(This study is an expansion of the worship section in my book, “A History of Man’s Quest for Immortality,” Fifth Estate Publishing, 2007)
The first mention of an owner of servants or slaves in the Bible is in Genesis 12 when the Pharaoh of Egypt gave Abram male and female servants. However, Abram probably had his own servants before that because of what’s mentioned in Genesis 14 – “Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” (verse 14) Abram most likely had many more servants than the 318 mentioned here, but the difference was in training and loyalty. Abram acquired many servants in Ur and Haran who were born into his household. That means their mothers and fathers were servants in Abram’s and Terah’s household. Nothing is mentioned in Genesis 14 about the servants Abram acquired in Egypt. It may be that there had not been time for formal training or that Abram did not trust the Egyptian servants given him. Families were more trusting of servants who were born into their household than those they acquired through other means (e.g. the gift of Pharaoh), plus they had trained them from childhood and knew what they could do. Abram’s trained servants were like a loyal family army.
When we look back at the beginning of Abram’s relationship with God, we see him leaving Haran for the land of Canaan with “Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran.” (Genesis 12:5) Abram was 75 years old and had done well for himself. God’s protection and provision made him even wealthier – “Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.” (Genesis 13:2)
God told Abram that his descendants would be strangers in a country not their own and would serve them and be afflicted in that country for 400 years. The Hebrew word for “serve” there is abad – the same word God used for what Israel would do for Him after He freed them from slavery in Egypt. Abram’s descendants, the children of Israel, would abad the Egyptians for 400 years and be “afflicted” (anah – oppressed, humbled, subdued). God promised Abram that at the end of those 400 years He would punish the nation they had served and Abram’s descendants would come out with great possessions. That is another concept of servitude in the ancient world. Some people, like Abram, treated their servants well, but others, like Egypt, treated many of their servants poorly.
People in the ancient world became servants for many reasons; some because they owed a debt, some because they committed a crime, and others because they were prisoners of war. Servitude eventually became a big part of the economy of city/states and the larger empires. The large number of slaves in the ancient world eventually led to written laws about slavery.
One of the oldest known laws was written a little before the time Abram was raised in Ur, so it would have been a code he grew up following. It was known as The Code of Ur-Nammu and was written in the Sumerian language. Some of the laws about slaves included:
- If a slave marries a slave, and that slave is set free, he does not leave the household.
- If slave marries a free person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner.
- If a man deflowered a virgin slavewoman of another man by force, that man must pay five shekels of silver.
- If a slave escapes from the city limits, and someone returns him, the owner had to pay two shekels to the one who returned him.
- If a man’s female slave, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with one quart of salt.
There may have been other laws concerning slaves at the time, but we see here that Abram and others in Ur would have had legal methods of dealing with issues concerning servants. Servants were also made aware of how those laws affected them.
Another well-known ancient legal code written about three centuries later was the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. King Hammurabi mentioned Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, in the preface about writing the code to “bring out rule in the land.” Some of the laws concerning slavery included:
- If any one take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.
- If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.
- If any one find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver.
- If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to the palace; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.
- If he hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death.
- If the slave that he caught run away from him, then shall he swear to the owners of the slave, and he is free of all blame.
- If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.
- If he give a male or female slave away for forced labor, and the merchant sublease them, or sell them for money, no objection can be raised.
- If any one fail to meet a claim for debt, and he sell the maid servant who has borne him children, for money, the money which the merchant has paid shall be repaid to him by the owner of the slave and she shall be freed.
(Translated by L. W. King)
As we search through many ancient documents of city/states and empires, we find that slavery was common around the world. It certainly was common in Egypt. Remember the pharaoh who gave Abram male and female slaves? Remember God telling Abram that a nation would enslave his descendants for 400 years? That was Egypt. Many of Egypt’s slaves had been taken as prisoners of wars or had been born into slavery. In the case of Abram’s descendants, the people of Israel lived as free people for many years under the protection of the pharaoh, but another man became pharaoh who did not know about the important role Joseph and his family had played in Egypt’s history. The new pharaoh was concerned that the children of Israel might turn against Egypt in the event of a war, so he set taskmasters over them to afflict them. The bondage became so bitter that the children of Israel cried out to God and the Lord sent Moses to free them.
When God gave Moses the Law concerning servants, it would have been fresh to the children of Israel. They had experienced how bad slavery could be. So, why didn’t God establish laws that would ban slavery in Israel? We’ll see in the next part of our study.
[You can read more about Abraham, Israel and Egypt in our book – A History of Man’s Quest for Immortality.]
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”