Slavery and the Bible (Part I)

Unbelievers often point to the failure of the Bible to condemn slavery as a proof that the Bible is uninspired, a merely human, culture-bound product of its times. They reason that a just and loving God would never countenance slavery, much less issue a series of regulations for the operation of such an institution. But what does Scripture actually say, and what type of institution does it regulate? There have been many forms of slavery—slavery in one form or another has been almost ubiquitous since civilization began---yet most people are familiar with only one form of slavery, namely the transport of Africans to the Americas for work on plantations. Slave hunters would kidnap blacks from the African interior and march them to slave auction sites on the coast, where they would then be sold to white sea captains for transport and resale in the Western Hemisphere. Trafficking in African slaves involved unspeakable brutality that, by some estimates, resulted in the death of between 5 and 10 people for each slave who reached a plantation in the New World. But we must be clear at the outset that Scripture affords no hint of approval for this type of slavery.

The “slavery” regulated in the Old Testament does not include kidnapping people for sale as slaves. In fact, the Bible insists on the death penalty for those who enslave people against their will. Exodus 21:16 states, “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.” Deuteronomy 24:7 states, “If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die.” The New Testament also condemns those who steal people to sell them into slavery. 1 Timothy 1:10 includes “menstealers” (KJV) in a list of immoral and lawless persons that includes people who murder their own parents. In other translations, the term menstealers is translated as “kidnappers,” “slave traders,” “who sell slaves,” “who buy and sell slaves,” etc.

There is no question where the Bible stands regarding those who kidnap and enslave: they are strongly condemned, and ideally their fate should be death. Since the “peculiar institution” practiced by Americans as recently as the 19th Century is clearly condemned in Scripture, what type of institution did the Bible prescribe for ancient Israel?

Ancient Israel was an agrarian nation; the key to wealth was ownership of land. It was not God's plan that there be any poor in Israel. (Deut. 15:4) Israel was to avoid a permanent underclass primarily by the repatriation of ancestral lands on the Year of Jubilee, every 50 years (Lev. 25:8-24). No family could permanently alienate (sell) its ancestral lands, hence there could never be a permanent underclass of poor, landless peasants. In addition to repatriation of ancestral lands, the Bible provided several other protections for the poor, including a prohibition on charging them interest (Lev. 25:35-37); cancellation of debts every seventh year; leaving the edges of fields unharvested for the poor to glean; not harvesting the vine a second time (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15; 24:19); and leaving fields unplanted every seven years and allowing the poor to eat whatever grew on them naturally during that sabbath year (Ex. 23:10-11).

Strange as it sounds to us, for the Israelites slavery was to function as an additional protection for the poor; it was a way that the truly destitute could avoid death by starvation. People sold themselves into slavery, could not to be resold, and had to be freed after 6 years of service, or at the Year of Jubilee, whichever came first (Lev. 25:39-43; Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). Only if the slave swore before a judge that he was happy and wanted the arrangement to continue, could his station be made permanent with a symbolic ear-piercing (Ex. 21:5-6; Deut. 15:16-17).

Any master who killed his slave was subject to a punishment of death (Ex. 21:12, 20), a master who disfigured a slave by knocking out an eye or a tooth was to free the slave immediately (Ex. 21:26-27), and runaway slaves were not to be returned to their masters (Deut. 23:15-16). The slave was always entitled to buy his own freedom or have it bought for him by his kinsman-redeemer (Lev. 25:47-54). Of course, slaves were not to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; 23:12; Deut. 5:14).

These stipulations made the “slavery” practiced by Israel very different from that practiced in the other nations of the ancient Near East, and quite different from what the term slavery brings to our minds. Scripture was clear as to how Israelites were to treat those whose economic circumstances had forced them into slavery:

“Suppose some of your people become so poor that they have to sell themselves and become your slaves. Then you must treat them as servants, rather than as slaves. And in the Year of Celebration they are to be set free, so they and their children may return home to their families and property. I brought them out of Egypt to be my servants, not to be sold as slaves. So obey me, and don’t be cruel to the poor” (Lev. 23:39-43 CEV).

Slavery and the Bible (Part II)