Does Exodus 21:2-11 imply that God is instituting slavery? Here's the text below:

2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. 5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges.[a] He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. 7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money."

I don't want to believe it, but it seems that YHWH is providing a system for enslavement. Am I missing something?

  • 1
    Against my better judgment, I'll acknowledge that I am the DVer and it had nothing to do with the fact that this question is about slavery. My issue is that I think the answer is obvious, and it appears to be a thinly veiled request for a defense of God in light of the plain fact that the text is giving laws concerning slavery ("I don't want to believe it..."). Had the question been along the lines of, "what were the primary differences between slavery as regulated in Exodus 21:2-11 and chattel slavery in America?" (which is where most answers are focused), I would have upvoted.
    – Dan
    Sep 15, 2016 at 0:27
  • -1 because of course God is providing a system for enslavement in this chapter.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 20, 2016 at 13:37
  • All men have to earn a living, and there are more than one way of doing that. Whatever skill one might possess, one could ultimately either employ it for oneself (by toiling one's own small field, or raising one's own small herd), or trade it to other poor or modest people, in exchange for a small or modest amount of revenue; or one could find a truly wealthy person, and convince them of the benefit of one's services. But what if the master will tend to exploit the fact that their servant is more dependent upon their payment than they are in vital need of the latter's services ?
    – Lucian
    Aug 8, 2017 at 10:11

2 Answers 2


Whilst some critical scholars would certainly argue that the Exodus never happened and wasn't intended to be read that way, that hardly represents all scholarship. There is a large body of scholarship that would argue for a historical Exodus, and there is historical evidence to support the plausibility of the events during the time they are supposed to have happened (See Tremper Longman III - How to read Exodus). But that is a separate discussion.

What Slavery Wasn't

I will answer from the perspective that the Exodus did happen and God really did establish a covenant agreement with his people. What you are seeing in Exodus 21:2-11 is not the same as the slave trade that started in the 15th century that burns in our minds. This type of slavery, referred to as chattel slavery was forbidden in Israel (Exodus 21:16).

See also Wikipedia - Jewish Views on Slavery

What Slavery Was

Slavery in this context was (at least intended) to be a social welfare system to protect ones self from their own encumbering debt or abject poverty (sometimes called indentured servitude). Perhaps you were a foreigner in Israel starting with nothing, or an Israelite with gross debt, you could protect yourself by selling yourself into servant hood for a time (See Genesis 29, Jacob serves Laban after fleeing his household).

As you can hopefully see from the passage, slavery/servant hood was supposed to protect the individual with certain rights.

The Rights of the Slaves

The fact that these rights were explicitly commanded can perhaps give you an idea of the problems slaves might have faced in other places in the world at the time:

  1. You couldn't keep them in servitude forever, you had to release them.

  2. Servants were not to be deliberately separated from their families upon release.

  3. They were to have their needs provided for and not be deprived of food or clothes.

Israel were supposed to be different to to the other nations

There are some other cultural oddities in there that you would need to turn to a good commentary to explain (This site gives a comparison on various commentaries). Like many of the laws, they were designed so that women, children and slaves were supposed to have a much better time in Israel than they would have in an ancient world that could be quite violent and oppressive to these groups. Israel was supposed to stand out and be different.

But it didn't work out so great...

The problem is throughout the Pentateuch Moses explains that these laws wouldn't be enough to fix the problem of humanities hard hearts. And you see in the book of Kings and the prophets that Israel didn't do a good job living out this covenant agreement as God's people. So you see the prophets regularly condemn Israel for their oppression of the poor and slaves/servants (Amos 2:6).

Appendix 1: Foreign slaves don't seem to be included in the cycle of release, what about them?

  1. A convincing argument can be made that the laws in the Torah were not Israel's complete constitution. Rather they were a selection of the laws at times and places to help paint a picture of what God's people were supposed to be like (and ultimately highlights their eventual failure to keep them). See John Sailhamer - The Pentateuch as Narrative.

If this is the case, we shouldn't expect to get the full detail on the treatment of slaves/servants. But rather the law is there to paint a picture. The picture we get is that life for indentured slaves/servants (both foreign and domestic) was supposed to be better than life outside Israel.

  1. Exodus and Deuteronomy actually make no mention of the release or otherwise of non-Israelite slaves [Wikipedia]. Leviticus 25 presents the option of Israelite's acquiring keeping foreign slaves on a permanent basis, but it is presented as an opportunity not a command.

  2. So why might the Israelites have been permitted in Leviticus to keep foreign slaves/servants on a permanent basis? From a Biblical/historical perspective foreign slaves were likely not freed because they could not own land, and releasing them against their will would return them to poverty. Given that it was forbidden to mistreat a foreigner (Exodus 22:21) and as previously discussed the provision for servants included food, shelter and safety it is likely that this was the better outcome.

  • I can appreciate the claim that slavery in the Pentateuch was very different from 15th century slavery. Off the top of your head, can you point to Biblical or extra-Biblical sources to highlight this difference? (I've found IVP's Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch helpful to a certain extent.) I'm also left with the loose end regarding captives taken in war. In that case a captive taken in slavery had no choice in the matter of their enslavement. Presumably enslavement is still a social protection from financial hardship? Can you speak to that?
    – PG Gable
    Sep 14, 2016 at 13:54
  • @PGGable - thanks. I have updated my answer in the section "What slavery Wasn't" - The type of slavery that was practiced in the 15th century was actually forbidden by Israel. One example in the narrative sections of the Torah is Jacob voluntarily becoming the servant of Laban in Genesis 29 (after he fled from his household). He served Laban for 20 years. As for the captives. See my appended answer, but yes it was likely a social mechanism due to the fact they could not inherit land.
    – L0ckz0r
    Sep 15, 2016 at 0:08

According to the Bible, God is certainly providing a system for enslavement within the Israelite community, although there is no doubt that slavery existed elsewhere long before these times. Exodus 20:1 tells us that God (YHWH) spoke the very words in Exodus 21:2-11:

Exodus 20:1: And God spake all these words, saying ...

If Exodus is literally true, as recorded by Moses himself, then we have reason to believe that God approved of the Israelites owning slaves, as long as that ownership was regulated by the rules he set forward here and elsewhere. Against this, Wkipedia tells us:

Jewish and Christian tradition viewed Moses as the author of Exodus and the entire Pentateuch, but by the end of the 19th century the increasing awareness of discrepancies, inconsistencies, repetitions and other features of the Pentateuch had led scholars to abandon this idea. In approximate round dates, the process which produced Exodus and the Pentateuch probably began around 600 BCE when existing oral and written traditions were brought together to form books recognisable as those we know, reaching their final form as unchangeable sacred texts around 400 BCE.

Carol A. Redmount says, in 'Bitter Lives', published in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, page 63:

The biblical Exodus account was never intended to function or to be understood as history in the present-day sense of the word. For most occasions, and especially for documents that expressed deeper truths and fundamental values, facts as such were not always valued, consistency was not always a virtue, and specific historical particulars were often irrelevant and therefore variable.

With scholars having abandoned the idea that Moses was the author of this passage, and the understanding that "the biblical Exodus account was never intended to function or to be understood as history," then we can accept that YHWH is entirely exonerated of any involvement in the vile practice of slavery. The first-millennium author attributed the laws to YHWH in order to ensure their acceptance by the people.

  • 1
    There's no point posting this kind of answer when it can be posted on nearly every question about the Pentateuch. Furthermore you arguably haven't answered the question - the question asks if the passage implies that God instituted slavery. The text may be fictional, but the text itself does far more than imply it, it outright states that God instituted slavery. The text's authenticity is entirely tangential to this kind of question.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 20, 2016 at 13:42
  • @curiousdannii I answered from both points of view. My first 3 paras state that "According to the Bible" YHWH instituted slavery. My next three paras talk about authorship and whether the ancient Jews the account was "intended to function or to be understood as history." My concluding para draws the two positions together. Therefore I have answered the question, from both a literal and a critical perspective. As you say, the text "outright states that God instituted slavery, " so the OP must have been after more than just a simple regurgitation of the text, and that is what I provided. Sep 20, 2016 at 21:04

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