Now, you should read the context of this passage. It isn't much in the connection to this specific verse, but I will still share. Samuel tells the people asking for a king that the servants, male and female that have already been servants into his (or the nation's) hands to become the coming king's slaves.

Why does ESV, use the word slave in this area, and in which way are they slaves? Indentured servants? Servants with more power and honor, or less. This is such a confusing topic of debate and why can I never clarify it especially just reading it without a scholar to point out the difference and make this understandable. Obviously, we westerner's love to place this meaning unto slavery as we have experienced some wicked things from mainly the 19th century in the United States. But I am clairvoyant to a point that these two are different. One reason being slaves then were not forced. But, as I read the ESV commentary, I see this. "The Israelites and all their possessions would be subject to the king's use. Forced Labour (see 1 Kings 5:13-16) would probably be the most objectionable form of 'slavery.'"

You see, this is very convoluted to the point where someone can definitely believe slavery is condoned in the biblical history.

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    I must point out the difference between describing something and condoning it. Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:29
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    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 4:59

2 Answers 2


The operative word in 1 Sam 8:17 which is עֶבֶד (ebed) has a broad range of meanings that includes (extracted from BDB):

  1. slave, servant of household Genesis 39:17,19; Genesis 41:12; Genesis 50:2; Exodus 21:2, etc
  2. Subjects, of chief Genesis 26:15,19,25,32; Genesis 27:37; Genesis 32:17; of king Genesis 21:25; Exodus 7:28; Exodus 7:29; 1 Kings 9:27; Deuteronomy 29:1; specifically officers of king 1 Samuel 19:1; 1 Samuel 21:8; 2 Samuel 11:13; Proverbs 14:35; ambassadors Numbers 22:18; 2 Samuel 10:2; officers of army 1 Samuel 29:3; 1 Kings 11:26; 2 Kings 25:8; Isaiah 36:9, etc
  3. Servants, worshippers, of God: עַבְדֵי יהוה 2 Kings 9:7; 2 Kings 10:23; Isaiah 54:17, etc; ancient worthies, patriarchs Exodus 32:13, Deuteronomy 9:27; Abraham Genesis 26:24, Psalm 105:6; Psalm 105:42; Isaac Genesis 24:14; Jacob, Israel Ezekiel 28:25; Ezekiel 37:25; 1 Chronicles 16:13; Moses Exodus 14:31; Joshua 18:7, Numbers 12:7,8, Deuteronomy 34:5, Joshua 1:1,2,7,13,15; Joshua 8:31,33; Joshua 9:24; Joshua 11:12,15
  4. Servant of ׳י, in a special sense: of Levitical singers using benedictions in temple Psalm 113:1; Psalm 134:1; Psalm 135:1; usually of prophets, עֲבָדַי הַנְּבִיאִים my servants the prophets 2 Kings 9:7; 2 Kings 17:13; Jeremiah 7:25; Jeremiah 26:5; Jeremiah 29:19; Jeremiah 35:15; Jeremiah 44:4; Ezekiel 38:17; Zechariah 1:6; עֲבָדָיו הַנְּבִיאִים 2 Kings 17:23; 2 Kings 21:10; 2 Kings 24:2; Jeremiah 25:4; Amos 3:7; Daniel 9:10; עֲבָדֶיךָ הנביאים Ezra 9:11; Daniel 9:6; specifically Ahia 1 Kings 14:18; 1 Kings 15:29; Elijah 2 Kings 9:36; 2 Kings 10:10; Jonah 2 Kings 14:25; Isaiah Isaiah 20:3; עַבְדּוֺ, "" מלאכיו Isaiah 44:26; as one calling to fear ׳י Isaiah 50:10.
  5. Israel as a people is servant of ׳׃י יִשְׂרָאֵל Isaiah 41:8,9; Isaiah 44:21 (twice in verse); Isaiah 49:3; Psalm 136:22; יעקב Isaiah 44:1; Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 45:4; Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 30:10; Jeremiah 46:27; Jeremiah 47:28, etc
  6. In polite address of equals or superiors the Hebrews used עַבְדְּךָ thy servant = 1 person singular, I, Genesis 18:3; 1 Samuel 20:7,8 (twice in verse); 2 Kings 8:13 +; עֲבָדֶיךָ thy servants = we Genesis 42:11; Isaiah 36:11; also עַבְדּוֺ his servant = I, 1 Samuel 26:18,19; 2 Samuel 14:22; 2 Samuel 24:21 +; also in addressing God, especially in prayer Exodus 4:10; Numbers 11:11; Judges 15:18; 1 Samuel 3:9,10; 1 Samuel 25:39; 2 Samuel 24:10; Psalm 19:12; Psalm 19:14; Psalm 27:9; Psalm 31:17; Psalm 35:27; Psalm 69:18; Psalm 109:28; Psalm 143:2

Thus, the range of meaning for עֶבֶד (ebed) is wider than our English "slave" or "servant".

In 1 Sam 18:7, Samuel is making the point that a (then) future king would remove people from families to serve the king rather than work the land as would normally be the case. Such people would (V10-18) be given task such as:

  • charioteers and horsemen
  • army commanders
  • perfumers, cooks, and bakers

Further, the kings would also confiscate land and food for himself. AND, the people would have to serve the king as servants instead of being free as they were in Samuel's time.


Clarification In answering your query, it should be noted that slavery was not an American invention! This practice is endemic to the whole history of mankind. Remember that the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians. All the ancient empires had slaves...of various degrees: servants, drafted soldiers, and forced labor, etc. The Romans had slaves drawn from throughout the Empire. And they raided the villages of the Caucus mountains, and called those slaves "Caucasians"! The barbarian hordes had slaves; the Asians had slaves; the Central Americans Indians had slaves captured from neighboring tribes, as well as did the North American Indians. The African tribes have enslaved each other for millennia (and still do in Sudan).

Modern slavery takes many forms, as well. Of course we are aware of "forced labor. But there is economic slavery, too: indebtedness to financial institutions with no hope of paying off the high interest rated loans (College loans, credit cards, pau-day loans, house mortgages, etc.)

There is religious slavery, with what are called cults or sects, entrapping followers mentally or spiritually, with undo and unreasonable service to their leader.

There is human trafficking rampant around the world, too. This enslaves women--and girls--in the most egregious conduct that destroys their hope of a peaceful future. Girls are even sold by their parents because of unbearable poverty!

And there is burdensome taxation by governments, of which Samuel's king is one type. (To which you reference, 1 Samuel 8:17) Kings, who decree according to their pleasure use citizens as a means to an end. This was what the Prophet was trying to warn the Israelites about. Overbearing kingship was not what God intended. He wanted to be that nation's "Benevolent Dictator," if you will allow that term. God knew how to govern people better than any human, blue blood or not. God had no ulterior motives. He was a loving Father...but the Israelites let their visual eyes overrun their spiritual, and desired to be like other nations who had splendid, royal palaces, with all their pomp and circumstance.

So just because the Prophet had the foresight to describe the evil ahead, does not mean he (or God) is condoning it. And even in the New Testament era, where Roman slavery was rampant, He did not condone it, but taught that all men were family member and should serve one another out of love.

On the other hand, neither did God or the Apostles advocate a Sparticus-type up-rising! (A slave revolt). No matter one's lot in life, God sees and rewards Christian virtues. Jesus left mankind a pristine example of humility, endurance in tribulation, service to all regardless of social status, and hope of the resurrection where all men will be rewarded!

No stripe on the back will be over-looked on Judgment day. No tear will fall to the ground. No cry will be lost in the noise of reality. Whom the Son sets free will be free indeed.

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