Slavery and Social Welfare (if any) Legislation in the Biblical and Neighbouring Worlds

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by Neil Godfrey

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Slavery laws Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Source of slaves: war captives
Source of slaves: debt defaults X*
Source of slaves: piracy
Source of slaves: kidnapping
Source of slaves: famine
Types of slaves: public (owned by temples or the state)  
Types of slaves: chattel (owned by private individuals)  
Types of slaves: freeborn (typically debt slaves)    (only foreigners)
Debt (freeborn) slaves  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
Debt slaves sold to resident aliens had to be redeemed by kin X  Debt slaves of
fellow Athenians
was forbidden
from 594 BCE
Slaves of one’s own “nation” were to be treated mildly as hired servants, including by resident aliens
Release of debt slaves was required after a fixed number of years (3 or 6) **
Children of a freeborn slave and a slave wife given by the master remained the slave property of the master. When/if the freeborn slave left after six years he would leave his slave wife and children with the master. X /
Freeborn slave had option to demonstrate his love for his master by submitting to ear-piercing and becoming a permanent chattel slave. (My thought: surely a legal fiction!) X X
 Chattel slaves Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Forbidden to own a slave of one’s own “nation” (All slaves, except for debt slaves, must be foreigners) X
Slaves bound permanently to master were branded physically    
Beating of slaves, even if it led to their death, resulted in financial penalty at most     ✓
Asylum was permitted for abused runaway slaves X
Laws addressed marital rights of slaves  X

* Athens outlawed debt slavery under Solon, ca 594 BCE.

** Hammurabi’s code appears to have decreed a once-time-only release; the biblical law introduced a regular cycle.


Social welfare legislation Bible ANE Greece/Plato
“Land allotments for all citizens and land inalienability”   X */ 
Laws relating to debt slavery — see above
Debts forgiven after a cycle of years (but see ** above)      
Public festivals for the “happiness of everybody”      
No serious legislation to redress plight of the poor. (See below)

(Pronouncements by ANE rulers of good intentions towards society’s vulnerable rarely went further than political propaganda (no related legislation, apart from a one-off decree by a new ruler for debt relief) and in the bible, primarily appeals to charity.)


* As per Plato’s Laws and some Greek city-states; but not Athens.

** “Athens … had extensive legislation that protected the legal rights of widows, orphans, aged parents, the disabled and foreign residents.”

No serious legislation to redress the plight of the poor

Social support of the financially distressed is a prominent concern of many Pentateuchal texts. The biblical text frequently called for the protection of strangers, widows and orphans, societal classes without legal protections and vulnerable to abuse by the powerful (Ex. 22.21-24; 23.9; Lev. 19.33-34; Deut. 5.14; 10.18; 14.29; 16.11, 24; 24.15, 17, 19-21; 26.11-13; 27.19; Ps. 82.2-3; Job 24.3; Jer. 7.6; 22.3; Ezek. 22.7, 9; Zech. 7.10; Mai. 3.5). However, the Pentateuch made only moral appeals and called upon Yahweh to avenge wrongdoing (Ex. 22.22-24; Deut. 10.18; 24.15; cf. Mai. 3.5), without making specific provisions for care of strangers, widows and orphans or penalties for their abuse. . . .

The distress and vulnerability of the injured and infirm, especially the deaf and the blind, was also a subject of ethical concern (Lev. 19.14; Deut. 27.18), but not legislative protection. (Gmirkin, p. 111)

Russell Gmirkin goes on to mention laws protecting parents from verbal and physical abuse, but I myself don’t see those commands as specific to vulnerable groups: parents are not restricted to the poor or aged and the command applies to all parents regardless of age or class.

The poor constituted another vulnerable class, one particularly susceptible to economic exploitation by creditors and employers (Deut. 24.14-23; 28.38-44; Prov. 14.31; 22.7; Job 24.4; Zech. 7.10; Mal. 3.5). One law containing elements of social compassion called for day laborers to receive the pay by the end of the day (Deut. 24.14-15; cf. Mal. 3.5). Although all Israelites were pictured as land owners, a slide into poverty was possible through a poor harvest, subsistence loans secured by landholdings and loan default. Although the return of land in the year of release legislatively prevented a state of permanent debt slavery (Lev. 25.10-17, 23-34; Deut. 15.1-6), in the short term poverty was a social and political reality. Under Pentateuchal law, the landless “poor” were treated as a distinct class, exempted from severe financial obligations, allowed less expensive sacrifices and supported by both the collection of an agricultural tax for their relief and by enjoined acts of private charity. The kinship group constituted the first and primary source of support for the poor. (Gmirkin, p. 111)

One point I question in Gmirkin’s discussion is what seems to be an implication that the Pentateuchal laws were real-life legislation and not theological (theoretical) literature at the time of their composition. No doubt certain laws did become national obligations, but given what scholarship has learned about the theoretical or literary nature of other ancient Near Eastern Laws, including the Code of Hammurabi, I wonder if more consistent awareness of this possibility could have been addressed in the book.

For example, Russell Gmirkin aptly points out that

One such law allowed the stranger, the fatherless and the widow to glean the corners of the field after a harvest (Deut. 24.19-22), gathering unharvested grain, olives and grapes. Another called for an agricultural tithe to be consumed at the place where God would place his name and shared with the Levites within the gates (Deut. 14.22-27). Every three years, this tithe would be stored up within the city gates and given in its entirety to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 14.28-29; 26.12-15; cf. Berman 2008: 95). Festival laws provided that Levites, widows, orphans and strangers should be brought to the place Yahweh placed his name to participate in yearly festivities (Deut. 16.11, 14). (Gmirkin, p. 112, my bolding)

I think that if we take the Pentateuch’s list of laws about tithing literally we will find that it appears every three years in a seven year cycle a landowner will be required to tithe on his produce to the Tabernacle/Temple every year, to set aside another tithe to enable him to take his family and whole household to the annual Feast of Tabernacles, and every third year to set aside another tithe for the Levite, stranger, fatherless and widow — that is, thirty percent of his produce every three years is swallowed up before he sells anything. I cannot help but suspect that such Pentateuchal laws, at least as written, are theological ideals and not literal legislation.

Nonetheless, in the posts on these various types of laws addressed in Russell Gmirkin’s book so far we have not distinguished between “real” and “theological/theoretical” legislation. The point has been to see what content in the biblical laws finds counterparts in either the ancient Near East and Greek worlds, and from that data to assess the possibility of influence from the Greek world.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Slavery and Social Welfare (if any) Legislation in the Biblical and Neighbouring Worlds”

  1. I want to point at you at a law which is not discussed in Gmirkin’s book but I personally believe that it explains the freeing of the slaves (servants) in the laws in the Hebrew Bible ( e.g. Ex. 21:2-4 and Deut. 15:12-15 ).

    The law can be found in Gen. 17: 13.

    “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.”

    At first this law looks like that it was an one time order, but from the Talmud and from Maimonides, especially, we can see that this was practiced until Christian prohibition.

    See 14:9 from Maimonides’ Issurei Biah 14: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/960662/jewish/Issurei-Biah-Chapter-Fourteen.htm

    I believe this was the reason of the quick widespread of Judaism which can be seen only in the Hellenistic ages.

    This that proves that those books were written then.

  2. In the chart comparing the various laws, I see that the author has made the same mistake I see made time and time again on one particular point:

    “Beating of slaves, even if it led to their death, resulted in financial penalty at most”

    This, I would suggest, demonstrates Mr Godfrey’s lack of interest in checking sources in the original language.

    In a typical English translation, the scripture in question (Exo 21:20-21) reads “20 “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21 If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

    Oftentimes, in English, v 20 reads “…he shall be avenged”.

    “Avenged” is the more accurate translation. But, note how it changes the meaning of the reference to the “he” (ie, “he shall be punished” vs “he shall be avenged”) in the verse. “…He shall be punished” is a reference to the slave holder, “…he shall be avenged” is a reference to the slave.

    Now, as to the word “avenged” itself: in Hebrew, the word used is “iqm” (sorry, I can’t seem to put the Hebrew letters in here). This word – translated as “avenged” (or, “…he shall be avenged”) always carries with it the implication of a death penalty.

    As per Rashi Commentary: “he shall surely be avenged: [with] death by the sword [decapitation], and so does the Torah say: “a sword avenging the vengeance of the covenant” (Lev. 26:25). -[From Mechilta, Sanh. 52b]”

    In other words, if a man beats his slave, and his slave were to die at that point, the man (slave holder) would be liable for the death penalty.

    Now, as to the rest of the verse: “…If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

    Again, the English attempts to put a slant to the phrase, indicating that if the slave doesn’t die immediately, but lives for a couple of days, “no vengeance shall be taken”, as if that indicates that the slave holder would not be punished.

    In Hebrew, though, this simply means that if the slave lives for a day or two, the slave holder would not be liable for the death penalty. It does not, in any fashion, indicate that the slave holder would not be liable for some other punishment.

    As per Rashi Commentary: “he shall not be avenged, because he is his property: But if someone else struck him, even if he lingered for twenty-four hours before he died, he [the other person] is liable [to incur the death penalty].”

    If the slave were to live a day or two, then die, the slave holder could still be held liable for manslaughter, in which case, he would be banished to a city of refuge, having to leave his property behind.

    If the slave were to continue living, the slave would be automatically set free.

    Exo 20:26-27 “And if a man strikes the eye of his manservant or the eye of his maidservant and destroys it, he shall set him free in return for his eye, and if he knocks out the tooth of his manservant or the tooth of his maidservant, he shall set him free in return for his tooth” forms the basis for the slaves freedom.

    Per Rashi: “in return for his eye: And so it [the law] is with the twenty-four tips of limbs: [i.e.,] the fingers and toes, the two ears and the nose, and the רֹאֹש הַגְּוִיָה, which is the male organ.” In other Rabinnical literature, we find that the list of injuries that would result in the automatic freedom of the slave is quite extensive.

    To Sum Up: The authors statement that “Beating of slaves, even if it led to their death, resulted in financial penalty at most” is entirely incorrect.

    1. Of course the Rashi Commentary would not be in any way biased, would it. It certainly would not present an agenda of making the Biblical laws the best gift of God to humanity for all time, would it. Perish the thought that Biblical laws could ever be compared with the barbarism of “man-made laws” of ungodly ancient societies.

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