excerpt from Joshua and the Promised Land
by Roy H. May, Jr.
The other practices that must be discussed are slavery and forced labor. Slavery was an integral part of the ancient Near East. Along with other forms of forced labor, it was permitted in Israel. Slavery and forced labor, however, were not the main sources of labor. The Israelite economy was not based on them as in, for example, ancient Rome or the pre-Civil War South in the United States. Free, family labor was the norm. Most slaves were household servants or concubines, rather than field workers. Only rich Israelites would have had slaves, bonded servants, or others. Poor Israelites could sell themselves to richer neighbors out of economic necessity for specific periods of time. Hebrew slaves were to be freed at periodic intervals. Non-Israelites could be enslaved permanently Different from most forms of slavery, the slaves of Israelites retained some legal standing (for example, Ex. 21:26-27). This provided them limited protection. (14)
Slavery and forced labor are mentioned in the Book of Joshua as if they were present during the conquest and tribal period. However, these customs probably emerged during later times. Forms of slavery existed early on, but forced labor of free citizens seems to have been started by Solomon. Furthermore, the editor of the Book of Joshua probably refers to enslaving Canaanites because it was evident they had never been
exterminated. Some explanation was required that put Israel on top. There is no historical evidence that "Canaanites" as whole peoples were enslaved, although individuals were. The Gibeonites also continued to live among the Israelites and fulfilled many domestic or nonmilitary functions. Again,
the editor of the Book of Joshua sought an explanation by claiming that Joshua and the Israelites forced them into subservience. This supposedly was based on the Gibeonites' own act of submission (9:11). When making a treaty, it was standard for the seeking party to subject itself to the other. So, according to the Book of Joshua, the Gibeonites became "hewers of wood and drawers of water" (9:21) for the Israelites. However, there is no historical evidence to support this Deuteronomistic conclusion.
14. For slavery in the Old Testament, see Muhammad A. Dandameyer, "Slavery (OT)," in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6 (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: doubpleday, 1992), pp. 62-65. (return to text)
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