Edit: Reddit discussion:
From user jmj1970
Nowhere in Scripture does God establish the institution of Slavery. While we do not know why God did not simply ban slavery, nowhere in Scripture does it condone slavery. Scripture only regulates it, to prevent abuse, and there were severe punishments for those who violated them. Even a cursory study of Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown will bring forth their extraordinary job of making the argument that Scripture does not condone slavery. It is precisely because of these arguments that throughout the Christian world slavery is thought of as a great evil.
There have been and still are individual Christians who support all forms of slavery. Likewise, there are Christians who support abortion on demand and don’t believe homosexual acts are sinful. Such sinful positions are indeed a problem. Whether individual people supported slavery is a separate issue from whether or not Christianity does. To answer the question of whether Christianity does, we must look to scripture and scripture alone. And again, there is no support for the institution of slavery in scripture.
We live in a sinful and broken world. Slavery was a human institution born of sin. What God provided to the OT Jews in Scripture are regulations for how that institution was to be governed to prevent abuse. For example, should an Israelite own a foreign slave, they were considered as part of their extended family. What did this mean? They were not to work on the Sabbath, but could go about their business as any regular citizen. There were severe laws against sexual abuse of female slaves. There were severe punishments if slaves were abused and, if any abuse took place, the slave must be set free.
Modern slavery denied the justice and rights the Bible teaches should be practiced in the institution of slavery. Modern slaves were kidnapped, brutalized, and treated like cattle solely because of the color of their skin. The Bible never teaches the superiority of one person over another by divine right. Rather, the Bible teaches we should “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, ESV) and that “there is neither slave nor free” (Gal 3:28, ESV). To defend the modern idea of slavery is to declare what is sin is not sin and that is something Christianity will not do.
Modern slavery and biblical slavery are completely different and cannot be rightly compared, save for one detail. They were both human institutions born of sin.
Where most people become confused over what Christianity teaches on this topic is that sound Christian doctrine teaches us to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1, ESV) and that “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (1 Cor 7:20-21). This doctrine does not distinguish between between a modern slave or a regular citizen. When these words were written, it was Nero who ruled the roman empire and was savagely persecuting Christians.
You may be interested in listening to this podcast segment which will go into further details:
The discussion specifically on slavery starts at the 45 minute mark, but I would encourage listening to the whole thing.
Furthermore, one of the main points in this commentary concerns slavery and contains some useful, scripturally based, details:
If this is an honest question, here is a real answer:
It’s easy confuse Old Testament Slavery with Western Slavery. If you think that God was O.K. with this sort of slavery, check out this verse only a few verses earlier.
“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)
Western style slavery was a capital offense as was rape and pre-meditated murder. God commanded his people repeatedly to protect and defend and care for the foreigners in their land.
You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
(The very next chapter even requires people to leave their own crops for foreigners to be sure they would not starve.)
A “slave” in that day was a person who had incurred an un-payable debt to another and had sold himself into that person’s employment. (Thus the phrase: “He is his money”) Even this was limited by God. Once in every generation, debts were totally and completely cancelled, no matter how great the debt, and people were returned to their own property. Check out Leviticus 25 and 27.
After Jesus, slavery was still a cultural issue and Paul spoke to this issue this way:
And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
The ideal in scripture actually goes like this:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
It was this Christian ideal, in fact, that broke England of its slave trade as well as early America!
By the way, God doesn’t hate black people. In Biblical culture, Africa and Etheopia were seen as beautiful and intriguing cultures. Moses married a black Woman, possibly Joshua as well. The famous and intriguing Queen of Sheba was black, and the Song of Solomon was a romantic (even erotic) poem probably written to and from a black woman. There was also a black prophet in Acts.
Does the Bible say it is okay to beat your slave, as long as they don’t die? How could a loving God allow slavery, and not only slavery, but to beat your slaves with no punishment?
This is a fantastic question. If there was ever a Bible verse taken out of context, it would have to be the verse in Exodus 21 regarding the beating of a slave. I think this has to be the skeptics’ favorite verse in all of the Bible to mock and try to point the finger at God and say, “Aha, you are evil and here is the proof.” In fact, I’d almost guarantee that this verse would show up on nearly every atheist or skeptic website.
But does the argument hold water? Does the Bible really support the beating of a slave? Would God have His children, the Israelites, mistreat an innocent slave in such a cruel way? Let’s see what God’s word says.
Does the Bible Support Slavery?
First, the Bible does record instances of slavery, but not in the cruel way in which we think of today. In today’s age, the idea of slavery conjures up images of a black man with whip marks on his back and bleeding blisters on his hands, working tirelessly day and night to please his ruthless white “master.” This is not the idea of slavery according to the scriptures. In the scriptures, slavery was not based on skin color. A Hebrew could even become a slave of a fellow Hebrew (Exodus 21:2).
Instead, slavery was more like a form of indentured servitude, or like a live-in maid or butler. Some compare it to a social class, and with good reason: A person who was financially broke could become a “slave” for a set period of time, and work to pay off debt, or to have guaranteed housing and care. This was actually a good thing, and it did wonders to keep the “homeless” population under control. If you were broke, no problem–just go be a servant for a while.
Furthermore, slaves usually had a set limit of time they served. In Exodus 21, Hebrew slaves could work no longer than 6 years, and after that, had to be released from their contract for nothing. Some people actually became slaves forever (by choice), simply because they would have bonded with their “master,” and would have preferred to stay with them. They didn’t want to be freed in some cases. In the following passage, the Bible gives instructions for such a case:
But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go free.’ …
-Exodus 21:5 (emphasis mine)
Surely this verse proves that slavery was not an evil activity like how we think of the brutal slavery of African Americans in the United States. Rather, this type of slavery was different. They worked for you in exchange for bread, a roof, and the payments of their debts. They could walk away after 6 years if they wanted, but many probably stayed on as hired hands.
The Bible also certainly instructed masters on how to behave in a Godly manner many times in the scripture. Here is just one:
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
So it becomes clear that slavery in the Bible was not meant to be some cruel activity. Some liked it so much, they chose to stay with their “masters.” They had it good enough to love it and stay by choice. Furthermore, some even shared in an inheritance when their owner’s passed away. That says a lot about the culture of the time.
I’m not going to go into more detail at this time on everything the Bible has to say about slavery (I’ll save that for another article), but rather, let me shift my attention to a specific verse in Exodus regarding beating a slave that is controversial.
Does the Bible Say Beating a Slave Is Okay?
The following verse about beating a slave is found in Exodus:
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
God Is Not Condoning Mistreating People, or Beating People
At first glance, it would appear as if God is condoning the beating of the slave, but let’s read this carefully.
First, we see that this verse in no way CONDONES beating a slave. God doesn’t command the Israelites to beat their slaves, and God surely doesn’t want anyone to be harsh or mistreat slaves. That’s not what the verse says at all, so pay close attention. I’ve already posted one verse above, but I’ll post a couple more to give you the sense of how God feels about it:
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
The verses above, taken from the New Testament, show us how God expects those with slaves under their care to act. They are to be fair and treat them right, and not be harsh with them. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Next, we must also remember that this very law came after God delivered the Israelites from harsh slavery. Here is what God had to say about that:
And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
-Exodus 3:9-10 (emphasis mine)
You shall not wrong a sojourner, or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
God is so against the oppressive form of slavery, that He delivered the Israelites from it in Egypt. In Egypt, the Israelites toiled long and hard, usually 7 days a week making bricks and completing Egyptian hard labor. Needless to say, God is against abusing people–slave or free. And I’d have to post almost the entire Bible to show even more of how God wants us to treat people: “Love they enemy,” “Do good to those who persecute you,” etc.
The verse nowhere approves of hitting people or abusing them, but rather, the ENTIRE Bible is consistent on how we should treat people. Any skeptic who tries to isolate this verse to “prove” that God condones beating a slave just reveals their own sheer desperation. The Israelites who had slaves would have known God’s holy laws, and they knew better than to mistreat people.
God Is Instructing What Penalties Should Take Place After the Fact
What is really going on in this chapter is that God is giving penalties based on certain crimes. God isn’t saying whether or not the action is moral–it’s already understood that it is not. From the context of the chapter, it’s clear these are all immoral activities (striking your parents, killing people, etc.).
So don’t get confused and think God accepts beating your slave. This section is not making statements as to the moral nature of the crime, but rather, what the punishment should be for such a crime. It is similar to our laws of today, where we may have law books that state the punishment for various crimes (ie, domestic abuse is XX days in prison and a XX fine; or murder in the 1st degree is death penalty).
So what happens if a master hits a slave, and he dies? Or what if he is injured, and doesn’t die? The law addressed the penalty in this verse:
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
In other words, if a master was to get in an argument or mistreat his slave by striking him, and the slave died, he must be put to death. If the slave survived a day or two, he would not.
Why Would the Master Not Be Put To Death If the Slave Survived?
If the slave died, the master would be put to death, but not if the slave survived (or, at least for a few days). Why? First, if the slave survived, it shows the master’s intent was not to kill or seriously harm the slave. Maybe they just got into a physical argument. Or maybe the master had to defend himself. Either way, it was a simple case of domestic violence, not pre-meditated murder. There is a big difference between those two.
Next, the Bible clears up the meaning when it says this, “he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.” What does that mean? That slaves are cheap property and worthless? No, not at all. The Bible makes clear that we are all of tremendous value to God our Father, whether we are lowly slaves or wealthy kings:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In fact, God delights in using those who are poor, weak, and so forth. He loves all of His children.
The text isn’t saying slaves are worthless property. What the text is saying is this: He was under contract to the master (his “employer”), and as such, had a financial obligation to him. Therefore, the master will owe nothing.
Here’s a way to illustrate it in more modern times to help you understand. Let’s suppose someone owes me a business debt of $200,000. They can’t pay, and I offer that they can work for me exclusively (ie, be my slave under contract), and live with me and tend to my property. At the end of 6 years, they are free to leave and do what they want. Their debt will be paid at that time. They agree.
Well, one day, the worker I hired (“the slave”), gets into a fight with me. I reach over and whack him over the head with a baseball bat in the heat of the argument. If he died, I’d be put to death for murder. But let’s say he lives. So he goes to the hospital, but he survives. Then, we must appear in court over the incident.
In court, the judge looks at his medical bills, pain, and his suffering. The judge then orders that I pay $200,000 to cover such expenses (“the penalty”). I then point out that I had purchased his labor for this very price (in the form of indentured servitude labor). So the judge says, okay, you pay nothing then. You should pay him $200,000, but since the slave owes you money ($200,000, your compensation for that debt), you don’t owe anything. It’s a wash.
Other Details to Keep In Mind About This Verse
As I said before, this verse is merely laying out punishments for crimes. It isn’t saying the crime is okay, but just stipulating the punishments if they happen. You have to keep in mind that the Israelites had just been freed from Egypt. They were wandering around in the desert on their journey to the promised land. They had no fancy prisons. They had no electric chairs. They had no autopsy reports to go by. They didn’t even have water on most days.
So if someone did something wrong, they had 3 options: They could be fined and have to pay financial compensation to the injured party, they could be flogged by the “courts” for a wrong (which was sometimes used), or they could be killed (death penalty). Those were basically their only options. In this text, a master would be killed for pre-meditated murder of his servant, but he would not be killed if he or she survived. In this case, the master would not have to pay compensation, since the servant already had a debt owed to the master. The debts would “cancel one another” so to speak.
Now, the text makes no mention of what else may happen. Why? Obviously, the judges in Israel would have to identify the details of each unique instance that something like this occurred. The law itself was a general guide to go by. They still had the freedom of judging each case individually.
I’m sure if there was a case of brutal beatings of a slave, that slave would have the option of leaving. The text doesn’t go into any further detail at this point, but look what the Bible says just a few verses later:
When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.
So now we can see that God does not tolerate abuse towards a slave, and even lets them free over a tooth or eye injury. This verse should clear up any doubt as to how the judges over Israel would have handled the situation. Slaves were NOT to be beaten, mistreated, or killed.
Conclusion: The Bible Does Not Condone Abusive Slavery
Given the above scriptures and points, this entire article can be summarized below:
- While the Bible did support slavery, it was not cruel or brutal slavery we know of today. God’s word instructs, time and time again, on the fair treatment of slaves, being kind to people, loving your enemy, and more. You’d have to be ignorant to argue that God condones beating or mistreating people in a cruel way. In fact, God led Moses to free the Israelites because they were being mistreated as slaves!
- Slaves had rights, were allowed to leave after 6 years, and many of them even loved their masters, and preferred to stay with them. This is the culture you should keep in mind. It isn’t much different than working for a wonderful family as a live-in maid or servant in today’s time. Many slaves ended up more prosperous than non-slaves.
- The Bible NEVER condones beating a slave, hitting a slave, and never suggests to treat them in a cruel way. The verse in question is dealing with the penalty of such activity, not condoning it or making moral statements about it. Much like how we have laws against rape, domestic violence, and the penalties for such crimes. The chapter itself implies that the activity is wrong within its own context.
- The penalty for beating a slave was death if the slave died. If the slave survived, then there was no penalty, simply because the financial debts basically cancelled each other out.
There you have it. Once again, God’s holy word stands rock solid against the lies and manipulations of skeptics. Please don’t ever forget what I am about to say: There are 2 types of skeptics: Honest ones and dishonest one.
An honest skeptic isn’t sure, but is willing to objectively investigate a matter. When given a logical or rational reasoning, he or she accepts it. A dishonest skeptic doesn’t want to know the truth. He doesn’t want to read an answer, except maybe to mock and scoff some more.
Sadly, far too many dishonest skeptics exist. Many have toiled away for hours and hours building websites to try to mock and blaspheme a Holy God. They hate God. Their point isn’t to find the truth of the matter, but to get as many jabs in on Christianity as they can.
I hope this article has helped you to understand that God’s word can be trusted. I take God’s word by faith to be literally true from cover to cover. It is rock-solid, and has stood the most intense scrutiny over time.
Amen. Praise God.
Additionally, in the New Testament Jesus makes it abundantly clear the worth or a human being.
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
I’m pretty sure Jesus, who was God in flesh, would not condone Western slavery of beating of slaves.
Rather than addressing some difficult questions posed to him by Rhology, Andrew jumps immediately into a passage that is typically touted by Internet atheists who want to pretend as though they know the Bible better than most believers by virtue of their having read, say, the Skeptics Bible or visited Evil Bible. Now let’s address Andrew’s misreading of the text.
20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
Ex 21:20-21 (ESV)
Concerning this passage Andrew writes, “It clearly says you can beat your slave to death.” But it does not. The text does not condone the beating of the slave at all. Rather, the text is describing what the punishment is *for* beating one’s slave to death. That is, the text actually *condemns* beating a slave to death. In the one case, the slave owner is punished by being put to death. In the other case, which is an unintentional death by beating, the slave owner is punished in terms of his own financial loss from having beaten his slave to death. The implication is that he did not intend to kill his slave, but was still wrong in beating the slave. Otherwise there would be no mention of punishment in either case. But as it is, there is a punishment in both cases here for beating a slave to death. In the first case of intentionally beating a slave to death, the slave owner is likewise to be put to death. In the second case of unintentionally beating a slave to death, the slave owner’s own foolish financial loss serves as his punishment.
Perhaps Andrew should try studying the text next time on his own (not an atheist site that references the text), or reading some commentaries, and he won’t make such silly mistakes, reading the text the exact *opposite* way from which it is to be read.
Muslims quote the following:
“However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)
This passage, they say, proves that slavery is condoned by the Bible.
I can write pages of articles on this but let’s just give them a brief answer.
Before answering this objection, I’m going to quote two verses; one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament and immediately it will be apparent that this claim is flawed:
From the Old Testament:
“Whoever kidnaps someone, either to sell him or to keep him as a slave is to be put to death.” – Exodus 21:16
From the New Testament:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:28
Do these two verses sound like condoning slavery?
Now, let’s answer to this claim.
Israel was prohibited from territorial gains beyond what Yahweh had promised to Abraham (Deuteronomy 2:1-23). Moreover, Israel was prohibited the practice of “forced slavery” as seen in Exodus 21:16, “Whoever kidnaps someone, either to sell himor to keep him as a slave, is to be put to death.”
In another passage Moses declares, “If any of you kidnap Israelites and make them your slaves or sell them into slavery, you are to be put to death. In this way your nation will get rid of this evil” – Deuteronomy 24:7. In the first one, there is a general prohibition against slavery of anyone and in the second, a specific order against slavery of Israelites.
Voluntary slavery is a completely different situation.Voluntary slavery arises when a person becomes so poor that they cannot make a living, cannot provide for themselves, and sell themselves into a relationship with a person who has money and can provide for the poor person. The Hebrew word for this is “ebed.” meaning servant, or bondman. The Bible describes Israel as the Lord’s bondservant, or slave, the same word ebed.
Muslims have distorted these verses out of context but we will look at the whole context. They quote Leviticus 25:44-46, but let’s quote it from verse 39-40:
“If any Israelites living near you become SO POOR that THEY SELL THEMSELVES to you as a slave, you shall not make them do the work of a slave. They shall stay with you as hired workers and serve you until the next Year of Restoration.” – Leviticus 25:39-40
The issue of poverty was one of the reasons that people sold themselves as servants. There were also provisions for freedom. They could be bought back by a relative, or by their own money. Working for someone else did not mean that they received nothing. “By their own money” (v. 49) meant a certain freedom to gain money and buy their own freedom.
We have no reason to believe that the same was not true for the foreigners in the land. The verse says, “Purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land,” (Leviticus 25:44) and these were probably people like the Hebrews who fell on hard times and were poor. Being a servant in another household was better than starving. The rights are spelled out for the Hebrews but they would also apply to the foreigners who were welcomed into the land. The people were commanded: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner; remember that you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not mistreat any widow or orphan.” – Exodus 22:21-22
“Suppose a foreigner living with you becomes rich, whilesome Israelites become poor and SELL THEMSELVES AS SLAVES to that foreigner or to a member of that foreigner’s family. After they are sold, they still have the right to be bought back. A brother or an uncle or a cousin or another close relative may buy them back; or if they themselves earn enough,they may buy their own freedom. They must consult the one who bought them, and they must count the years from the time they sold themselves until the next Year of Restoration and must set the price for their release on the basis of the wages paid hired workers. They must refund a part of the purchase price according to the number of years left, as if they had been hired on an annual basis. Their master must not treat them harshly. If they are not set free in any of these ways, they and their children must be set free in the next Year of Restoration. Israelites cannot be permanent slaves, because the people of Israel are the LORD’s slaves. He brought them out of Egypt; he is the LORD their God. – Leviticus 25:47-55
The central issue here is that slavery was initiated BY the slave, NOT by the owners, DEFINITELY not by force.The passage about inheritance needs some caveats:
First, the verses say “you may” pass them on to your children, not that it was automatic, necessary, expected, or standard practice. It may be that the prosperity changes could have reduced the owner’s ability to support the slave.
Second, this may well refer to servants who did not want to go free as expressed in Exodus 21:5, “But if the slave declares that he loves his master, his wife, and his children and does not want to be set free,” there was a ceremony at the place of worship for declaring him to be a slave for life. There is a similar procedure described in Deuteronomy 15:16 in which a person could become a slave for life because “he may love you and your family and be content to stay.”
Third, given the fact that slaves could earn money, they could buy their own freedom: “if they themselves earn enough, they may buy their own freedom.” – Leviticus 25:49
As we see, the so called “biblical slavery” isn’t the kind of slavery we all aware of. The Bible condemns “forced slavery” (Exodus 21:16), but condones “voluntary slavery” for a period of time because of poverty, unless the slaves do not want to be freed (Exodus 21:5).
It’s ironic how Muslims try to attack the Bible, without realizing, in so doing, they condemn their own Allah and Muhammad. Muhammad had slaves and the Qur’an condones slavery (Qur’an 4:24).
I call all Muslims to Christ today and stop fighting against the truth because that’s one thing we can never win against. Follow this link and receive your salvation today.
Through the millennia, some of the worst atrocities perpetrated on humans have been linked to the institution of slavery. Historically, slavery has not designated one particular ethnic group as its singular victim. The Hebrews were slaves to the Egyptians during the days of Moses. During the reign of King David, the Moabites were subjected to slavery (2 Samuel 8:2). Alexander the Great forced almost the entire inhabited world to cower and serve him. Truth be told, practically every nationality of people that exists today could point to a time in its past history when it fell victim to slavery. Hitting closer to home, the pages of history dealing with the formative years of the United States are despoiled with gruesome stories of ships carrying slaves sold to the Americas by their fellow Africans (and others, e.g., Arabians). These slaves frequently were packed so densely in lower ship decks that many of them died of disease or malnutrition. Those who lived to see the States soon learned that their fate hinged upon those who purchased them. Some slaves were ushered into homes with kind masters, decent living facilities, good food, and freedom to worship. Other slaves were purchased by cruel, greedy people who overworked them, abused them, underfed them, and allowed them no freedom.
Friction soon arose between those who wanted to maintain slavery, and those who wanted to outlaw the practice as inhumane and unjust. It can be argued convincingly that the American Civil War was fought primarily over this very issue. Politicians raged on both sides of the matter. Interestingly, so did religious people. Abolitionists, as well as pro-slavery advocates, went to the Bible to marshal arguments for their particular view. Abolitionists armed themselves with verses such as: “Therefore whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12); or “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you all are one man in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Religious pro-slavery activists fired impressive scriptural guns by quoting passages such as: “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” (1 Peter 2:18); and “Servants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of your heart, as to Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Can we determine with accuracy what the Bible really says on the topic of slavery? Does the Bible condemn it as a social injustice? Does the Bible condone the practice? And how does the Bible’s position on slavery mesh with the idea of a loving God?
For years, skeptics have railed against the written Word, insisting that its pro-slavery tendencies should alert any reader who has a scrap of common sense to the idea that an all-loving God could not have inspired such atrocious material. Morton Smith and R. Joseph Hoffman, in a book titled What the Bible Really Says, commented:
[T]here is no reasonable doubt that the New Testament, like the Old, not only tolerated chattel slavery (the form prevalent in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s time) but helped to perpetuate it by making the slaves’ obedience to their masters a religious duty. This biblical morality was one of the great handicaps that the emancipation movement in the United States had to overcome. The opponents of abolition had clear biblical evidence on their side when they argued (1989, pp. 145-146, parenthetical item in orig.).
Following a similar line of thinking, Ruth Green wrote that “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” (1979, p. 351).
Has the Bible been responsible for the oppression of slaves in the past? No, it has not. In fact, an in-depth look into the biblical account that reveals God’s attitude toward slavery shows just the opposite.
SLAVERY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
In Matthew 19:3-10, the Pharisees came to Jesus, attempting to trap Him with questions about the Old Law. They asked: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” Jesus informed them that divorce was not in God’s plan from the beginning. Thinking they had trapped Him, they inquired: “Why, then, did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” If it was in the Old Law, they suggested, then it must be God’s ideal will. But Jesus’ answer quickly stopped that line of thinking. He responded:
Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.
Jesus’ point was crystal clear—some things permitted in the Old Testament did not necessarily represent the ideal. Due to the hardness of ancient Israel’s heart, God tolerated (and regulated) some things under the Old Law that He did not endorse. As He did so, however, He progressively revealed His divine will to mankind, clarifying that will more fully through Christ.
Many of the injunctions found in the Old Testament pertaining to slavery fall into the category of regulating something that was “less than ideal.” Even in the Old Testament, God desired that all people love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18). Yet, in a time when God used the children of Israel as His arm of justice to punish evildoers, certain questions arose. What was to be done, for example, with the survivors of those wicked nations? What was to be done with a man who was so far in debt that he could not repay his lender? These issues, and others like them, necessitated that God institute some form of humane regulations for “slavery.”
Often, those who attack the Bible skirt the real crux of the slavery issue. They point to verses in the Old Testament that offer a particular regulation for slavery. From there, they proceed to argue that the Bible is a vile book that does not condemn, but actually condones slavery. And, they argue, since all slavery is morally wrong, the Bible must not be the product of a loving God.
However, those who take such a position fail to consider that certain types of slavery are not morally wrong. For instance, when a man is convicted of murder, he often is sentenced to life in prison. During his life sentence, he is forced by the State to do (or not do) certain things. He is justly confined to a small living space, and his freedoms are revoked. Sometimes, he is compelled by the State to work long hours, for which he does not receive even minimum wage. Would it be justifiable to label such a loss of freedom as a type of slavery? Yes, it would. However, is his loss of freedom a morally permissible situation? Certainly. He has become a slave of the State because he violated certain laws that were designed to ensure the liberty of his fellow citizen, whom he murdered. Therefore, one fact that must be conceded by anyone dealing with the Bible and its position on slavery is the fact that, under some conditions, slavery is not necessarily a morally deplorable institution.
Taking that into account, we also must ask: Who has the right to determine when slavery can be imposed on a certain person or group of people? The answer, of course, is God. In the Old Testament, immoral nations who practiced unspeakable evils surrounded the Hebrews. In order to rid the world of their destructive influence, the children of Israel dealt with them in several ways. One of those ways included forcing the wicked nations into slavery. Many of the slave regulations in the Old Testament deal with the treatment of individuals and nations who had committed crimes against humanity that were worthy of death. The wicked people were graciously allowed to live, but they were subjected to slavery, much like a lifetime prison sentence in modern criminal cases. Let us look more closely at this situation. In Leviticus 18:21,24 we read that the Lord told Moses to instruct the Israelites as follows:
And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech…. Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you.
In order to understand this scenario, it is important that we understand what the phrase, “pass through the fire to Molech,” means in verse 21. In brief, it means that the nations around the Israelites were burning their own children as human sacrifices to a pagan god named Molech (for further information on Molech and this practice, see Harrison, 1988, 3:401). Fitting this into our discussion, would it be morally permissible for God to allow a government (e.g., the Israelites) to punish those people who were viciously murdering their own children? We must answer in the affirmative. What punishment would be appropriate for a person who had committed such heinous crimes as to murder his or her own innocent children? The answer to that question rages even in our own society today when instances of child homicide arrive before the courts of our land. Legitimate answers often include the death penalty, or a life in prison in which many freedoms are revoked.
As additional evidence along these lines, in Exodus 22:1-3, the Bible discusses a situation in which a man was caught in the act of thievery. The thief was instructed to restore what he stole, returning four sheep, and five oxen, for every one stolen. The text further states: “He should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (vs. 3). Being sold into slavery was often a government-regulated punishment based on a criminal action. One can see, then, that it is morally permissible to revoke the freedoms of certain people or groups of people based on their inappropriate conduct.
Accordingly, many of the slavery regulations in the Old Testament pertained to people who deserved far worse. Dan Vander Lugt commented:
Old Testament laws regulating slavery are troublesome by modern standards, but in their historical context they provided a degree of social recognition and legal protection to slaves that was advanced for its time (Exodus 21:20-27; Leviticus 25:44-46). We must keep in mind that on occasion it was an alternative to the massacre of enemy populations in wartime and the starvation of the poor during famine (2001, p. 1).
A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
Frequently, “slavery” in Bible times was much more of an employer/employee relationship than an owner/slave situation. Even the words used to delineate between a hired servant and a slave are difficult to separate. As Herbert Lockyer noted:
In the ancient world, service and slavery were closely related, so much so that one can scarcely distinguish the one from the other. The original words used for “servants” and “service” carry a variety of meanings between which it is not always easy to determine what is meant (1969, p. 197).
Arndt and Gingrich documented that the Greek word doulos meant “slave,” but that it also was used “in a wider sense” to denote “any kind of dependence.” In 2 Corinthians 4:5, the apostles are called the douloi (plural of doulos) of the Christians. Christ took on the form of a doulos, as stated in Philippians 2:7. Paul designates himself as a doulos of Christ in Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Galatians 1:10, and numerous other passages (1967, pp. 205-206). The term can describe a person who is obligated in some way, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, to another person. Due to this broad use, various translations have employed a wide range of words to render the meaning of doulos in English. Using Romans 1:1 as a case in point, the NKJV has “bondservant,” the New Living Translation has “slave,” the KJV and ASVhave “servant,” and the Darby Bible has “bondman.”
The Hebrew word ebed is similar to the Greek doulos, in that it can be translated as “slave” or “servant.” In Exodus 4:10, Moses referred to himself as the “servant” (ebed) of God. Abraham called himself the ebed of the angels who came to visit him in Genesis 18:3. In Genesis 39:17-19, Potiphar’s wife described Joseph as the Hebrew ebed, and Genesis 24:2 talks about the eldest ebed in Abraham’s house, who “ruled over all he had.”
The purpose of including this brief description of the two most common terms for a slave is to show that our modern use of the word slave generally evokes mental images of cruelty, injustice, and bondage against a person’s will. While such ideas could be included in the biblical usage, they do not necessarily fit every time the words are used. Instead, the picture that we often see when the biblical words for “slave” are employed is a mutually beneficial arrangement similar to an employer/employee relationship. Job describes this relationship quite well:
If I have despised the cause of my manservant (ebed) or of my maidservant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God riseth up? And when he visiteth, what shall I answer him? Did not he that made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb (Job 31:13-15)?
Obviously, Job’s dealings with his slaves provided a mutually acceptable situation for master as well as slave.
To illustrate further the true nature of much Old Testament slavery, Abraham’s relationship with his slave Eliezer should be examined. In Genesis 15:2-3, Abraham lamented the fact that he was childless. In his dialogue with God, he stated that the heir of his wealth was Eliezer of Damascus. In verse three of chapter 15, Abraham described Eliezer as “one born in my house.” Later, in Genesis 24:2, Abraham’s oldest servant (probably Eliezer) “ruled over all that he had.” Add to this the fact that Abraham armed 318 trained servants (Hebrew ebed) to bring back Lot after he had been captured (Genesis 14:14-15). If the slave/owner relationship was anything less than mutually trusting, Abraham most likely would not have intentionally armed his slaves.
Due to the mutually beneficial nature of much Old Testament slavery, some slaves did not even want to leave their masters. Deuteronomy 15:16-17 deals with that very situation:
And if it happens that he [a slave—KB] 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 maidservant you shall do likewise.
Do the actions and words of Abraham’s slaves, or those found in Deuteronomy 15, seem like the actions and words of tyrannized, oppressed people? Hardly. Rather, they seem more like the words and actions of people enjoying a mutually beneficial and consensual relationship.
Even during New Testament times, slavery often provided a mutually beneficial relationship to both owner and slave. As Paul Copan remarked:
During Paul’s time, the master-slave relationship provided sufficient benefits and opportunities, such that it dampened any thoughts of revolutionary behavior. One freed slave had inscribed on his tombstone: “Slavery was never unkind to me….” More often than not, it was the free workers rather than slaves who were abused by foremen and bosses. (After all, an owner stood to have an ongoing loss if he abused his slave.) [2001, p. 172, parenthetical item and emp. in orig.].
But suppose a master did abuse his slaves in Old Testament times, and those slaves decided to run away. In Deuteronomy 23:15-16, God made it unlawful for runaway slaves to be returned to their masters. The text states:
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.
This passage is particularly revealing because it shows how costly cruelty to slaves was. It also shows that slaves had the freedom to choose where, and with whom, they wanted to live. Wright noted that this passage proves that
[s]lavery as such is not protected or rendered sacrosanct under Israelite law. At the very least it can be said that such a law probably presumes that runaway slaves will be the exception, not the rule. This lends further weight to the view that normally slavery in Israel was not oppressively harsh. It would certainly not have been, if the spirit of the slavery laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy were put into practice (1983, pp. 181-182).
Add to this the fact that kidnapping a man and selling him as a slave was a crime punishable by death, as noted in 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.” Certainly, any parallel to slavery in early America can be easily refuted.
Also note that the slavery regulated in the Bible had absolutely nothing to do with race, color, or ethnic background. While it is true that certain nations, as a whole, were captured and enslaved because of their wicked, idolatrous practices, it is not true that they were enslaved due to their allegedly inferior nationality. Leviticus 19:34 states: “But 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.” Deuteronomy 24:14 reads: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren, or one of the aliens who is in your land within thy gates.” And, although certain regulations applied only to Hebrews who found themselves enslaved (Deuteronomy 15:12-14; Exodus 21:2), it was not because they were a “superior” race or nationality, but simply because they were citizens of the nation of Israel (a similar concept would be the fact that a person who is born in the USA is not inherently any less or any more valuable than any other person, but, under the law system of the United States, that person would possess certain rights and privileges that a non-citizen would not enjoy). Deuteronomy 10:17-19 illustrates God’s impartiality well:
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 widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore, love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The New Testament further underscores the idea of human equality in passages such as 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 man in Christ Jesus.” Job’s statement regarding his slave’s equality—due to the fact that God formed him in the same way that God formed Job (31:15)—provides a perfect example of the biblical idea that all men possess the same inherent value. The idea that one nation or race is superior to another does not come from the Bible. Racism like that displayed by many during the slavery years of the United States has always been a sin (Acts 17:26-31).
A valid question naturally arises from the comment above, that, on occasion, nations as a whole were enslaved because of their wickedness. What about the children of those wicked men and women? Must they become slaves as well, suffering for their parents’ evil actions? First, let us acknowledge that, even today, children often suffer because of their parents’ poor decisions. Consider the sad and pitiful plight of a child whose father is an alcoholic or child abuser. That child will suffer physically, emotionally, and financially. Even in modern times, the children who are born in poverty or cruelty often remain slaves of those elements their entire lives. Second, let us ask a more pertinent question: Would it be better for that child to grow up in a country where the slave laws protected him or her, or would it be better for the child to have to “pass through the fire to Molech”? To ask is to answer, is it not? When nations were conquered by the Israelites, what was to happen to the nations’ children who remained alive? They could be left to die on their own, or they could be given homes, food, and jobs. Which of the two options is more humane? Again, to ask is to answer. Furthermore, if the child grew up and did not like his master, he or she could simply run away and live wherever he or she wanted (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
As we consider further the situation of slaves in ancient Israel, it is interesting to note that every slave was entitled (by God) to have a part in the Sabbath rest once every week. Exodus 20:10 states:
[B]ut 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 manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates (emp. added).
Along these same lines, every slave also was entitled to partake in the eight-day festivities surrounding the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:9-17). The welcome rest provided on these occasions shows that God’s regulations for slavery in Israel were humane and fair. Furthermore, the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10) provided freedom to “all the inhabitants” in the land of the children of Israel. [This provision included many of the slaves, with possible exceptions such as those slaves who had chosen to stay with their masters and have their ears pierced as a sign of their situation, and those slaves that were taken from other nations.]
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.
Certainly, God kindly provided rest and freedom for slaves under the Old Testament in order to quell abuses that might arise.
Slaves of Debt
Another aspect of Old Testament slavery had to do with severe debt accumulation. In Old Testament times, no bankruptcy legislation held sway over the Israelites. What was to be done for the person who was drowning in a sea of debt? Was his lender simply to wave his hand and forgive the debt? Would that be a fair situation for the lender? Hardly. Therefore, many of the slave situations arose because of such debt. Herb Vander Lugt commented:
Remember too, at that time no nation had the ability to deal with people who had gotten themselves hopelessly in debt. So they were allowed to sell themselves into slavery (often temporarily) in exchange for release from their financial obligations (Ex. 21:2-4; Lev. 25:39-43; Dt.15:12) [1999, p. 11, parenthetical item in orig.].
Leviticus 25:47-49 provides an example of slavery caused by debt:
Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after he is sold he may be redeemed again. One of his brothers may redeem him; or his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him; or anyone who is near of kin to him in his family may redeem him; or if he is able he may redeem himself.
Would it be fair for a society to allow a person who had accumulated a huge amount of debt to sell his labor to another person to pay that debt? Yes, it would. However, God—aware that abuse might arise in any situation—even regulated debt slavery, and provided for the rights and privileges of the slave to be guarded.
DIFFICULT LAWS TO UNDERSTAND
Admittedly, even with all the humane slave laws contained in the Old Testament, there are certain laws that we, in modern times, have a difficult time understanding. For instance, Exodus 21:20 reads:
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. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.
In the first place, how could God allow a slave owner to beat his slave at all? To answer this question, we must remember who many of the Old Testament slaves were. They were members of the wicked, sinful nations who had been delivered into the hands of the Israelites because of their immorality. Suppose that a slave from one of those nations had made up his mind to do as much damage to his owner as possible. The slave had the option of running away to a gentler owner whenever he wished (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). However, suppose that he chose to stay and steal from the owner, or break the owner’s equipment intentionally, or destroy the owner’s crops. What could the owner do to stop such sabotage? Herb Vander Lugt put it like this:
Then, too, no matter how well the slaves were treated, some might have been rebellious and defiant. Forgetting that they were alive because they were taken as war captives instead of being executed, they might have blamed their master for their slave status. They might have shown their resentment by destroying property, abusing fellow slaves, or refusing to work. The master may have had no other way to bring his slave in line than to use physical punishment (1999, p. 17).
As appalling as it is to the sensitivities of most United States citizens, many countries still employ some type of beating or bodily harm to deter crime (some readers may recall the controversy over “caning” in Singapore in the early 1990s). When a modern-day prisoner violates rules while incarcerated, more stringent punishment (such as solitary confinement) often is required. If a slave deserved the death sentence, yet was allowed to live under certain conditions—and then did not comply with those conditions—would it be feasible to suggest that his death sentence could be reinstated? Even though it seems harsh to us, Exodus 21:20 does not militate against the justice of God.
In fact, the more closely the passage is scrutinized, the more it manifests the idea that God was protecting the slave. Concerning the punishment that a master would receive if he did beat his slave to death, Christopher Wright noted that the word “punished” as used here actually means “avenged.” And,
in any other context [it] would mean that the guilty party would be liable to death himself at the hands of his victim’s family…. This law’s natural sense is that the murderous master was to be executed by the legal community on behalf of the slave, who had no family to avenge him (1983, p. 180).
While not all commentators are as confident as Wright is (that in this passage the death penalty is involved), there is no concrete case which argues that the death penalty is not at least a possibility in this situation. The authors of the Pulpit Commentary observed how this fear of punishment would protect the slave.
Involving, as the death of the slave did, criminal proceedings, and, on conviction, severe punishment, the mere danger of a fatal result ensuing would be a powerful deterrent from exceptional violence…. The mere risk of incurring such a penalty would inspire salutary caution (Spence and Exell, n.d., p. 179).
Adding additional weight to the argument that the restriction in Exodus 21:20 was for the benefit of the slave, Burton Coffman wrote:
This was a protective right granted to slaves that they should not be beaten to death! If that seems like a small blessing to us, let it be remembered that under the system in vogue all over the pagan world of that era, and extending down even till apostolical times, the Roman Law, in force all over the world, provided as a penalty against slaves, even for trivial and unintentional violations, that shame of the whole pagan world “flagellis ad mortem” (beaten to death), a penalty usually inflicted in the presence of all the other slaves of a master. God here provided thatpunishment should be meted out to a slave-owner for following that pagan custom (1985, pp. 309-310).
By way of summary, then, Exodus 21:20 documents that under certain circumstances, beating could be morally acceptable as punishment. This passage, however, provided rights that did not exist in other pagan cultures for the protection of the slave.
Exodus 21:26-27 provides another example of a law that seems difficult for us, in the present day, to understand as coming from a righteous God.
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.
Again, let it be noted that physical punishment might be the only solution to an unruly, rebellious slave who should have received the death penalty. However, something else of interest emerges from this verse that, rather than expressing the cruelty of Old Testament laws regulating slavery, shows instead God’s care for those enslaved. The text states that the eyes and teeth of slaves should not be knocked out or destroyed. However, the nations around the Israelites did not adhere to any such standards. When the Philistines captured Samson, they “took him and put out his eyes; and brought him down to Gaza. They bound him with bronze fetters; and he became a grinder in the prison” (Judges 16:21). Also, when the Babylonian soldiers raided Israel, capturing King Zedekiah, “they killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, put out the eyes of Zedekiah, bound him with bronze fetters, and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:7). God’s regulations for the treatment of slaves provided the slaves with many more rights than they had in the nations surrounding Israel.
Another of the most startling regulations concerning slavery is found in Leviticus 19:20-22:
And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering (KJV).
Of course, skeptics have a heyday with this reading from the King James Version, which seems to indicate that if a free man has sexual intercourse with a slave woman who is betrothed, then the slave woman is to be scourged and the man simply supplies a ram as a trespass offering. However, upon further investigation, it can be seen that this passage says something far different.
In the first place, the translators of the KJV most likely mistranslated the part of the text “she shall be scourged.” The ASV translators rendered the passage as follows:
And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman that is a bondmaid, betrothed to a husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; they shall be punished; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. And he shall bring his trespass-offering unto Jehovah, unto the door of the tent of meeting, even a ram for a trespass-offering.
The NKJV translators offered this reading:
Whoever lies carnally with a woman who is betrothed to a man as a concubine, and who has not at all been redeemed nor given her freedom, for this there shall be scourging; but they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. And he shall bring his trespass offering to the Lord, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, a ram as a trespass offering.
A brief look at these three translations shows that the recipient(s) of the punishment is not as clearly delineated as the KJV indicates. Keil and Delitzsch, in their commentary on the Pentateuch, noted that the scourging “referred to both parties, as is evident from the expression, ‘they shall not be put to death’” (1981, p. 422). G.J. Wenham has introduced another interesting solution regarding this passage by translating the disputed passage about scourging as “damages must be paid” (1979, p. 270). Concerning this translation he wrote:
This is the most problematic phrase in this law: literally, “there will be a biqqôret.” The word biqqôret occurs only here in the OT, and its meaning is therefore quite uncertain…. Other renderings of biqqôret have less to commend them. “An inquiry shall be held” (RSV; cf. NEB) is vacuous: every legal dispute would have involved inquiry. “She shall be scourged” (AV) goes back to an old Jewish interpretation,probably based on the dubious derivation of biqqôret from bâqâr, “ox, i.e., an oxhide scourge” (pp. 270-271, emp. added).
Taking these things into account, it appears that the passage does not indicate that the female should be scourged apart from the guilty male. Rather, whatever punishment was inflicted should be applied equally, except for the fact that the guilty male alone shoulders the responsibility of supplying the ram for the trespass offering.
According to God, the Israelites did not have absolute control over their slaves, as is evinced by the instructions in Exodus 21:20,26-27 and Leviticus 19:20. This idea was a departure from the generally accepted notions of slavery in the Near East during the Israelites’ day. “Any demeaning or oppressive treatment of slaves was condemned as wrong by biblical writers” (Copan, 2001, pp. 173-174). God’s laws in the Old Testament not only regulated slavery (so that those enslaved would be given many rights that they otherwise would not have had), but they also supplied the means whereby fairness could be meted out with regard to criminal activity and debt. Every regulation of slavery in the Old Testament can be shown to be in harmony with the principles of justice and fairness.
SLAVERY IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
As we look into the New Testament, we see a strikingly different picture with regard to the biblical injunctions pertaining to slavery. The New Testament does not contain the specific regulations dealing with slavery that can be found in the Old Testament. In fact, for the most part, the New Testament says very little in its regulation of slavery. And herein lies one of the skeptic’s primary challenges to the New Testament’s stance on slavery. If the New Testament is supposedly a book inspired by an all-loving God, why does it remain virtually silent on slavery? Smith and Hoffman, in their attack on the Bible, stated:
Slave-owning was the order of the day and, so far as we are told, Jesus never attacked the practice. He took the state of affairs for granted and shaped his parables accordingly…. If Jesus had denounced slavery, we should almost certainly have heard of his doing so (Smith and Hoffman, 1989, p. 143).
The other challenge to the New Testament’s stance on slavery centers on the passages that teach slaves to be humble and obedient servants to their masters. In Colossians 3:22, Paul commanded: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord” (NRSV). Although several modern translations insert the word “servants” at the first of this verse, “slaves” is probably a better translation of the Greek word douloi in this passage (Arndt and Gingrich, 1967, p. 205). Other similar passages include 1 Peter 2:18-20, 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, and Ephesians 6:5-9. Ruth Green, after presenting her case to suggest that the Bible condones slavery, wrote:
Those who deny my contentions about the Bible should turn to the Epistles to see what Paul and Peter have to say about “servants” and masters. Here are only two examples: “Servants, be subject to your masters in all fear” (1 Peter 2:18). “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters . . . with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5). There are many more instructions about slavery in the Christian Holy Book (1979, p. 352).
Does the New Testament remain silent in its condemnation of all slavery? And why does it specifically instruct slaves to be obedient to their masters?
First, it must be acknowledged that many of the types of servanthood or slavery in the New Testament are identical to the morally permissible types discussed earlier in this article. For instance, much first-century slavery discussed in the Bible centered on the fact that a person had accrued massive debt, and thus had become a slave or servant due to this debt. As an example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26). From Christ’s comments, it can be ascertained that the person in this text who does not make the effort to agree with his adversary could risk being thrown into prison until that person “paid the last penny.” This situation involved a revoking of individual freedoms due to the fact that the individual owed an unpaid debt—a debt that originally was owed to the adversary, or one that resulted from a fine imposed by a judge.
In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus told a story about a servant who owed his master ten thousand talents. A talent was a huge sum of money that would be the modern equivalent of many thousands of dollars. It could easily have been the case that this servant had become a servant due to this enormous debt, or was being kept a servant because of the debt. Debt slavery was still a very real form of restitution in New Testament times. Such a condition absolutely cannot be used to argue that God is an unjust God for letting such take place.
Furthermore, it is a false notion that God condones something just because He mentions it without an immediate condemnation of it in the surrounding verses. Skeptics point to verses like 1 Peter 2:8 and Ephesians 6:5, and then insist that God condones abusive slavery because He instructs servants to be obedient to their masters. But, let us analyze that line of thinking. In Matthew 5:39, Christ instructed His listeners: “Do not resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Because Jesus told His listeners to be kind and turn the other cheek, does that mean that He condones the actions of the one who did the slapping? Absolutely not! Or what about the fact that Paul, through divine inspiration, instructed his readers to be subject to civil governments and to pay taxes to those governments. Was Paul condoning all practices of all governments to whom his readers would be subject and pay taxes? Certainly not. God never has condoned such unjustified behavior on the part of any individual or group.
Biblical Principles and Abolition
As a concluding argument, let it be clearly stated that the principles set forth by Jesus and His apostles, if followed, would result in the abolition of all types of abusive relationships. Slavery would have been nonexistent if everyone from the first century forward had adhered to Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7:12: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.” Any discussion of slavery would be moot if the world had heeded the words of Peter: “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another, love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1 Peter 3:8).
Truly, the teachings of the Lord and the apostles would have abolished slavery like no other social reform system ever known. As Herb Vander Lugt accurately observed:
Jesus and the apostles didn’t go on an anti-slavery crusade, because doing so would have been futile and a hindrance to their primary mission. The priority of Jesus was the provision of salvation. For the apostles it was the proclamation of the gospel. But both Jesus and the apostles undermined the basis for slavery by making it clear that God equally loves rich and poor, free and slave, male and female. The apostles also welcomed into the church and gave equal status to all who believed, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or social position (1999, p. 26).
Furthermore, an outright condemnation of kidnapping, or slave trading, is found in the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 1:9-10, Paul wrote:
We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave tradersand liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine… (NIV, emp. added).
Other versions render the Greek word andrapodistais as “kidnappers,” or “menstealers,” but it also is translated slave dealers or slave traders (Arndt and Gingrich, 1967, p. 63). Therefore, in keeping with the Old Testament injunction that anyone kidnapping and selling a person involves himself in immoral conduct, Paul certainly distinguished between certain types of slavery practices that were inherently wrong, and others that were not intrinsically sinful.
The fact is, certain types of “slavery” not only are permissible, but sometimes necessary to the well-being of a society at large. For the biblical stance on slavery to be condemned as unjust, it must be established that the specific regulations of slavery described in the text are immoral and unfair. However, when closely scrutinized, the biblical stance on slavery aligns itself with true justice. All regulations found therein were established for the just treatment of all parties involved. Many times, slavery as regulated in the Old Testament was a mutually beneficial relationship between servant and master, similar to an employee/employer relationship. Furthermore, slavery often was a substitute for the death penalty—which certain nations deserved. Debt accumulation caused many free persons to sell their labor and become slaves.
The skeptic’s criticism that the New Testament does not speak against the abolition of slavery is misguided for any number of reasons. First, an attempt to generalize and condemn all types of slavery fails to take into account prison, personal debt, indentured servanthood, and a host of other morally permissible situations. Bankruptcy laws, prison terms, community service hours, and garnished wages are morally acceptable modern equivalents to certain types of slavery that were prevalent during the time of the biblical writers. Second, Jesus and the New Testament writers always condemned the mistreatment of any human being, instructing their followers to be kind, loving, and compassionate, whether they were slaves or masters of slaves.
In The Social Record of Christianity, atheist Joseph McCabe wrote: “Slavery is the last word that any Christian apologist ought to mention” (1935, p. 27). But he missed one of the main points in the Bible—that point being that everyone is a slave to something. As the apostle Paul wrote through inspiration:
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 (Romans 6:16-18).
Some people are slaves to drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, attitudes of pessimism and complaint, or any number of other vices. Others, however, are slaves to righteousness, teaching the Gospel, helping the sick, and taking care of the poor. We each must decide which master we will allow to control our lives. As the psalmist so beautifully stated it many years ago, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).
God’s injunctions and instructions pertaining to slavery have a clear ring of justice, compassion, mercy, and kindness to them. When analyzed fairly and fully, the idea of slavery gives the honest person one more piece of evidence that points to the perfection of the God of the Bible.
The claim is often made that the Bible approves of slavery, implicating God as its supporter, since rules governing slavery can be found in the both the Old and New Testament. Since virtually everyone agrees that forced, involuntary servitude is morally wrong, how can Christians justify the Bible’s apparent support of slavery?
What the Old Testament says about slavery
First, we must recognize that the Bible does not say God supports slavery. In fact, the slavery described in the Old Testament was quite different from the kind of slavery we think of today – in which people are captured and sold as slaves. According to Old Testament law, anyone caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed:
“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)
So, obviously, slavery during Old Testament times was not what we commonly recognize as slavery, such as that practiced in the 17th century Americas, when Africans were captured and forcibly brought to work on plantations. Unlike our modern government welfare programs, there was no safety-net for ancient Middle Easterners who could not provide a living for themselves. In ancient Israel, people who could not provide for themselves or their families sold them into slavery so they would not die of starvation or exposure. In this way, a person would receive food and housing in exchange for labor.
So, although there are rules about slavery in the Bible, those rules exist to protect the slave. Injuring or killing slaves was punishable – up to death of the offending party.1 Hebrews were commanded not to make their slave work on the Sabbath,2 slander a slave,3 have sex with another man’s slave,4 or return an escaped slave.5 A Hebrew was not to enslave his fellow countryman, even if he owed him money, but was to have him work as a hired worker, and he was to be released in 7 years or in the year of jubilee (which occurred every 50 years), whichever came first.6 In fact, the slave owner was encouraged to “pamper his slave”.7
What the New Testament says about slavery
Since many of the early Christians were slaves to Romans,8 they were encouraged to become free if possible, but not worry about it if not possible.9 The Roman empire practiced involuntary slavery, so rules were established for Christians who were subject to this slavery or held slaves prior to becoming Christians. The rules established for slaves were similar to those established for other Christians with regard to being subject to governing authorities.10 Slaves were told to be obedient to their master and serve them sincerely, as if serving the Lord Himself.11 Paul instructed slaves to serve with honor, so that Christianity would not be looked down upon.12
As with slaves, instructions were given to their masters as to how they were to treat their slaves. For example, they were not to be threatened,13 but treated with justice and fairness.14 The text goes on to explain that this was to be done because God is the Master of all people, and does not show partiality on the basis of social status or position.13, 14
There is an interesting letter in the New Testament (Philemon15–21) that gives some insight into the problems encountered in the early Christian church regarding the issue of slavery. Paul, the author of the letter, is writing from a Roman prison awaiting trial.15 He is writing to Philemon, who runs a local Christian church out of his house16 (since Christianity was highly persecuted at this point in time). Philemon, we find out, is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has escaped but has been converted to Christianity by Paul.18 In the letter, Paul indicates that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon.19 However, Paul says that he has confidence that Philemon will “do what is proper”17 although Paul wants him to do it by his “own free will”.20 Even so, Paul indicates that Onesimus would be a great aid in helping him spread the gospel.19 Paul ends the letter by saying that he has “confidence in your obedience” and indicates that he knows Philemon “will do even more than what I say.”21 Although Paul did not directly order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery, it would have been difficult to come away with any other conclusion from his letter.
God does not distinguish between slaves and freemen
- There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
- knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. (Ephesians 6:8)
- And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:9)
- a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
The idea that God or Christianity encourages or approves of slavery is shown to be false. In fact, anybody who was caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed. However, since voluntary slavery was widely practiced during biblical times, the Bible proscribes laws to protect the lives and health of slaves. Paul, the author of many of the New Testament writings, virtually ordered the Christian Philemon to release his Christian slave from his service to “do what is proper”. In addition, numerous verses from the New Testament show that God values slaves as much as any free person and is not partial to anyone’s standing before other people.