Leviticus permitted the Israelites to own foreign slaves. These could be taken as captives of war from their enemies, or could be bought from surrounding nations or from aliens. Fellow Israelites could only be hired as servants until the next year of Jubilee (Lev 25:39-46). They could not be permanently enslaved by men, because they were owned by God:
"Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves" (Lev 25:42).
Slaves could be willed as property to descendants. Here we have the creation of a permanent underclass, a sub-humanity. This became a Biblical justification for the later British and American enslavement of Africans. However, there was no racial component to this servitude, since slaves could be of the same race as resident aliens who had the full legal protections outlined in the previous section.
“Generally, a more humane spirit breathes through the Old Testament laws and customs on slavery....Even when Hebrew law and custom on slaves shares in the common heritage of the ancient Semitic world, there is this unique care in God’s name for these people who by status were not people, something absent from the law codes of Babylon or Assyria” (New Bible Dictionary, p. 1197).
Slaves had certain minimal protections:
a. Beating a slave was permitted, but if he died, the Israelite would be punished (Ex 21:20-21).
b. Slaves were required to rest on the Sabbath (Ex 23:12).
c. Slaves of priests shared in the food offerings received by the priest (Lev 22:10-12).
d. Female prisoners of war had the right to mourn for their relatives. If they were used sexually, they must either be married or released, they could not be enslaved (Deut 21:10-12). This must be considered an unprecedented act of protection for women.
e. A slave who took refuge with an Israelite must not be returned to his master. He could live in whatever town he desired (Deut 23:15-16). "Do not oppress him." This granting of free mobility to a slave could not have been implemented in practice, or the entire system of forced labor would have broken down.
In short, the Biblical practice of slavery is neither a model for nor a justification of later enslavement of South American Indians by Spain and Portugal, nor of Africans by England and the United States. As with race, so with slavery: the Old Testament gives the first word on the subject, but not the final word, which comes later in the New Testament.