Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
SLAVES

I. The existence of slavery in Israel

CERTAIN writers, and especially Jewish scholars, have denied that real slavery ever existed in Israel; at least, they maintain, Israelites were never reduced to slavery. There is a semblance of justification for this view if we compare Israel with classical antiquity; in Israel and the neighbouring countries, there never existed those enormous gangs of slaves which in Greece and Rome continually threatened the balance of social order. Nor was the position of the slave ever so low in israel and the ancient East as in republican Rome, where Varro could define a slave as 'a sort of talking tool', 'instrumenti genus vocale'. The flexibility of the vocabulary may also be deceptive. Strictly speaking 'ebed means a slave, a man who is not his own master and is in the power of another. The king, however, had absolute power, and consequently the word 'ebed also means the king's subjects, especially his mercenaries, officers and ministers; by joining his service they had broken off their other social bonds. By a fresh extension of meaning, the word became a term of courtesy. We may compare it with the development of its equivalents 'servant' in English or 'serviteur' in French, both derived from servus, a slave. Moreover, because a man's relations with God are often conceived on the model of his relations with his earthly sovereign, 'ebed became a fide for pious men, and was applied to Abraham, Moses, Josue or David, and finally to the mysterious Servant of Yahweh.

By 'slave' in the strict sense we mean a man who is deprived of his freedom, at least for a time, who is bought and sold, who is the property of a master, who makes use of him as he likes; in this sense there were slaves in Israel, and some were Israelites. The fact is proved by some early texts which speak of slaves in contrast with free men, wage-earners and resident foreigners, or which speak of their purchase for a sum of money; and the existence of slavery is presupposed also by the laws about emancipation.


2. Slaves of foreign origin

Throughout antiquity, war was one of the chief sources of supply for the slave-market, for captured prisoners were generally sold as slaves. The custom obtained in Palestine, too. In the days of the Judges, Sisera's army, had it

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