The original-language words rendered “slave” or “servant” are not limited in their application to persons owned by others. The Hebrew word ʽeʹvedh can refer to persons owned by fellowmen. (Ge 12:16; Ex 20:17) Or the term can designate subjects of a king (2Sa 11:21; 2Ch 10:7), subjugated peoples who paid tribute (2Sa 8:2, 6), and persons in royal service, including cupbearers, bakers, seamen, military officers, advisers, and the like, whether owned by fellowmen or not (Ge 40:20; 1Sa 29:3; 1Ki 9:27; 2Ch 8:18; 9:10; 32:9). In respectful address, a Hebrew, instead of using the first person pronoun, would at times speak of himself as a servant (ʽeʹvedh) of the one to whom he was talking. (Ge 33:5, 14; 42:10, 11, 13; 1Sa 20:7, 8) ʽEʹvedh was used in referring to servants, or worshipers, of Jehovah generally (1Ki 8:36; 2Ki 10:23) and, more specifically, to special representatives of God, such as Moses. (Jos 1:1, 2; 24:29; 2Ki 21:10) Though not a worshiper of Jehovah, one who performed a service that was in harmony with the divine will could be spoken of as God’s servant, an example being King Nebuchadnezzar.—Jer 27:6.
The Greek term douʹlos corresponds to the Hebrew word ʽeʹvedh. It is used with reference to persons owned by fellowmen (Mt 8:9; 10:24, 25; 13:27); devoted servants of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, whether human (Ac 2:18; 4:29; Ro 1:1; Ga 1:10) or angelic (Re 19:10, where the word synʹdou·los [fellow slave] appears); and, in a figurative sense, to persons in slavery to sin (Joh 8:34; Ro 6:16-20) or corruption (2Pe 2:19).
The Hebrew word naʹʽar, like the Greek term pais, basically means a boy or a youth and can also designate a servant or an attendant. (1Sa 1:24; 4:21; 30:17; 2Ki 5:20; Mt 2:16; 8:6; 17:18; 21:15; Ac 20:12) The Greek term oi·keʹtes denotes a house servant or slave (Lu 16:13), and a female slave or servant is designated by the Greek word pai·diʹske. (Lu 12:45) The participial form of the Hebrew root sha·rathʹ may be rendered by such terms as “minister” (Ex 33:11) or “waiter.” (2Sa 13:18) The Greek word hy·pe·reʹtes may be translated “attendant,” “court attendant,” or “house attendant.” (Mt 26:58; Mr 14:54, 65; Joh 18:36) The Greek term the·raʹpon occurs solely at Hebrews 3:5 and means subordinate or attendant.
Before the Common Era. War, poverty, and crime were the basic factors that reduced persons to a state of servitude. Captives of war were often constituted slaves by their captors or were sold into slavery by them. (Compare 2Ki 5:2; Joe 3:6.) In Israelite society a person who became poor could sell himself or his children into slavery to care for his indebtedness. (Ex 21:7; Le 25:39, 47; 2Ki 4:1) One guilty of thievery but unable to make compensation was sold for the things he stole, evidently regaining his freedom at the time all claims against him were cared for.—Ex 22:3.
At times slaves held a position of great trust and honor in a household. The patriarch Abraham’s aged servant (likely Eliezer) managed all of his master’s possessions. (Ge 24:2; 15:2, 3) Abraham’s descendant Joseph, as a slave in Egypt, came to be in charge of everything belonging to Potiphar, a court official of Pharaoh. (Ge 39:1, 5, 6) In Israel, there was a possibility of a slave’s becoming wealthy and redeeming himself.—Le 25:49.
Laws governing slave-master relationships. Among the Israelites the status of the Hebrew slave differed from that of a slave who was a foreigner, alien resident, or settler. Whereas the non-Hebrew remained the property of the owner and could be passed on from father to son (Le 25:44-46), the Hebrew slave was to be released in the seventh year of his servitude or in the Jubilee year, depending upon which came first. During the time of his servitude the Hebrew slave was to be treated as a hired laborer. (Ex 21:2; Le 25:10; De 15:12) A Hebrew who sold himself into slavery to an alien resident, to a member of an alien resident’s family, or to a settler could be repurchased at any time, either by himself or by one having the right of repurchase. The redemption price was based on the number of years remaining until the Jubilee year or until the seventh year of servitude. (Le 25:47-52; De 15:12) When granting a Hebrew slave his freedom, the master was to give him a gift to assist him in getting a good start as a freedman. (De 15:13-15) If a slave had come in with a wife, the wife went out with him. However, if the master had given him a wife (evidently a foreign woman who would not be entitled to freedom in the seventh year of servitude), she and any children by her remained the property of the master. In such a case the Hebrew slave could choose to remain with his master. His ear would then be pierced with an awl to indicate that he would continue in servitude to time indefinite.—Ex 21:2-6; De 15:16, 17.
Female Hebrew slaves. Certain special regulations applied to a female Hebrew slave. She could be taken as a concubine by the master or designated as a wife for his son. When designated as a wife for the master’s son, the Hebrewess was to be treated with the due right of daughters. Even if the son took another wife, there was to be no diminishing of her sustenance, clothing, and marriage due. A failure on the son’s part in this respect entitled the woman to her freedom without the payment of a redemption price. If the master sought to have a Hebrewess redeemed, he was not permitted to accomplish this by selling her to foreigners.—Ex 21:7-11.
Protections and privileges. The Law protected slaves from brutalities. A slave was to be set at liberty if mistreatment by the master resulted in the loss of a tooth or an eye. As the usual value for a slave was 30 shekels (compare Ex 21:32), his liberation would have meant considerable loss to the master and, therefore, would have served as a strong deterrent against abuse. Although a master could beat his slave, the slave, depending upon the decision of the judges, was to be avenged if he died under his master’s beating. However, if the slave lingered on for a day or two before dying—this indicating that the master had not intended to kill the slave but to discipline him—he was not to be avenged. (Ex 21:20, 21, 26, 27; Le 24:17) Also, it would appear that for the master to have been considered free of guilt the beating could not have been administered with a lethal instrument, as that would have signified intent to kill. (Compare Nu 35:16-18.) Therefore, if a slave lingered on for a day or two, there would be reasonable question as to whether the death resulted from the chastisement. A beating with a rod, for example, would not normally be fatal, as is shown by the statement at Proverbs 23:13: “Do not hold back discipline from the mere boy. In case you beat him with the rod, he will not die.”
Certain privileges were granted to slaves by the terms of the Law. As all male slaves were circumcised (Ex 12:44; compare Ge 17:12), they could eat the Passover, and slaves of the priest could eat holy things. (Ex 12:43, 44; Le 22:10, 11) Slaves were exempted from working on the Sabbath. (Ex 20:10; De 5:14) During the Sabbath year they were entitled to eat of the growth from spilled kernels and from the unpruned vine. (Le 25:5, 6) They were to share in the rejoicing associated with the sacrificing at the sanctuary and the celebration of the festivals.—De 12:12; 16:11, 14.
First-Century Christian Position. In the Roman Empire slaves were very numerous, with individuals owning hundreds and even thousands of slaves. The institution of slavery had the protection of the imperial government. First-century Christians did not take a stand against governmental authority in this matter and advocate a slaves’ revolt. They respected the legal right of others, including fellow Christians, to own slaves. That is why the apostle Paul sent back the runaway slave Onesimus. Because he had become a Christian, Onesimus willingly returned to his master, subjecting himself as a slave to a fellow Christian. (Phm 10-17) The apostle Paul also admonished Christian slaves not to take improper advantage of their relationship with believing masters. He said: “Let those having believing owners not look down on them, because they are brothers. On the contrary, let them the more readily be slaves, because those receiving the benefit of their good service are believers and beloved.” (1Ti 6:2) For a slave to have a Christian master was a blessing, as his owner was under obligation to deal righteously and fairly with him.—Eph 6:9; Col 4:1.
The acceptance of Christianity by those in servitude placed upon them the responsibility of being better slaves, “not talking back, not committing theft, but exhibiting good fidelity.” (Tit 2:9, 10) Even if their masters treated them unjustly, they were not to render inferior service. By suffering for righteousness’ sake, they imitated the example of Jesus Christ. (1Pe 2:18-25) “You slaves,” wrote the apostle Paul, “be obedient in everything to those who are your masters in a fleshly sense, not with acts of eye-service, as men pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, with fear of Jehovah. Whatever you are doing, work at it whole-souled as to Jehovah, and not to men.” (Col 3:22, 23; Eph 6:5-8) Such fine conduct toward their masters prevented bringing reproach upon the name of God, as no one could blame Christianity for producing lazy, good-for-nothing slaves.—1Ti 6:1.
Of course, a slave’s ‘obedience in everything’ could not include disobeying God’s law, as that would have meant fearing men rather than God. Wrongdoing by slaves, even when committed at the direction of a superior, would not have ‘adorned the teaching of their Savior, God,’ but would have misrepresented and disgraced this teaching. (Tit 2:10) Thus, their Christian conscience would govern.
In the Christian congregation all persons, regardless of their social status, enjoyed the same standing. All were anointed by the same spirit and thus shared in the same hope as members of one body. (1Co 12:12, 13; Ga 3:28; Col 3:11) While more limited in what he could do in spreading the good news, the Christian slave was not to worry about this. If granted the opportunity to gain freedom, however, he would take advantage of it and thereby enlarge his sphere of Christian activity.—1Co 7:21-23.
Enslavement to Sin. At the time the first man Adam disobeyed God’s law, he surrendered perfect control of himself and yielded to the selfish desire to continue sharing association with his sinful wife and pleasing her. Adam’s surrendering himself to his sinful desire made this desire and its end product, sin, his master. (Compare Ro 6:16; Jas 1:14, 15; see SIN, I.) He thus sold himself under sin. As all of his offspring were yet in his loins, Adam also sold them under sin. That is why the apostle Paul wrote: “I am fleshly, sold under sin.” (Ro 7:14) For this reason there was no way for any of Adam’s descendants to make themselves righteous, not even by trying to keep the Mosaic Law. As the apostle Paul put it: “The commandment which was to life, this I found to be to death.” (Ro 7:10) The inability of humans to keep the Law perfectly showed that they were slaves to sin and deserving of death, not life.—See DEATH.
Only by availing themselves of the deliverance made possible through Jesus Christ could individuals be emancipated or gain freedom from this enslavement. (Compare Joh 8:31-34; Ro 7:21-25; Ga 4:1-7; Heb 2:14-16; see RANSOM.) Having been bought with the precious blood of Jesus, Christians are slaves, or servants, of Jehovah God and of his Son, obligated to keep their commands.—1Co 7:22, 23; 1Pe 1:18, 19; Re 19:1, 2, 5; see FREEDMAN, FREEMAN; FREEDOM.
See also FAITHFUL AND DISCREET SLAVE.