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Does the Bible Support Slavery?

The books of history are filled with the ugly truth that human beings can be cruel to each other. Millions have fought and died over the practice of slavery, and both sides have attempted to use the Bible to support their position. Early in the history of America (and almost every other nation in the world) slaves were imported to be bought and sold as property. Many of these slaves were captured from their homes, often in Africa, and many died on the way to be sold in foreign lands. Other slaves throughout history were gained through conquering neighboring empires, and taking the spoils of war, including slaves. In first century Rome, many historians believe around 35% of the empire were slaves to the other 65%, which ends up being millions of slaves in ancient Italy alone. The question is rightfully asked by the skeptic and believer alike, why would God allow slavery throughout the Old Testament in Israel, and why would God never condemn such a massive practice as slavery in the New Testament which is set in the slave filled Roman Empire? Wouldn’t a loving God condemn slavery and support freedom for all men? Even if God was silent, why would He support slavery in parts of scripture? Why would God choose to ban shellfish under the Jewish law but not slavery? How can Christians say God is moral if He condones this practice?

The Scriptural Debate

As stated above, people on both sides of the slavery debate used scripture in early America and other parts of history to support their view. Here are the passages often cited by those who see scripture supporting the practice:

1 Peter 2:18: “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.”

Why would God tell servants (slaves) to submit to their masters if His plan was for them to be free? Doesn’t think command, in essence, show God supports the institution of slavery even in the New Testament? Listen to how one skeptic put it when addressing the issue of slavery:

“It was the Old and New Testaments of the Bible that were the authority for keeping humanity in serfdom for centuries and for legitimizing slavery in America, making a bloody civil war necessary to give slaves human rights under our Constitution” (Ruth Green, 1979, p. 351).

Was the Bible really to blame, or does the pages of scripture say the opposite of those wanting to own slaves? Here are a few examples of the popular passages used to condemn the owning of slaves early on in America:

Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Matthew 7:12: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

God said everyone is one in Christ, equal before God, created in His image and valuable to Him, how could anyone reading those verses support slavery? Furthermore, scripture says to treat other people the way you want to be treated, and no one wants to be kidnapped and sold into slavery, which means no one should do that to another. What then is the Biblical position on slavery? Why is there so much confusion regarding the passages? Greg Carey said the following about Biblical slavery:

“Don’t let anybody tell you that biblical slavery was somehow less brutal than slavery in the United States. Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies.”

While skeptics claim there is no difference between the slavery seen in early America and Old Testament slavery, they are terribly wrong. The reason many people use the Bible to support slavery is ignorance (often willful) on the context of the verses. The type of slavery seen in early America and in many parts of the world throughout history and still today sadly, is flat out rejected in the Bible. How then are the verses understood? How is slavery in the Bible different than early American slavery? How could an all loving God allow such a practice? Here are a few things to keep in mind. First, not everything taking place in the Old Testament is the perfect will of God. God created the world perfect and without sin, and in that environment no form of slavery would ever be necessary. However, sin entered the picture and people began to act wicked and sinful, resulting in many regulations given by God in the Old Testament to govern His people, Israel. The same concept would hold true on the topic of divorce, Jesus says in Matthew 19 that God allowed divorce because the hearts of His people were sinful and hard, but in His perfect plan divorce would never be acceptable. Now granted, there are still rules on divorce, and it’s only allowed in very specific circumstances, which is the same with slavery. Next, God has always been consistent in commanding His people to love their neighbors and treat others the way we want to be treated. Many see the loving God as a New Testament idea, and they believe the God of the Old Testament is different. Nothing is further from the truth, God has been consistent and the same throughout history. From the beginning of scripture God has commanded loving others:

Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Neighbor does not only include fellow Jews, but the nations surrounding them and foreigners who pass through their land. But wait! Didn’t Israel conquer their neighbors and take many of them as slaves? No, not all of them, and when they did it was God using them to bring justice in the world, outside of God using them to bring His justice they were commanded to love their neighbors. The topic of God using Israel to bring His judgment on other nations will be addressed in the next chapter in much more detail, so don’t think the “issue” is being passed over of ignored. Point is, God has always told His people to love and care for others, which is actually seen in His commands regarding slavery.

Old Testament Slavery

God tells His people to love others throughout the pages of scripture, but the question has to be asked, when dealing with a nation (Israel) what should be done about those who break the law, steal from others, don’t repay their debts, or those who were enemies of Israel and were conquered by them? Today, those individuals would simply be tossed in prison for years, and those who are stolen from often lose their money, and those who loaned money often never get it back. Is it wrong for God to use Israel when enforcing His moral law? Is it wrong for the government to punish those who steal money from another? Is it wrong for the government to punish someone for being enemies of the state? Doesn’t this take place still today in practically every nation on earth? Slavery in Israel was the equivalent of our modern day prison system, instead of putting someone in prison who stole or owed money, instead of bankruptcy and jail time to solve the problems, they would become slaves and work for the person they owed to pay off the debt. Those who were enemies of the state, instead of putting them in prisoner of war camps they were allowed to live among the Israelites as their servants, which is far more humane and better than locking them up for life. Actually, one could argue prison is far more oppressive than slavery in the Bible, yet most people agree there are appropriate times for people to go to prison. Unlike prisons around the world today, slavery in the Bible was designed not simply for the sake of punishing, but restoring and fixing the issue. Debt slaves, those who had barrowed and did not return the money, or those who stole from others, was the largest category of slaves (or servants as many translations render the word) and their time as servants was limited:

Exodus 22:1-3: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep. 2 If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. 3 If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed. He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.”

Those who steal in Israel were expected to repay (with extra) the one he stole from, and if he cannot he must become a servant and work until the money is returned. Why would anyone see this as a bad practice? Wouldn’t an institution which allowed someone to work and pay off their debt of theft be the ideal situation? Certainly. There is nothing immoral about the system God allowed in Israel to deal with criminals. Thieves and debtors were not the only slaves though, they also made their enemies slaves when they conquered them, which many skeptics claim is wrong. However, if God exists, He is the universal judge and has every right to use Israel to bring judgment on those pagan nations surrounding them. Keep in mind, these are the nations who would sacrifice their children in fire, among other horrendous acts, and while God brought judgment, He also showed His mercy by allowing many of them to continue living in Israel, which could easily result in them hearing about God and having eternal life.

The word “slave” in the Old Testament Hebrew is translated both servant and slave, and can refer to voluntary (yes you read that right) or involuntary servant-hood. While today the term is associated with the atrocities of the slave trade, it wasn’t always a negative term. The word applies to many revered men in the Old Testament, such as Moses, who was a servant of God. Joseph, who was the head of Potiphar’s house and possessions, and Abraham’s head slave/servant, who ruled over all He had according to the Bible. One of the oldest books, if not the oldest book in the Bible, talks about how servants should be treated:

Job 31:13-15: “If I have despised the cause of my male or female servant. When they complained against me, what then shall I do when God rises up? When He punishes, how shall I answer Him? Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same One fashion us in the womb?”

Those who compare Biblical slavery to the slave trade in early America are terribly ignorant of many verses explaining and clarifying the purpose and treatment of servants. Job makes it clear the one who made him is the same one who made his servants, and God will hold him accountable for how he treats his servants. Actually, Job says God will punish those who mistreat their servants, which is completely different from the idea that they are property and possessions of their master. The servant and master relationship in the Bible is completely different than our modern day perception of slavery. Once again, the head servant of Abraham, Eliezer, is thought of by Abraham as being his son. Eliezer didn’t want to escape being the slave of Abraham, being a slave or servant meant something very different to them. Actually, the Old Testament states many slaves chose to stay with their masters, even when their debt was paid off and freedom was theirs:

Deuteronomy 15:16-17: “And if it happens that he says to you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do likewise.”

Servants often became part of the family and chose to stay with their master’s household, because they loved them and were provided for by them. Those servants who chose to stay would pierce their ear to signify their choice. Why would someone choose to stay as a servant? Wouldn’t everyone want to just escape and get “free” at first chance? Again, many of the slaves were essentially employees, who began their work because of a debt or theft, and often chose to stay and work because their master would provide (pay) them for their labor, nothing like the slavery in America.

The Biblical View on Old Testament Slavery

If you’re not already convinced Biblical servant-hood is different from the early American slave trade, here are eight things the Bible says about slavery to make the point even more clear. Keep in mind, not every verse on slavery can be addressed in one chapter, but the differences with other types of slavery can be easily seen.

1. Both servant and master benefitted.

Those in slavery often owed money to someone and becoming a servant allowed them to work and payoff the debt they owed. Servants often worked for someone they did not owe, and from their work they were able to pay off the man they did owe. Working for someone else to repay your debt could prevent the master from treating the slave poorly, which could easily be the case if the one who was wronged was the master of the slave. Essentially, masters were business men or family men who needed extra help and would pay off their servant’s debt in return for labor. Keep in mind, they often chose to stay with their master and continue working, essentially making it an employee to employer relationship.

2. If masters abuse their slaves, their slaves can legally run away.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16: “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.”

Slaves did have freedom to choose a master who would not abuse them, which would ensure them being treated well. Once again, this is nothing like slavery throughout the world throughout history, God would not allow the abusive, immoral practice that many other nations bought into.

3. The “slave trade” was illegal

Remember, almost all slavery throughout history was built on the foundation of kidnapping someone and selling them for a profit, which is staunchly rejected by God in the Old Testament:

Exodus 21:16: “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”

God not only forbade the slave trade, there was a death penalty for anyone who participated. One can easily argue using this verse that God specifically condemns the type of slavery practices in America and around the world throughout history, and gave the worst penalty the state of Israel could enact, the death penalty.

4. Nothing to do with race/skin

Another way Biblical slavery is set apart from other forms of slavery has to do with the racist justifications many other forms of slavery appeal to. Biblical slavery had nothing to do with the color of your skin, it had everything to do with justice, punishment, and restoration:

Lev. 19:34: “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Keep in mind, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, and God constantly used that situation to remind them how to treat others. While they were in Egypt, they wanted to be treated well by the Egyptians, and God expects them to treat the foreigner well too. Many other verses discuss how the Israelites should treat foreigners:

Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Skin color had nothing to do with slavery in the Bible. God’s Word has made it clear that everyone is part of the same race, the human race, and treating people bad because of their skin color is sinful and wrong:

Acts 17:26: “And He has made from one bloodevery nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings”

Everyone ultimately comes from Adam and Eve, we’re all from the same blood, the same ancestors, and how we treat each other should reflect that truth. God decides which family, country, culture, and skin color someone will be born into, and none of those things should change the way we love and treat others.

5. Slaves received Sabbath rest

The Jews had a one day weekend, the Sabbath, which was a time when no work could be done, a day set aside for rest and for God. One would think if slavery in the Bible is the same as other parts of the world, their slaves would not have the same “rights” to a break as everyone else, but they did:

Exodus 20:10: “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates.”

The command to allow rest for your servant on the Sabbath was written by God in the Ten Commandments themselves, showing once again the extreme differences between Old Testament slavery and other forms of slavery. Slaves were also allowed to take part in festivals throughout the year according to Deuteronomy 16:9-17, again showing how they were treated as human beings, not property.

6. Slaves received freedom on the Jubilee year

One fascinating tradition commanded by God in the Old Testament was a Jubilee year, which took place every fifty years. During this special year, freedom was given to slaves in Israel:

Leviticus 25:8-13: “And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. ‘In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession.”

The freedom given on the Jubilee year would prevent generations from being enslaved, which was the case with many other forms of slavery. No family could be enslaved for multiple life-times, unless they chose to stay with their master’s family, which was discussed above.

7. A master who beat his slave to death was executed

Another regulation showing God’s care for those working to pay off their debts and those enemies of Israel captured and made into servants was the harsh punishment for any master who beats their slave to death:

Exodus 21:20: “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.

No one would harshly beat their servants, because if they accidently killed them they would be put to death. God made it clear the life of a servant was equally valuable as the life of a master, and if a master took his servants life, the punishment was death.

Now many look at the verse above and claim it does allow masters to beat their slaves, it just says not to death. They would be correct, if a servant was being disruptive, stealing, hurting their family or property, they were allowed to punish their servants, although it wasn’t commonly done.

8. Beating often results in freedom of the slave

Although disciplining servants was allowed when they were harming family, being disruptive, destroying property, etc. the practice would be scarce still:

Exodus 21:26-27: “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.”

Why is striking the eyes of your servant specified by God as being wrong? Because the pagan nations around Israel would often gouge the eye(s) out of their servants to punish and hurt them. God says if anyone copies those pagan nations in their horrendous treatment of their slaves, their slave will go free at the master’s expense. God didn’t stop there, He also said if masters knock a tooth out of their servant’s mouth, they were free to go. Knocking death out is not terribly hard, which means no master would risk the expense by beating his servant in a harsh way. God made sure even slaves and servants, who were rightfully paying off debt or being punished for fighting against Israel, were taken care of and protected by Jewish law.

Keep in mind, not every passage dealing with slavery can be addressed in one chapter, and if another passage causes concern take the time to research the meaning and context. One final note on Old Testament slavery should be given. While many of these eight points apply to both foreign enemy servants and Jewish servants, a few apply only to Jewish debt servant. Either way, God set up a system superior to our modern day criminal justice in America and many other parts of the world. Those who did horrible crimes such as murder were punished immediately, and those who committed other crimes, such as stealing or not returning money were given the opportunity to repay and fix their crime, something our modern day system doesn’t allow.

Slavery in the New Testament

In the New Testament critics complain God did not take the time to condemn slavery which was practiced in the Roman Empire around them. Critics also complain the New Testament tells servants to obey their masters, which in a way supports slavery:

Colossians 3:22: “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.”

Why would God tell His people to obey their masters? Why not tell them slavery is wrong and should be abolished? Why not tell masters who claim to be Christians to free their servants? Consider these following six points as a response to the accusations.

1. Many of these New Testament slave practices are similar to the Old Testament ones discussed earlier.

Many of the slaves in Rome (and other parts of the world) were debt servants, who were working to pay off a theft or debt owed to another.

2. Lack of condemnation in a verse isn’t condoning the action of slavery.

Take for example one of the most popular verses in scripture, which tells followers of Christ how to treat those who mock them:

Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

God is not saying slapping someone (which was an issue of disrespect, not assault) is right, He simply tells His followers how to respond in light of being wronged. God wants His followers to not return evil for evil, but to return good when evil is received. Just because God tells servants to obey their masters and work hard doesn’t mean slavers has His support, it means God wants us to honor Him no matter the circumstances.

3. Biblical principles do reject most forms of slavery.

God tells His followers to treat others the way they want to be treated, which means many forms of slavery are rejected by God:

Matthew 7:12: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Actually, there is an entire New Testament book dedicated to a story of a slave who ran from his master and then became a follower of Christ. The book of Philemon in the New Testament is short but profound in addressing how Christians should treat their servants. God tells Philemon (through a letter from Paul the apostle) to treat his run-away servant (Onesimus) as a brother in the Lord when he returns to him, which was completely opposite the culture which says run-away slaves should be punished.

4. Slave trading is directly rejected through scripture.

Not only does the Old Testament reject the slave trade and put the penalty of death on those who partake in the evil act, the New Testament condemns treating people as property and capturing people to sell as slaves:

1 Timothy 1:9-10 (ESV Bible): “Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine”

Clearly stated in the list of sins are those who enslave their fellow humans (other versions say kidnap) showing once again God does not support typical slavery. Humans have value in the eyes of God, and while justice at times results in the punishment of those who’ve committed crimes, God makes sure servants are treated justly as fellow humans, not property.

5. The Bible takes an eternal perspective.

Finally, it should be understood the Bible, especially the New Testament in presenting the gospel, takes an eternal perspective:

Romans 6:16-18: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

God is far more concerned with mankind being slaves of sin, lost on our way to judgment. Jesus came and died on the cross not to give us earthly freedom, but to save us for all of eternity. In the end, everyone will be a slave to something, and God says the choice is sin or righteousness. Being slaves to sin results in death and judgment, and sadly many have chosen this path. Thankfully, God made a way for sin to no longer have control over us, through the power of the cross anyone who turns to Jesus can become a slave to righteousness, which leads to life.

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