A Not-so-Peculiar Institution

We’ve all been through the motions; everyone knows that slavery was the major underlying cause of the Civil War. However, in class, jokes about biblical instances of slavery had been made, prompting a search for such the earliest instances of documented slavery.

The search takes us all the way back to Ancient Mesopotamia, where in the Code of Hammurabi (one of the earliest sets of laws) there is extensive legislature regarding the sale and purchase of human beings. It also determines the length of time one may be enslaved. In this case, the longest a man could be enslaved was 3 years, and in the fourth they would be set free. This precedent of indentured servitude continues on into the early colonial days, with indentured servants serving 7 years for their masters until they are set free.

After the Code of Hammurabi, the biblical texts of many religions placed no restrictions on, and often supported, the use of slavery as means to support one’s livelihood. The laws governing the usage of slaves in Judaism as stated in the Torah are closely tied to those proclaimed in the Code of Hammurabi. However, prior to the exchange of the Torah between God and Moses, slavery was portrayed in a very negative light, as evidenced by the Hebrews’ 400 alleged 400 year tenure in Egypt. During this time period, the Egyptians treated the Hebrews like dirt, and cared not for their well-being, prompting God to take a stand to help his chosen people. Despite this, 2 books later in the Torah, God explicitly allows slavery with guidelines similar to those outlined in the Code of Hammurabi.

As time progresses, and the Christian faith comes into being, the worldwide stance on slavery has largely stayed the same. At the very onset of Christianity, slaves were commonly used in the Roman Empire, and were an important feature of the economy, much as the slaves in the pre-Civil War Southern United States were. Slavery was not as much of a “peculiar institution” as the United States thought. Clearly, it had been around for millennia, and its usage in the South was no worse than other biblical portrayals of the crime against humanity.






The Bible

The Torah


IMG Source: Dreamworks “The Prince Of Egypt” – found online at http://imgur.com/a/wEjHU



2 thoughts on “A Not-so-Peculiar Institution

  1. This is a great idea to write about; I would have never thought of it. In American History classes, it makes sense that only the American interpretation and history of slavery would be discussed, but comparing it to slavery in other countries and time periods can be interesting. Although slavery was not particularly a peculiar institution at the time, I think it is important to remember that the United States of America was not radical (on a global scale) for abolishing slavery. Other countries abolished slavery before them such as Mexico where slavery was abolished officially in 1820.

  2. Danny!!! I never really thought to draw parallels between slavery in America to slavery back in ancient Mesopotamia. Your post was really eye opening to me because in class we only brought back slavery to the bible or the torah but to draw slavery back to other ancient civilizations and to its claimed root of creation is very interesting. I also did not know that slavery, at one point, had a limit to the years of servitude. It seems that slavery was more civilized at the beginning of its creation as opposed to the end of it. Slavery just became more and more corrupted as time went on. The slavery that we see nowadays is disturbing, but to think that at one point slaves only had to serve for a set number of years is amazing. Thank you for your lovely post.

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