The Bible's New Attitude toward Slavery

The Torah doesn’t outright end slavery, which was ubiquitous in the ancient world, but it does take the first steps toward ameliorating and transforming it.

Pages from the Golden Haggadah showing the enslavement of the Israelites. British Museum

Pages from the Golden Haggadah showing the enslavement of the Israelites. British Museum

Observation
Jan. 31 2019
About the author

Sarah Rindner teaches English literature at Lander College in New York and blogs at Book of Books.


In the first part of the book of Exodus, after centuries of slavery in Egypt, God rescues the Israelites amid miracles and wonders. Their freedom, however, is not an end in itself but a precondition of their true national calling: the worship of God. Thus Moses first leads the Israelites not to the Promised Land but to Mount Sinai, where God reveals Himself and gives them the Ten Commandments. In this week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24), which follows immediately thereafter, the Israelites are given the outline of an entire legal system, complete with instructions on tort law, financial regulations, the prohibition on witchcraft, and the agricultural holidays—a first taste of the legislation that will take up much of the remainder of the Pentateuch.

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