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Slavery in Israel

The "National Geographic" for September 2003 (Vol 204, No. 3) states that there are "more slaves today (about 27,000,000 world-wide) than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Bondmen and Bondmaids.

This article is from the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, volumes 1-22 (1850–1863), edited by James White. It is in Volume 20, issued at Battle Creek, Mich., THIRD-DAY, NOVEMBER 11, 1862 - No. 24. The text is as taken from the CD "Words of the Pioneers" (second edition).

Some of the long paragraphs have been split up for easier reading.



20R&H page 0190 paragraph 18

QUESTION. Bro. White: Will you, or some other one, give through the Review an explanation of Leviticus xxv, 44-46? I ask for information.


paragraph 19


The verses in question read as follows: "Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you which they begat in your land, and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you to inherit them for a possession, they shall be your bondmen forever; but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor."

paragraph 20

The perversion which is made of this scripture to the use of slavery, is so fully answered by Luther Lee in his "Slavery Examined," that we give his exposition of it.

He says, "I now approach to the last resort of slavery within the lids of the Old Testament, to which it must be expected to cling as a man of blood to the horns of the altar, when the lifted arm of the avenger is seen near at hand. The law in question reads as follows:"

He then quotes the passage under notice, Lev.xxv, 44-46, and continues:

paragraph 21

I might grapple with slavery upon the ground of the common translation, as above, and beat it; but I am not disposed so to do, until I have exposed its hand in corrupting the translation. I have already made one correction in the common translation in the preceding text, and as I design to ground an argument upon a new translation of the present important text, I will explain the whole matter at this point.

I admit there should be strong reasons for departing from the common English version of the Scriptures, a version generally approved and allowed to be correct. The translators were men of great learning, and executed their trust with great ability and fidelity, and have in general seized upon the very spirit and nerve of the original, so far as it can be represented by English words; yet I believe they were deceived by the spirit of slavery into a false translation of the text under consideration, as perhaps in a few other texts.

The slave-trade was in the hight [sic] of its progress at the time the translation took place. It had previously attracted the attention of Church and State. At first it met with opposition from both. The first grant of the privilege of bringing slaves to America, was by Charles V, in 1517. This appears to have been principally secured by the representations of Las Casas a priest, and afterward a bishop. But after this, Charles repented of the countenance he gave the slave trade, and Pope Leo X, his cotemporary [sic], denounced the system, and declared that not only the Christian religion, but nature itself, cried out against a state of slavery.

About the year 1556 Queen Elizabeth was deceived into a permit granted to Sir John Hawkins, to bring negroes from Africa; and she charged him not to carry them to America without their consent. But these scruples were overcome by the false glosses put upon this and other texts by interested priests, and by the great profit of the traffic.

Here the matter rested, and all took it for granted without further examination that these pro-slavery expositions were right, and when king James' translators commenced their work in 1607, they very naturally adopted the false expositions designed to countenance the slave-trade, and translated the text under consideration, as well as some others, in the light of those false glosses by which they avoided coming in contact with the slave-trade, then in its greatest prosperity in England.

20R&H page 0191 paragraph 1

I will now notice the translation itself.

The principal errors are as follows: There is nothing in the original to justify the words, "bondmen and bondmaids;" it should be man-servant and woman-servant. Both are in the singular, and not plural, in the Hebrew text.

The word translated buy, is most properly translated procure.

The word translated heathen, is properly rendered Gentiles, and might be rendered nations.

The word translated forever, cannot bear that rendering in this case; it cannot mean longer than natural life, and that is never the sense of the English word forever. The word rendered forever, is le-o-lam, and its proper meaning is endless, and is correctly rendered forever, or to eternity, but here it cannot be understood in its full sense. It is used to denote a long period, less even than the whole of time. Many rites of the Jews were to be observed forever, which forever has passed and ended.

A single text will serve as an illustration of the use of the word in a limited sense. "Bath-sheba said, Let my lord king David live forever." 1Kings i, 31.

paragraph 2

This can mean but a short, indefinite period, for David was then old. It can mean no more than a long time, for a man in his circumstances. But in the expression, "they shall be your bondmen forever," forever can mean no more than natural life, and yet it is never employed to express this indefinite period. Forever, therefore, does not express the sense of the text, and as the period of the jubilee was the longest time a person could be retained in service by one contract, which will hereafter be more fully shown, it is certain that forever could not extend beyond the jubilee, and it is most natural to understand it as referring to that period, or to some period to be fixed upon in the contract, but not named in the law.

I will now introduce a literal translation of the text, and as I have no reputation as a Hebrew scholar to sustain one of my own, I have written to Dr. Roy, author of Roy's Hebrew and English Dictionary, for a literal translation of the text under consideration, and he has kindly furnished me with the following, which he warrants to be correct and literal:

20R&H page 0191 paragraph 3 44. [sic]

"And thy man-servant, and thy woman-servant, shall be to thee from among the Gentiles which are round about you. From them ye shall procure a man-servant and a woman-servant.

20R&H page 0191 paragraph 4 45. [sic]

"And also of the children of foreigners that reside with you, from them ye may procure of their families which are with them, that were born in your land; they shall be to you for a possession (service).

20R&H page 0191 paragraph 5 46. [sic]

"And ye shall choose them for your children after you, to preside over them as their portion, unto the end of the time (specified)." - Roy.

paragraph 6

I think no Hebrew scholar will deny that this translation is correct in all essential particulars, and if it be so, it follows not only that the translation in the common version perverts the sense of the original text to support slavery, but that nothing like American slavery is found in the law of Moses, when it is correctly understood.

Take the text as it is now spread before the reader, and there is clearly no slavery in it; no human chattels are presented to the mind, no fettered limbs are seen, and no chains clank in the ear of humanity. It is certain that the text as rendered above, does not, and cannot, prove the existence of chattel slavery; but still it means something, and what does it mean?

This is an important inquiry. Every law should be considered as designed to secure some important end, especially when God is the legislator. This law cannot have been designed to establish a system of human bondage like American slavery, and must have been designed to secure some other end, and not only a benevolent end, but one consonant with the general design of the whole system of which it is a part.

It will give additional strength to the conclusion that the establishment of slavery was not its object, if it can be clearly shown that it was designed and calculated to secure another benevolent and important end. This I will now attempt to show. I regard the law in question, in a civil point of light, as prescribing a plan of naturalization for foreigners; and in a religious point of light, as a system of proselytism, by which heathens were to be reclaimed from their idolatry, to the faith and worship of the God of Abraham.

To show this a number of plain facts need to be collected and looked at in connection with each other, and with reference to their joint bearing on this question.

(Concluded next week.)



Bondmen and Bondmaids.


20R&H page 0198 paragraph 27

1. GOD designed to make of the Jews a numerous, wealthy, and powerful nation. To secure this they must occupy a productive country, which he gave them, described as "a land flowing with milk and honey." It was necessary also that they should be kept from being mingled with other nations, either by emigration to other countries, or by a large influx of strangers, who should not become identified with their religion and nationality. It was necessary to keep them a distinct people.

Further to secure this end, their lands were secured forever, beyond their power to alienate them, so that every Jew was a freeholder in fact, or in prospect. A foreigner could not become permanently possessed of their lands, and could obtain a lasting interest in them only by becoming incorporated with some branch of the Jewish family, for which provision was made. This separating and signalizing the Jews had reference to the execution of God's plan of redeeming mankind, for which it was a preparatory step. So far all is plain and will not be disputed.

20R&H page 0199 paragraph 1

The proposed position of the Jewish nation, with the means employed to secure it, the inalienability of their lands, tended to produce certain incidental evils, and a want of an element essential to the greatness and independence of any people, viz., a numerous and well-sustained laboring class, beyond the actual proprietors of the soil. A freehold interest is the greatest interest, and the cultivation of the soil is, and ever must be, the basis of all other great interests, yet there are other great interests that must be sustained.

The circumstances of the Jews tended to produce a want of such a laboring class. A few of the influences tending to produce this want shall be named.

paragraph 2 (1.)

They were all land owners, and none need therefore engage in other pursuits than cultivating the soil, unless reduced by misfortune or bad economy. This would produce but very few mechanics and laborers to be hired.

paragraph 3 (2.)

Such was the richness of their country, so great the productiveness of the soil, that a large amount of labor could be expended with profit to the land owner, while the fact that every one was a land owner tended to render such labor difficult to obtain. In every prosperous community there is needed many more laborers than actual land owners, some must operate as mechanics, some as merchants, some must cultivate the lands of the unhealthy and widows, some must labor as additional helps to those who cultivate their own lands, and others will be needed as domestic help, commonly called servants.

paragraph 4 (3.)

The religion of the Jews required them to devote a large portion of their time to its special duties and exercises, rendering more laborers necessary to accomplish the same amount of labor in a given season. Every seventh year was a Sabbath the whole year. This was one seventh of all the time, and if averaged among the seven years, would be to each year just equal to the weekly Sabbath. For proof of this seventh-year rest, see Lev.xxv, 3-7. Next was the weekly Sabbath, every seventh day. Ex.xx, 8-11. This was another seventh of their whole time.

Then there were three annual feasts; the passover, which lasted seven days; the pentecost, or feast of weeks, which lasted seven days; and the feast of tabernacles, which lasted eight days. For proof of these feasts see Deut.xvi, 3,10,16; Ex.xii, 3,6,15; Lev.xxiii, 35,36,39,41,42. See also Josephus, book iii, chap.10.

paragraph 5

Their national feasts were held in one place, the place which the Lord chose, which was Jerusalem, and thither the tribes went up to worship. Ex.xxiv [sic, should be 34] , 23; Deut.xvi, 16; Luke ii, 41,44. This required long journeys on the part of many, as Joseph and Mary went one whole day's journey homeward before they missed their remarkable son, so large was the company returning from the feast.

More time must have been spent in the necessary preparations and journey than in the feasts themselves. The feasts together occupied twenty-two days, which gives the following result: The seventh year rest is equal to one weekly Sabbath, or fifty-two days in a year. To this add the weekly Sabbath, fifty-two days per year more, making one hundred and four days. To this add the three annual feasts, together occupying twenty-two days, making a total of one hundred and twenty-six, which is five days more than one entire third of the year, occupied in religion.

To this might be added the time consumed in going and returning, as above supposed, and other feasts that might be pointed out, as every new moon, and special occasions by which it would appear that one-half or more of the time of the whole male population was occupied with religious matters, but it is not necessary to press these additional matters, as it would cumber my page with many references to establish the several points. I have shown positively that over one-third part of their time was occupied by religious matters, and that is sufficient for my argument. This must have required an increased number of laborers.

It should be remarked that all that class of servants which some suppose to have been slaves, were required to observe all these feasts and Sabbaths.

paragraph 6

It may be asked how it could be expected that they should become great and wealthy, with a religion laying so heavy a tax upon their time. The answer is plain, in the words of the Lawgiver himself. "And if ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? behold we shall not sow nor gather in our increase: then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years." Lev.xxv, 20,21.

While they obeyed God, the shadow of his wing protected and blessed their whole land, but when they sinned and lost the divine blessing, without an abatement of their religious taxes, they felt them to be a burden.

The system was not adapted to the whole world, embracing all countries and climates; and it was established by God only as a preparatory step, to last until the time of reformation, when they should pass away with what Paul calls "a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear." But while the system lasted it had to be made consistent with itself, and if one part tended to produce incidental evils, they had to be overcome by the action of some other part. One evil we have seen was a want of a sufficient number of laborers.

This would naturally and mainly result

first, from the inalienability of their lands, making all the Jews land owners;

secondly, from the same fact tending to prevent other people from settling among them on account of their not being able to obtain a freehold estate;

thirdly, from their religion, which consumed so much of their time;

and fourthly, from the danger to their whole system which would arise from allowing laborers from other nations in sufficient numbers to become resident among them, without being naturalized and brought under the controlling influence of their laws and religion.

To overcome this difficulty, the celebrated law was introduced, now under consideration, authorizing them to obtain servants from the Gentiles. "Thy man-servant and thy woman-servant shall be to thee from among the Gentiles. [sic] From them ye shall procure a man-servant and a woman-servant."

The law has two faces to it, and removes two evils at once.

paragraph 7

First, it renders the employment of Gentiles lawful, thereby supplying the demand for laborers, and thus increases the population. Secondly, it removed a temptation to which they would otherwise have been exposed, to oppress and degrade one another. Some in every community will be unfortunate or prodigal, and fall into decay, and become dependent. This is contemplated in the law. Verses 35,36,39,42. Owing to the want of laborers and domestics, resulting as above, the wealthy might have been tempted to keep the poor down, for the sake of being able to obtain their services; but this law prevents in two ways.

First, it forbids it in so many words, and secondly, it opens another door through which servants can be lawfully obtained. Such servants were, by the very operation of that law, naturalized and became finally incorporated with the Jewish nation, and possessed in common with them all their civil and religious privileges and blessings. Thus did this law, which has been so terribly perverted and abused to make it justify American slavery, supply the land with labor, and at the same time naturalize the laborer to the nation, and proselyte him to the faith and worship of the true God.

paragraph 8

But how were these servants obtained? Our translation says they were bought. If it were so, it would be clear that they voluntarily sold themselves, and used the price as they saw fit for their own benefit.

Of whom else could they be bought, by men whose law provided that "he that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death." Ex.xxi, 16.

There is no law in all the book of God, by any provision of which, one man can get another into his possession to sell him in the market, without stealing. The law of the Jews punished the stealing and selling of men with death, and would he buy such stolen men? The right to buy involves the right to sell, on the part of him of whom the purchase is made. There being no way by which a man can obtain possession of a man to sell him but by stealing him, they could have been bought of none but themselves.

It is true they might buy captives out of the hands of the heathen, but captives are stolen if held and sold as slaves. They could therefore rightfully buy captives only to free them, for as the captor has no title to captives, so he can sell none, and the buyer can buy none. If we understand by buying, merely engaging the services of men for a specified time for a valuable consideration agreed upon between the parties, the subject is all plain. Then might the Gentiles sell themselves to the Jews, or parents might sell their children to the Jews, by which they apprenticed them to the Jewish state as prospective citizens, and to the Jewish religion. I know not how Gentile parents could have done better by their children. It presented a brighter prospect than the sale of children does now in the human markets.

paragraph 9

But we have seen that the word buy, in our sense of the term, is not in the text, that it is procure. Well, how were they procured? A Jew shall testify. Dr. Roy, in sending me the translation above given, accompanied it with the following:

paragraph 10

  • "There is no word in the Bible for slave; a ved is the only word to be found there, and means a hired man, servant, laborer, soldier, minister, magistrate, messenger, angel, prophet, priest, king, and Christ himself. Isa.lii, 13; but it never means a slave for life; for the law of the Sanhedrim [sic] forbids slavery.
  • paragraph 11

    "1. The contract was to be mutual and voluntary.

    paragraph 12

    "2. It was conditional that the servant should within one year become a proselyte to the Jewish religion; if not, he was to be discharged.

    paragraph 13

    "3. If he became such, he was to be governed by the same law, to eat at the same table, sup out of the same dish, and eat the same passover with his master.

    paragraph 14

    "4. Finally, the law allowed him to marry his master's daughter. Prov.xxix, 21. Yanhee in Sanhedrim." [sic]

    paragraph 15

    This confirms the view I have given that the law presented a system of naturalization and proselytism. The circumstances of the case were such as to call for such a provision. In addition to what has been said of the necessity of some source whence laborers might be obtained, if we look at the condition of the Gentiles we shall see that their circumstances pointed them out as that source, under proper regulations and restrictions.

    They were generally inferior to the Jews in point of intelligence and civilization, and on the subject of religion they were in the darkest midnight, while the Jews enjoyed the light of heaven. They were divided into petty kingdoms, and were but little more than the servants of their kings, who wielded an arbitrary, if not an absolute, scepter over them.

    But moral advantages are above all other advantages, and these were found only in the land of Israel; over that land the wing of the Almighty was spread; there the angel of the covenant watched behind the veil, and the divine presence glowed upon the mercy-seat above the ark, and from that land alone the way shone clearly that leads to heaven. If David, who had danced before the unveiled ark, could exclaim, "I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness," to bring a Gentile from the darkness of idolatry to the tent service of an Israelite, where God's own institutions shone upon him, must have been a transition over which angels rejoiced. A position which would have been menial to a native Jew, was honor, exaltation, and even salvation to a Gentile, coming from the land of shadows and death.

    paragraph 16

    To this must be added what we must suppose was the case, that numbers of heathen were attracted by the great fame of the Jews, that the report of what God had done for them, and of all the wonders he had wrought, and how he dwelled in that land, spread even among the surrounding nations, and that many resorted there, even to better their condition as servants. But it would not have been safe to have left these matters to regulate themselves, or to the will of each individual contracting party without the restraints of law, and hence all the laws regulating the subject of servitude.

    paragraph 17

    The Jews were authorized to take the heathen that might come to them, on condition that they became proselytes to their religion, and then when they were fully inducted they became citizens, with all the rights of native Jews, and their children born in the land were regarded as native Jews. There can be no doubt many became proselytes by this system, which rendered the truth and altars of God accessible to the Gentiles even under the Mosaic system.

    And this proselyting the Gentiles was but the first fruits of their future grand gathering in Christ Jesus. And that Gentile blood was introduced into Jewish veins is evident; for David, the brightest lamp of the nation, descended on the side of his mother, from a Moabitess woman, who became a proselyte to the Jewish religion. - Lee.


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