Ugh, I got well into this post a few weeks ago and lost it in a computer crash, then got busy with other things. Perhaps it's doubly upsetting because I largely feel I've already addressed this topic in previous posts (here and here specifically, if you want to read back), but decided to make a single post focusing on the matter in specific. As I said in my last post an age ago, most of my posts for a while will be much more topical in nature than what I've done before.
There's a lot to say about slavery in the Bible, but one of the important things to note right off the top is the difference between slavery as we tend to think of the term in 20th-century America and the way the Bible describes it in ancient Israel. Modern slavery which was practiced in America for several centuries generally was the kidnapping of people from Africa, shipping them across the Atlantic in conditions not suitable for cattle much less humans, selling them into permanent unpaid servitude in which many were treated as far less than human, and their inability to be freed extended to their children, who would be born into slavery and live their whole lives as nothing more than property. For those with strong stomachs, a frankly graphic portrayal of many of the evils of modern slavery can be seen in the movie Amistad.
But as I obviously was getting to, Hebrew slavery was quite different, as one can see when one reads about it. That doesn't mean that it was all fun and games, obviously, but permit me the liberty of contrasting it to the negatives of modern slavery to show it in a positive light before I admit there are some things I would consider as unsavory as anyone else.
Point one: Slavery was largely a voluntary institution in Israel. In contrast to how we think of people being torn away from their home and family to be sold into slavery against their will so that the slave-trader can make some quick and easy cash, Hebrew slaves were selling themselves into slavery for their own well-being. Assumably, a person who was poor and had no means to make ends meet, rather than starving to death would approach one of their wealthy neighbors and ask to be taken on. Probably most people would consider this a good deal if the alternative were starving to death or becoming a beggar. Pay the man's debts and agree to house, clothe and feed him, and he's yours to keep!
Point two: Slavery was not a permanent status in Israel. Yes, you get to keep the guy, but only for six years. For all those people in the early days of America that used the Bible to justify slavery, imagine if they had actually practiced Biblical slavery! You can buy slaves, but you have to make them into free men after six years? That would have changed the slave trade, not to mention my previous point and the next much more interesting one. Which leads me to...
Point three: Not only are slaves not in a permanent state of slavery, but when they are released at the end of their term of service, you are required to pay them! I believe the idea here is that even with all the ways I'm trying to make out ancient Hebrew slavery to be a wonderful, cheery thing, it was not considered a desirable state to be in for the long run, so once someone had served you as a slave, you were required to set him up in such a manner that he really had the chance to go back to being a productive member of society on his own. Once again, try to imagine that in early 19th century America! "Well, you've served me well, these last six years on my cotton plantation here, so I guess your time is up. Here's your share of the proceeds from the last six years of cotton sales, and take a horse, too, since you'll need something to carry all the stuff you'll be packing out of here..." Difficult, but somehow funny to imagine.
So, the positive points aside, I suppose I should get to the negative, but there are also some points that are ambiguous, and probably depend on you personal point of view. For instance, while I said that slavery was largely voluntary, one of the exceptions is notable. If a person is caught stealing, and they can't repay what they stole, they are forced to go into slavery to pay off the debt. It may seem cruel, but in modern times, we throw them in jail. Either way, you're faced with a few years of lost freedom, so I think it's a personal judgment call. Still, I think it beats cutting the guy's hands off, but maybe that's just me.
A lot of the fairly ambiguous problems with Hebrew slavery (although much more abhorrent to our modern sensibilities) have to do with the treatment of women through this institution. Yes, as Bible detractors point out, in those days people would sell their daughters. The reason that I call this "ambiguous" is that things look very different when you compare this practice to the practices of those times and modern times. While we don't like it, women had very little rights in those days, and rather than choosing the man they wanted to marry, their fathers would sell them off to another family. The verses here are making it clear that just because a woman you have bought (and this may not actually be an issue of slavery, but betrothal, but honestly the dividing line is a thin one) belongs to you, you don't get the right to treat her like trash. She is not to go out and perform manual labor. She is not to be sold to a foreigner. You can't marry another woman unless you have the means to continue to support your first wife at the same level you already have been. (I'm not going to get into polygamy here.) By modern Western standards, being sold into marriage/slavery seems like a bad thing, but in the culture of that time (and even the modern culture of many countries today) that's being very generous.
(A friend of mine with whom I was discussing this subject recently pointed out that while many of us would certainly hope that God would create a moral code that was considerably less barbaric than the one ancient Israel got, it may simply have been prudent to work in "baby steps". Culture is resistant to change, and God, rather than flinging them forcefully into a 21st-century sensibility, gave them a strong nudge in the right direction. "Okay, while your slaves and wives are your property, that doesn't mean you're justified in treating them like livestock.")
Somebody pointed out to me in the comments that I forgot to mention the particular status of a slave becoming a "bondsman". At the end of the six-year period of servitude, the slave has the option of signing on for permament service. A man who decided to stay on permanently would get his ear pierced in an odd little ceremony before witnesses. Since this is voluntary, I don't think there is a real problem here. People of a more libertarian bent seem to have no problem with the idea that a person has the right to commit suicide or abuse their body in whatever way they choose to, so why not have the right to be a slave if you really want it? I would assume that this is often in the case of a person who found that being a slave ended up being a better lifestyle for them than being free and having to take care of themselves, as odd as that may sound.
On the positive side of this, even this "permanent" status is not really permanent, I believe. I would assume that a slave in this position still had the chance to purchase their freedom (Did I mention that since most slaves ended up being slaves because of debt, the early payment of the debt entitled them to freedom? I think I missed that as well.) and also, they would still have the right of release that is outlined below in the second-to-last paragraph. Furthermore, as we see in Leviticus 25:10, all slaves are to be set free every 50 years. (I'm putting that in bold because I think it's the most blatantly clear part of the Bible showing that slavery is never a completely permament status, and I don't want it to be missed.) Granted, the lifespan may not be so very long as to be beneficial for every slave to be set free in 50 years, but a big part of the point of the 50-year jubilee cycle is to restore things to families. Although as a permanent slave one may not be very young by the time the jubilee year comes around, your freedom and all of your family's real estate come back to your children at that time.
On the negative side, there are some further complications to this that have to do with the status of women and the way marriage worked in those days. (In addition to people not often understanding ancient Israelite slavery, I think modern "traditional marriage" supporters would not really want to have marriage be the institution that the Bible presents us with.) Basically, if you get married while you are a slave, your marriage is by permission of your master, and since you have no money, the bride-price was certianly paid by him. At the time you are to be set free, your master has the option of keeping the wife he bought for you, because she's his property, not yours. Obviously, this could really suck, and as the Bible points out, the only thing you can do about it if your master does this is elect to stay on as his servant. On the other hand, this fact wold be well known, and I would think that a person would avoid getting married while in servitude because of it. Not nice, but there it is.
One of the much more unsavory parts of slavery is the fact that the Bible does allow a slave owner to beat his slave. However, that comes with a caveat: if you beat the slave to death, you're guilty of murder, and if you beat them so severely that you disfigure them, you are forced to release them early.
Although there are probably many minor points I have not fully touched on, I'm going to leave the topic with just one more observation. The voluntary and temporary status of slaves does not apply to slaves acquired from foreign countries. At least not in the same manner, it would seem. The rules don't seem to be as well fleshed out in such a case. I suspect that the rules for release of a slave through mistreatment or on jubilee years still apply, and while slaves acquired during wartime are almost certainly not in voluntary service, those acquired from gentile neighbors may or may not be. Biblical detractors may be free to think the worst; even the best of this aspect clearly doesn't seem very pleasant.