The Bible and Slavery

Below is an email thread on the topic slavery in the bible.


Andre  (in response to Paul Taylor’s article “A Leader for Biblical Equality”):

Just because human beings are from “one blood” doesn’t mean that the bible is anti-slavery. The bible supports and regulates slave ownership and doesn’t say that owning a slave is wrong. White Christians have often used the bible to convince themselves that owning slaves is OK and the slaves should obey their “earthly masters”. White Christians also owned white slaves during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. So to say that White Christians need to believe that their slaves are inferior to them in order to justify slave ownership is also false. A slave is slave in the mind of White Christians that have owned them and the bible supports slave ownership.

Find me one verse in the bible that condemns owning a slave. I dare you. I’ve already found several that support it. Your “god” should be destroyed. Here are Bible verses in support of slave ownership new and old testament (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT), (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT), Jesus Christ thinks slaves should be beaten too (Luke 12:47-48 NLT), (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT), (Ephesians 6:5 NLT), (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB).



The AIG response to this uninformed diatribe is:




Not sure about the context of this, but the Bible supports slavery. However, the thing to discuss is the treatment of slaves. Also, slaves were more like indenture servants.



For being a stickler, I must apologize; however the bible does NOT support or endorse slavery (whether bondservants, indentured servants, or the historically harsh UK/US/ [insert name of virtually any other nation] chattel slave trade, BTW there are stark differences between these three forms) in any sense; however, the bible does tolerate (and restricts the abuse of) the practice of bond-servitude both debt and chattel, much in the same way that the bible tolerates (and restricts the abuse of) divorce.

This phenomenon of the bible guiding the usage of but not endorsing a controversial practice is not unprecedented. In fact, the bible provides all sorts of examples where God gives guidelines regarding a practice even though the practice is discouraged or even forbidden. Examples would include: divorce, polygamy, and adultery. It is therefore absurd for someone to suggest that just because we are given rules regarding the treatment of slaves in scripture that somehow God or His word are encouraging or supporting of slavery. This line of thinking would equate toleration with encouragement when, in fact, they’re very different.

Divorce and Slavery and are both a reality in this sin-filled world and we told that the latter is a direct result of the hardness of men’s hearts; but, God does not ignore the reality of either. Instead, He allows Moses in the law to restrict the usage of both practices. In light of what is demonstrated below, some may even argue that ‘biblical-era’ slavery was not a sinful practice, and while this argument is not without merit, we must admit it’s at least somewhat unattractive. The diligent reader (in regards to scriptural exegesis) will realize that in the biblical-era context, owning a slave (in most cases) was not wrong regardless of the fact that there was and is a better way (Deut 23.15-16, 1 Cor 12:31 -1 Cor 13).

In Matthew 19:3, when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether they could divorce and remarry for whatever reason, Jesus told them that the reason why divorce existed was because of the hardness of their sinful hearts and reminded them that just because Moses allowed them to do so in the Mosaic law, that did not nullify the original command by God in Genesis where He says the man “shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” In Christ’s answer to the Pharisees, He reminds them that “what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” and gave adultery as the only allowable grounds for divorce. The relatively easy divorce allowed in the Mosaic Law was not what God originally intended, therefore, the point to remember is that even though God’s attitude toward sin doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17) his flexibility in terms of relations with human beings may. In summary, Jesus gave the Pharisees provisions for divorce (just as Moses did) but no one would argue that the Bible therefore ‘supports’ divorce. One may chose to challenge the claim that divorce is a sin, but in light of the knowledge that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) engaging in such after the fact can only be classified as sin.

One may also say that the Bible does not condemn or discourage slavery but in light of 1 Timothy 1:10, Exodus 21:16 and Deut 23.15 it will be evident to the poser of such a question that he or she must define the term ‘slavery’ before making such an assertion. Furthermore, when the questioner reads Deut 15.13, Lev 22.10, and other likeminded passages he/she realizes that even though ‘biblical-era’ slavery is never encouraged, it certainly would not be criminal if the opposite were the case. We must also keep in mind that, historically and statistically (in the biblical era), the dominant motivation for slavery was economic relief of poverty (i.e., ‘slavery’ was initiated by the slave and never by the owner–and the primary uses were purely domestic). I don’t know about the rest of you but if I had a debt that I wanted expunged I must admit that I would strongly consider the ‘slavery’ described in the Mosaic Law as a viable alternative to death by starvation or imprisonment. Consider the following excerpt adapted from a longer yet excellent article by Glenn M. Miller of The Christian Think Tank. In the article he refutes all of the common and not so common attempts to vilify ‘biblical slavery’

One of the more amazing things about Hebrew servant-status was how ‘easy’ it was to get free! (There might be a message in there about God’s attitude toward it, smile).

Freedom could be bought by relatives (Lev 25.49)

The servant could buy his own freedom, whether the master WANTED to let him go or not (Lev 25.49)

Every 7th year (the Sabbath year), all servants were to automatically go free–without ANY payment of money to the master:

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. (Ex 21.2; Deut 15.12)

Minor injuries due to abusive treatment automatically resulted in immediate freedom (this is actually labeled as ‘to compensate’, implying rights/duties/debt):

“If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth. (Ex 21.26)

When freedom was granted at the Sabbath year or Year of Jubilee, the master was obligated to send them out with liberal gifts–to allow them to occupy the land in sufficiency again (Deut 15.13)

To further illustrate my point, in Exodus 20:14 the Israelites are told not to commit adultery and in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 the law only condemns a married man (or woman) of ‘external’ adultery if he ‘actually’ engages in intercourse with another woman; yet, we also know by Matthew 5:28 that if he simply looks at her and lusts in his heart he has already committed ‘internal’ adultery. Is it correct to say that God supported the ‘internal’ act of adultery because he did not speak out against it in the law? Or, is it correct to say that God tolerated (i.e. did not kill us immediately in light of – Romans 9:22) ‘internal’ adultery, all the while acknowledging both kinds of adultery (‘internal’ adultery in Proverbs 6:27 and later in Matthew 5:28, ‘external’ in Exodus 20:14) as sin? Obviously only the latter assertion is correct.

[This section is especially for Travis]
Again, consider the verses (Ex.21:10, Deut.25:5-10) in scripture that give provisions for polygamy. Exodus 21:10 does not encourage the practice as is evidenced by the word “if”; in fact, upon a careful analysis of this verse, one understands that its motive is to discourage polygamy by increasing the obligations of the husband towards the additional wives. In the case of Deut.25:5-10, we realize a legal exception to monogamy sometimes called ‘The Law of Levirate’ or ‘Levirate (derived from a Latin word meaning “brother-in-law”) Marriage’ which required a dead man’s brother to marry his childless widow and father a son who would assume the dead man’s name and inherit his portion of the Promised Land. Neither exception modifies the behavioral norm required by God in Genesis 2:24. Skeptics often make references to Biblical patriarchs (Abraham, David, Solomon, etc) having many wives as proof of biblical support for polygamy but Christians that are less careless with the words of scripture understand that not everything recorded in scripture is endorsed by scripture. Christians who would seek to invalidate God’s will, commands or promises by invoking exceptional conditions are in error because an exception can never nullify or modify the rule. In fact, if both are ordered by the same person then both are equally valid. For example, in John 6:37-39 Jesus promises that no one the Father gives him will be lost; yet, in John 17:12 Jesus says that no one will be lost except the ‘son of perdition’ (who is Judas) ‘that the scripture might be fulfilled.’ The exception (losing Judas) in this scenario is allowed in order to fulfill the scripture (Psalm 109:6-19; Act 1:16-20, 25). Thus we see that ‘fulfilling scripture’ (Isaiah 55:11), when juxtaposed with the ‘eternal security’ of our salvation (none will be lost), is higher in the sense of “moral hierarchy” (also called “graded absolutism”). For more depth and detailed refutations of the common and not so common attempts to justify polygamy using scripture I urge interested parties to visit
Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s article, JP Holding’s article and Glen Miller’s article on polygamy in the bible. In summary, not only does scripture militate against the idea of polygamy, most verses pertaining to marriage become meaningless or contradictory when read through the ‘glasses’ of one that espouses the idea that the practice of polygamy is encouraged in the bible.

Hopefully, from the above, it should be quite clear that the institution of slavery in the Mosaic law involving voluntary, fixed-term, flexible, and protected servant-laborer roles was unlike “western”, chattel labor in almost all repects. To label it as ‘slavery’, except in the most general/metaphorical sense of the word, is significantly inappropriate. God’s intent in Levitus 25.39f of protecting their status and self-image was very clear: “”`If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you.” The article was simply making this point to the gentleman that suggested otherwise in his feedback.