Slavery in the Old Testament—Exodus 21

The practice of slavery is well attested in the Ancient Near East. Law codes regulating it existed in Sumer, Hatti, Assyria, Nuzi, Babylon, and Israel. Many passages in the Old Testament deal with slave laws (Exod. 21; Lev. 25; Deut. 15), highlighting its importance for Israelites. Because many modern readers are shocked to find such laws in the Old Testament, it is important to stress that the kind of slavery described in the Hebrew Bible had many important differences from the slavery that appeared in the Greco-Roman world and later in the West.

The difference begins with the vocabulary employed by the biblical authors. The Hebrew word ‘ebed, generally translated as “slave,” carries the connotation of “worker” or “servant.” The rationale for such laws was straightforward: since the Israelites had been slaves or servants in Egypt and God had redeemed them, thus their slaves should receive proper treatment from them just as they had from the Lord (Deut. 15:15). For instance, unlike in Egypt, slaves in Israel worked off their debts for six years and were released on the seventh (Exod. 21:2), though they could become lifelong servants by voluntarily abdicating their right to freedom (vv. 5, 6).

The slave had a weekly day off, the Sabbath (Exod. 20:10), and should have also received abundant supplies from the master at the time of his or her release (Deut. 15:12-14). Moreover, in Exodus 21:1-11 the Hebrew verb yatsa, “to go out,” “come forth,” occurs seven times, clearly indicating that the release of the slave, whether male or female, was the critical point in this section. It is the same verb used dozens of times in the previous chapters of that book to describe the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (Exod. 3:10-12; 6:6, 7, 13, 26; 7:5; 12:41, 42, 51; 13:3, 8, 9). It was as if God was saying to the people of Israel: “Just as you had an exodus, your slaves shall also have one.”

It was very costly to maintain a slave, especially if the man was married with children and had had to sell himself into slavery. In such cases, he would possibly have to work more than six years (Lev. 25:39, 40), that is, until the Year of Jubilee. But during that time, slaves were treated as hired workers or as temporary residents (v. 40). However, foreign slaves were not given the same privileges. Hebrews treated them as property (v. 45) and held them in perpetuity (v. 46). Such individuals were most likely prisoners of war brought to Israel after a battle.

Native Hebrews living as slaves had an elevated status compared to other cultures within the surrounding region for both, that of the Israelite and the foreigner. If a slave died after being beaten by their master, the judges interpreted it as a premeditated crime, punishing the master with the death penalty as if he had taken the life of a free person. This law is most likely the earliest one in the Near East protecting slaves from abuse by their masters much like in Egypt where a person must confess, “I have not domineered over slaves or vilified a slave to his master nor harshly treated a slave” to enter the afterlife (Papyrus of Nu).

However, if the master injured a slave who then recovered after a few days, the master would not be put to death. The reason for that is expressed at the end of verse 21, which most English versions translate as “because the slave is his property/money.” The Hebrew phrase could also be read as “because that (i.e., fee) is his property/money,” in which “that” refers to the medical care provided by the master (cf. vv. 18, 19), thus satisfying the judge’s charges against him.

The laws regulating slavery in the Old Testament were an attempt to mitigate the worst effects of a cultural practice that continued throughout the ancient Near East.


Averbeck, “The Egyptian Sojourn and Deliverance from Slavery in the Framing and shaping of the Mosaic Law,” 143-175.

Gane, The NIV Application Commentary: Leviticus and Numbers, 429-448.

Hoffner, “Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Hatti and Israel,” 130-156.