Does the Bible Condone slavery? Is slavery permitted in the Bible?
— A Biblical Examination —
In our article about gay activist Dan Savage bullying and berating Christians at an “anti-bullying event”, Savage raised the point that “the Bible got the single greatest moral question of all time wrong” because in his mind the Bible condones slavery. This argument, used by many atheists and Bible skeptics alike has become more and more popular, conjuring up images of an hypocritical Christian faith that condemns lying and fornication but would allow and justify the brutal kidnapping, rape and enslavement of millions of Africans in the Americas and Europe in the 17-19th centuries. But are they right? Is slavery a sin in the Bible? Does God actually allow slavery? This article will examine the issue of slavery in the Bible from what the Scriptures actually say and show that not only is slavery a sin in the Bible, but that the Bible is anti-slavery at its core.
Slavery in Old Testament Times
The main flaw in the argument that the Bible condones slavery is that it very deceitfully (or at least mistakenly out of an ignorance of history) tries to equate “slavery” in the ancient nation of Israel with the African slavery of America and Europe, when the facts show that these two forms of slavery were nothing alike whatsoever. Slavery in ancient Israel was voluntary, not racist and done as a way for a man to provide for his family. If a person was in financial debt to another, the debt could be paid off by becoming a servant in the household of a wealthy landowner. Famines, droughts or marauders could bring financial ruin to a lesser off family and thus slavery allowed the family to have security and safety by “selling onseself” as a servant.. It was a purely financial arrangement. Once the debt was paid, the slave was free to go. The debt could even be paid by a “kinsman redeemer” ( a relative of the slave who had enough money). The Bible states this principle in Leviticus 25:
And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger’s family: After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself.50 And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he was sold to him unto the year of jubile: and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years, according to the time of an hired servant shall it be with him.
African slavery was not a financial arrangement. The slave, kidnapped, forced into bondage because of his race, was considered property of the slave master and was forced into slavery. It was not a system of debt repayment.
Kidnapping in the Bible Is a Sin
Kidnapping a person in the Bible for any reason, but especially for slavery was a capital offense punishable by death:
And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
This is a major and fundamental difference between the two systems. At this point all comparisons end. African slavery was based on the kidnapping of millions of Africans from their homeland, forcing them to travel to another continent and work under inhumane, abusive conditions until death. In ancient Israel any “master” who tried to steal another human being was a sinner who could be killed for that offense.
This is confirmed once again in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 1 when the Apostle lists various types of sinners that have no place in the Kingdom of God:
Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; — 1 Timothy 1:9-10.
So right along with murders, those who profane god and liars are listed “menstealers”, another term for “slave traders.” So by this standard any slave trader, master or participant in the African slave trade, which was done wholly on the basis of kidnapping, would have no justification for their sins in the Bible. It would be impossible to carry out the African slave trade rightly following the Bible.
Slaves in the Bible Were Not Owned Forever
African slaves were owned “in perpetuity” meaning that a slave was property of their owner forever. In the Bible this was not the case. Even if the slave in Bible times was not able to repay their debt to the master, all slaves were to be released every 7 years.
And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubile. And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. – Leviticus 25:39-41
At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor, or of his brother; because it is called the LORD’s release. – Deuteronomy 15:1-2
The Bible commanded that all debts were to be cancelled every 7 years. If land of a slave was being mortgaged to their slave master, the slave was able to recover the land debt-free and were free from their bondage, automatically. Once again, we see a critical difference that makes Biblical slavery nothing like the horrific enslavement of Africans and that the African slave system could never exist by the Bible’s rules.
Slaves in the Bible Had Rights
In describing African chattel slavery, historian Peter Garnsey wrote:
‘A [chattel] slave was property. The slaveowner’s rights over his slave-property were total, covering the person as well as the labor of the slave. The slave was kinless, stripped of his or her old social identity in the process of capture, sale and deracination, and denied the capacity to forge new bonds of kinship through marriage alliance. These are the three basic components of [chattel] slavery.’
Peter Garnsey, ‘Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine’, 1996, p. 1.
In the Bible, there is no chattel slavery. Even for foreign slaves, who were often prisoners of war, they were to have civil rights and liberty. On the subject of Biblical slavery and rights:
Chattel slavery did not exist under the Law of Moses. There was no form of servitude under the Law of Moses which placed them in the legal position of chattel slaves. Legislation maintained kinship rights (Exodus 21:3, 9, Leviticus 25:41, 47-49, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), marriage rights (Exodus 21:4, 10-11), providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, personal legal rights relating to physical protection and protection from breach of contract (Exodus 21:8, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind, and Leviticus 25:39-41, providing for Hebrew indentured servants), freedom of movement, and access to liberty (Exodus 21:8, 11, providing for a Hebrew daughter contracted into a marriage, Leviticus 25:40-45, 48, 54, providing for Hebrew indentured servants, and Deuteronomy 15:1, 12; 23:15, providing for Hebrew or foreign servants of any kind). (source)
Additionally, the Bible commanded that slaves were to be included in Sabbath rest observance:
“But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:” (Exodus 20:10).
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. (Deuteronomy 5:14)
Notice that in the verse from Deuteronomy, the slave master is reminded that the reason the servant should be permitted to observe Sabbath was so that they could rest “as well as thou.” The Lord makes no distinction or preference for the master over the servant.
Slaves were also required to be included in the celebration of the Feast of Weeks:
“And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the Lord thy God with a tribute of a freewill offering of thine hand, which thou shalt give unto the Lord thy God, according as the Lord thy God hath blessed thee: 11 And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the Lord thy God hath chosen to place his name there. 12 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt: and thou shalt observe and do these statutes. — Deuteronomy 16:10-12.
Note that in the above passage that God reminds the Israelites that they were one slaves in Egypt, again implying the equality between “slave” and “master.” The master was no greater. Contrast this with African chattel slavery which was premised on racism, White racial superiority and all manner of evil racist practices like eugenics.
Slaves in the Bible Could Not Be Abused
The Bible also makes it a sin to harm slaves:
And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake – Exodus 21:26-27
In the Bible, if a master knocked out the tooth of a slave, the slave was free to leave and killing a slave was punishable by death (Exodus 21:12). African slavery was marked by rampant, gruesome abuse, whipping, rape and torture of slaves for centuries. Once again there is no comparison between slavery in the Bible and chattel slavery. Not only is the Bible compassionate towards slaves, at the time of the writing of the law (1500 BC), there was no other nation with this type of rules that protected servants. Hamurabi’s Code for example permitted masters to cut off their slaves’ ears.
Runaway Slaves in the Bible Were Not to be Returned
Unlike the Old South where Fugitive Slave Laws required all runaway slaves to be returned, the Bible says the exact opposite of foreign slaves on the run:
Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: 16 He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.
The Bible Records The First Slave Revolt
As has been shown, slavery in the Bible was nothing like African slavery in the Antebellum South. In fact, the first time we see race-based, never-ending, oppressive, abusive slavery in the Bible, it was the Israelites themselves being enslaved by the Egyptian empire:
Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: 10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land. 11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. 13 And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: 14 And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour. — Exodus 1:8-14.
It is the ancient Isralites themselves who were the first victims of brutal, un-Biblical slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, who enslaved them out of racist hatred. This is the closest such thing to African slavery we see in the Bible. And how did God respond to this slavery? With mercy, as He raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery and punished Egypt with 10 supernatural plagues, the final one being the death of all their firstborn sons which was the origin of the Passover, still celebrated in Jewish homes today. So the first recorded revolt against racist, oppressive slavery in ancient history was in the Bible and it was led by God.
“The Bible Was Used to Justify Slavery in America”
This is sad but very true. The Bible was indeed used by some as a way to justify slavery by focusing on a curse against Canaan in the book of Genesis. The argument was that this curse was actually upon Noah’s son Ham, who settled in the continent of Africa and thus all African people were cursed and thus slavery was permissible. Not only was this position not in the Bible (the Canaanite people are not Africans and in fact no longer existed at the time of African slavery in America), it ignored all of the rules for slaves that have been covered above. Just as we see today, there are many people who will misuse the Bible for one primary reason: money. The heretic slave owners who did this were just manipulating the Bible for money in the same fashion apostate Prosperity Gospel preachers twist the Scripture and pervert the Bible’s meaning to seduce their congregations into sending them money.
There were Christians and churches that tolerated slavery. But that does not change the fact that Bible-believing Christians formed the majority of the abolitionist movement. As far back as the 1st century AD, Bible-believing Christians were protesting slavery in the Roman Empire. In Europe, Anabaptists (an early name for Baptists) and British Quakers under the leadership of John Wesley were among the first groups of that era to protest slavery. In 1688 the Mennonite denomination started distributing abolitionist pamphlets. By 1696. the Quakers refused to permit any slave owners from being members of the denomination and most of the American abolitionist movement was led by Bible-believing Christians. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most outspoken leaders of the abolitionist movement and head of the Antislavery Society, was a Bible-believing Christian who tore up the Constitution, calling it (and quoting the Bible) a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell” because it permitted slavery. Like many true Christians, he understood that there was no compatibility between living a life for Jesus Christ and the sinful horrors of the African slave trade.
The Bible Does Not Condone Slavery – It Solves It
There is no way possible that African-American slavery in the South or Europe could have been permitted by the Bible’s standards. All slave owners would have been put to death just for taking slaves in the first place and thus any attempt to compare the two by Bible skeptics is wildly incorrect. When the Scriptures are examined in context it becomes quite clear that God teaches compassion, mercy, equality and justice for all. But most importantly, the Bible’s purpose was not just to end slavery, it was to point out the true cause of racism, slavery oppression and greed: sin. It is our sin, that all of humanity is enslaved to and its chains can drag us to hell. The sins we have committed make us all guilty before God’s eyes, whether servant or Master. This is why Jesus Christ came to Earth – to “set the captives free.” Until we have Jesus Christ as our Savior, by acknowledging our sin before God and putting faith in Jesus as the one who died to take our punishment so that we could live eternally, we are in bondage to sin and hell. This is the main issue of humanity since the beginning of time. So if you have not done so already, get free! Revolt from sin! Look to Jesus Christ, believe in Him and receive eternal life.
“The term slavery should never be used to designate the [Israelites’] servitude [employment] under the Mosaic economy [system].”—Rev. John G. Fee, An Anti-Slavery Manual (New York: William Harned, 1851)