earthly punishment for beating a slave, but I’m sure that it wouldn’t go over well with a) the owner’s other slaves, b) other people in the community (would you be friendly with someone who beats up on his dog or cat? Surely not. All the moreso with a person) and c) God.


Sorry, Daniel, but you’re in the wrong on this one. I’ll tell you what, however… be right on the next issue and I’ll support you 100% :smiley:

I was following the thread, but wanted to see where it would go before I jumped in. Once asked, however, I responded to this thread.

Zev Steinhardt

Well, actually zev, gaudere made it sound worse than it was. My general thesis & point was that slave/servants, in OT Isreal were protected under the Law, and, in general were much better treated that other period cultures, or even the Pre-War South-US. This has been entire conceded by gaudere, and your data helped to prove it. However, yes, i was wrong on some details of that Law, and several of my examples were true only in a limited sense (ie only applied to Hebrew servants).

::sputtering:: CONCEDED!? Daniel, I jumped all over you becuase you posted two factual errors regarding the treatment of slaves by the OT Jews WITHIN ONE SENTENCE! Then you went on to post more! I NEVER ARGUED THAT OT JEWS TREATED THEIR SLAVES WORSE THAN OTHER CONTEMPORARY CULTURES, SO YOU NEVER FORCED ME TO CONCEDE A *&%^%!# THING!!!

::pant, pant:: If you have anything further to say about how you “forced me to concede” anything, I suggest you post it in the Pit. 'Cause that’s where my response is going to belong…

gaudere:I did not say I “forced” you to concede. At the end of the debate, you admitted that my general theory was correct- did you not?. I admitted i made some minor errors in my facts I used to back up said theory. Do you now want to go back and say that, in general, my thesis/point was wrong?

However, note than none of my errors are as clear as you make them out to be. Yes, I did state some Biblical Laws, that applied to slaves- and you pointed out i was incorrect - in that these Laws did not apply to ALL slaves. I agreed, but still thought that other sections made most of these rules mostly in effect. We had dueling Bible quotes, where we had 2 quotes that directly contradicted each other. Your interpretation was right- mine was wrong. However, we did have to resort to a neutral Talmudic authority. Mostly, in specific sections- you were right, according to zev- whom we both accpet here. However, again, in general- as in the fact that a master is NOT free to abuse his slaves- i was correct. So- i lost several battles- but won the war.

Zev_ I have a theory as to the “semi-jewish” status of the servants/slaves. There are things that a Jew is not supposed to do with a gentile- like having a gentile cook/serve food, etc- right? So, by circumcising the gentile slaves- they made them “neither fish nor fowl”- ie they were not exactly gentiles- but neither were they Jewish, either. Thus, the “non-gentile” slave, could cook, serve, etc. And, also, the non-gentile slave thus had to follow the “criminal” type Laws- without having to sacrifice, keep completly kosher, etc. Is this maybe correct?

I’m afraid I’ve got to overrule you again, Daniel. Generally speaking, non-Jewish slaves are regarded as non-Jewish in most respects. They are, as I pointed out earlier, required to keep certain commandments. In addition, upon being given their freedom, they don’t require any formal conversion process; upon being given their document of freedom, they are full-fledged Jews. But, while slaves, with regard to most of the laws you mentioned, considered non-Jews.

Zev Steinhardt

There is a concept in Judaism called tzar ba’alei chaim. Simply put, it means that one should not cause unnecessary pain to animals. If we are commanded not to cause animals unnecessary pain, how much more should that apply to humans (including slaves)??

(see, Daniel, I can agree with you.) :smiley:

Zev Steinhardt