The Bible condones slavery therefore God is ok with slavery.
A common attack used against the Christian faith in an attempt to demonize it, making it easier to reject, is the claim that the Bible condones slavery. Not only is this claim untrue it is couched in pure deception. Since the focus of the claim is to demonize the faith it is not surprising. This deception is what attempts to give credibility to the claim.
The real problem however, is that the word slavery carries a distinct connotation in our society. When we think of slavery we tend to think of human trafficking, Atlantic Slave Trade, raced based or African slavery. It is this connotation that is usually wrongly applied to the slavery spoken of in the Bible. Opponents of the Bible will then cherry pick verses as their so called proof that God is ok with the type of slavery we’re familiar with in our time and that He even advocates it. The truth is, the slavery mentioned in the Bible – specifically the Old Testament – was really voluntary servanthood when we look at how the people of Israel carried it out.
Voluntary servanthood was a practice common amongst ancient peoples. Individuals who could not afford to care for themselves, had debts, sought after religious affiliation or social class would voluntarily submit themselves for purchase for servanthood. This could be for a certain amount of time or indefinitely. In fact some even paid for the privilege. Egyptologist Dr Kim Ryholt of the University of Copenhagen published a paper based on an archeology find of a 2,200-year-old papyrus slave contract. The contract shows Egyptians were willing to pay a monthly fee to a local temple in the Egyptian city Tebtunis to be a slave for all eternity. The Egyptians however, weren’t the only ones to practice voluntary servanthood known as slavery. The Romans and Greeks also practiced it. In fact, in Rome a contract existed called Nexum (a type of mancipatio) which was a debt bond. An opt-in contract which stood for a certain length of time to allow a person to pay off a debt.
Depending on the governing laws of the land slavery took on different forms however historically it is known that slavery was an accepted way of life in ancient times. It is a major fallacy to attempt to apply modern societal norms to those of ancient times especially when failing to fully understand ancient societal norms on a particular subject. So when speaking of slavery, attempting to parallel all of slavery in ancient times with Atlantic Slave Trade is to completely misunderstand the subject.
When speaking about slavery and God’s people – the nation of Israel – the truth of the matter is slavery was considered voluntary servanthood. These servants had rights, could have families, earn a wage and had an occupation. At times people would freely sell themselves into slavery in order to pay off debts or choose to be a slave because they were poor. At the end of 6 years of service they were to be let go.
“And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.” (Deuteronomy 15:12)
“And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: 40 But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubile:” (Leviticus 25:39-40)
“If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. 3 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.” (Exodus 21:2-4)
Permanent voluntary servanthood
A slave or “servant” would have the option to permanently offer their servitude to their master at the end of 6 years of service or simply go free.
“And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: 6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.” (Exodus 21:5-6)
“And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go away from thee; because he loveth thee and thine house, because he is well with thee; 17 Then thou shalt take an aul, and thrust it through his ear unto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. And also unto thy maidservant thou shalt do likewise.” (Deuteronomy 15:16-17)
Regarding Female Slaves
The Bible shows us that women were to be treated in a way that was respectful and honorable. Women were typically sold as maidservants. We can also see that they were married to their owners.
“And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. 8 If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. 9 And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. 10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. 11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” (Exodus 21:7-11)
Kidnapping was forbidden
Contrary to 17th, 18th and 19th century slavery, kidnapping a human being for slavery was forbidden. In fact, it was punishable by death.
“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)
Slaves who fled from neighboring nations due to oppression or possibly desiring to know Israel’s God was not to be returned to their master. They were in fact protected.
“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: 16 He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
Purchasing permanent slaves
Israel was granted the right to purchase permanent slaves who were from surrounding nations. This would most likely be from nations that would be in opposition that Israel would have to drive out or thwart.
“Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. 46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.” (Deuteronomy 25:44-46)
Violence against slaves
Even though slaves were considered property God condemned violence against them. There were laws that protected the well being of slaves.
“And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.” (Exodus 21:20)
The next verse emphasizes the point that a slave was property. It is also important to note that slave owners also had the right to punish or discipline their slaves. However killing them was forbidden. The law placed limitations on how owners could treat their slaves.
“Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money” (Exodus 21:21)
Again we see the protection of slaves. These limitations would work to discourage owners from inflicting irreparable harm on a slave.
“And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. 27 And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.” (Exodus 21:26-27)
The Bible also shows us that oppressing people of foreign lands was not permitted. God reminds His people that they were once oppressed people in Egypt.
“Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
The New Testament take on slavery
We’ve been primarily looking at the Old Testament and slavery. Contrary to popular belief, the New Testament speaks against slavery of any kind. By the turn of the first century slavery is taking on new forms, giving way to better treatment to slaves across Rome. Manumission – the act of a slave owner freeing their slaves – started to become more widespread. Roman slaves who were freed could actually become a Roman citizen and start an independent life with the wages they earned as a slave. During this period we see how the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of slavery in Philemon 8-16 in his plea for Onesimus.
“15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”(Philemon 16)
Here Paul suggests that Philemon receive his former slave Onesimus, as a Brother instead of slave.
We see in Ephesians 6:5-9 that Paul advocates Bondservants (slaves) to obey their earthly masters as bondservants of Christ. We also see the same messaging to slave masters.
“9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”(Ephesians 6:9)
Paul hits home that the slave and master are to treat each other with mutual respect as equal human beings as there is no partiality with God. Neither are greater than the other.
We see the same in the book of Colossians.
“1 Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Colossians4:1)
In 1 Timothy 1:8-10 enslavers (those who kidnap human beings for the purposes of enslavement) are considered ungodly.
“8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 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, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,” (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
What we see in the New Testament writings is the Christian response to slavery. It is to deal with it at its core which is the sinful heart of man. There is not a direct attack to slavery in the sense of societal reform. That isn’t the purpose of the Bible nor was it the goal of Christ or the Apostle Paul. The Christian response to any and all types of sin is to appeal to the heart. With a changed heart that is focused on Christ, slavery begins to abolish itself. It is the Gospel, yes Christian doctrine that paved the way for the abolishment of slavery across the world. Any country that has been grounded in the Gospel does not see the implementation of slavery. Slavery is not something condoned or advocated by Christianity. It wasn’t in the ancient times of the Jewish people nor is it now.
The Bible’s purpose
A common misconception is that the Bible’s purpose should be about reforming all societies. That isn’t the purpose of the Bible nor was it the purpose of God’s people when the Bible was written. The purpose of the Bible is to make known to man who God is and how man is to enter into a right relationship with God (salvation through Christ alone). The results of this is righteous living that glorifies God. What we see in the Bible are God’s people existing within certain societal norms, yet living out these norms in a way that would please God. As in the case of slavery, we see laws established that help God’s people exist within the societal norm of slavery in a way that respects human life. The Bible makes it clear that things like violence against slaves, kidnapping and demeaning of women was against God’s law and was unacceptable.
With this knowledge in hand we can say unequivocally that what we commonly know as slavery in modern times is not the same as what we see in ancient Israel. We can also say unequivocally that the Bible doesn’t condone the type of slavery commonly referred to in modern times. In fact, what we see, is the Bible speaking against any maltreatment of another human being and an appeal to the human heart to treat each other as equals. By way of a changed heart no human being would ever seek to enslave another.