Divine Moral Monster: Slavery In The Bible

Some people have little capacity for nuance (historical-contextual-grammatical) when reading Scripture.

This is detrimental especially when studying the hyper-sensitive and complex issue of slavery within the Bible. The word “slavery” in America has strong brutal race specific connotations attached to it. The whole ungodly “industry” of that regrettable time revolved around greed and abuse. If the Bible condones slavery like that, then we have good reason to do a double take with Scripture’s veracity.

But let’s be clear:

The Bible doesn’t condone slavery in that form at all.

Professor Paul Copan (excellent thinker on the subject) says:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

The forced lifelong subjection of American slavery had little resemblance of Hebrew (OT)  servant hood in the bible. Masters could hire servants “from year to year” and were not to “rule over … [them] ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:46,53). The Old Testament prohibited unavoidable lifelong servanthood — unless someone loved his master and wanted to attach himself to him (in many cases this happened!)  (Exodus 21:5).

Most servants in the Hebrew biblical context were to be treated as part of the family and were practically live in servants until their debt was paid. Even if they didn’t pay all their debts, Old Testament Law commanded the servants be released after every seventh year with all debts forgiven (Leviticus 25:35-43) This was wholly unlike (and radically progressive) the other Ancient Near Eastern slave laws of the day. J.A. Motyer says:

“Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only of servanthood.”

The Old Testament also instituted anti-kidnapping laws that were absent in other ANE laws. One unique feature of the Mosaic Law is its condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave — an act which is punishable by death (Exodus 21:16; cp. Deuteronomy 24:7). Kidnapping is how slavery in the old South was nurtured; African kidnappers and traffickers got the ball rolling for the American plantation owners.

Other Old Testament provisions that were an improvement on other Ancient Near Eastern practices was release the of injured servants (Exodus 21:26,27). Also, Israel was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16) — a marked contrast to the Southern states’ Fugitive Slave Law.

Some may claim the Old Testament allows for lifelong servitude of “foreign slaves” in Leviticus 25:42-46. But some things to consider:

God was giving foreign runaway slaves protection within Israel’s borders so they would not have to be returned to their harsh masters. They would be house servants with rights in Israel and not mere property like in other lands (Deuteronomy 23:15,16)

Foreigners had no ability to own land in Israel (for obvious nation-preserving reasons). The safest most logical way for them to survive would be to attach themselves to a family as a household servant. Servants in Israel were considered part of the family.

Verse 47 shows these same foreign servants could purchase their own freedom if they had the means. The point: All servants in Israel, even foreign ones, had the potential to be released freemen.

Slavery in The New Testament

The New Testament era unfolded in a time when 85% of Roman population consisted of slaves in varying positions. The type practiced in Rome was of the more contemporary assumed “property” form of slavery. Roman slaves had decidedly less citizen rights than Hebrew servants (I wonder why that was?)

But the NT still has some important commentary on slavery in Roman context.

In Old South slavery (and in some ways Roman slavery), slaves were deemed less than human. On the other hand, Paul states slaves were morally responsible full fledged persons capable of living to the glory of God. (Colossians 3:22-25)

Slaves also were fellow image bearers of God, and granted equal human/spiritual status with all peoples (Galatians 3:28) Galatians 3:28 may have been the most radical human rights statement to ever fall on ancient Roman ears.

In Old South slavery, slave traders were greedy ruthless traffickers who treated humans as mere cargo. On the other hand, Paul condemns such slave traders and proclaims their practices as a violation of inherent human dignity (1 Tim 1:9,10).

If the slave owners of the South actually practiced the parameters of servanthood expounded in the Old and New Testament, that would have been the practical abolition of slavery as they knew it.

But they didn’t, greed ruled the day for them, and the blood of countless thousands of slaves and soldiers bear witness to this.

Some may lament that the Bible seems to only regulate the scope and type of servanthood allowed, and not overtly condemn it.

Well, God reserved the clearest condemnation of slavery for the lips of His own dear Son.

The Abolitionist Statement of Jesus

When God in the flesh initially came onto scene in His public ministry, He clearly opposed all forms of human oppression in His all-consuming mission statement (which was lifted from the Old Testament!):

“THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME,
BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES,
AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND,
TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,
TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” (Luke 4:18-19 and Isaiah 61)

You see

Apart from Christ

We are all slaves to something.

Slaves to sin in need of a Perfect Master to grant us true freedom by His own precious blood.

As newly purchased and redeemed we are slaves to Christ, and much more than that, sons and daughters of the Most High King.

Bryan Daniels

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Author: Bryan Daniels

I am a follower of Jesus, a husband to Jessica, and a father of three boys: Josiah, Gideon and Judah. I teach high school math as a job, read reformed theology as a hobby, and write this blog just for kicks. With the rest of my time I coach football and track.

55 thoughts on “Divine Moral Monster: Slavery In The Bible”

  1. Amen, …continue to bide up the time wisely….proclaiming liberty to the captive.
    We no not when our Lord cometh so we need to have our oil and wicks ready and the light of the Gosple known until He comes…..

  2. Well said. Also consider 1 Timothy 1:10 and Revelation 18:11-13. Both verses strongly condemn those involved human trafficking. Overall the NT is much more anti-slavery than most people realize.

      1. Greetings once again my friend, I came back for another visit because your article touched my heart deeply. With your permission I will re-post this beautiful piece of art work inside my blog for many more readers to experience the depth of this teaching. May God add a blessing upon you this day and the work you are doing here.

        1. Gotcha! I’ve heard of the book, I’m guessing it was his response to Sam Harris. I’m bad about giving proper references/footnotes in my posts, I probably should have at least linked to the article I got the quote from!

  3. Hey Bryan, I looooved this! I am currently teaching a class on the Pentateuch and shortly we will be addressing the slavery laws of Israel. May I add this post as an addendum for my class?

  4. Loved it! I have been a believer in Christ since I was a little girl but just in the past few years has He really showed me what freedom in Christ is all about.

    You are right, we are all slaves to something but we don’t have to be. “It is for freedom that Christ set us free.” Gal. 5:1

    I do really love reading your blog. Very, very insightful.

  5. So timely. I just saw a news report about human trafficking this morning. I also learned something. As always, a learning experience and a pleasure. Sandy

  6. I read the book, SLAVE by John MacArthur, and was blessed by the thorough insight provided into biblical slavery. There was so much FREEDOM in realizing I have a Master and am a slave to Christ. Finding freedom in submission is truly refreshing.

  7. Copan’s book ‘Is God a Moral Monster’ had such a huge impact on me. It tore down the wall in my mind that held to the idea that God is a just God in the OT and a God of love in the NT. Once that barrier came down, it was like the floodgates opened about who God REALLY is. He has always been a God of love, and He is always a God of justice. The more we understand this, the more ought to stand in awe and in worship for what He has done for us.

  8. Hey Bryan,

    Thanks for another stimulating discussion of one of the most misunderstood concepts found in the Scriptures—the servant or bondslave. The portrayal of the servant or slave, as revealed in the Bible has particular significance to me for a number of reasons, aside from my being a descendant of slaves brought from Africa to America. In the early 80s or thereabout, I was introduced to the Greek term “doulos”, translated servant or more literally “bondslave.” I published a magazine article based on my study of the word which later found its way into my master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation. A little over a year ago, I posted a blog at “Dr. J’s Apothecary Shoppe” that might be of interest:

    http://drlej.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/doulos-a-different-view-of-the-slave-revisited/

    Your post on slavery brought this to mind. Thanks again.

    Dr. J (aka Lonnell Johnson)

  9. I like what your saying, but consideration must be of the times when Israel’s kings used forced labor when they defeated their enemies. I know that’s perhaps a different situation but there was the time David drew a line in the sand between two different groups of prisoners of war putting one side to death and one side to forced labor. I didn’t look these up as I am just home from work and really want to crash, so my facts here may be a little screwy:)

  10. Excellent post. It’s one of those things that I know after decades of being churched, but forget to think about when others are choking on a verse. Great reminder.

  11. Great post.

    A great read to go along with it (or, as I prefer, audiobook) is UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher Stowe–the book that probably was the largest single spark in igniting the dry tinder of the War Between the States (some call it the War of Northern Aggression, because there were deeper issues behind it than simply slavery, and because the treatment of the South during and after the war was often as brutal as the most brutal of the slavery practices). As a Southerner all my life, I’ve often wondered where I would have placed my allegiances in those times. (I’ve also wondered the same about the American Revolution.)

    In spite of the slang term the book coined (of a black being an “Uncle Tom” as a pejorative term), the book is Christian to its core, and the portrayal of some of the characters, including UncleTom and Simon Legree, are memorable and well-portrayed. Uncle Tom can even be seen as a type of Christ and Simon Legree as a type of Satan–so in that sense, though it may be a bit sterotyped, it may also be a bit allegorical. It was so well-written that Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

    1. Interesting thoughts Ken. I’ve heard a TON about the book and its impact on American history. I’ll have to pick it up for summer reading maybe! Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. Definitely — and it’s a book your children will also read with interest, a real page-turner. It was one of my favourite books when I was growing up. Some of the older copies have excellent 19th century illustrations from the period. Have a box of Kleenex nearby.

  12. Thank you so much for your post – I am in a Beth Moore Bible Study and several of the ladies commented on slavery in bible times. The conversation got stuck when no one in our group could shed light on why God seemed to allow such a horrible thing. I thought – and prayed – that God would provide an assist – something to help young babes in the Lord to gain understanding and a true perspective on the issue- rather than the subject becoming an opportunity for the enemy to cause doubt on the goodness of God. I “just happened” to check my email and found your new post. I shared your blog link w/ the Bible Study leader – she loved it and I’m sure will share it w/ our group. Praise God that you use your gifts to spread the Good Word!

  13. Interesting that however one wishes to interpret the Bible the owners of slaves during the halcyon days of Slavery would, by and large, consider themselves Christian. Much like the warped sense of morality and subjective biblical manipulation that allowed black people in South Africa to be dehumanized by the christian church under the auspices of Apartheid.
    To paraphrase Orwell: “Many men are Christian but some are more Christian than others.”

    1. I agree 100 % with you on this ark. There were (and are) plenty of hypocritical people who claim a Christian veneer. It saddens me but Christ predicted it would happen (Matt. 7). Christ called them goats but not sheep.

      1. Again, this like so many biblical issues, is based on interpretation. They considered they were not doing anything wrong, until someone reinterpreted and said they were. Then, in your county’s case, there was civil war.
        So what is the right (correct?) interpretation of the bible?
        And please remember that its compilation took a long time and the books that were eventually deemed scripture were voted on, and many votes were not unanimous.
        You base your entire faith on the spiritual guidance of a few old men who claim they were guided by God. Oh really? These men were charged with the spiritual message for all of humanity. Eusebius was originally an Aryan and was ‘booted’ out eventually. Can’t remember offhand when.
        As for the slavery. Jefferson considered himself a devout man of god and he definitely kept slaves.
        Christianity was established throughout the known world from behind a sword and is awash with the ‘blood of millions who didn’t tow the line – largely based on Biblical interpretation.
        And who is to say the bible you read is right? Merely because a bunch of old men decreed it so – and they couldn”t agree either. Doesn’t this make you nervous, just a teeny bit?

      2. Oh, and I meant to ask, did you manage to do any research on Bagatti and his archaeological dig around Nazareth?
        Wiki is always a good start.
        Then look up Rene Salm.

        1. I did a little on that. Is the main thrust of the argument since there is a necropolis that is near what is considered Nazareth then it couldn’t be a Jewish settlement?

          1. Bagatti could not establish continuous human occupation of the area – and none around the supposed time of Jesus. And Yes, the necropolis would also negate a settlement.
            Rene Salm also arrived at this conclusion but his archaeological research was much more thorough.
            The church and other christian scholars have refuted Salm’s findings, carefully cherry picking Bagatti’s work to fit the biblical description in Luke.
            But the evidence is capable of standing on its own merits. without subjective interpretation.
            There was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus.

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