Those of us who believe the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God must be able to deal with the question of what the Bible says about slavery. Because, what it says on that subject (or what people think it says) is often used to question either the inspiration of scripture or the goodness of God, or both.
Some, in the past answered the question posed in the title with an unqualified, ‘yes.’ Others, in more recent times with an unqualified, ‘no.’ But the right answer, the answer based on what the scripture says, cannot be unqualified. It is more complicated than a simple ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ We must consider in context what the Bible says then make a case for how that relates to Christians today.
I want to deal in this post with what the Bible says about slavery in the Old Testament. In the next post I’ll look at what the New Testament says about it.
In the Old Testament, slavery is not forbidden by God, but it is regulated by Him.
This may be surprising to some, even troubling, but unless we deal with the text as it is, we cannot handle the issue correctly. Never defend the Bible by claiming it says something it doesn’t say or by making it say what you wish it said. You’ll end up doing the very thing you’re trying to prevent, undermine the scriptures.
The first thing to notice about slavery in the Old Testament is that prior to the giving of God’s law at Sinai, slavery is assumed as a fact of life, usually without comment on its morality one way or the other. The people of God, including the father of the faith, Abraham, owned slaves (Genesis 20:17).
An exception to this lack of commentary is in Genesis 50:20 where Joseph says to his brothers:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
What was the evil thing his brothers did? They kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. This will be important later, so keep this in mind.
Fast forward to the people of God, rescued from slavery themselves and gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God has freed them from bondage in Egypt to set them apart for his purpose which ultimately is to bring the Messiah into the world at just the right time (Romans 5:6).
In service to that plan, God gives them his law to separate them from the nations around them, to be a light in the darkness of paganism (Exodus 19:5). First the Lord gives them an overarching set of laws, the Ten Commandments. Then, he provides applications of those laws for various circumstances they will encounter as a nation. Chapter 21 of Exodus, right on the heels of the Ten Commandments, deals with slavery among the Israelites. It makes lifelong slavery of a fellow Israelite illegal, essentially making it what we would call indentured servitude (Exodus 21:2) The law does, however, make provision for a mutual agreement between master and slave to extend the arrangement for life if the slave so desires (Exodus 21:5-6). There are also provisions to prevent the abuse of female slaves (Exodus 21:7-11) as well as limits on the physical punishments a slave can receive (Exodus 21:20-21).
The thing to note is that God is taking a practice common to human culture, a practice rooted in the fall, and beginning to redeem it by insisting that His people practice it differently, more compassionately, than the nations around them. Now, I know what you’re thinking, being able to beat a slave and get away with it as long as they don’t die doesn’t sound compassionate. But, in a world where the life of a slave was worth less than nothing (Exodus 1:22), this actually elevated their status and reminded a master that he was accountable before God for the lives of his slaves. It was also a deterrent to overly harsh punishment because if the slave is accidentally killed, the master will be punished.
In addition to limits on how slaves can be treated, there are limits on how they can be acquired:
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. – Exodus 21:16
This is important. Kidnapping someone for the purpose of enslaving them was forbidden and punishable by death, both for the slave trader and the one who bought the slave. This is where we remember Joseph’s words to his brothers that what they had done, kidnap him and sell him into slavery, was wicked.
So, how could slaves be acquired?
- You could purchase them from surrounding, pagan nations (Leviticus 25:44). Presumably, however, as long as it didn’t violate the ban on kidnapping for enslavement.
- You could agree to be a slave (Exodus 21:5-6)
- You could sell your children as slaves (Exodus 21:7). This was likely most often due to debt, as the next point illustrates.
- You could be enslaved due to debt (II Kings 4:1)
- You could enslave captives of war (Deuteronomy 21:10). Interestingly, however, you could not then sell them to someone else, you had to either keep them yourself or set them free (Deuteronomy 21:14)
Why didn’t the Lord end slavery, just command the people of Israel not to own slaves under any circumstance? I don’t know, God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). But, I think it has to do with His purpose in the Old Testament. He was working out the plan of redemption to free his people, not just from injustice and bondage in this life, but from bondage to sin and death for all time. To do this he set apart a people for himself and orchestrated their history so the Messiah would come through the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) when and where He did. God was not focused primarily on righting every wrong and eliminating every injustice in the short term, but on bringing history to the point where One would come who would do those things in an ultimate sense. And, as we saw in the story of Joseph, he uses even the wicked acts of men to accomplish that purpose. As an aside (or a topic for another day), polygamy falls into this category too, something practiced in ancient culture that God overlooked for a time as he worked out His plan of redemption.
Given all this, can the Old Testament be used to justify the slave trade of the modern era that enslaved millions of Africans in the United States, South America and the Arab world?
By Old Testament standards that institution was wicked because it was based, from beginning to end, on the kidnapping and sale of slaves, something God forbids as “man stealing.” Africans kidnapped and sold Africans to others who, in turn, sold them to slave-masters across the Atlantic and to points east in the Muslim world. In the case of the United States, northern slave traders bought kidnapped African men and women and sold them to southern planters. As we saw in Genesis 50:20 and Exodus 21:16, no link in this chain is without guilt. God views both the selling and receiving of kidnapped persons as wicked and, in the nation of ancient Israel, punishable by death.
So, can you own slaves today if you “follow the rules” set down in the Old Testament? Again, no. Those rules were not written for you. They were written for God’s people in a specific time and place.
God’s law given to Israel had three components, moral, ceremonial and civil. The moral law, do not murder, do not steal, etc. is binding on all people, at all times in all circumstances. The moral law is not bound by culture or time.
The ceremonial law, the required feasts, the grain offerings, the sacrifices, passed away when Jesus said “it is finished,” and the temple veil was torn asunder (John 19:30, Matthew 27:51). The sacrifices did continue for a few years after that but were finally ended by God using the Roman military in A.D. 70 (Matthew 24:1-2).
That leaves the civil law. This governed how the Israelites were to interact with one another and their neighbors in the Promised Land under God’s direct governance. This included things like, do not harvest the corners of your fields to provide for the poor, kill an ox that has killed a man, and set up cities of refuge for accused murderers. They were the civil law codes of ancient Israel and as such were unique to that time and place. Laws concerning the owning and treatment of slaves are in this category. So, unless you’re a citizen of ancient Israel, you cannot justify slavery by appealing to its regulation in the Old Testament.
Next time we’ll look at how the New Testament treats slavery.
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