Slavery: What the Bible Really Teaches

ReformedWiki Post

A common objection against the Bible is that it is immoral because it condones slavery.

Here, we’ll cover six points.

1. By What Standard?

First, let’s remember that those who argue that the Bible is immoral needs to justify the moral standard they are using to judge the Bible. We would argue that secular moral standards all fail in some way to be a legitimate judge of the Bible’s morality.

2. Definition of Chattel Slavery

Second, let’s define the word “slavery” and summarize what the Bible teaches about slavery. Specifically, the kind of slavery that we consider immoral is chattel slavery, which is forced slavery where slaves are property in the sense that they had no rights—they could be abused or killed without consequence. This is what we associate with the word “slavery,” and this is the kind of slavery that was practiced with the African slave trade. Critics of the Bible argue that the Bible condones chattel slavery.

The Bible Does Not Condone Chattel Slavery

However, when we examine the relevant passages, we learn that the Bible does not in fact condone chattel slavery. The slavery that the Bible regulates and allows is not forced slavery, and people who were considered “slaves” in the Bible had rights and protections that chattel slaves do not have. Probably the two most relevant passage are Leviticus 25:44-46, which says:

“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.”

And Exodus 21:20-21, which says:

“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”

Indentured Servitude – Leviticus 25 and Exodus 21

From these two passages, let’s point out three things:

A. This Was Indentured Servitude, Not Forced Slavery

First, Leviticus 25 does not say that these slaves were forced into slavery. In fact, verse 39 talks about people who become poor selling themselves into the service of another person. This is called “slavery” in the Bible, but this is not chattel slavery. A more accurate term for this might be “indentured servitude.” When we use the word “slave” in the rest of this video, let’s keep this distinction between “indentured servitude” and “chattel slavery” in mind. Indentured servitude, or slavery, is not inherently sinful because it’s mutual, not forced. It can be strongly argued that the kind of slaves the Israelites were allowed to buy from other nations were people who had sold themselves into indentured servitude, not chattel slaves.

B. The Difference Between Israelite and Non-Israelite “Slaves”: Automatic Freedom

Second, in Leviticus 25, the difference between Israelites and non-Israelites was not that Israelites were indentured servants and non-Israelites were chattel slaves. Rather, the difference was that Israelites had the privilege of being automatically freed at the year of Jubilee, according to verse 40. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 15:1-3 says this: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release.” Non-Israelites did not have the privilege of being automatically freed, which meant that they could remain as an indentured servant, or “slave,” for the rest of their lives, unless they were able to obtain freedom by paying off their debt.

C. Physically Disciplining Servants Was Not a Sin

And third, regarding Exodus 21, it wasn’t sinful to physically discipline servants, or “slaves,” under certain conditions, in the same way that it’s not sinful for parents to physically discipline children. When verse 21 says that if a slave survives a day or two, the master is not to be avenged, it’s saying that in this case, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the master—in other words, there is reason to believe that the master struck the slave with disciplinary, not homicidal, intent. It should also be noted that verse 20 says that if a slave died immediately, the master would be guilty of homicide, which protected slaves in a way that was unprecedented in the ancient world. Furthermore, Exodus 21:26-27 gives even more protection to slaves. It says, “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.” So, masters who injured their slaves in certain ways would lose their entire investment in purchasing the slave. Chattel slaves have no such protection.

3. Vassalage

Next, did survivors of conquered nations become chattel slaves? The answer to this is that the Bible nowhere says that survivors of conquered nations should or would become chattel slaves. A relevant example here is the Gibeonites in 2 Samuel 21, who deceived the Israelites into sparing their lives and were therefore treated as a conquered nation. The Gibeonites remained a nation living within the Israelite nation, they were protected by the Israelite nation as a vassal state, and they were required to serve and give to the Israelite nation in various ways. However, there is absolutely no evidence that the Gibeonites were divided into Israelite households as chattel slaves.

Thus, the people of conquered nations may have been considered “slaves” in a certain sense, but again, like indentured servants, these people were not chattel slaves. They would have been “slaves” in a very different sense of the word, and this kind of servitude, or “slavery,” was not inherently sinful because it was an inevitable and necessary consequence of justified war. Certain wars that the Israelite nation engaged in were justified because God used this chosen nation to occupy the promised land and bring about the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ, and God’s process and plan sometimes involved justified war.

4. Bride Sale

Finally, what about women who were sold into “slavery,” such as in Exodus 21:7-11, which says this:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”

Two notes here:

Bride Sale vs. Chattel Slavery

First, like with indentured servitude, this kind of “slavery” is not at all chattel slavery. In this kind of “slavery,” which can also be called “bride sale,” the result was a marriage contract that was intended to put the daughter in a place of financial security.

Protection for Women Who Were Sold

Second, this passages gives lots of protection to the women involved in this kind of “slavery,” something which would not be true for chattel slaves.

5. The Bible Doesn’t Condone the African Slave Trade

Fifth, it should be noted that God gave protections for these servants, or “slaves,” because humans are created in the image of God and thus deserve to be treated with dignity, and that it’s precisely this biblical teaching that led many Christians, such as William Wilberforce, to lead the fight against the African slave trade. Also, the Bible forbids people from going out with the purpose of forcefully acquiring slaves, which is exactly what happened in the African slave trade. Exodus 21:16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” So, the Bible is completely against the African slave trade, and the attempts by slave owners to use the Bible to justify that kind of slavery were completely wrong.

Also, the Bible forbids people from going out with the purpose of forcefully acquiring slaves, which is exactly what happened in the African slave trade. Exodus 21:16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” So, the Bible is completely against the African slave trade, and the attempts by slave owners to use the Bible to justify that kind of slavery were completely wrong because the very foundation of the African slave trade wasn’t biblical.

6. God Sometimes Works Within Broken Systems, Like Divorce and Slavery

And sixth, it should also be noted that God sometimes works within imperfect systems, instead of abolishing them immediately. We may not know God’s exact reasons, but the fact that God uses sinful humanity throughout history to sovereignly accomplish His eternal plans means that there is simply nothing immoral, rationally speaking, in how God chooses to accomplish His plans. In Matthew 19:8, Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” In a perfect world, neither divorce nor slavery would exist, but God has chosen to use them within human history as part of His sovereign plan. Also, again, let’s note that the biblical teaching concerning humans being created in the image of God is antithetical to the African slave trade and chattel slavery, and it’s the reason why Christians fought so hard against it.

Conclusion: Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

To conclude and summarize, the Bible nowhere condones chattel slavery. It does provide regulations and protection for other kinds of contracts which can also be considered “slavery” in a different sense of the word, such as for indentured servitude, vassalage, and bride sale. Chattel slaves do not have these kinds of protections, and if chattel slaves were given these protections, then they would no longer be chattel slaves. The modern-day slave trade would not have survived or existed if it had to abide by the regulations and protections in the Bible.

Related Posts