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Does the Bible Condone Slavery? Part 1: Old Testament 

Introduction  

 

Many years ago, I found myself in a very uncomfortable situation with a man who was extremely angry. I had been taking part in a Christian outreach event and had offered this man a small Christian leaflet to take home and read. I was not prepared for his response.  

 

Being of African heritage, the man spoke to me of the plight of his ancestors who were removed from their homeland and forced into slavery. He told me about the oppression and abuse that his own mother had experienced and the way it had affected even his own life. I could see the hurt and anger rising within him as he brought certain experiences to mind. But, as he spoke, it quickly became obvious that this man was not just angry with those in his past. He was angry with me. He saw me as part of the problem. And the more he spoke, the more I realised the affront that I personally had caused him.  

 

All of this came as a surprise to me. After all, I was as far removed from the guilt of the slave trade as could be, and I had never knowingly oppressed another person. Part of the issue for this man, however, was with the Bible. Those who had oppressed him and his mother, and who had enslaved his ancestors, had used the Bible to justify their evil actions. In promoting the Bible, therefore, he saw me as endorsing the suffering and injustice that he, and many other millions, had faced. From his perspective, the Bible was a book that promoted slavery and so, as a Christian, I was very much a part of the problem.  

 

Sadly, slavery is not confined to the history books. An estimated 13,000 people live in slavery in the UK today and 50 million worldwide. People who have been trafficked from their homelands, sold into the sex industry, made to work for little pay and who are held fast within a system of control and coercion. It is an utterly evil practice and, as one reflects upon the injustice of subjugation and the suffering that results, it is not difficult to understand why the man I spoke to was so upset. 

 

As we look at the Bible, there are certainly verses within its pages that seem to endorse slavery. Both the Old and the New Testaments have ‘problem passages’ but they are problematic for different reasons. In this article, I will confine myself to the Old Testament. My colleague, Paul Coulter, considers the New Testament passages in a related article. Consider the following verses given to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land: [i] 


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.  

 

The problem with a passage like this from the Old Testament is that these are presented as the words of God to his chosen people, Israel. The accusation is that God, or at least, that the God the Israelites, including Jesus, believed in, condones slavery. How could anyone believe in or worship a God like that? 

 

Given the understandable sensitivity surrounding slavery, such passages cannot be treated lightly. Simplistic or dismissive responses will not do. For the Christian, what is at stake is the character of God. If God truly endorses the practice of slavery, what does this tell us about him? Is it possible, or even morally acceptable, to believe in such a God? It is important to recognise and acknowledge the weight of this objection to Christianity.  

 

I do believe, however, that the Bible can be defended against the charge that it condones slavery through a careful examination. In this article I share a few thoughts on how we can do so.  

 

Taking off our Cultural Lenses  


This is a vital principle for reading the Bible. As I argued in another article, [ii]  we have a very culturally-defined understanding of the term slavery. We think of the horror of the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the evil of modern-day people trafficking. The man that I spoke to certainly understood the Bible’s references to slavery in terms of his family’s history of oppression.  

 

We instinctively see events through the lens of our own experiences. The ancient Israelites would have seen the world differently to us. We must be careful not simply to take impose our modern ideas onto their world. For example, modern day slavery is built upon racial subjugation and treating people as inferior to others. A careful reading of the Biblical text shows that was not the case for the Israelites. Modern-day slavery is built upon kidnapping others, but Exodus 21:16 says such behaviour was to be punishable by death. When we address the issue of slavery in the Bible, then, we need to put aside everything we know about modern slavery and take the Bible on its own terms. Let us hear what it actually says before we condemn its practices. In this article I will focus on the Old Testament law, since the accusation that the Bible condones slavery is strongest when we consider that these are God’s words to his people Israel. 

 

An Issue of Translation  


Another important consideration is whether ‘slave’ is the best translation of the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. The Hebrew word, ebed, carries none of the negative connotations of the English word ‘slave’. Christian philosopher, Paul Copan, explains: [iii] 


The word ebed is a neutral term—not an inherently negative term as the word “slave” is today. In the Old Testament, the word simply indicates a dynamic dependency relationship, whether positive, negative, or neutral.


Copan also suggests the word ‘servant’ would be a far more appropriate translation. He points out that ‘slave’ is only used once for ebed in the King James Version and finds it ‘strange’ that other versions have adopted it as the common translation. 

 

The question before us, then, is, how exactly were those described as ebed viewed and treated? The Old Testament law makes a distinction between fellow Israelites and foreigners. If we fail to recognise this, we may wrongly assume there was one blanket rule for everyone. We will begin, then, by considering the laws given for foreign servants.  

 

Ebed applied to non-Israelites 

 

The instructions quoted above, on acquiring slaves, or servants, regarded people from other nations. When the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan and drove out its inhabitants, they were permitted to acquire servants for themselves. Was this a kind of enforced racial subjugation? How were these servants to be treated?  

 

The overriding principle the Israelites were to adhere to is found in Leviticus 19:33-34: 


When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. 

 

Nobody, including people from pagan nations, is to be abused or mistreated. The Israelites themselves were once slaves in Egypt, where they were treated abominably. The memory of this experience was to serve as motivation not to treat others in the same way.  

 

Having said this, we may still be uneasy with some of the language used in the Old Testament law. The idea of ‘buying’ another person smacks of modern-day slavery. Does it not destroy a person’s dignity and worth to speak of them in that way? Once again, we must remove our cultural glasses and look from an ancient Jewish perspective. The Hebrew word translated ‘buy’ is qanah. It can also be translated ‘acquire’ and it is used in the book of Ruth when Boaz is said to have ‘acquired’ Ruth. [iv] But this ‘acquisition’ of Ruth by Boaz did not remove her dignity. Far from it. Boaz redeemed Ruth, bringing her to himself so that she might be bound to him in a relationship of love and protection. It is a picture of Christ’s love Christ for his people when he brings them the greatest dignity of becoming a child of God. [v]  

 

So, qanah, used of acquiring a servant, is not necessarily negative. In fact, given the struggles facing many foreigners dwelling in Israel. becoming a servant provided security. Foreigners could not acquire property in the land. To become a servant meant attachment to a family and a way of integrating into the culture. As we will see, it was expected that some servants would willingly choose to stay with their masters. 

 

We can summarise the instructions given to Israel concerning servants from other nations something like this:  



  • They could acquire servants from other nations but were to treat them with love and care.  

  • Acquisition as a servant provided a way for an outsider to become part of the prevailing society and culture, giving security and an identity.  

  • Any servant who had been kidnapped and trafficked was to be freed and those involved were to be executed.  


This is vastly different from what we call ‘slavery’ today. 

 

Ebed applied to fellow Israelites 


The practice of acquiring servants was different when it came to fellow Israelites. When one Israelite became an ebed to another, it was a form of indentured servitude. It was a way of paying off debts or working one’s way out of poverty under what was, essentially, a kind of contract.  

 

Consider, for example, the very real possibility that a servant could be abused. A master who caused his servant injury, had to release the servant immediately: [vi]

 

When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.  

 

This was the rule for violence. We can be sure the same was true for sexual abuse, which was also condemned under the Law of Moses. Furthermore, then was a maximum time that a servant could work for the master. God commanded that Hebrew servants could serve for six years but in the seventh year they were to go free. Then comes an unexpected twist. God allows servants to stay in their role if they so desire: [vii]

  

But if [your slave] says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever.  

 

This instruction reinforces the contention that such servitude could be a positive experience, more akin to that between employer and employee today. When a servant did not want to leave, they had effectively become part of the wider the family. To leave would have cut them off from those they loved, perhaps also robbing them of their security. 

 

Is Servitude God’s Ideal? 


I think it is fair to say that servant relationships were not intended to be part of God’s original creation. At the very least, the many factors that may have led to servitude are negative - the loss of one’s homeland, the burden of debt, the absence of security. None of these things would be an issue in a perfect world. Furthermore, every relationship is open to abuse, and this is perhaps more so when one person is clearly subordinate to another.  

 

If such a practice is not God’s ideal, the question remains, Why is it there in the first place? I suggest it is comparable to divorce. Moses permitted the people to divorce even though God does not approve of it. Jesus says that was because their, “hearts were hard”. [viii]

 God knew the practice of divorce would continue and so gave instructions to regulate it. Perhaps a similar thing can be said in the case of acquiring servants. The passages quoted above do not command the Israelites to take slaves or assume that they must do so. Rather, they regulate the practice when it happens.  

 

In the new creation however, when all evil is done away with and we are brought back into that perfect relationship with God and with each other, servitude will be done away with forever. At that time, we will realise the fulness of our identity in Christ, when there will be “no slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all”. [ix] 

 

A Biblical Answer to Slavery  


As I look back to my conversation with the man whose ancestors had suffered oppression from so-called ‘Bible-believers’, I have a lot of sympathy with him. It is all too easy to misuse the Bible to condone inhumane treatment of others. Perhaps if I had had the experience that man had, I would have thought the same as him. With a superficial reading of the text through the lens of modern slavery as racial subjugation, the Bible does seem immoral.  

 

Probing beneath the surface, however, we realise that the Bible does not condone the evil that we call slavery. Certainly, there was a practice of servitude in ancient Israel, but it was carefully regulated and provided security and belonging to those who served. The principles of ‘loving the stranger’ and ‘not ruling ruthlessly’ over one’s fellow Israelites provide the framework under which relationships were to be conducted. Causing one to be a servant through coercion or force was condemned and kidnapping carried the death penalty. When the accusation is made, then, that the Bible condones slavery, we have a very strong foundation for showing this not to be the case.  

 

While the practice was not God’s ideal, yet we live in a fallen world and the system put in place helped the people of Israel to navigate this area in a way that prevented the brutality and injustice of the nations around them (and indeed, those perpetrated by modern day slavery). If we look at the world and despair at the oppression we see, the hope for the Christian is that the God who created the world himself became like a slave and died a slave’s death to redeem us (buy us back) from the fallen nature of the world. This is God’s response, not only to slavery but to every aspect of evil in the world. And in this we find the ultimate hope.  



REFERENCES

 

[i] Leviticus 25:44-46

[ii] In that earlier article, I highlight two passages which suggest the practice of slavery as described in the Bible was different to our 21st century Western understanding of slavery. Rather than repeat the content of that article here, I encourage the interested reader to visit it here: Is the Bible an Immoral Book?

[iii] Copan, P. (2023) ‘Servitude in Ancient Israel (Part 1)’, Reasonable Faith

[iv] Ruth 4:10: “Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought [qanah] to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”

[v] See, for example, 1 Cor. 6:19-20; Gal. 3:13 1 Peter 1:19

[vi] Exodus 21:26-27

[vii] Deuteronomy 15:16-17

[viii] Matthew 19:8

[ix] Colossians 3:11

 

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