Thursday, June 25, 2015

Voluntary slavery

21 “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever (Exod 21:1-6).

i) One stock objection which unbelievers raise is the fact that the OT regulates slavery rather than abolishing slavery. 

Of course, unbelievers have no basis to condemn slavery in the first place–as I've often discussed.

ii) You might think "voluntary slavery" is an oxymoron. Who would anyone choose to be a slave if they could avoid it? If the existence of a slave is so wretched, nobody would choose that over freedom. That's the unquestioned assumption of the moral objection.

Yet the Mosaic law makes provision for a temporary debt slave to become a permanent slave. 

Now, it might be objected that there's a coercive element. It's a choice between going free, but leaving his family behind, or staying with his family.

However, he knew, going in, that this was just a six-year stint. He could wait it out. Moreover, most indentured servants were married before becoming contract employees. In that case (most cases), they'd take their wife with them–no strings attached. If their wife followed them into slavery, their wife would follow them out of slavery.  

iii) So why would an indentured servant extend his bondage? Why would he choose to become a slave for life?

Because, even though it was a very unenviable situation to be in, the alternatives could be worse. Life in the ANE was very precarious for many people. Famine. Grinding poverty. It's a tradeoff between freedom and security.

A Hebrew slave enjoyed free room and board, plus spending money. Even a wife! Financial security and stability. 

It's like volunteering for the military. Some people reenlist. They exchange freedom for security. For the benefits that come with military service. 

It's better to be rich, but if you can't be rich, it's a choice between being free but poor, or enslaved, but having all your necessities provided for.  

That's not a great deal, but life was tough back then. It was hard to scrape by. 

Sure, God could create a different kind of world, but you and I would not exist in a different kind of world. That would be a world with a whole different history.

BTW, "love" in this passage doesn't mean "affection." Rather, it's ANE legal jargon for declaring one's allegiance. 


  1. I'm surprised that atheists haven't made a bigger deal out of Genesis 47. Joseph rescues the Egyptians (and foreigners) from starvation, but at a hefty price. First, he takes their money in exchange for grain (v14), then their livestock (v16), then finally their land and their servitude (v19). I imagine that, to our modern sensibilities it might seem absurd for, say, the Red Cross to swing in to a place like Haiti and demand payment for providing disaster relief.

    Granted, this is an objection that no one is really raising (as far as I know) but I wonder what you make of it? One thing that comes to mind is that it's one thing to provide temporary relief for a hurricane or flood, but a seven-year drought would be tough to manage. That can take up a lot of resources and there needs to be something available for when the drought ends. That doesn't really answer the issue about the indentured servitude, though. Granted, this is something the Egyptians seem to have volunteered for.

    1. Does God command Joseph to take these actions? I don't see explicit, divine endorsement of his decisions (which is to say whether they were morally justifiable depends on other factors).