Slavery in the Bible

slave_marketWhile you find the word, “slavery” in the Bible, in no way shape or form do you find an endorsement for the kind of slavery that existed in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Not even close.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary sums it up real well by saying that “Slavery as it existed under the Mosaic law has no modern parallel.” And the slavery that’s referred to in the New Testament is a Roman institution that contradicts the way the gospel defines all of humanity as being equal in the sight of God and therefore eliminates all cultural categories that would otherwise be used to justify the enslavement of a particular people group.”

Still, while Scripture doesn’t give  slavery a Divine stamp of approval, it is nevertheless present as a form of servitude that can appear harsh at times and in that way generates some questions which deserve some answers.

Here’s what we’re going to look at:

  • The Old Testament defines kidnapping as a capital offense. That directive alone is enough to destroy any notion of a Biblical endorsement of the slave trade as it existed in modern history.
  • The word “slavery” in the Old Testament is used to describe one of three types of servitude, none of which entail the kind of inhumane dynamics that characterized the 18th and 19th century slave trade. It was:
    • a temporary arrangement established for the sake of working off a debt that couldn’t otherwise be paid
    • a work release program assigned to an apprehended thief which compelled him to work off the dollar amount of whatever had been stolen
    • an alternative to war where the enemies of Israel agreed to live among the Hebrews as workers that were to be treated with kindness and respect
  • In the New Testament, slavery was a Roman Institution that crumbled beneath the weight of the gospel in that all men are created equal under God. And while that Truth would be used to dismantle the machinations of the slave trade by future generations, it was also deployed as a way to redefine the relationship between master and slave in a manner that was both immediate and transformational

Here we go…

I) Slavery in the Old Testament

First of all, in Exodus 21:16, you read how kidnapping was considered a capital offense:

He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)

That verse alone is enough to condemn anyone to death who owned a slave in the United States during the time leading up to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

So, again, anyone who wants to even imply that Scripture condones the kind of slavery that existed in our country during the 17th and 18th centuries is absolutely wrong in that it was based on kidnapping.

As far as the other kinds of slavery that are represented in the Old Testament, you have three basic categories:

#1) To make restitution for whatever it was that you stole

There were no penitentiaries in the ancient world. If you stole something, you were to make restitution by working off the dollar value of whatever it is that you stole. You see this in Exodus 22:3:

A thief must make full restitution. If he is unable, he is to be sold because of his theft. (Ex 22:3)

So, that’s not “slavery” per se as much as it’s a work release program.

#2) To pay off financial obligations that you couldn’t afford to pay off otherwise
…In Revelation 18:13 the word “slaves” is the rendering of a Greek word meaning “bodies.” The Hebrew and Greek words for slave are usually rendered simply “servant,” “bondman,” or “bondservant.” Slavery as it existed under the Mosaic law has no modern parallel. That law did not originate but only regulated the already existing custom of slavery ( Exodus 21:20 Exodus 21:21 Exodus 21:26 Exodus 21:27 ; Leviticus 25:44-46 ; Joshua 9:6-27 ). The gospel in its spirit and genius is hostile to slavery in every form, which under its influence is gradually disappearing from among men.

The second appearance of “slavery” as it’s found in the Old Testament refers to that situation where you found yourself in debt and could not afford to pay it off. Since there was no such thing as a status of “bankruptcy” in the ancient world,  you simply made yourself and / or members of your family available as servants (see 2 Kings 4:1-7  for examples of children being put to work to pay off debt).

Bear in mind that this was voluntary, temporary and was to be conducted in manner that honored the worker’s dignity:

39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 4243 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. (Lev 25:39-43 [see also Ex 21:2])

So, according to this verse, should you choose to hire yourself and / or your family to the person you were indebted to, you / they were in the employ of that person only until:

  • the debt was paid off either through your labor or income you were able to earn through other means (Lev 25:49) or…
  • a period of six years had passed or…
  • the Year of Jubilee which happened every 50 years (see Ex 21:2)
The only exception to that rule is if you got married to someone that was also working for your employer. Because she is also serving out an obligation, if your term was up before hers you couldn’t simply cancel her debt and justify it by saying that you wanted to leave with your new family. Rather, you had the option of choosing to remain in the employ of your boss for the rest of your life or the Year of Jubilee when all Hebrew slaves were set free and all property was returned to the original owner (see Lev 25:8-55). Then again, you could simply wait until her debt was satisfied and then move on from there.

The bottom line is that this kind of servanthood was designed to be temporary, dignified and voluntary and engaged as an alternative to bankruptcy. It was not permanent nor was it founded on the color of one’s skin and built around the idea that a human being was nothing more than a piece of property.

#3) An alternative to combat and judgment

Apart from that situation where a thief is to offer restitution for his crime through an extended period of physical labor that matched the value of what had been stolen (Ex 22:3-4) or working off a debt that you couldn’t pay otherwise, the only other reference to slavery in the Old Testament is in Leviticus 25:44-46:

44 Your male and female slaves are to be from the nations around you; you may purchase male and female slaves. 45 You may also purchase them from the foreigners staying with you, or from their families living among you—those born in your land. These may become your property. 46 You may leave them to your sons after you to inherit as property; you can make them slaves for life. But concerning your brothers, the Israelites, you must not rule over one another harshly.

While it may see that this is a Divine Endorsement of Slavery, there’s more to this than what meets the eye and it goes back to the book of Genesis.

     A) A Man by the Name of Canaan

All of the peoples in the world, both past and present, hail from one of the three sons of Noah: Ham, Shem and Japheth. Of these three, Ham distinguished himself as being especially heinous in the immediate aftermath of the Flood.

To fully appreciate the vile nature of Ham, you have to remember that this situation with his father is happening not too long after the Flood. Ham had waited for seven days with his family on board the ark before it even began to rain (Gen 7:10). He saw the entire planet covered in water (Gen 7:19) while he and he family remained on board for more than a year (Gen 7:11; 8:13). And he was there to see the very first rainbow in recorded history (Gen 9:12-13). He had seen God’s Power and Mercy firsthand. For him to be as rebellious as he was required a truly lethal deficiency in character – a trait that was apparently passed on to his son, Canaan.

In Genesis 9:20-25, you read:

20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a cloak and placed it over both their shoulders, and walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father naked.

24 When Noah awoke from his drinking and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said:

Canaan will be cursed. He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers.

Not only did Ham seemingly take some pleasure in mocking his father’s indecency and indiscretion, but there’s reason to believe, according to verse 24, that Ham actually did something to Noah. Whatever the case may be, Noah saw something in Ham that was also present in Canaan, Ham’s son – something that would surface in the form of a character trait that would result in idolatry and all the consequences that go along with it. In this instance, one of the consequences would be a lifetime of servitude.

     B) Anything that Breathed…

Fast forward to the book of Joshua. The Israelites are getting ready to claim the land that had been promised to Abraham several centuries beforehand. But this wasn’t a mere collection of military campaigns, it was the Judgment of God being poured out against the vile behavior of…

…the descendants of Canaan.

Just how sinful many Canaanite religious practices were is now known from archaeological artifacts and from their own epic literature, discovered at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) on the north Syrian coast beginning in 1929. Their “worship” was polytheistic and included child sacrifice, idolatry, religious prostitution and divination.1

The Canaanites have descended into a mindset that despises God, just as Noah had declared in his response to Ham’s belligerence centuries beforehand. Their idolatry and their immorality are so repugnant in the sight of the One that saved their forefathers from the Flood that they are now literally on death row from God’s standpoint. These aren’t whole people groups, however. Rather, they’re cities and areas that represent concentrated regions of pure evil and it’s these cities that God specifies in Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

 16 However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. 17 You must completely destroy them—the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable things they do for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God (Dt 20:16-18 [see also Dt 7:1-2]).

Again, these are geographical areas and not entire bloodlines. You see that in Joshua 11. There were Hivites among the northern kingdoms that joined forces against the Israelites that lived below Hermon in the region of Mizpah. The Israelites totally destroyed them. In verse 14-15, it says:

The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed15As the Lord commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses (Josh 11:14-15).

But, again…

     C) …Only in Specific Areas

While there were Hivites among those destroyed in Joshua 11:14-15, there were also Hivites living in Gibeon:

These devoted nations are here named and numbered (v. 1), seven in all, and seven to one are great odds. They are specified, that Israel might know the bounds and limits of their commission: hitherto their severity must come, but no further; nor must they, under colour of this commission, kill all that came in their way; no, here must its waves be stayed. The confining of this commission to the nations here mentioned plainly intimates that after-ages were not to draw this into a precedent; this will not serve to justify those barbarous laws which give no quarter. (Matthew Henry Commentary on Deuteronomy 12

19 Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. 20 For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Josh 11:19-20)

So not every Hivite was killed. Only those that lived among the northern kingdoms referenced in Joshua 11:3 (they lived at the foot of Hermon in the land of Mizpah) were destroyed. But those that were spared were nevertheless condemned to become slaves as was stated centuries beforehand in Genesis 9:25.

Critics of Scripture are quick to point to the total decimation of all those that lived in the cities that God had directed Israel to destroy as evidence that God endorsed genocide. Their perspective is that a God Who would condone or, even worse, command the Israelites to “not spare anyone that breathed” is not worthy of worship.

Their indignation is ill founded, however.

First of all, as has already been discussed, it wasn’t entire people groups that were destroyed – just those that lived in areas that engaged in an aggressive brand of idolatry and decadence. Just like there were Hivites living in Gibeon as well as Mizpah, the Hittites were not exclusive to one particular area in that you have godly Hittites showing up later in Scripture occupying prominent positions within Israel such as Uriah, one of David’s Mighty Men (1 Chron 11:41 [“Uriah” in Hebrew means, “Yahweh is my light”]). So, yes there were entire cities that were put to the sword, but not entire ethnic groups. And the inhabitants of those cities slated for destruction were not mere military targets, they were direct descendants of the sons of Noah who knew and experienced God first hand. Yet, they chose a reprehensible lifestyle and a form of idolatry that was a belligerent dismissal of what they knew to be True which included an awareness of what happens when you choose a lifestyle that labors to advance a satanic agenda.

This is the wrath of God. And when you process it knowing the truly despicable psychology and methodology that characterized the Canaanites, while it still makes you cringe the way you might wince as you view pictures of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is an understandable horror given the evil that was being addressed and justly destroyed.

But not all those who deserved the wrath of God were taken to task for their actions. Some were given an option despite the spiritual blood on their hands.

     D) You Have an Option…

Every city that constituted a threat to Israel, with the exception of those that were specified by God as being objects of His Wrath, were to be given the option of either being destroyed in combat or live among the Israelites as servants:

10 “When you approach a city to fight against it, you must make an offer of peace. 11 If it accepts your offer of peace and opens its gates to you, all the people found in it will become forced laborers for you and serve you. (Dt 20:10-11)

If they didn’t accept that offer, however, the men were to be completely destroyed and all the remaining inhabitants:

12 However, if it does not make peace with you but wages war against you, lay siege to it. 13 When the Lord your God hands it over to you, you must strike down all its males with the sword. 14 But you may take the women, children, animals, and whatever else is in the city—all its spoil—as plunder. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies that the Lord your God has given you. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are far away from you and are not among the cities of these nations. 16 However, you must not let any living thing survive among the cities of these people the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. 17 You must completely destroy them—the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite—as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable things they do for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God. (Dt 20:10-18)

So with the Conquest of the Promised Land, you have a large territory populated with a substantial number of people, many of whom have distinguished themselves as truly heinous in the eyes of God. They live in specific cites / areas that the Lord had directed the armies of Israel to wipe out entirely. Every city – even those that are slated for destruction – are given the option of surrendering and living among the Israelites as servants. But only Gibeon is allowed to take advantage of that offer (see Josh 11:20). Every other city chooses to fight Israel and God deals with them accordingly.

     E) Surrounding Nations

There are the “other nations” surrounding the area where the Canaanites are being destroyed. It’s these nations that are being referred to in Leviticus 25. If you look at a map of the area surrounding Canaan, those nations would’ve included the Moabites, Hittites, Ammonites, the kingdom of Bashan, the Edomites and the Philistines. Take a look at the chart below and consider the lineage and the disposition that characterizes each of these nations.

nation lineage history
Moab Moab was the son of Lot and his daughter. Lot was the nephew of Abraham who was a descendant of Shem (see Gen 19:25) Balak enlisted the help of Balaam in order to curse Israel (Num 22). The Moabites were hostile to Israel on more than one occasion.
Ammonites Ammon was the son of Lot, the brother of Moab (see Gen 19:38). They were a part of the party that enlisted the help of Balaam in order to curse Israel. They were enemies of Israel throughout their existence. Click here for more information.
Amorites “Amorite” literally means, “dwellers in the summits.” They were not one particular nation, but a collection of Canaanites that dwelled in the high country as opposed to the lowlands. In Numbers 21 you read of how the Israelites defeated Sihon king of the Amorites after he denied them permission to pass through his territory and attacked them.
Bashan Bashan was an Amorite territory that consisted of 60 cities. The king of Bashan was a giant of a man named Og. After the defeat of King Sihon, he and his army attacked Israel and were soundly defeated.
Edomites The Edomites were descendants of Esau who was Jacob’s brother. But while they were close relatives, all of Esau’s wives came from the Canaanites. The Edomites were hostile towards Israel (see Numbers 20:14-21) and are listed among the enemies of Israel that Saul defeated in 1 Samuel 14:47 and again in 2 Samuel 8:13-14 where David defeats them in combat and established garrisons in their cities.
Philistines The Philistines were descendants of Egypt – one of Ham’s four sons (Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan). While the Philistines are probably recognized most readily by the story of David and Goliath, they were enemies of Israel beginning as early as Genesis 26:14-15 when they were antagonistic towards Isaac.


slide_5Joshua 12 gives a summary of all the nations and kings that were conquered as part of the conquest of the Promised Land. In Joshua 13, God identifies several other territories that need to be subdued but represent campaigns that are distinct from the original marching orders given to Moses and Joshua. Among those that God enumerates are the five cities within the territory of the Philistines. While the Philistines were not initially listed alongside those slated for destruction, the five cities that God specifies could nevertheless be counted as Canaanite cities. Reason being is that while they were governed by Philistine rulers, the inhabitants were entirely Canaanite and thus deserving of God’s wrath.

Each of these “surrounding nations” represent enemies of Israel and to be an enemy of Israel is to be an enemy of God (see 1 Sam 2:9-10; Zec 2:8). To oppose God is to invite His Wrath and that’s exactly what is going on behind the scenes when you’re looking at Israel’s military actions.It’s not Israel’s tactical might nor their moral superiority that translated to increased land holdings or a greater population of servants (Dt 9:1-6). It’s the fact that all of these nations, to varying degrees, had identified themselves as enemies of God and it’s for that reason that they were either executed, defeated in combat or allowed to live among the Israelites as servants.

          1) Servants and Not Enemies

Given the obvious tension that existed between Israel and her hostile neighbors, it’s not difficult to imagine the potential for the way in which a slave might be physically abused by a Hebrew or the hostile actions a passionate enemy of Israel might attempt while serving an Israelite.

God made it very clear on numerous occasions that a foreigner was to be treated with dignity and respect. Even those Egyptians that had chosen to live among the Israelites were to be treated with kindness and love:

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:34)

That being the case, should a foreign soldier find themselves working for an Israelite and they give full vent to the antagonism they feel towards the Hebrew community by doing something heinous, while their actions may merit some harsh discipline, their punishment was to be just and not used as an excuse to play out hostile intentions based on past social and military experiences.

20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property. (Ex 21:20-21)

By the way, the word “property” in Exodus 21 is actually translated “money.” It’s not a term to be interpreted as something demeaning as much as it’s referring to the worth of that servant’s labor. The Contemporary English Version translates it as:

However, if the slave lives a few days after the beating, you are not to be punished. After all, you have already lost the services of that slave who was your property. *Ex 21:21 [CEV])

 Another thing to consider is the way in which runaway slaves were treated. Rather than them being returned to their master, they’re allowed to remain with whomever they took refuge:

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. (Dt 23:15)

 The bottom line is that “slavery” in the Old Testament is completely different from the slave trade that existed in the United States. Whereas slavery in ancient Hebrew culture was a form of servanthood that was either offered as a means by which you could pay off a financial debt, or imposed as a work release program / alternative to judgment, the slave trade as it existed in the 17th and 18th centuries was based on kidnapping (a capital offense) and the dehumanization of individuals to the point where they were mere appliances with no rights, no future and no real value.

II) Slavery in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the world is ruled by Rome and their domination was maintained almost entirely by slave labor.

Slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world. Slaves served in households, agriculture, mines, the military, manufacturing workshops, construction and a wide range of services within the city. As many as 1 in 3 of the population in Italy or 1 in 5 across the empire were slaves and upon this foundation of forced labour was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society.2

Much of the slave population in the Roman Empire was procured in the context of military campaigns where those who were defeated were enslaved. Their numbers were further supplemented by piracy and kidnapping.

”… if any people ought to be allowed to consecrate their origins and refer them to a divine source, so great is the military glory of the Roman People that when they profess that their Father and the Father of their Founder was none other than Mars, the nations of the earth may well submit to this also with as good a grace as they submit to Rome’s dominion.”3

Unlike the situation in the Old Testament where Israel’s military victories and their domination over the surrounding nations were a consequence of those countries’ resolve to rebel against God, Rome’s approach to the world was inspired by nothing more other than to simply increase its size and might as is evidenced by the way in which they defined themselves as dedicated disciples of Mars, the god of war (see sidebar to the right).

And while those who were consigned to a lifetime of menial labor within the Hebrew community were treated with kindness and respect, those that had to answer to their Roman masters were nothing more than pieces of property who had fewer rights than freed criminals.

This was not an institution endorsed or invented by God. Whereas slavery in the Old Testament was either a way of paying off a financial debt – be it a loan or something you stole – or offered to a condemned people as an option to being a casualty of a just war, here it’s just a terrible manifestation of greed and a will to dominate those around you.

     A) Man is Made in the Image of God

In addition to Scripture’s condemnation of kidnapping, which deals a lethal and final blow to the slave trade right out of the chute, there’s also the fact that because man is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27) you can’t rightfully strip a person of their humanity to the degree where they’re nothing more than an appliance. Genesis 9:6 demonstrates that because man is made in the image of God that murder is considered an assault on the Person of God as well as an attack on the individual:

Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind. (Gen 9:6 [see also Jas 3:9])

In a similar way, to reduce a person to nothing more than an intelligent beast is to ignore the Divine Dignity that characterizes every human being that has ever walked this earth. You see this expressed in Job 31:13-15:

“If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me 14 what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account? 15 Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers? (Job 31:13-15)

Yet, this is what the Roman brand of slavery was: A demeaning subjugation of another human being that, not only consigned them to a lifetime of hard labor, but also stripped them of the most basic human rights. God’s condemnation of such an institution was expressed in the Old Testament, as has already been mentioned (Lev 19:34). But God’s grace takes it a step further by erasing all of the cultural boundaries that would otherwise elevate one person over another.

     B) There is No Slave or Free…

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Col 3:11)

It’s that Truth in particular that Paul emphasizes in his letter to Philemon. Onesimus was a runaway slave that had, at one point, belonged to Philemon. Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and then ran away to Rome – a crime punishable by death. But after hearing the preaching of Paul, he became a believer and worked alongside Paul for a season before deciding he needed to make things right with his former master.

While Onesimus would’ve been safe under Old Testament law (Dt 23:15-16) in that, while he would’ve been held responsible for what he stole, he would not have been handed over to his original master, his future was far more bleak under Roman law. But in the context of the gospel, Philemon and Onesimus are in a place where they can view each other as equals in that they’re both sinners saved by grace. This is what Paul is referring to when he says…

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon 1:12-16)

So, while in the Old Testament where a slave who had taken refuge with another person was not to be handed back over to their original master, Paul points to the New Covenant that is even more liberating by admonishing Philemon to welcome back Onesimus as a…


     C) Making a Difference

As has already been mentioned, Roman law forbade the harboring of fugitives and runaways were often punished with great severity. Freedom was a possibility but, for all intents and purposes, was highly unlikely. You were doomed to watch others bask in the light of comfort and liberty while you were forever destined to be at their beck and call to do whatever work needed to be done. It was a crushing reality in some cases, in others it was just a cultural and legal weight that had to be borne with no complaint and to aspire to the status of a free man was to reach for something that was virtually impossible.

Given that kind of culture, imagine the response of a master whose slave is suddenly enthusiastic about doing the work they’re assigned to do. Ponder what must’ve been going in the mind of a Roman whose slave bordered on belligerent just yesterday and is now respectful and even pleasant.

This is what the New Testament encouraged among those who were slaves. While both the Old and New Testament provide a voluminous and substantial body of Divine Concepts for the abolitionist, the New Testament don’t merely condemn slavery as much as it eliminates any social construct that could justify the elevation of one person over another by establishing all people being equal in the sight of God . You see this in the book of Colossians

To slaves he says:

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism. (Col 3:22-25)

And to their masters, he says:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. Col 4:1)

In order for this change to occur, it would require a Divine change of heart which is precisely what the gospel facilitates:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here… 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:17; 21 [see also Jn 1:3])

It’s in the context of being a “new creation” and becoming the “righteousness of God” that, not only would the relationship between slave and master be dramatically changed, it would also promote the Power and the Reality of the gospel itself. And as the gospel spread, so did the tools and the Truth that would one day be used to eliminate slavery entirely.

III) Conclusion

Critics of Scripture have a series of talking points that can be hard to refute if you engage them according to the way in which they formulate their convictions. They’re not looking at a full color portrait, they’re looking at a black and white thumbnail that resonates as compelling only if certain elements are accepted as both comprehensive and assumed givens. If you structure your rebuttal according to a series of questions whose answers reveal those elements as flawed, they’re forced to concede the fact that their argument is lacking. On the other hand, if you target only those things they cite as relevant, you never get beyond the thumbnail and, not only does your platform look anemic, more importantly the full color portrait get overlooked and the Truth gets ignored once again.

That said…

Does the Bible advocate kidnapping as an acceptable practice?

No. It doesn’t. It was a capital offense which means that the Slave Trade as it existed in the United State during the 18th and 19th centuries is contrary to God’s Word. 

What did the nation of Israel provide as an alternative to penitentiaries? How did an Israelite go about filing for bankruptcy?

You didn’t file for bankruptcy, rather you worked off the dollar amount of whatever you owed. And if you were guilty of having stolen something, you were not incarcerated, instead you provided restitution by working off the value of whatever it is that you stole. These were the dynamics that characterized two of the three types of slavery referenced in the Old Testament.

Did the Israelites offer their enemies the opportunity to live among them as respected servants as an alternative to war?

Yes. To raise your hand against the Israelites was to take your idolatry a step further in that now you were not only ignoring Him, you were actively seeking to destroy His Work and His People. This placed you in a category of wrongdoing so heinous that justice in the form of the death penalty was an absolutely certainty. On the other hand, to live among the Israelites as dignified servants allowed you a second chance and in that way receive grace that, apart from God’s intervention, was neither deserved nor desired.

Was the slavery that existed in the Roman Empire during the time of Christ similar to the slavery referenced in the Old Testament?

No. Slavery was a consequence of war in the Roman world. In the Old Testament, it was either an alternative to war or an institution used to make restitution for a crime or make good on a debt. And where slavery in the Roman empire involuntarily reduced you to a subhuman status with no rights and no prospects, in the Old Testament it was an option and one that was chosen in the context of respect and dignity.

How can Scripture be said to promote slavery when it was the Bible that the Abolitionist used as a philosophical foundation upon which to base their argument that slavery was wrong?

When Abraham Lincoln took the stage in his debates with Stephen Douglas, it was his articulate condemnation of slavery that earned him the Republican party’s nomination for President. On September 16, 1859, in Columbus, Ohio, he gave a speech. In it, you can see a sample of the rhetoric that earned him a spot in the national spotlight.

Stephen Douglas believed slavery to be something that could be engaged on the premise that negroes were subordinate to the white race and were not to be thought of as equals in any way. And he believed that the slavery question should be determined by individual states – an approach referred to as “popular sovereignty.”

Lincoln identifies the fallacy of that argument by referring to a comment made by Thomas Jefferson almost a century beforehand that references the inevitably justice of God and how it will be visited upon the United States because of the way certain elements approved of and even insisted upon the enslavement of the black race.

Judge Douglas ought to remember when he is endeavoring to force this policy upon the American people that while he is put up in that way a good many are not. He ought to remember that there was once in this country a man by the name of Thomas Jefferson, supposed to be a Democrat — a man whose principles and policy are not very prevalent amongst Democrats to-day, it is true; but that man did not take exactly this view of the insignificance of the element of slavery which our friend Judge Douglas does. In contemplation of this thing, we all know he was led to exclaim, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just!” We know how he looked upon it when he thus expressed himself. There was danger to this country — danger of the avenging justice of God in that little unimportant popular sovereignty question of Judge Douglas. He supposed there was a question of God’s eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah — that when a nation thus dared the Almighty every friend of that nation had cause to dread His wrath. Choose ye between Jefferson and Douglas as to what is the true view of this element among us.

Bottom line: Those who insist that the Bible condones slavery rely on a distortion of Scripture and not an expression of it. Remember, it was the Christian creed that inspired the spiritual songs4 of freedom sung by the slaves and it was that same doctrine that the abolitionists based their arguments upon5. To even suggest that the Bible supports slavery requires a limited intake of Scripture, a biased perspective on history and a resolve to base one’s convictions on an intentionally streamlined collection of facts rather than a comprehensive analysis of the truth.

1. “NIV Study Bible”, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1985, p28-29

2. “Slavery in the Roman World,” Mark Cartwright, “Ancient History Encyclopedia”, https://www.ancient.eu/article/629/slavery-in-the-roman-world/, accessed November 1, 2019

3. “Military of Ancient Rome”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_of_ancient_Rome, accessed November 1, 2019

4. African American Spirituals Lyrics, https://africanamericanspirituals.com/African-American-Spirituals-Lyrics.htm, accessed January 21, 2020

5. “Christian Abolitionism”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Abolitionism, accessed January 22, 2020

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