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)
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.