Bible Criticism and Difficulties – Slavery
Slavery in Ancient Times
Considering the historical institution of slavery in ancient times, it is important to acknowledge that our present-day understanding and perspectives should not be retroactively applied. This institution existed throughout the entire ancient world and in almost every society and nation. The treatment of slaves varied greatly and was regulated differently throughout every practicing nation, from very hard treatment and inhuman conditions to other regions that treated slavery as more an position of servitude with rights and regulations.
Ancient Rome contained some of the harshest known conditions for slaves. Historic documents from Diodorus Siculus, Seneca of Clement and others, show that enslaved people had no rights, could be bought, sold, and mistreated as they were simple property of their masters. They could not buy, sell or trade and could not be married and where often worked to their own physical harm.
We find in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia various sources that showed slavery was regulated with some rights for people in those positions. The Ur-Nammu, Eshnunna, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi and the Nesilim are such ancient documents that record these codes. These codes contain punishments for those that may harm slaves and person rights, marriage and allowance for private property for slaves.
Understanding Biblical Context
The topic of slavery as it is pertained in the Bible, warrants a comprehensive understanding within the appropriate context of each scripture that addresses the matter. Given its highly contested nature, it is critical to approach this subject with proper care to avoid misunderstanding the teachings of the Bible.
When it comes to discussing significant biblical topics, it is critical to approach them with careful consideration by taking into account the context of specific verses and gaining a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Merely citing a single verse without providing the necessary context may result in confusion or misinterpretation of the intended teachings, ordinance or law.
The topic of slavery in its entirety revolves around a significant theological issue. It is crucial to establish a precise Biblical definition of slavery, as the term ‘slave’ encompasses diverse conceptions and interpretations for different people. Slavery, in English, denotes the state of being owned as property by another individual. Property, in this context, refers to something that is possessed by someone.
Within the biblical context, the concept of slavery is more expansively understood as servitude to another person. Consequently, the terms “slave” and “servant” are often used interchangeably by biblical translators, as they encompass various scenarios, regardless of any voluntary elements involved.
The concept of servitude can be understood in consideration with various aspects in employment, public service, imprisonment, marriage or within the family. In essence, these engagements involve individuals providing for or serving others. To elaborate further, spouses possess a mutual sense of ownership and commitment towards each other (Eph 5.33). Children obey their parents as parents fulfill their obligations to their children (Eph 6.1). Employees represent the companies they work for, as they fulfill their delegated responsibilities (Eph 6.5-9).
Theological Origin of Slavery
Theologically we find that God created mankind first and foremost to glorify Him (Rev 4.11). Mankind was to be with God (Ps 27.4), to share in His joy and love forever according to His good pleasure and will (Eph 1.6). God gives us the example to serve others and be others minded in attitude and deed (Gal 5.13, 1 Peter 4.10) for this is a reflection of God’s character and how God acts (Phil 2.7).
However, with free will comes the ability to choose to obey or reject God. With this rejection comes a different kind of servitude. If you reject serving God, you choose to serve yourself in place of god, this makes you a slave to sin (Rom 6.16-18). In Romans chapter 6 we find that this definition of slavery is to be in subject to whatever or whoever you choose to obey, either sin that leads to death or God that leads to life.
When humanity fell from God’s grace and once sin entered into the world, many curses and problems followed in various areas of creation, i.e., thorns for crops, work for food, pain for childbearing, divorce for marriage, sickness for health, death for life, etc. The ordinance of mankind being truly free without being bound to any other being than God was lost.
From that point forward, it was possible for a man to become the slave or servant to something other than God. So here we can see why, even though God allowed people to be slaves or servants to other people, it was not God’s originally created plan or purpose, but rather was a result of the original sin. (Matt 24.45, John 12.26, Rom 6.22, Gal 4.7)
Approval vs. Regulation
Once you understand the theological origin for a topic like slavery, you can understand why it is a complex issue in the Bible. This is due to the fact that God did not design humanity for the purpose of slavery, however it is a practice that God regulated in His word since some of His people would have to deal with it over time.
We find similar regulations for others types of issues, such as Moses allowance for divorce. God hates divorce (Mal 2.16), however due to the hardness of the people hearts regulations had to be created to protect all members of the family when an incident like this was to occur. Some may ask, why God didn’t just tell them not to divorce. Essentially He did.
However since it was a situation that would involve a person that would have obeyed God at all costs and another person that was hard of heart, regulations had to be made to protect all people involved.
Servitude is something that all men are subject to as we are all accountable to various individuals in our societies. Due to the various ways a person would become an indentured servant in ancient times, God ensured that regulations and laws would be put into place to protect those that needed to work and those that employed them.
Taking the Biblical teaching as a whole, we can see the Bible does not endorse slavery nor was this God’s intent for humanity. The Bible directly teaches against any form of forced slavery, as those who enslave others will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Tim 1.10).
However knowing that servitude and service will continue to be a part of this world until Christ returns, the Bible does give us guidance on how to deal with this issue. First, as much as is possible, do not become a slave to others by refraining from going into debt (Romans 13.8).
If you do need to work from someone to provide for your family or become indebted to another, do not complain about your situation, but rather do the best job you can to represent God in your daily life (Eph 6.5-6), working for them as you would work for God. For those who are masters, they are to be fair with their servants. Treating them as brothers in Christ (Eph 6.9) and not to even go as far as threatening them (Eph 6.9, Col 4.1).
Word for Slave in the Hebrew
Ebed – meaning a servant, bondage, bondman, servant or man servant. Occurs over 800 times in the Old Testament. From the word abad
Abad – to work; by implication to serve. Enslave, to be kept in bondage or ne a bondman. Servant, service, work or worship. Occurs over 280 times in the OT.
Amah – female slave or servant. Bondmaid or maid servant. Occurs over 50 times in the OT.
Word for Slave in the Greek
Doulos – a slave (literally or figuratively, involuntary or voluntary). A bondman or servant. From the word Deo.
Deo – to bind (literally or figuratively); bind, tie, wind, to be in bonds.
Slavery in the Old Testament
As seen above, slavery existed before the Books of Moses where written and most likely began not many generations after Noah’s sons began to populate the earth. Within the Books of Moses, we find that God gave Moses the regulations for this form of servitude and how to regulate this institution among the Israelites. These regulations where written just after the Israelites had been the slaves of the Egyptians, having just been freed from harsh treatment (Deut 6.21).
Notwithstanding, the person who took the position of a slave or servant in Jewish society was seen as a fellow countryman and equals, they were to be considered as hired workers (Lev 25.35-43). Servants had the same rights and regulation of the law applied to them, as the Old Testament taught one law for all (Ex. 12.49, Ex 20.10, Lev 24.16, 22 Deut 5.14).
Regulations for Slavery– Exodus 21
Exodus 21 contains most of the laws concerning regulations for slavery or bond servants. First of all is the regulation for taking in Hebrews to be a servant.
Term of Service – 6 years
They will serve six years and go free during the year of Jubilee (v.2). If he was single he will go out as a single man, if he was married he will leave with his family (v.3). (Lev 25.54)
Rights to Provision
From verse 2 through 10 we see the basic human necessities of a servant are taken care of in regards to food, shelter, clothing, marriage, property by the master. In fact a slave was often times adopted in the family for their service to the family, eventually becoming heirs and part of the family.
Rights of the Slaves Family
The next portions is the regulation concerning if the master gives the servant a wife to marry. If she was in bondage to the master, she remains the master’s property. If that man wants to remain with his wife or family he must agree to remain a servant to the master or buy out his family’s debt (v.4). The easiest way to avoid this, if the man didn’t like this stipulation, is to follow the regulation in v3 and not start a family while under contract with the master. This stipulation would have to be explained to the servant as God’s people where not to defraud one another (Lev 19.11-18).
Bond Servant for Life Agreement
If the man wants to remain the master servant, the master and servant will go to the elders and the man will tell the elder he wants to remain and that he loves the master and his family and will be pierced with an awl to serve for life (v.6, Deut 15.16).
Rights of Maid-Servants
The next portion is the regulation to protect women sold to be maid-servants. That the master will ensure she if given every right to basic needs and retains the right to the status of wife if she is married, and is no longer a maid-servant (v10). If the master does not maintain these rights, she will go out freely (v.11).
Violence towards a Slave
This next portion is one of the most misrepresented portions of scriptures concerning the subject of slavery in the Bible. This portion needs to be read in context, starting from verse 12 to 21. This section is written to regulate judgment concerning violence and injuries that occurs between men. Once we get to verse 20, it regulates violence that includes a servant in the matter.
If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, 19 if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed. – Exodus 21.18-19
And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. 21 Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. – Exodus 21.20-21– Exodus 21.18-21
First thing to notice is that verse 20 begins with the word ‘And.’ Why does verse 20 begin with the word And? It is because it is conjunctive to the rest of this section and to the context of verses 12-21. The first portion (v.20) speaks about the judgment of a master killing his servant; if he does so the Law will be enacted and the master will be executed (Num 35.16-20).
This second portion (v.21) is referring to the master who may take the part of an aggressor, referring to those that would pay for the injured mans wounds and for any loose of time from work due to the injury as we saw in verse 19.
However, if the injury is done to a servant that works for you, the master will not have to be punished in paying for the man’s time off of work, because it is clearly explained at the end of verse 21, the servant is ‘his money’ meaning that the master is already losing money for the time a servant in injured. This does not mean the master doesn’t have to pay for the man’s healing as is the case in verse 19.
Further, if the master does any type of severe or permanent harm to the servant, the servant gets to go free (v.22 – 27). Further, the master has to pay equally for any type of severe or permanent injury the servant had to endure (Lev 24.17-20). There is no distinction between slave or free in any of these verse since they are all subject to the same laws.
Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. 19 Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.– Leviticus 24. 17, 19-20
Corporal punishment (physical punishment) in Israel needs to be understood to properly address the situation in Exodus Chapter 21. As discussed earlier, all of the law of the Torah apply equally to all people in Israel, including slaves. One of the forms of punishment that all people where subject to was corporal punishment, depending on the crime (Deut 25.2).
Israel law did not incorporate a formal imprisonment system, as Israel believed it was a waste of people’s time that could be used constructively to build up their society. Therefore, society relied on the following forms of punishment for crimes; servitude (Ex 22.2-3) to pay back a debt or loss you inflected through theft, destructive means, etc. Corporal punishment (Deut 25.2) to punish those that continue to be disobedience or rebellious to their duties. Capital punishment (Ex 21.12,16) for those that caused a severe infraction to the law.
Forced Slavery Strictly Forbidden
The Bible specifically casts judgment for anyone who would kidnap or subject someone to forced slavery. The law forbids and states that anyone attempting to force another person into slavery would be put to death.
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.– Exodus 21.16
If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and makes merchandise of him, or sells him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you.– Deut 24.7
Did God Allowed Force Slavery Against Certain Nations
God used the Israelites, to be His instruments in this world as both His messengers and His hand of judgement (Num 31.1). If a nation chose not to repent and turn from their wickedness (Lev 18.3, 25), God would primarily destroy His enemies by famine, disease or by war. God gave the ungodly nations into the hands of the Israelites to be their servants (Deut 20.10-11).
Israel gave these cities an offering of peace, but if they refused, the judgement of destruction was on their own head. In the same way that death by soldier does not violate God’s law that says you shall not murder, but is rather God’s judgement; so it is that slavery from war is the result of God’s judgement against certain ungodly nations (Deut 20.13).
Run Away Slaves
In addition to the aforementioned point, it is notable that enslaved individuals were regarded with equality the same as that of other citizens within society. This is exemplified by the practice of runaway slaves being afforded protection by the communities they sought refuge in, as opposed to being returned to their masters.
While property such as oxen and other animals were customarily restored to their owners, slaves were treated differently. This distinction can be attributed to the fact that God values the life and well-being of all individuals impartially, recognizing and upholding their inherent equality.
You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him. – Deut 23.15-16
Days of Rest and Work Days
Another display showing the equality of the law among all citizens was the command for everyone, including slaves, to cease from working on the Sabbath day.
but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you – Exodus 20.10
End of Service Term
At the end of a service term of slavery, the person set free would be given generously from the house of the master various supplies and necessities fr their start back into their own life.
If you set them free, you must not send them away empty-handed. 14 You must supply them generously[ae] from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress—as the Lord your God has blessed you, you must give to them. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you– Deut 15.13-15
Slaves from Outside Nations
God allowed the Israelites of purchase slaves from neighboring countries. From neighboring countries and from within their own lands, the Israelites where allowed to hire and to go into service and work for the Israelite people to attain provisions for their families.
The debt that the slaves worked for could be passed onto future generations. If a debt was not completed because the previous generation was too old and the seven years of service had not passed, their service could be passed to the next generation. If someone desired to serve for life, the process for this is described in Ex 21.6 and Deut 15.16.
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.– Leviticus 25. 44-46
Those individuals purchased were to be treated in the same manner as all other citizen of Israel and where given the same rights as the rest of the people describe throughout the book of the law.
The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you – Exodus 12.49
You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.’ ” – Leviticus 24.22
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt – Exodus 22.21
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19.34
So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt – Deut 10.19
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. – Leviticus 19.33
You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them. – Numbers 15.29
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing – Deut 10.18
Slaves Convert to Judaism
An additional stipulation to serving for the Israelites was the fact that slaves could convert to Judaism to belong to God as His servant. God’s great purpose for Israel was to use them to be the central manifold for bringing back all the people of the Earth to Him (Gen 12.3). God used them as His instrument of wrath and judgment. They were also His mouthpiece and showed His love and mercy.
This is why so many slaves after coming to Israel saw God’s mercy and love through His people and converted to Judaism throughout the Old Testament (Ruth 1.16, Esther 8.17,).
Gentiles Convert to Judaism
The process of conversion to Judaism is called “giyur” in Hebrew. It is the process by which non-Jews adopt the Jewish religion and become members of the Jewish ethno religious community. (Matt 23.15 – Jesus talks about Gentile conversions to Judaism)
But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. – Exodus 12.48
Many of the people became Jews – Esther 8.17
When the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and again choose Israel, and settle them in their own land, then strangers will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob. – Isaiah 14.1
You shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves and among the aliens who stay in your midst, who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. – Ezekiel 47.22
Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, To minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath And holds fast My covenant – Isaiah 56.6
Slavery in the New Testament
Since Jesus has come to restore all things, the church is meant to be a reflection of His kingdom on all subject. The church is exhorted to live as Christ lived, as servants and serving one another out of a pure heart (1 Peter 4.10). Christians are to live this life owing no other person any debt except out love for each other (Rom 13.8).
Slavery as a symbol of sin or bondage to serving something other than God, it is to be despised in the heart of every believer (Romans 6.16) since Jesus came to set us free (Gal 5.1). It is to be the heart and goal of every believer to see every man free to live his life for God, in love for others, never oppressing anyone.
The New Testament acknowledges that slavery still exists since the world is still suffering from corruption, some need to serve others to eat and others are forced into labor by unbelievers. In this however, the Bible teaches us to work diligently in everything as a witness to unbelievers or working as hired servants or paying off debts to other believers (Eph 6.1), knowing that our master in Heaven is soon to come (Eph 6.9).