Whenever someone mentions slavery in the Bible, the image that comes to mind for most is American 19th century slavery. This is an inaccurate picture of the type of “slavery” that was allowed in the Bible. In fact the 19th century chattel type of slavery was not only condemned in the Bible, the penalty for engaging in such slavery was a capital offense.
Types of Slavery in the Bible
The word slave in the Bible is often synonymous with servant. For example, throughout the New Testament, followers of Christ are often referred to as bondservants and slaves (Romans 6:18, 1 Cor 7:22, etc). This type of slave was looked upon with great honor in the Bible.
The most common type of slavery in the Bible was a form of indentured servitude. Several things could lead to this type of “slavery”. For example, a person may sell themselves as a temporary solution to their impoverished condition (Lev 25:47). Or, they may become a slave to pay off a legal or other monetary debt (Ex 22:3). Whatever the case the slave had many rights to protect them. These rights included being considered part of the family (Gen 17:12), humane treatment (Ex 21:26-27, Lev 25:43), and access to freedom (Deut 23:15-16). The servitude was also temporary (ending after 6 years of service, Ex 21:2, or in the year of Jubilee, Lev 25:8-10). In addition, when the slave completed his contract and was to be set free, the owner was required to give him additional money and supplies (Deut 15:13-14). The slave also had the option to chose to become a permanent slave and remain as essentially a member of the family (Exodus 21:5-6).
Foreign indentured servants were protected under the same rights as a Hebrew servant, except they were not protected by the automatic releases covered by the 6 year contract or year of Jubilee. They had to serve until the debt was paid (‘olam’ in Leviticus 25:46 properly translated is ‘perpetually’). They still had the right to access freedom at any time (Deut 23:15-16).
Daughters were sometimes “sold” into matrimony as a means to improve their standing and economic well-being. If the marriage did not consemate, then the groom had responsibilities beyond the normal requirements for servitude (see Exodus 21:8-11).
Conquered nations were offered the option of servitude to Israel if they agreed to terms of peace (Deut 20:10-11). This type of “servitude” did not involve mass selling into slavery, instead it was a global condition on the entire community to be subservient to Israel. Israel’s responsibilities included protecting the subservient (suzerain) nation from enemies.
This type of servitude is the ownership of an unwilling servant, and was not permitted in the Bible (e.g. Deut 23:15-16). This is a kind of slavery that has been abused by man throughout history, including 19th century America. If a slave was taken against his will, that is, kidnapped (as was often the case in 19th century America) the Biblical penalty for such a deed is the death penalty (Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7). It was Christians who had a clear understanding of slavery in the Bible that precipitated the emancipation of slaves in both England1 and the United States2.
I cover the topic of slavery in a couple short videos on YouTube. The first video includes a very revealing clip from Barack Obama. These part 1 & 2 videos are taken from my Evidences of the Bible video. I have also posted my PowerPoint presentation of this talk for you to use free of charge.
Below is a brief debate on this topic that took place on my Facebook page in March 2012 (link).
Tim Lewis “In assessing the moral wisdom of the Bible, it is useful to consider moral questions that have been solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Consider the question of slavery. The entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an abomination. What moral instruction do we get from the God of Abraham on this subject? Consult the Bible, and you will discover that the creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families 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 brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.
The only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21).
It should go without saying that is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States.
There is no place in the New Testament where Jesus objects to the practice of slavery. St. Paul even admonishes slaves to serve their masters well—and to serve their Christian masters especially well:
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ….
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions…
—1 TIMOTHY 6:1-4
It should be clear from these passages that, while the abolitionists of the nineteenth century were morally right, they were on the losing side of a theological argument. As the Reverend Richard Fuller put it in 1845, “What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin.”
The good Reverend was on firm ground here. Nothing in Christian theology remedies the appalling deficiencies of the Bible on what is perhaps the greatest—and the easiest—moral question our society has ever had to face.”
Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris
For starters, let’s look at your source, Sam Harris, the atheist who thinks Jesus never existed. Even the most liberal of credentialed historians do not reject His historicity, to do so is considered quackery in the field. There is far more evidence for His historicity than of Julius Caesar and William Shakespeare. Sam Harris is hardly a credible source on matters of the Bible. Strike 1.
Regarding slaves, any basic research will show that the word has different meaning today than it did in Biblical times. For example, from ‘A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law’, vol 1 pg 40 : “Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” ”
There are many examples that follow this pattern in the Bible, such as Abraham and the patriarchs after him called “slaves” of God. Abraham’s right-hand man was called his “slave”. Royal officials were called “slaves” to the king. Ruth calls herself a slave to her beloved Boaz. If we were to use this meaning today, then you are a “slave” to your boss. Obama’s cabinet members would be called slaves to Obama. You are a slave to me since I’m owning you in this debate! 🙂
Moreover, numerous accounts from various scholars on Near East history reveal that “slavery” was often self-chosen to pay a debt or get out of famine. Fathers sometimes sold their children in to “slavery” to assure their future (eg. see “Life in the Ancient Near East, 3100-332 BCE, Daniel C. Snell, Yale:1997”). This is a POSITIVE thing, not the negative the misinformed atheists attempt to make it out to be by mischaracterizing it as 19th century style slavery. Strike 2.
Regarding the comment that the Bible condemned gauging the eyes or breaking the teeth of “slaves”, thank you for pointing out this humanitarian treatment, especially given that the surrounding cultures actively engaged in eye gouging, teeth breaking, branding, ear cutting, etc. Regarding the NT references, you fail to make the distinction already shown above to “servitude” as opposed to the oppressive slavery such as that of the Romans or 19th century America. You failed to note that Paul was extremely harsh toward slave traders (1 Tim 1:10), and encouraged people to avoid slavery, and if a slave to try to become free (1 Cor 7:21, 23). Finally, ever hear of William Wilberforce? I encourage you to look him up, it was his belief in Biblical principles that led him on his crusade to end slavery. Strike 3.
You’re out! Next batter?
Tim Lewis Regarding Fred’s post:
Paragraph 1: Ad Hominem fallacy. Even if your paragraph were otherwise accurate, it would have no bearing on the truth value of Sam’s assertions.
Paragraph 2: Yes, “slavery” has a variety of meanings. Context matters. Fortunately, Leviticus 25:44-46 is very clear on the meaning under discussion: ” and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever.” This is slavery of people (from outside the Israeli group) in the worst, “property forever” sense. Leviticus clearly and unambiguously endorses the form of slavery that all decent people know is wrong. With this endorsement, the bible is revealed as an unfit source for moral guidance.
Paragraph 3 (and Will’s comment): “In response, Christians like yourself often point out that the abolitionists also drew considerable inspiration from the Bible. Of course they did. People have been picking the Bible for millennia to justify their every impulse, moral and otherwise. This does not mean, however, that accepting the Bible to be the word of God is the best way to discover that abducting and enslaving millions of innocent men, women, and children is morally wrong. It clearly isn’t, given what the Bible actually says on the subject. The fact that some abolitionists used parts of scripture to repudiate other parts does not indicate that the Bible is a good guide to morality. Nor does it suggest that human beings should need to consult a book in order to resolve moral questions of this sort. The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment. It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany – and yet, it had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South, among the most pious Christians this country has ever known.” ibid
Fred Williams OK, next inning, same batter! 🙂
Regarding Lev 25:47, let me quote again from “A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law”, vol 1 pg 585: “Sales of wives, children, relatives, or oneself, due to financial duress, are a recurrent feature of the Nuzi socio-economic scene…A somewhat different case is that of male and female foreigners, called hapiru (immigrants) who gave themselves in slavery to private individuals or the palace administration. Poverty was the cause of these agreements”. The fact that the Jews also partook in such agreements is no surprise, which is likely the case with Lev 25:47, further supported by these facts: 1) if a combative nation actually surrendered to Israel, they would be servants (mas), not “slaves” (ebed, amah) (eg Deaut 20:10), 2) It was punishable by death to take a person as a “slave” against their wishes (Ex 21:16), 3) you conveniently ignored Deut 23:15: If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him. Does any of this sound like 19th century slavery to you? Need more? How about Lev 19:34 “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, further amplified by Prov 29:21 “He who pampers his slave from childhood Will in the end find him to be a son.”.
Most of your reply in paragraph 3 was a strawman, since everyone agrees the type of slavery that occurred in America was wrong, and as I have showed in both posts, was squarely against Biblical principles.
I do have a couple questions. You stated: “The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.” Does this same standard apply if you replace “slave” with “unborn baby”, and “own” with “kill”? Since you apparently are an atheist, how do you know you are right to claim that slavery is evil and abortion is not, since atheists do not believe in absolute right and wrong? For example, most atheists I’ve debated will admit that it is not absolutely wrong to rape and kill a woman, do you agree with them
Tim LewisI am often startled when I encounter the tortured reasoning apologists invoke to try to explain away the Bible’s barbarous morals.
> Regarding Lev 25:47, let me quote again from “A History of
> Ancient Near Eastern Law”, vol 1 pg 585: “Sales of wives,
> children, relatives, or oneself, due to financial duress, are a
> recurrent feature of the Nuzi socio-economic scene…A
> somewhat different case is that of male and female foreigners,
> called hapiru (immigrants) who gave themselves in slavery to
> private individuals or the palace administration. Poverty was
> the cause of these agreements”. The fact that the Jews also
> partook in such agreements is no surprise, which is likely the
> case with Lev 25:47,
Let’s assume that paragraph is true, for the sake of discussion. Then the slavery described in Lev 25:44-46 includes children sold into slavery by their father, and wives sold into slavery by their husband, with the claim that poverty was to blame. (“Bobby, I hate to sell you into slavery, but daddy’s sheep herding business is in bad shape, and we need the money to pay off the hay merchant, so I’m selling you to one of those Jews in the country next to ours.”) Do you endorse that behavior, Fred? How about the behavior of the slave buyer: “I know you’re broke and about to have your hut repossessed. I’ll give you 100 shekels for your daughter, and she’ll be my property forever, to be inherited by my sons when I die.” Is that behavior moral? Do you endorse it? If I engaged in that behavior in any civilized country I’d be put in prison, and rightly so. Yet that is EXACTLY the behavior endorsed by LEV 25:44-46.
What Leviticus 25:47 should have said was “Owning slaves is wrong. Selling slaves is wrong. Pay your employees decent compensation.”
> 1) if a combative nation actually surrendered to Israel, they
> would be servants (mas), not “slaves” (ebed, amah) (eg Deaut 20:10),
That’s less awful than Lev 25:44-46, but in no way mitigates the clear endorsement of slavery in Lev 25:44-46.
> 2) It was punishable by death to take a person as a “slave”
> against their wishes (Ex 21:16),
The text actually says “16 “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. ” So kidnapping gets you the death penalty. Yet, according to your explanation of Lev 25:44-46, the bible permits you to buy (or inherit) someone who was sold in to lifetime slavery by a parent or husband. That’s still wrong.
> 3) you conveniently ignored Deut 23:15: If a slave has taken
> refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him
> live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he
> chooses. Do not oppress him.
Certainly better than the Dred Scott decision. But, again, this verse fails to overturn the clear endorsement of slave owning laid out in Lev 25:44-46.
>Does any of this sound like 19th century slavery to you?
Yes. There may be differences in some details. But the central issue is that Leviticus endorses slavery — the owning of people as property.
> Need more? How about Lev 19:34 “The stranger who dwells
> among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you
> shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land
> of Egypt”,
This doesn’t address slaves.
> further amplified by Prov 29:21 “He who pampers his slave
> from childhood Will in the end find him to be a son.”.
What the verse should have said was “Owning, buying, and selling slaves (including children) is wrong. Pay your employees decent compensation.”
>….everyone agrees the type of slavery that occurred in America was wrong,
>and as I have showed in both posts, was squarely against
> Biblical principles.
Rubbish — you have not showed any such thing. On the contrary, the text of Lev 25:44-46 clearly and unambiguously endorses owning slaves for life, as property. That is the central moral issue we’re discussing, and the Bible is on the wrong side of the issue.
And let’s not forget the barbarity of the slavery the Bible endorses: ” 20 “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, 21 but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property. ” (Exodus 21:20-21). Once again, the Bible gives moral guidance that is despicable.
Fred Williams response:
>and as I have showed in both posts, was squarely against
> Biblical principles.
Tim: Rubbish — you have not showed any such thing.
No, you chose to ignore it, and pick and choose only want you want to hear. For example, you decided to completely overlook the fact that slaves in the 19th century were mostly kidnapped, something the Bible says is a capital offense. Yet you still say “there is no difference”. Here is a clip of Tim’s response to the truth provided him in this thread: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYZbB6yGBO4.