The Manumission Of Slaves In Jubilee And Sabbath Years -- By: Michael A. Harbin

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 63:1 (NA 2012)
Article: The Manumission Of Slaves In Jubilee And Sabbath Years
Author: Michael A. Harbin

The Manumission Of Slaves In Jubilee And Sabbath Years

Michael A. Harbin


Debt in the Old Testament economy was problematic, and our understanding of it is even more problematic, especially with respect to debt slavery. It is suggested that several common misunderstandings have contributed greatly to the problem. First, the Hebrew word ‘ebed can be translated servant or slave and in the latter case it can denote both debt slave and chattel slave. In many cases there is a failure to make these distinctions. Second, there is a tendency to categorise all debt the same, regardless of the size. Third, a misunderstanding of the purpose of the jubilee has led to confusion regarding its role with respect to slavery and the manumission of slaves. Specifically, while the sabbath year guidelines included debt slavery, the jubilee by its nature did not involve slavery at all. Because the land ‘sale’ was really a land-lease, there was no debt involved, and the Israelite who ‘sold’ his land was not enslaved. It is then suggested that one option for the Israelite who ‘bought’ the land was to employ the ‘seller’ to work the land as a hired hand, which would explain the admonition that he was not be viewed as a slave.

1. Introduction

The issue of slavery in the Old Testament is complex. While slavery was at least condoned, various passages addressing servitude in general, especially with respect to the individual’s release from servitude, seem contradictory.1 This leads to complicated explanations

as commentators struggle with different biblical texts that discuss the matter. For example, Kiuchi translates the last phrase of Leviticus 25:39, which addresses one aspect of Israelite servitude, as ‘you shall not make him serve as a slave’.2 He then makes this puzzling comment: ‘By definition, this Israelite becomes a slave, but the Lord sternly rules that such a person should not be treated as an ordinary slave’ (italics added).3 In a similar manner, Rooker asserts that while a slave had the option of agreeing to stay with his master ‘after six years of enslavement; in the Jubilee even that slave is set free’.4 If jubilee immediately followed a sabbath year as traditionally understood, this seems not only to contradict the sabbath manumission laws, but defeats the purpose of the continued service provision (economic security).You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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