Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The verb עבד ('abad) means to work, to serve or to be a serf. Since working or serving is a common activity in any culture, this verb is deployed almost 300 times in the Old Testament. Curiously enough, this verb has the power to take meaning from whatever comes next. If the story tells of "dressing" vines, the Hebrew literally reads "working" vines. When a field is tilled, the Hebrew reads that the field is "worked".
The Hebrew idea of "working" can also mean "working something," and that something determines the kind of work that's done. When Jacob "works" Laban, he's not trying to change his mind but simply serving him (Genesis 29:15). This verb can even be used to indicate putting someone to work, or even enslaving someone (Exodus 1:14).
The difference between a worker and a boss was back then the same as now: if you get to keep the money your labor generates, you're a boss or a free person. If you get some kind of compensation for your labor (now called a salary, then called your purchasing price, but really the same thing) but the actual proceeds of your labor go to someone else, you're an עבד ('ebed).
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament makes the observation that, "When service is offered to God, however, it is not bondage, but rather a joyous and liberating experience (Exodus 3:12, Psalm 22:31)". Similarly, when YHWH himself is performing work (עבד עבדת, Isaiah 28:21), he is obviously not enslaved but rather thoroughly engaged. Likewise the 'suffering servant' described by Isaiah (Isaiah 52-53, see Matthew 20:25-28) is not simply a slave of oppressive kings and their regimes, but rather a devotee to freedom and wisdom.
The compass of this root is so wide that every now and then it results in a pseudo-contradiction: the Israelites formed no עבד (slave force) but did work as עבד (personnel, same word) to Solomon (1 Kings 9:22).
In Aramaic parts of the Bible, our verb עבד may simply mean to make, do or organize (Daniel 3:1, 5:1, 6:10).
Since our verb is so rich in meaning and so ubiquitous in use, there are quite a few derivatives:
The noun עבד ('ebed), generally means 'servant' or 'worker'. Often this word occurs in singular but multiple individuals are implied (1 Samuel 18:22, 2 Samuel 14:31), in which case it refers to personnel or describes a unified and autonomous service-detail. Contrary, our word in plural (עבדים, 'workers', or עבדי, 'workers of') does not simply denote a bunch of workers, but emphasizes the non-unified character of slaves within a labor force, in which each individual has to do what he's told and not follow internal, autonomous policies (Genesis 50:18). When Jeremiah exclaims that עבדים (slaves) rule the Israel, he basically equates his countrymen with beasts of burden (Lamentations 5:8). The famous term 'house of bondage', as reference to Egypt, significantly uses this plural word (house of 'mindless slaves'; Exodus 13:3, Joshua 24:17, Jeremiah 34:13), but when the Lord speaks of his servants, he commonly and evenly significantly uses the singular (my 'autonomous personnel'; Isaiah 65:8-13).
Our noun occurs almost 800 times in the Bible. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains that this noun basically means slave, and that in Biblical times slavery was not "so irksome". Of course, HAW was produced for the US market, where slavery is associated with centuries of lively trade in abducted and elsewise horribly mistreated people, so the word "irksome" doesn't quite cut it. And עבד ('ebed) should generally not be translated with our word slave, but rather with the milder and more accurate "worker" or "subject," depending on the context:
- When עבד ('ebed) means "worker" in an economical sense, it usually denotes someone who has (how shall we put it?) found himself forced to voluntarily put himself under a binding contract, to become someone's property and serve that person for a price (much like most of us do today). Such contracts were limited to six years (Exodus 21:2) and husbands and wives could not be separated (Exodus 21:3). A worker could be appreciated so much that he became his master's heir (Genesis 15:2), or his son in law (1 Chronicles 2:35). But workers stood lower than their owners on the social ladder, and they were certainly not equal before the law. This may seem archaic and unfair, but in our own societies we charge ridiculous amounts of money for a "fair" trial to make sure that the 'ebeds among us never get one. Different wording; same effect.
- The word עבד ('ebed) may also directly denote a lower rank, without economical consequences. It may denote a chief's subjects (Genesis 26:15), a king's subjects or officers (Exodus 8:3, 1 Samuel 19:1), even tributary nations (2 Samuel 8:2), or vassal kings (2 Samuel 10:19).
- Most often, the noun עבד ('ebed) denotes a religious devotee (or subject or worker). HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains that all Semitic people referred to their religious workers as servants of this or that deity, and in the Bible this practice is manifested in the phrase עבדי יהוה ('ebedy YHWH), or servants of YHWH (2 Kings 9:7, Isaiah 54:17). Several Biblical heroes are specifically called עבד ('ebed): Abraham (Genesis 26:24), Isaac (Genesis 24:14), Jacob (Ezekiel 28:26), Moses (Exodus 14:31, Joshua 18:7, 1 Kings 8:53). And sometimes a whole group is deemed such: prophets (2 Kings 9:7, Zechariah 1:6), or the whole of Israel as the עבד ('ebed) of YHWH (Psalm 136:22, Isaiah 41:8, Jeremiah 30:10).
- The word עבד ('ebed) occurs postfixed with the ך (kaph), meaning 'your' in the "polite address of equals or superiors" (as BDB Theological Dictionary puts it): עבדך ('ebedek), meaning literally your servant (Genesis 18:3, 1 Samuel 20:7, 2 Kings 8:13). This phrase may seem a bit overly humble but it's in fact precisely the same thing as saying "yours truly" or "at your service". Its opposite would be אדני (adonai), meaning 'my lord'. This latter term exists in German and Dutch as the ordinary word for sir or mister (mein Herr or meneer) but the term עבדך ('ebedek) has no modern equivalent. Still, its prevalence in Hebrew texts demonstrates that עבדך ('ebedek) was simply the formal equivalent of 'I' and 'me'; a polite way of referring to oneself within a statement to someone addressed as 'sir' or 'mister'.
Other derivatives are:
- The noun עבד ('abad) means work (Ecclesiastes 9:1 only).
- The much more common feminine noun עבדה ('aboda), meaning labor (Exodus 1:14, 1 Chronicles 27:26) or service (Genesis 29:27, Ezra 8:20).
- The feminine noun עבדה ('abudda), denoting the collective performance of household servants (Genesis 26:14, Job 1:3 only).
- The feminine noun עבדות ('abdut) meaning servitude, bondage (Ezekiel 9:8, 9:9 and Nehemiah 9:17 only).
- The masculine noun מעבד (ma'bad) meaning work (Job 34:25 only).