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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER XIV. THE HEBREW SLAVE-LAW COMPARED WITH THE AMERICAN SLAVE-LAW.
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CHAPTER XIV. THE HEBREW SLAVE-LAW COMPARED WITH THE AMERICAN SLAVE-LAW.
Having compared the American law with the Roman, we will now compare it with one other code of slave-laws, to wit, the Hebrew.

This comparison is the more important, because American slavery has been defended on the ground of God’s permitting Hebrew slavery.

The inquiry now arises, What kind of slavery was it that was permitted among the Hebrews? for in different nations very different systems have been called by the general name of slavery.

That the patriarchal state of servitude which existed in the time of Abraham was a very different thing from American slavery, a few graphic incidents in the scripture narrative show; for we read that when the angels came to visit Abraham, although he had three hundred servants born in his house, it is said that Abraham hasted, and took a calf, and killed it, and gave it to a young man to dress; and that he told Sarah to take three measures of meal and knead it into cakes; and that, when all was done, he himself set it before his guests.

From various other incidents which appear in the patriarchal narrative, it would seem that these servants bore more the relation of the members of a Scotch clan to their feudal lord than that of an American slave to his master;—thus it seems that if Abraham had died without children, his head servant would have been his heir.—Gen. 15:3.

Of what species, then, was the slavery which God permitted among the Hebrews? By what laws was it regulated?

In the New Testament the whole Hebrew system of administration is spoken of as a relatively imperfect one, and as superseded by the Christian dispensation.—Heb. 8:13.

We are taught thus to regard the Hebrew system as an educational system, by which a debased, half-civilized race, which had been degraded by slavery in its worst form among the Egyptians, was gradually elevated to refinement and humanity.

As they went from the land of Egypt, it would appear that the most disgusting personal habits, the most unheard-of and unnatural impurities, prevailed among them; so that it was necessary to make laws with relation to things of which Christianity has banished the very name from the earth.

Beside all this, polygamy, war and slavery, were the universal custom of nations.

It is represented in the New Testament that God, in educating this people, proceeded in the same gradual manner in which a wise father would proceed with a family of children.

He selected a few of the most vital points of evil practice, and forbade them by positive statute, under rigorous penalties.

The worship of any other god was, by the Jewish law, constituted high treason, and rigorously punished with death.

As the knowledge of the true God and religious instruction could not then, as now, be afforded by printing and books, one day in the week had to be set apart for preserving in the minds of the people a sense of His being, and their obligations to Him. The devoting of this day to any other purpose was also punished with death; and the reason is obvious, that its sacredness was the principal means relied on for preserving the allegiance of the nation to their king and God, and its desecration, of course, led directly to high treason against the head of the state.

With regard to many other practices which prevailed among the Jews, as among other 116heathen nations, we find the Divine Being taking the same course which wise human legislators have taken.

When Lycurgus wished to banish money and its attendant luxuries from Sparta, he did not forbid it by direct statute-law, but he instituted a currency so clumsy and uncomfortable that, as we are informed by Rollin, it took a cart and pair of oxen to carry home the price of a very moderate estate.

In the same manner the Divine Being surrounded the customs of polygamy, war, blood-revenge and slavery, with regulations which gradually and certainly tended to abolish them entirely.

No one would pretend that the laws which God established in relation to polygamy, cities of refuge, &c., have any application to Christian nations now.

The following summary of some of these laws of the Mosaic code is given by Dr. C. E. Stowe, Professor of Biblical Literature in Andover Theological Seminary:

1. It commanded a Hebrew, even though a married man, with wife and children living, to take the childless widow of a deceased brother, and beget children with her.—Deut. 25:5–10.

2. The Hebrews, under certain restrictions, were allowed to make concubines, or wives for a limited time, of women taken in war.—Deut. 21:10–19.

3. A Hebrew who already had a wife was allowed to take another also, provided he still continued his intercourse with the first as her husband, and treated her kindly and affectionately.—Exodus 21:9–11.

4. By the Mosaic law, the nearest relative of a murdered Hebrew could pursue and slay the murderer, unless he could escape to the city of refuge; and the same permission was given in case of accidental homicide.—Num. 35:9–39.

5. The Israelites were commanded to exterminate the Canaanites, men, women and children.—Deut. 9:12; 20:16–18.

Any one, or all, of the above practices, can be justified by the Mosaic law, as well as the practice of slave-holding.

Each of these laws, although in its time it was an ameliorating law, designed to take the place of some barbarous abuse, and to be a connecting link by which some higher state of society might be introduced, belongs confessedly to that system which St. Paul says made nothing perfect. They are a part of the commandment which he says was annulled for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof, and which, in the time which he wrote, was waxing old, and ready to vanish away. And Christ himself says, with regard to certain permissions of this system, that they were given on account of the “hardness of their hearts,”—because the attempt to enforce a more stringent system at that time, owing to human depravity, would have only produced greater abuses.

The following view of the Hebrew laws of slavery is compiled from Barnes’ work on slavery, and from Professor Stowe’s manuscript lectures.

The legislation commenced by making the great and common source of slavery—kidnapping—a capital crime.

The enactment is as follows: “He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”—Exodus 21:16.

The sources from which slaves were to be obtained were thus reduced to two: first, the voluntary sale of an individual by himself, which certainly does not come under the designation of involuntary servitude; second, the appropriation of captives taken in war, and the buying from the heathen.

With regard to the servitude of the Hebrew by a voluntary sale of himself, such servitude, by the statute-law of the land, came to an end once in seven years; so that the worst that could be made of it was that it was a voluntary contract to labor for a certain time.

With regard to the servants bought of the heathen, or of foreigners in the land, there was a statute by which their servitude was annulled once in fifty years.

It has been supposed, from a disconnected view of one particular passage in the Mosaic code, that God directly countenanced the treating of a slave, who was a stranger and foreigner, with more rigor and severity than a Hebrew slave. That this was not the case will appear from the following enactments, which have express reference to strangers:

The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.—Lev. 19:34.

Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.—Exodus 22:21.

Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger.—Exodus 23:9.

The Lord your God regardeth not persons. He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and the widow, and loveth the stranger in giving him food and raiment; love ye therefore the stranger.—Deut. 10:17–19.

Judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him.—Deut. 1:16.

Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger.—Deut. 27:19.

Instead of making slavery an oppressive institution with regard to the stranger, it was made by God a system within which heathen were adopted into the Jewish state, educated and instructed in the worship of the true God, and in due time emancipated.

In the first place, they were protected by law from personal violence. The loss of an eye or a tooth, through the violence of his master, took the slave out of that master’s 117power entirely, and gave him his liberty. Then, further than this, if a master’s conduct towards a slave was such as to induce him to run away, it was enjoined that nobody should assist in retaking him, and that he should dwell wherever he chose in the land, without molestation. Third, the law secured to the slave a very considerable portion of time, which was to be at his own disposal. Every seventh year was to be at his own disposal.—Lev. 25:4–6. Every seventh day was, of course, secured to him.—Ex. 20:10.

The servant had the privilege of attending the three great national festivals, when all the males of the nation were required to appear before God in Jerusalem.—Ex. 34:23.

Each of these festivals, it is computed, took up about three weeks.

The slave also was to be a guest in the family festivals. In Deut. 12:12, it is said, “Ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God, ye, and your sons, and your daughters, and your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and the Levite that is within your gates.”

Dr. Barnes estimates that the whole amount of time which a servant could have to himself would amount to about twenty-three years out of fifty, or nearly one-half his time.

Again, the servant was placed on an exact equality with his master in all that concerned his religious relations.

Now, if we recollect that in the time of Moses the God and the king of the nation were one and the same person, and that the civil and religious relation were one and the same, it will appear that the slave and his master stood on an equality in their civil relation with regard to the state.

Thus, in Deuteronomy 29, is described a solemn national convocation, which took place before the death of Moses, when the whole nation were called upon, after a solemn review of their national history, to renew their constitutional oath of allegiance to their supreme Magistrate and Lord.

On this occasion, Moses addressed them thus:—“Ye stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in thy camp, from the hewer of thy wood unto the drawer of thy water; that thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day.”
Wheeler’s Law of Slavery, p. 243.

How different is this from the cool and explicit declaration of South Carolina with regard to the position of the American slave:—“A slave is not generally regarded as legally capable of being within the peace of the state. He is not a citizen, and is not in that character entitled to her protection.”

In all the religious services, which, as we have seen by the constitution of the nation, were civil services, the slave and the master mingled on terms of strict equality. There was none of the distinction which appertains to a distinct class or caste. “There was no special service appointed for them at unusual seasons. There were no particular seats assigned to them, to keep up the idea that they were a degraded class. There was no withholding from them the instruction which the word of God gave about the equal rights of mankind.”

Fifthly. It was always contemplated that the slave would, as a matter of course, choose the Jewish religion, and the service of God, and enter willingly into all the obligations and services of the Jewish polity.

Mr. Barnes cites the words of Maimonides, to show how this was commonly understood by the Hebrews.—Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. By Albert Barnes, p. 132.

Whether a servant be born in the power of an Israelite, or whether he be purchased from the heathen, the master is to bring them both into the covenant.

But he that is in the house is entered on the eighth day; and............
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