As Christians, we need to be honest with ourselves sometimes. We need to take a look at the Bible and recognize the time period in which it was written had very different social norms than the cultural realities we have today. There are stories in the Bible about rape, pillaging, prostitution, murder, and adultery. And let’s not forget slavery.
Eventually, every Christian will realize that both the New and Old Testaments have passages that discuss the slave-master relationship. They often talk about how servants must obey their masters or they will face persecution. A good example can be found in Ephesians 6:5:
“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ.”
There are a few different ways we could interpret this. Perhaps, the slave master wanted the people to worship him as a false idol and this verse from Ephesians was a reminder that we are only to worship Christ. Or maybe there was a servant who was not honoring his master in a way that was pleasing to God.
Regardless, we believe that the concept of slavery in the Bible is much different than the modern concept of what we perceive to be “slavery” today. In Biblical times, slavery wasn’t about race, it was much more than that.
The deeper issue is a moral one. And one that people often misunderstand. Unfortunately the Bible is a target for those who morally target passages, like those about slavery, without gaining a deeper understanding of context.
As we sit here today knowing that slavery is morally wrong we can’t help but wonder why this wasn’t also the heldbelief during Biblical times. Why didn’t God tell His people it was wrong? Why did He allow it to happen?
In this article, we’re asking tough questions and discussing difficult topics that might be overwhelming for some. Keep in mind that this is for research and informational purposes only.
We’re not here to talk poorly about the Bible or to shine a negative light on it. As Christians, we need to be honest about Biblical history and accept it as part of our faith.
Before we dive into the scripture, let’s take a moment to provide a brief overview of some of the information we will cover.
Both the Old and New Testament use the word “slavery” but we need to remember that this word didn’t have the same meaning that it does now.
Even though slavery is prevalent during biblical times, it was still considered a capital offense by Old Testament law. Stealing, capturing, or selling humans was illegal and it was also illegal if someone found an individual that was a slave and returned them to the slave master. This person was then considered an accessory to the crime and could also face punishment.
Nearly every instance of a slave and slave-master situation in the Bible is the result of debt repayment. This means that the person who was performing a task was doing so because they couldn’t repay someone. They were to work for the person for free for no longer than six years and if the slave owner held the person captive after that six year mark they could face punishment.
The slave and slave-master relationship didn’t have the same stigma it does now. These people were provided with a place to stay, food to eat, and clothes to wear at a time when poverty was a reality.
There was no politics or assistance from the government to help those who were unable to take care of themselves. As a result, they had to work for free in exchange for these things.
Understanding Old Testament Law vs. New Testament Law
You’ll find instances of slavery in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These books made up a large portion of the Old Testament law which was created to govern Israel. The goal was for everyone to live together in harmony under God and the Kings that ruled over the country. A majority of the Old Testament reads this way and was written to the people of Israel.
The New Testament on the other hand was written for Christians of the Roman Empire. By this time, slavery was a necessary evil according to the Romans but this information was supplied directly from the people to the people.
So, to make this clear. The Old Testament law was provided by God to the people of Israel. The New Testament was provided by the people to the Romans.
Breaking Down the Word “Slave”
We’ve touched on this a little but it’s very important to help you understand why slavery is what it is in the Bible. The biggest point of confusion for people who don’t understand Biblical text is their understanding of the word “slave.” The word as it is presented in the Old Testament does not mean the same thing it does today.
The Old Testament was written in classic Hebrew, so many of the words translated do not have the exact same meaning in English. The English language is limited and finding an English equivalent to a Hebrew word was not always possible.
In light of this, the Old Testament does not refer to someone who is bound to provide a service as a “slave”. Rather, a man is called an ebed and a woman is an ama. While these terms do relate to hard labor and difficult work, they do not have the same connotation as the word slave.
Much of the time, ebeds, and amas were not connected to labor at all. Sometimes they were simply a way of referring to someone who was of a lower social class. It would be the same as referring to a person as a servant, maid, or butler.
Observations Made in Scripture
Now that we have a bit of the backstory, we can start to dive right into the scriptures to see if we can understand what the Bible has to say about slavery.
16 Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.17 Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.18 If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist[a] and the victim does not die but is confined to bed…
– Exodus 16:18
These verses from the Old Testament speak directly on the subject of slavery by saying that if someone kidnaps or steals another person, they’re put to death. It doesn’t matter if the victim was already found or they’re still being held captive.
This verse is found early in Old Testament law and should be enough for most of us to realize that slavery was not viewed as a “good thing” or something that everyone “wanted to do” during biblical times. It was a crime punishable by death.
It’s also important to realize that most people who were slaves during this time were slaves voluntarily because they had no choice or they were doing it in exchange for something like food and shelter.
39 If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.
– Leviticus 25:39-42
If any set of scripture could make it clearer, I dare you to find it. These verses clearly describe the culture of the time. This is literally Old Testament law on display and there is no wiggle room when it comes to the scripture’s stance on slavery.
If someone is poor and they try to sell themselves to you, don’t treat them as slaves. Don’t treat them as prostitutes. This applies to both men and women. You must treat them as hired workers who are doing something for you in exchange for something else.
The Year of Jubilee was a time when ownership and management of land would change. At this time you were to release the individual and their children so they can go back to their home and try to start anew. You are not to try to sell them as your property because all of us are God’s servants and not one of us is any better than the other.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
– Exodus 20:8-11
I bolded the section we need to focus on in the above scripture. These verses refer to the seven days of the week with the seventh being the Sabbath holy day of rest and relaxation. On that day, we’re supposed to relax, rest, and spend time in prayer with the Lord. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the servants or slaves are required to work around the clock like the vision we get of modern slavery.
Remember, these individuals were voluntarily made servants of others with higher social status and more money. Think of it as a working relationship rather than one where a person holds another person as property.
These people had rights too. Just because you were working as a servant didn’t mean you didn’t have rights. Obviously, we need to be realistic and realize that the person of higher status likely had a lot of control over what that person did and would likely punish them for disobedience or poor performance. This is very similar to a relationship we would have today at work.
15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.17 No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute. 18 You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute[a] into the house of the Lord your God to pay any vow, because the Lord your God detests them both.
– Deuteronomy 23:15-18
Here is another instance where we see morality prevail even though critics and skeptics of Christianity want to claim that everything in the Bible denounces most moral standards.
The verses say that if someone who is a slave takes refuge with you, you’re required to hide and keep them safe. You’re also not allowed to keep them as a slave or a prostitute, instead, your job is to help them escape the situation they found themselves in. The Law of Moses even says that it’s illegal to return them to the slave owner.
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
– Leviticus 25:44-46
Now we’re playing with fire a little because these verses make things a bit unclear. It somewhat contradicts the teachings that we’ve read thus far so it’s a bit confusing. What’s most important to remember is that the word “slave” doesn’t have the same meaning and that much of the translation from Hebrew may have inaccuracies.
It does say that these people are allowed to be “your property” which makes us believe that you have ownership over them. It even says that you can bequeath the slave to a son so that the slave can be your possession forever.
It’s important to keep in mind despite this confusing verse that there are plenty of instances where God directly preaches love and acceptance in all situations. This includes ownership of another individual.
2 If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.
– Deuteronomy 15:12-17
There’s a lot of information in this passage so let’s break it down carefully.
Generosity to Slave
First, God is commanding the Israelites to free any servants after six years and not only to let them go but to do so generously. This is not the same type of “slavery” that we understand in today’s society.
Debt Slavery from Old Testament Law
As we mentioned, debt slavery was very popular in Old Testament law because it allowed families and individuals to deal with debt in a way that was beneficial to both parties.
Imagine for a second that you’re farming all day, every day, and this is how you make a living. You end up having a bad year and can no longer pay back a debt that you took in the previous year.
According to Israelite law, no one is allowed to charge interest on loans but you’re still required to pay back whatever you borrowed. If you must keep borrowing money, the amount that you owe will only increase and if you don’t have a better farming year then you’re not making any additional money to pay it back.
As a result, you need to turn to a debt slavery relationship to pay back the loan through hard labor. In many cases, the head of the household would actually have to sell the services of his whole family in order to pay back that debt.
According to the law, the term of service is six years. There’s such a negative stigma associated with this but it’s just a contractual agreement that the person who owes the debt will work for no longer than six years.
It doesn’t mean that the person owns them for six years. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the individual has to own a slave or treat the person like a slave. It completely denounces this multiple times and says that anyone who owns or purchases another person is violating the law.
Furthermore, Deuteronomy 15:12-14 above told us that they’re not to leave empty-handed either. When they’ve finished repaying their debt, chances are they have spent a long time with this individual and as a result, have very little, if any possessions.
It is the responsibility of the slave “owner” to provide the person with livestock, grain, and wine to help them get back on their feet. And if the slave doesn’t want to leave, there’s a solution for that as well, which is expanded up in in Exodus 21:
5 But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges.[a] He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
7 If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.
– Exodus 21:5-10
These verses provide an alternate solution where the servants actually enjoy being servants to their family and they decide that they want to stay. If that happens, the family must keep them, but there’s a special addendum to that. Their children are not bound by this rule. So, in the event that a father decides to serve a family for life, the children are not required to stay as they get older.
As they age, they may want to move on and do their own thing and they’re permitted to do so. They’re not bound by the same debt that their father was and they’re free to go as they please once they’re of age.
In the event that a daughter does want to stay, the servant owner has the choice to make her a wife for his son.
One thing that is really interesting to us is that debt repayment isn’t seen as a punishment in the Bible, it’s seen as the honorable thing to do because it’s the morally correct thing to do. When a man owes someone for something it’s their job to pay back their debt. Otherwise they’ll be shunned in their community and looked down upon.
In many cases, the people who owe money will actually live better as servants but they’re not the slaves you think about in your head when you imagine someone with shackles around their legs like a prisoner.
Much of the time, these people were free to do as they pleased as long as they completed their work and accomplished the objective of paying back their debt.
The ultimate goal of this article is to be honest and explore the truths of the Bible. Knowledge can be a powerful thing, especially when we want to address what the Bible says about slavery to someone who may question our faith.
That said, there are plenty of confusing gray areas as well that we may never have a direct answer to.
25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. 26 An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.
– Exodus 21:25-26
In one regard, yes this seems right and just if a slave owner harms a slave, he must let him go. On the other side, you wonder why this needs to be mentioned at all? Was there often violence between a slave and their master? And if so, would the slave owner actually abide by this rule?
It’s hard to imagine someone who is used to having a person take care of their farm would willingly give that up over a disagreement.
There are plenty of instances where the Bible talks about hurting and beating the slave so it’s clearly challenging to break down this information in a way that chooses one side over the other.
The resounding message to keep in mind is that God intentionally says throughout the Bible that owning or selling a person is illegal and that you’re supposed to treat everyone as God’s beloved child.
Wrapping It Up
Although slavery is a popular and highly critiqued topic in scripture, it’s always important to consider the culture and time period to better understand context before jumping to any conclusions.
One thing is for certain, regardless of what you believe about slavery during ancient times, we cannot think of slavery in the Bible the same way we think of slavery in our modern world. Scripture gives clear evidence the two are not the same for many different reasons.