March 4, 2024

Slavery and Prison


A lot is said about the Bible and slavery.  Every time I get into a discussion or read someone trying to make an argument about the Bible being archaic in terms of social progress, one of the comments that shows up is that the Bible condoned or put forth a system that included slavery.

What they fail to do is actually examine the concept of slavery as imposed by the Bible, and the directives of slavery.

Time is Money

The first thing to understand about Biblical slavery was that it was used as a way to pay a debt.  If you could not afford to make good on a loan or a bill, then the person you owed was able to get service out of you until the debt was repaid.

This system is much more humane than prison in this sense—that the person in prison has no way to earn money to repay his debt.  The slave does—and as long as the term of slavery eventually ends, and there are rules, then it allows the borrower’s debt to be satisfied.

Automatically Released

Biblical slavery also had a time limit.  Every fifty years was a year of jubilee.  During that year, all slaves that wanted to could choose to leave their master—they and all their family.

And this year of jubilee wasn’t a sliding scale, but a fixed date.  So if a person became a slave a year before the year of jubilee then he must be released the next year.

If you were a Hebrew slave, the most you could serve was 6 years.  You were to be freed the 7th.

Could Be Redeemed By Next of Kin

If a relative had the money, they could pay the debt owed (calculated based on the year of jubilee) and have the person set free—him and his family.

Must Be Treated Humanely

Contrary to the modern idea of slavery, the Biblical Slavery directive said that any person caught hitting a servant until death, he would be punished for that death.  If the master hit a person’s eye such that he lost sight of it, he was to be set free.

Does This Mean I Support Slavery?

Not exactly.  What I’m saying is that the slavery in Bible was highly regulated and it more or less resembled what we see in the credit market of today—in that if you get into debt you become (in essence) a worker for your lender.  In that way, there’s no debt relief like that promised in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament, therefore, is more humane in its treatment of individuals and debt than our current system, many thousand years later.

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