Why Did The Bible Allow Slavery?

By Phillip G. Kayser · 2015-8-24

One of the vexing questions that trouble many Christians is, “Why did the Bible allow slavery?” The next two blog posts will encourage Christians to change their thinking in three ways: 1) to not judge the Bible or God, but to let the Bible judge our thinking, 2) to not equate Biblical slavery with modern ideas of slavery, and 3) to realize that the Biblical concept of slavery (or if you prefer, indentured servitude) is far better than America’s disguised forms of slavery or it’s modern answers to crime and warfare.

First, we should not be ashamed of anything in the Bible. To be ashamed of the Bible will make Christ ashamed of us (Mark 8:38). Our attitudes to the Bible’s critics should be to “let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). The evil system of humanism says that man is the measure of truth. Pure Christianity says to God, “Your Word is truth” (Ps. 119:160; John 17:17).

Notice that Jesus did not say, “Your Word is true.” For us to declare God’s word to be “true” makes us the judges of truth and makes God’s Word to have a lower authority than our minds. But if instead we say, “Your Word is truth,” we are acknowledging that God’s Word is the measure and judge of all truth claims. And this applies to the entirety of God’s Word – even what it says about slavery. We cannot pick and choose what we like from the Bible. God’s ethics does not evolve. The Psalmist rightly said, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Ps. 119:160). Thus Jesus called us to “live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And Paul said that the entire Old Testament was “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Second, this does not mean that everything people teach about the Bible’s statements on slavery is true. Indeed, the Biblical doctrine of slavery has been grossly misrepresented by both Christians and non-Christians. Part of the problem is that Christians assume they know what the Bible means when it speaks of “slaves” or “slavery,” and they import this false definition back into the Biblical texts. We must let the Bible alone define what it means by lawful slavery (or if you prefer, “indentured servitude”). Since the Bible gave the death penalty to kidnappers (Deut. 24:7; cf. 1 Tim. 1:8-10), you can rest assured that Biblical “slavery” was utterly different from most pagan slavery.

Pagan slavery was so offensive to God that He insisted that a slave who ran away from such a system must not be returned to his master under any circumstances, but must be allowed to live freely and to be treated humanely (Deut. 23:15-16). Even a cursory reading of the Biblical material shows that all systems of slavery that were based on kidnapping and raids were an abomination to God. A Biblical slave did "not differ at all" from a child (Gal. 4:1) and since slaves were considered to be part of the family household (Gen. 14:14; etc.), they therefore received the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:12-13,27; Ex 12:44) and the communion meal (Ex. 12:44) with the family. In other words, the slave was to be treated as an adopted part of the family as long as he was a slave! This gives a quite different image of slavery than most people have projected onto the Bible.

Since Biblical slavery is treated as an equivalent to immaturity (see Gal. 4:1), we can rest assured that the Bible does not consider slavery to be an ideal, but rather calls Christians to get out of slavery if at all possible (1 Cor. 7:21-23; Gal. 5:1; Phil. 10-21). (Of course, we will see that the same passages form a call to Christians to oppose the modern welfare plantation and prison system – see below.) Since believers could be enslaved for a maximum of six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12-18; Jer. 34:8-22), it often moved people to profess faith in God and to embrace the principles of maturity and liberty that form the trajectory of the Christian faith (see next post). In this and several other ways it was quite different from at least some forms of American slavery. The main reasons for slavery in the Bible were to pay for debt (2 Kings 4:1), to pay for war reparations (Deut. 20:11-14), and to pay restitution for theft (Ex. 22:3) or damage to property (Ex. 22:6). We will see in the next post how this Biblical system is actually much superior to the unjust forms of slavery that currently masquerade as freedom America.

Once we understand God’s purposes for the law’s provisions, we will see that God’s ways are perfect. We saw next that we should not assume that what people teach about Biblical slavery is true. Too many times teachers import a pagan conception of slavery into the Biblical text and ignore the Bible’s own definitions of slavery. Biblical slavery is so radically different from most forms of slavery that the Bible did not allow anyone to return a runaway slave to such a master (Deut. 23:15-16). We sought to do away with several misonceptions of slavery by allowing the Bible to define slavery. In this post I will seek to show that Biblical slavery can bring blessing to both the slave and to society at large (see Deut. 15:18), whereas humanistic slavery tends to bring a curse on both (see Gen. 9:25).

For example, the slaves of America’s penal system are at a distinct disadvantage to the slaves of the Bible’s penal system. A Biblical slave could escape from slavery in a number of ways that are not open to modern slaves. If he was in slavery because of debt, theft, or arson (see Ex. 22:2ff; Lev. 25:39; 2Kings 4:1; Matt 18:25), the slavery would cease the moment “full restitution” was made.

In stark contrast, modern slaves in America’s Penitentiaries not only do not have to pay restitution to the victim, they can languish in prison for much longer than it would take to pay restitution at even a minimum wage level. Secondly, a believing slave had a maximum sentence of slavery – six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12-18; Jer. 34:8-22). If you contrast that with the lengthy sentences that many modern convicts have, Biblical slavery looks good indeed. Another way of escaping slavery at any time was for a kinsman (Lev. 25:25-27,48-55) or other benefactor (Ezra 1:1-4; Neh. 5:8; Philemon 18-19) to pay the debt. In contrast, there is no provision for benefactors to redeem modern slaves out of the Penitentiary.

Nor does humanism fare better on its treatment of slaves. Who would voluntarily commit himself to a Penitentiary? No one. Yet slavery had sufficient advantages that at least some people were willing to commit themselves to being slaves (Lev. 25:47; Deut. 15:16-17). Compare the worst abuses that would have happened under Biblical slavery with the routine abuses and losses of rights in Penitentiaries, and Biblical slavery looks very good indeed.

Both civil agencies and private advocacy groups have documented that penitentiaries are the breeding ground of violence, homosexual gang rape, and numerous forms of physical and psychological abuse, not to mention the hardening of criminals in bad thinking and behavior. The report, Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (Washington, D.C.: Vera Institute of Justice, 2006) paints a picture of prison life that is horrific. Biblical slaves would be protected from such abuses by the Biblical laws cited later in this essay. Even the exit from slavery is a positive mark for the Biblical system.

When modern criminals leave prison, they have no money, no skill, and plenty of motivation to return to crime in order to survive. In contrast, Biblical law provided that the owner had to give the released slave enough capital to be able to start his own business (Deut. 15:13-15). Thus Biblical slavery provided restoration of the individual to society, rehabilitation of the individual, a skill-set that would provide for him in the future, gave him the opportunity to learn diligence and other character issues that would make him a useful citizen, gave him the discipline he probably had never received as a child, and offered him a new start.

But it might be objected that some forms of slavery were perpetual (Ex 21:6; Deut. 15:17). That is true. There will always be such slaves. Today they are on the massive plantation known as the welfare system. There are also lifers in prison. However, that is not the ideal since Scripture calls believers to avoid slavery (1 Cor. 7:23) and to not become entangled with any yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1). If possible, slaves were to seek to obtain freedom because a Christian "slave is the Lord's freedman" (1 Cor. 7:21-22).

It was precisely because Philemon had become a Christian that prompted Paul to ask for his freedom (Philem. 10-21), though it should be pointed out that Paul was willing to purchase his freedom if necessary (vs. 18-19). The very offer of purchase shows the continuing legitimacy of the institution (as outlined in the law). In any case, we do not need to argue that perpetual slavery is good. The preparation for liberty given in Deuteronomy 15:16-17 is far better than the multi-generational welfare system of today on several levels: it was personal (“he loves you”), productive (“he prospers with you”), gave a sense of self-worth (the slave helped the master to be blessed – v. 16), was more akin to the status of an employee (“servant…hired servant”), provided trade skills that could be passed on to the children, gave the person work, provided a way out for future generations, and still provided all the rights we will discuss below.

One of the most frequently heard objections is that the Bible allowed slaves to be purchased from foreign nations (Lev. 25:44) or to be taken captive in war (Deut. 21:10-11; Numb 31:19) and considered them to be property (Ex. 21:21; Lev. 25:45). War has always been an ugly thing, and Biblical warfare principles (Deuteronomy 20) were designed to keep nations (including Israel) from being aggressors and to motivate citizens to defect to Israel and avoid death or captivity. But in contrast to the treatment of modern captives (whose lives are also completely owned and controlled), the Bible mandated that foreign slaves be treated humanely (Lev. 25:44-46), be accorded civil rights (Ex. 20:10; 21:26-27; 23:12; Deut. 5:14 ), and be protected under Biblical law (Ex. 21:12,26,27; Job 31:13-15; Eph. 6:9).

Furthermore, when the foreign slave became converted to the true faith (see Esther 8:17 as one of many examples of Gentiles becoming Jews) he had all the rights of a Jewish citizen and could go free at the end of another six years with provision (Deut. 15:13-15). God's whole system of slavery sought to move people from immaturity (see Gal. 4:1) to mature liberty. We would expect that since the law of God is “the perfect Law of Liberty” (James. 1:25; 2:12).

Another frequent objection to Biblical slavery was that the Biblical slave who rebelled against his master could be subject to beatings (Ex. 21:20-21). But while discipline was assumed, the broader context of that chapter shows that anything that would be considered parental abuse of his child would be considered abuse of a slave. It needs to be realized that Scripture says that a “child does not differ at all from a slave” (Gal. 4:1) and that slaves were considered to be part of the family household (Gen. 14:14; etc.) and therefore received the privileges of that household, including the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:12-13,27; Ex 12:44) and the communion meal (Ex. 12:44).

In other words, the slave was to be treated as an adopted part of the family as long as he was a slave! Far from being the nasty thing that critics say that it was, the Bible elevated the status of slaves far above that of the pagans. Was discipline of a slave allowed? Yes, in the same way that an immature and rebellious child might be disciplined. But Exodus 21 turned all abusive discipline of a slave into a criminal offense. The minimum penalty for abuse of a slave was the state giving the slave complete freedom (vv. 26-27). The maximum penalty was capital punishment of the master (v. 20). Thus, the way many books treat Exodus 21:20-21 is a slander against God and completely ignores the incredible protection that God gave to slaves. If so much as a tooth got knocked out by a master, the slave was given his freedom (Ex. 21:27), and certainly greater forms of abuse (v. 26) resulted in freedom of the slave as well. These were laws punishing abuse, not describing what was the ideal.

But having quoted Galatians 4:1 and having demonstrated that slaves were adopted members of the household shows God’s purpose for slavery – to train those with a slave mentality to love and seek liberty. The Bible seems to assume that most slaves are in their status because they have not learned to grow up, and they are forced by the institution of slavery to learn a work ethic, to start to be future oriented, to learn what submission and leadership looks like, to develop various disciplines of maturity, to develop integrity, and to gain other characteristics that will hopefully lead to freedom.

Slavery was an institution designed to produce maturity that would lead to freedom just like the parent-child relationship was designed to produce maturity that would lead to freedom. Did it always work? No. Some slaves never grew up (Ex. 21:5-6) and could not shake off a slave-mentality for the Christian call to liberty (1 Cor. 7:21-23). But then, neither does parenting always work. But it is still important to realize that the Biblical form of slavery was much more likely to lead to eventual liberty than modern statism does. A return to Biblical law on every level would produce liberty because the law is “the perfect Law of Liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12).


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