Is "forced labor" a good translation of the slavery mentioned in Deuteronomy 20:10?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Hello. I know of the economics-based slavery that was permissible in the Bible, but then there is one instance of it during war-time: Deuteronomy 20:10-11 states: "When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you." I'm wondering, what is the reasoning behind this? Is "forced labor" a correct translation (some versions have "tributaries" which it looks like is just defined as people who pay tribute to another state or ruler)? And would this slavery last their lifetime, or would they be granted freedom in the future sort of like how Hebrew men or women were set free after six years of working? I'm just curious about the whole topic in general and sadly haven't been able to find a very detailed or direct article online discussing it. Thank you in advance! God bless you.

Answer: You are “ahead of the curve” as a questioner! Most questioners approach biblical slavery with complaints like, “Why would God allow this?” But you already understand that this slavery was not equivalent to the USA’s antebellum slavery. Furthermore, you seem to know what you’re looking for — and you know where to look… you just didn’t find it; this is evident in your clear thoughts and diction. So, thank you for this question — and I am glad that we have you in our camp!

Let me address the easiest of your three questions first: is “forced labor” a correct translation? Yes, it is a very good one. The King James Version (the AV) translated this phrase as “tribute” or “tributary” seventeen times… but it did so 400 years ago. Newer translations, like the NIV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, ISV, and GWT have responded to a fresher view of history, a better understanding of the ancient languages and the necessity of communicating using contemporary English by translating that Hebrew phrase as “forced labor” — which is a clearer rendering for today’s readers.

Most contemporary readers would understand “tribute” to mean paying money (which is not totally out of reason, because person/hours are the basis of value). But Deuteronomy 20:10-11 was more about people being captured and put to work — which is still technically tribute — but tribute is no longer the best word. That being said, the Douay-Rheims Bible (which I rarely cite) expresses more so than the others that the forced labor was the tribute — and I think that this is the best explanation of the AV’s use of the term.

“If at any time thou come to fight against a city, thou shalt first offer it peace. If they receive it, and open the gates to thee, all the people that are therein, shall be saved, and shall serve thee paying tribute. But if they will not make peace, and shall begin war against thee, thou shalt besiege it.” (Deuteronomy 20:10–12, D-R, emphasis mine)

Let me paste in the Strong’s word data below. And I will also give you a link to a free resource that bores down into the Bible’s original languages. Visit that link — you’ll be amazed to see what’s at your fingertips concerning these word origins.

4522מַס [mac, mic /mas/] n m. From 4549; TWOT 1218; GK 4989; 23 occurrences; AV translates as “tribute” 12 times, “tributary” five times, “levy” four times, “discomfited” once, and “taskmasters” once. 1 gang or body of forced labourers, task-workers, labour band or gang, forced service, task-work, serfdom, tributary, tribute, levy, taskmasters, discomfited. 1a labour-band, labour-gang, slave gang. 1b gang-overseers. 1c forced service, serfdom, tribute, enforced payment.

Strong, J. (2001). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Let me move on to another part of your question. You wanted to know the purpose of this wartime forced labor — but as differentiated from the type permitted in the Hebrew law. Well, the economic motivation of slavery remains the same over all its iterations: people want free labor. But there are other aspects to slavery where we find some differences. For instance, a Hebrew who was down on his luck might sell himself into slavery for a while — and this is internally humbling. But people who are captured and enslaved by force are externally humiliated — and this could manifest in a range of cruelty, as seen in ancient Egypt.

Egypt’s enslavement of the Hebrews was atypical; it was a slow process. If you remember, Jacob (et al) voluntarily moved into Egypt under Joseph’s protection — and the Hebrews prospered there for centuries. Only eventually (and somewhat gradually) did the Egyptians turn them into slaves. But more to the point, they were increasingly oppressed. And that’s one of the differences between conscripted labor and Hebrew enslavement under the law. A Hebrew slave was protected. The master could not be cruel to a slave just because he was a slave. Compare the first verse below with the last two to see the difference.

“So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.” (Exodus 1:11–14, NIV, emphases mine)

“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” (Deuteronomy 15:12–15, NIV)

“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians 4:1, NIV)

Another difference in the slaveries is seen in biblical symbolism. Egypt frequently represents “the world” (and all that’s wrong with it) while Israel represents God’s people. With this in play, you can see where the Jew’s escape from Egypt was Israel’s’ defining moment. In fact, God instituted the Passover to commemorate that event (and to be a type of Christ’s sacrifice). But an overarching lesson persists: although it took centuries, God’s people ssssslid into slavery… and not just into Egypt per se — but also into the secular world (and so won’t we if we are not careful). But Hebrew slavery under the law does not fit this symbolism. That’s because it is different stuff — and by comparison, it is appropriate stuff.

Now, if there was one thing that God continually emphasized, it was that Israel should be different from the other nations (and especially from Egypt!). And the law records many of those differences for us. For instance, the law provided for many classes of people who would not otherwise have a societal advantage — like widows, orphans, strangers and slaves — and in a time before government safety nets, these provisions were notable. But as you pointed out, there were two categories of slaves — Hebrews and foreigners — and these two might receive different treatment. So, let’s consider that.

One undeniable difference was that a Hebrew slave was already a member of the Jewish religious system — he just happened to be a person in debt. By way of contrast, a foreign slave — although still a member of society (and somewhat protected under property law) — was an outsider to the covenant; he was a pagan in their midst… but he was not without advantages. First, any slave in a Hebrew home would be in a position to enjoy the peace of God that fell upon his household, and second, since the law contained provisions to welcome foreigners into the covenant, he could join the household of faith.

“…And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:5–7, NIV)

These two slaveries were further differentiated in that Hebrew slavery was not punitive; this becomes apparent in the cycle of freedom. The slave’s 7th year — the year of his freedom — is tied to the forgiveness of monetary debt. This has nothing to do with a “jail sentence” or the forgiveness of a person. Is this significant? Surely. Persons who have “done their time” or who are enjoying a “personal forgiveness” have done an injury to society, and their subsequent treatment reflects its punitive flavor; slaves taken from enemy nations are in that category. But a Hebrew slave’s debt is a contract within society — not an injury to it. As such, we can call one type “forced labor” and the other type “contract labor.” When we do that, it’s easy to see the difference.

My final consideration is the treatment of slaves in different regions and over time — and the passage that you’ve chosen is significant here. You see, your particular verses come under the following geographical and historical restrictions:

“This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”
(Deuteronomy 20:15, NIV, emphasis mine)

These “cities that are at a distance” are not the ones specifically mentioned as Israel’s inheritance—and this is significant. Compare this to what God commanded Israel to do to the people who were occupying their inheritance.

“However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:16–18, NIV)

But… instead of obeying God, the Jews did “otherwise.” They did not destroy the enemy completely, and this disobedience cost them dearly: As God predicted, their “wandering eyes” resulted in wandering hearts, and God eventually had to remove them from their own land. But before he did, the Israelites received a benefit (of sorts) from their disobedience. The people left in the land became a labor pool… for better or worse.

As you can see, life with God is messy. To me, this is like letting a teen that breaks curfew stay up and watch the Late Show with you. I ask, what sane parent rewards disobedience… and with the fruit of that disobedience, no less! Apparently…. God does. But there’s more. Not only does God “reward” Israel’s disobedience by allowing them to access with free labor, but he also has these laborers work on some pretty important projects… like the Temple! If there’s a model for God’s working with human inadequacies, it’s right here. A group of people who are only alive because of disobedience to God winds up building the holiest structure ever built. That’s God for you! I’ll paste in a few of the accounts.

“Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord’s temple, his own palace, the terraces, the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer….He built up Lower Beth Horon, Baalath, and Tadmor in the desert, within his land, as well as all his store cities and the towns for his chariots and for his horses—whatever he desired to build in Jerusalem, in Lebanon and throughout all the territory he ruled. There were still people left from the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these peoples were not Israelites). Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these peoples remaining in the land—whom the Israelites could not exterminate—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day. But Solomon did not make slaves of any of the Israelites; they were his fighting men, his government officials, his officers, his captains, and the commanders of his chariots and charioteers. They were also the chief officials in charge of Solomon’s projects—550 officials supervising those who did the work.” (1 Kings 9:15–23, NIV)

“King Solomon conscripted laborers from all Israel—thirty thousand men. He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month, so that they spent one month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon had seventy thousand carriers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hills, as well as thirty-three hundred foremen who supervised the project and directed the workers. At the king’s command they removed from the quarry large blocks of high-grade stone to provide a foundation of dressed stone for the temple.” (1 Kings 5:13–17, NIV)

“Then David said, “The house of the Lord God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel.” So David gave orders to assemble the foreigners residing in Israel, and from among them he appointed stonecutters to prepare dressed stone for building the house of God. He provided a large amount of iron to make nails for the doors of the gateways and for the fittings, and more bronze than could be weighed. He also provided more cedar logs than could be counted, for the Sidonians and Tyrians had brought large numbers of them to David.” (1 Chronicles 22:1–4, NIV)

These three passages show us what your question’s passages grew into — and I believe that this is more what they “meant” to Israel than their original intent. These passages make it clear that the Israelite kings did not conscript their own people. Plus, there are strong indications that the foreigners lived (sort of) normal lives in and among the Hebrews, that they were only occasionally conscripted for service and that within that service, they were treated with deference to their families’ needs. This is different than (and in some cases probably better than) serving a six-year term.

Slavery is a concession to human inadequacy — just like divorce (Matthew 19:8); it exists because of the hardness of our hearts. So God worked with slavery—but as a concession to human frailty… and yes, it was messy. But God accomplished his program perfectly nonetheless.

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