What about the Bible and Slavery?
By: Dr. John Weldon
|By: Dr. John G. Weldon; ©2014|
|Skeptics and others often claim that the Bible teaches slavery. However Old Testament provisional acceptance of slavery is not the same as active endorsement, as the Bible proves. The temporary and qualified acceptance of a practice due to the strictures of sinful human nature and culture is one thing; proactively teaching it is something else. It is because of biblical teaching that Christians have been at the forefront of the abolition of all types of slavery.|
What about the Bible and Slavery?
One atheist-anarchist supporting website lists “20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity”, i.e., its supposed preying upon the innocent; being based in fear and dishonesty; breeding of arrogance; extreme egocentricity; authoritarianism; cruelty; anti-intellectual and anti-scientific nature; a morbid preoccupation with sex; it’s producing of sexual misery; it’s extremely narrow and legalistic view of morality; being anti-women; its concentration upon imaginary evils while ignoring true evils; its depreciation of nature; it’s sanction of slavery; its fear of homosexuality; it being an unreliable guide to the true teachings of Jesus; having a scripture full of contradictions, and finally, borrowing its central myths (teachings) and ceremonies from ancient pagan religions such as Mithraism.
This website provides a good example of the skeptical bias against and distortion of Christian belief in that 19 of these listed reasons constituted caricatures and/or untrue criticisms; only one is at best a half-truth, the sanction of slavery.
The Bible & Slavery
The first instance of slavery recorded in the Bible is where Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him into Ishmaelite slavery, something God condemned as evil (Genesis 37:23-38; 50:20).
Slavery is as old as recorded history and was so common in Old Testament times and in the Greco-Roman world of New Testament times that e.g., even Aristotle could view certain people as “slaves by nature”, designating a slave as a “living tool”, and in New Testament times slave labor was an integral part of the Greek and Roman economies.
The Bible never teaches that slavery is the direct will of God; however it does accept slavery, as one of the consequences of the rebellious Fall of man, not the good will of God. In essence, biblical teaching mercifully mitigated the universal existing custom of slavery. Proof that slavery is not God’s will is seen in the following. Slavery was never God’s original intent at creation, nor would it have existed apart from the Fall, nor will it exist in Heaven throughout eternity. It is ultimately an expression of our morally fallen human nature and interrelationships and recognized as such by the Bible. While other serious sins are both recognized and condemned (adultery, idolatry, murder, stealing, etc.), similar to polygamy in the Old Testament, slavery was conditionally accepted.
Historians have often failed to recognize that different types of slavery existed, and the common feeling today is that slavery was and is a universal evil and permanent condition. This is simply not true.
“Slaves often rose to prominent positions in the Greco-Roman economy” and people could voluntarily place them into temporary slavery to pay off a debt, preserve a home, or for certain crimes such as theft (Leviticus 25:25, 39; Exodus 22:1, 3) or for other reasons. Further, in the Old Testament by divine command slaves were treated well and therefore sometimes slavery was actually preferred not only because of good treatment but because the slaves loved the families they were with. Thus, at the designated time of release they could chose to stay in their condition for the rest of their lives, or until the year of Jubilee (Exodus 21:1-11).
According to Leviticus 25:39-43 the master of the Hebrew slave was to treat him not as a slave, but like a hired worker or indentured servant and they were never be sold as a slave:
“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee. At that time he and his children will no longer be obligated to you, and they will return to their clans and go back to the land originally allotted to their ancestors. The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves. Show your fear of God by not treating them harshly.”
Of course, given the sinfulness of human nature, masters did not necessarily obey biblical standards, nor would the comparatively generous biblical treatment of slaves or any slavery be accepted by most people today. Nevertheless biblical slavery and non-biblical slavery were two different things and any fair treatment of the subject must acknowledge that a radical difference existed.
Israelite v. Non-Israelite Slaves
However, for legitimate reasons, the conditions applied to Hebrew slaves were not applied to the peoples of the foreign pagan nations surrounding Israel. In part this was because the majority of slaves were war captives (cf. Numbers 31:26) of the evil Canaanite nations or they may have been subject to slavery because of crime poverty or some other situation.
Still, even in these cases some provision was made for the protection of the slaves (Exodus 21:20; Leviticus 24:17, 22) and when injury occurred the slave was to be given his liberty (Exodus 21:26, 27). Further, even as a non-Israelite, he was allowed to partake of the blessings of Israelite religion including circumcision, participating and rejoicing in the various religious festivals and even permitted to participate in the sacred Passover sacrifice (Genesis 17:12; Exodus 12:12, 18, 44; 16, 11, 14). Smith’s Bible Dictionary points out, “It will be seen that the whole tendency of the Bible legislation was to mitigate slavery, making it little [more] than hired service, and to abolish it, as indeed it was practically abolished among the Jews six hundred years before Christ.” I assume this includes Israelite and non-Israelite slaves.
In addition, Israelite slaves could be freed in any number of ways (and sometimes non-Israelite slaves) although how often this occurred in each specific case is unknown: 1) operation of law; 2) lapse of time; 3) after serving six years or the contractual period; 4) death of the master without heirs; 5) approach of the Jubilee year; 6) act of the parties; 7) act of the master; 8) act of the servant; 9) act of a third-party, 10) redemption, or 11) in certain cases, indifference. Upon securing freedom, slaves were to be given (at least) supplies of grain, cattle, and wine (Deuteronomy 15:13). In addition, non-Israelite slaves they were also permitted to keep their wives and children, sometimes had opportunities for advancement, and in some cases could earn money of their own and then redeem themselves. Masters would seek the advice of their slaves and also marry their slaves.
In essence, slavery in the Bible was a necessary accommodation but it was also a unique type of slavery compared to that found in history and the rest of the world which did not have biblical law – although given the number of nations that Jews have lived in historically, I would not be surprised to learn that biblical law sometimes did positively impact slavery outside of Israel.
When slavery in the Bible is compared to slavery in the southern US or slavery in general this constitutes a distortion of history because biblical slavery was radically different.
Consider that specific requirements for the good treatment of indentured servants and slaves was commanded by God (including being released after 6 years (Exodus 21: 1-11; 15:12; Deuteronomy 15:12-18), and God himself would hold the slave owner responsible for his actions. “The Hebrew institution of slavery is more akin to medium-term bonded servitude, and the ‘slave’ had a number of important rights (e.g., Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Slavery is a symbol of oppression by sin from which Christ came to release us (Luke 4:18-19). Even Paul, for all his acceptance of Roman slavery – and it’s collapse as an institution would have risked widespread destitution and death – encouraged slaves to seek their liberty within the law (1 Corinthians 7:21) and condemned slave trading (1 Timothy 1:10).”
In Deuteronomy 23:15-16; 24:7, Leviticus 25:43 and other Scriptures we see that compassion is to be given to slaves and that the death penalty itself was instituted for kidnapping an Israelite and treating him as a slave. For the mistreated or for (presumably) those who recognize the true God in Israel, slaves were not to be returned to their owners: “If slaves should escape from their masters and take refuge with you, you must not hand them over to their masters. Let them live among you in any town they choose, and do not oppress them.”
The following commandments would apply to such former slaves, “True justice must be given to foreigners living among you and to orphans,… Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from your slavery. That is why I have given you this command” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). The Bible goes on to say that Israelites must leave some of their crops (grains, olives, grapes, etc.) for the “foreigners, orphans and widows” because “you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) The Israelites knew all too well how it felt to be sorely oppressed and God clearly did not want them to oppress the foreigners among them, slave or free. Indeed, it is possible that the declarations above might have been the first known statements on human rights.
Another relevant point seems to be given in Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:1-9 where Jesus says that God’s acceptance of divorce in the Old Testament was given only as a concession because of the peoples “hardness of heart”, but that it was not so from the beginning of creation. Clearly, God “hates divorce” and, given the totality of scriptural teaching, we can rightfully assume that God also hates slavery, particularly since both were concessions to human sin and neither existed at the point of creation nor will they exist throughout eternity.
Motive for Change
L.T. Jeyachandran, executive director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Singapore observes that, “The regulation of slavery should therefore be seen as a practical step to deal with the realities of the day resulting from the human fall. The aberrations that lead to alienation among individuals, races, and nations are the result of a fundamental broken relationship between humankind and God. Within this tragic scenario, Scripture comes as a breath of fresh air as it seeks to redeem the situation and sets us on a path of ever-increasing amelioration of our predicament. While the Bible does not reject slavery outright, the conclusion that it actually favors slavery is patently wrong. Scripture does reveal that slavery is not ideal, both in Old Testament laws forbidding the enslavement of fellow Israelites, the law of jubilee, and in New Testament applications of Christ. In fact, the Bible teaches that the feeling of superiority in general is sin! [Philemon 2:1-8) The abolition of slavery is thus not only permissible by biblical standards, but demanded by biblical principles. The pre-fall statement that should guide and ultimately abolish such (and any) practices of superiority is the declaration that all humans—men and women—are made in the image of God. On this principle, the Bible even lays the foundation for progressing far beyond what was possible in New Testament times by addressing the very economic discrimination and favoritism of which slavery is the worst expression [James 2:1-9; 5:1-6].” ===
Thus, in Galatians 3:28, despite the common practice of slavery throughout the world, we read that the categories of “slave” and “free” are not to be considered for Christians: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In reference to this verse the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia comments, “The equality, justice and love of Christ’s teachings changed the whole attitude of man to man and master to servant. This spirit of brotherhood quickened the conscience of the age, leaped the walls of Judaism, and penetrated the remotest regions.”
Indeed, it was New Testament verses such as Galatians 3:11, 28; 1 Corinthians 7:22, 12:13; Philemon 1: 15-17; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; 4:1 and others which were used to combat slavery in the United States and there is a reason why Christians (primarily Protestant abolitionists) were at the forefront of the eradication of slavery in America, even though it took a terrible civil war to do so. In the United Kingdom the movement led by Christian politician William Wilberforce led to the abolition of slavery and probably as its result, the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) abolished slavery by treaty in most of Europe.
Slavery does have a positive aspect metaphorically. As noted, even God’s own chosen people, the Israelites, were slaves for 400 years in Egypt, which is one reason God frequently warned the Israelites never to abuse the temporary allowance of slavery due to the consequence of the Fall and human sin; they should know better. Further, the truth is that everyone is already a slave to something, whether they recognize it or not – power, money, sex, self, and so on.
Perhaps the most important issue in slavery is its metaphorical and literal use reflective of spiritual reality.
First, everyone is the slave, specifically of sin, and requires spiritual deliverance through personal trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Second, under the Lordship of Christ we are transferred from the domain of an absolute, evil bondage of slavery to both sin and Satan into a completely different spiritual domain of absolute joy, righteousness and freedom under the complete service and obedience, slavery if you will, to one another and to God himself (e.g., Matthew 6:24; acts 2:18; Romans 6:16-22; 16:18; 1 Corinthians 7:23; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Galatians 5:13; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 3:24; Ephesians 6:6; 1 Peter 2:16; 2 Peter 2:19; Revelation 6:11; 7:3; etc.)
As a result, the “unmistakable thrust of the NT is to spiritualize slavery rather than eradicate it. Slaves and slave-holders are honest to act Christian toward one another, yet remain in their present status (1 Corinthians 7:20-24). Passages such as Romans 6:16-18, suggested that, since all are slaves to something or someone, each Christian should now be a ‘slave to righteousness’.… Emphasizing the spiritualiszation, Pope Gregory the great (540-604 A.D.) regularly signed himself ‘Slave of the slaves of God’…”
This spiritualization can be seen in the Greek term often used for our relationship to God and translated “servant” or “bondservant” – actually it’s the common ancient Greek term for slave, doulos, and is found about 125 times in the New Testament. Its primary meaning according to Thayer is “a slave, bondman, man of servile condition”. Perhaps in order to avoid the highly negative connotation of the word itself, something important may have been lost in modern translations by rendering the original word doulos as mere servant. Christians are definitely servants, but not in the sense of a modern-day Butler who works a 9 to 5 job at very good pay and has a life of relative ease. The cost of Christian discipleship can be high, requiring deep and painful sacrifice. After all ‘we have been bought with a price, the precious blood of Christ’ (1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). Nothing is more precious. In light of this, in the positive spiritual sense of absolute commitment, is there another description more appropriate for Christians than slave? In other words, for those who have forever been purchased out of a true and terrible eternal slavery to sin and Satan and its consequence, into the genuine freedom of salvation in all its robust and infinite biblical meaning? Even despite our sins and imperfections, we are not mere man-servants functioning on behalf of our own interests once we punch the clock, but full-time absolute servants of God giving unquestioning obedience to God regardless of the cost. For many, respective of its spiritualization, perhaps a study of the Greek usage of the word for slave in the New Testament might be enlightening.
For a number of reasons, with significant restrictions, God permitted a temporary and relatively benevolent slavery under the Old Testament covenant (as he did e.g., with divorce and polygamy), but this was primarily a concession to the hardness of heart prior to the influence of the gospel and it was only tolerated by God, never his permanent desire or command. How do we know this? First it is restricted to time and not found in eternity. Second, because the Bible is very clear that every person – man, woman and child – is created in the image of a good personal and loving God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore has inborn, inherent dignity and value which can never be taken away, regardless of what men do in their sinful hearts. Freedom is an essential part of God’s nature and God loves freedom so it makes sense he would desire human freedom. Further, the very fact that God sent his one and only precious Son to die for man’s sins is proof enough of God’s desire for man’s spiritual freedom, and that eternally.
In its very essence the Christian gospel is antithetical to slavery and wherever the gospel reigns, slavery cannot be found.
Today however, unfortunately, slavery continues to exist in various places around the world. Slaving today has also taken on perhaps its worst form ever in the global market of the multi-billion-dollar child sex slave trafficking where unspeakable horrors are committed. Thankfully, Christians again seem to be at the forefront of combating this insidious evil (which also includes about one million adult women). Those who engage in such practices have little idea of what awaits them. Apart from repentance and faith in Christ, sooner or later they can expect the severest judgment of God to fall upon them. For those who desire to help combat this practice, please see the footnote.