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What About Slavery In The Bible?


At some point or another, you’ve probably heard critics of the Bible bring up the issue of slavery in either the Old Testament and the writings of Paul. The argument is that the Bible’s discussion of slaves ‘proves’ it is a flawed book and endorses horrible injustice. The critics not only use this argument to mock the Bible, but to suggest that it is an evil danger to modern decency.


What is our response to this criticism? What does the Bible actually teach about this issue? Is God’s Word out of touch, or have we missed something?

What follows is a defense of what the Bible actually teaches about ‘slavery’ and how, as always, the Bible has long been the foremost defender of human rights, justice and compassion.


If you have a job that seems menial, or sounds boring to people, perhaps you should consider giving it a more creative title.

You’ve all heard the title, Domestic Engineer, applied to a housewife (or a house husband).

Likewise, you’re not a Garbage Man; you’re a Sanitation Engineer.

See if you can spot the jobs behind these titles:

Director of First Impressions – That’s a Receptionist.

Vision Clearance Engineer – That’s a Window Washer.

Media Distribution Agent – That’s a Newspaper boy or girl.

Reprographics Expert – That’s someone who makes copies.

There’s a word in the Bible with so much negative connotation that the translators try to avoid using it as much as possible. They use acceptable variants that to our ears make it sound less severe.

According to one commentator, the Hebrew word we’re talking about appears 800 times as a noun, and nearly 300 times as a verb. It is the word for “slave.”

It appears eleven hundred times in the Old Testament; but if you do a search for it in the New King James Version, you’ll find that it’s translated “slave” only about fifteen times.

Instead of “slave” the translators opt for “servant” or “bondservant.”

It’s done for good reason. They want to differentiate biblical slavery from what we normally associate with slavery. We can’t help but think of the abominable American institution of slavery – the bondage and oppression experienced by Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries on our soil.

Slavery in the Bible was nothing like what we are familiar with. Nothing.

It wasn’t a horrifying institution by which men owned other men and women as property. But it wasn’t exactly Club Med, either.

One way to keep ourselves focused on what the Bible teaches versus the biases we bring is to draw out the fact that underlying everything in these verses is the sanctity of all human life.

Slaves and free men alike were understood to be made in the image of God. All life was to be respected. Disrespect for it brought the severest of punishment.

Sanctity of life seems to be at an all-time low.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, by age 18, a US youth will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence.

Those numbers double if they watch one episode of The Walking Dead. (Just kidding).

Without being drawn into the debate about whether or not media violence is to blame for what is happening among our youth, we can say this: Without saying where it leads a viewer, a case can be made for the devaluing of human life in our media.

Then there is the absolute horror of abortion on demand. Between 1970 and 2014, the CDC reports nearly 44.5 million legal induced abortions in the US.

As of March 2018, human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Luxembourg, Canada and India. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC and California. An assisted dying scheme in the Australian state of Victoria will come into effect in mid-2019.

What exactly do we mean by the sanctity of life? It can have more than one definition, but this is a good one:

The phrase “sanctity of life” reflects the belief that, because people are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), human life has an inherently sacred attribute that should be protected and respected at all times.

God gives directions on how the Hebrews were to maintain slaves. Those directions are built upon the bedrock of the sanctity of all human life. We might summarize them by saying, “You can’t treat a slave as a slave.” God demand slaves be treated as full, 100% human beings, with respect.

Israel had no prisons; no penal system. Instead they had a type of slavery that promoted restoration and restitution.

Exo 21:1 “Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them:

God had previously spoken aloud to Israel the Ten Commandments. The “judgments” given in the next few chapters are guidelines given to judges in order that they might apply the Ten Commandments to particular cases that will arise among Israelites.

These first verses, one through eleven, are the Ten Commandments applied to slaves.


Before we look at them, let’s talk about how you could become a slave. According to one source, there were four basic ways a Hebrew might become a slave to another Hebrew:

In extreme poverty, they might sell their liberty (Leviticus 25:39).
A distressed father might sell his children into servitude (Exodus 21:7).
In the case of bankruptcy, a man might become servant to his creditors (Second Kings 4:1).
If a thief had nothing with which to pay proper restitution, he served as a slave (Exodus 22:3-4).

The instructions that follow are “judgments” that apply the Ten Commandments to slavery. There certainly were other cases not listed in the Bible that required the judges to apply precedent.

This isn’t comprehensive of all cases, but it is typical of all cases.

Exo 21:2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing.

Whoa! Right away you understand that Hebrew slavery was entirely different than anything we might be familiar with.

The maximum tenure of a slave was six years. Then, freedom; and more than freedom.

According to Deuteronomy 15:13-14:

Deu 15:13 And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed;
Deu 15:14 you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the LORD has blessed you with, you shall give to him.

Commentators can’t agree on whether “in the seventh” means in the Sabbatical year; or at the end of any six-year period.

In biblical times, the Hebrews were supposed to let their land rest every seventh year – as a Sabbath. It was for failing to do this for 490 years that the Jews were required to remain captive in Babylon for 70 years during the time of Daniel.

I’m thinking slavery lasted a maximum of six years regardless of the Sabbatical year. After six consecutive years a slave was emancipated without having to be bought, or to buy himself or herself, out of slavery. He was gifted to help re-establish him.

Exo 21:3 If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.

This tells us that even though a slave, the man was able to maintain a home life with his wife and children. There was respect for marriage, and for family.

Exo 21:4 If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.

You’re serving your six years and a woman in the household catches your eye. You fall in love, get married, and have kids.

At the end of your six years, your wife and kids belong to the master of the house. Unfair, you say? Then don’t get married while you’re a slave. It wasn’t a trick; everyone knew the rules.

Exo 21:5 But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’

Freedom of choice. That’s not typical of slavery as we know it.

There wasn’t pressure from the master of the house – no coercion or threatening. No, the slave preferred to stay and serve in this household. It was based on “love.”

Exo 21:6 then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.

The slave must declare in a public, legal ceremony, that he was making this decision himself. He took this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

He was then ‘earmarked’ as a lifelong slave.

Exo 21:7 “And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

It’s hard to pin everything down exactly, but it seems that a daughter might be sold to be a housekeeper or do other work.

There was nothing perverse about this. This wasn’t sex trafficking.

That doesn’t mean it was easy. But remember the father had fallen on hard times and needed help.

We have a foster care system, do we not? It isn’t the ideal, but it can be very helpful.

We encourage adoptions, do we not? It isn’t the ideal, but it can preserve the sanctity of life.

Exo 21:8 If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her.

I wish all this was more clear; it isn’t. What we can say is that a “betrothal” took place. The master of the house intended to marry her. Then he decided not to. In that case, “he has dealt deceitfully with her.” She had rights – and he had wronged her. She could not be sold as property, but must be cared for.

Exo 21:9 And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.
Exo 21:10 If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights.
Exo 21:11 And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.

In the case of a female slave, she could not go out free in the seventh year if her master had taken her as a wife or concubine and was willing to fulfill his responsibilities to her. If he was not willing, she had to be redeemed, but could not be sold to Gentiles.

If he wanted her as a wife for his son, then he had to treat her as he would any daughter-in-law.

If the master took another wife, he was still responsible to provide for the slave girl and to give her full marriage rights.


Multiple wives and concubines rightfully bother us. Tribal societies create certain unusual circumstances that push the envelope. For example, in Israel, the family name must continue. No tribe could go extinct. It made for unusual provisions – like the one that said a brother must produce children for a deceased brother by having sex with his sister-in-law.

Should we follow these judgments and restore biblical slavery? No.

These judgments were the application of the Ten Commandments in the foundational, tribal society of Israel.

We should make application of the Ten Commandments to our western, non-tribal society.

The true wonder of these verses is the preservation of the sanctity of life.

We can look at our laws and ask ourselves, “Are we maintaining the sanctity of all human life?”

Skip down to Exodus 21:16 where we see another huge difference between Biblical slavery and historical American slavery.

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

Kidnapping to sell. That sounds like the kind of slavery we’re more familiar with. God said folks involved in that kind of slave trade deserved the death penalty.


In the end, it’s clear that the Bible makes no mistake concerning slavery. God has never condoned the kind of horrible trafficking of humans that was so prevalent in human history. Instead, Biblical ‘slavery’ was a program by which individuals and families could work their way out of debt. It was a program that was rigidly restricted and which guaranteed incredible rights to those who participated in it.

God made no mistake. Rather, this section of the Law highlights His grace, compassion, justice and care for each and every man, woman and child, regardless of their socio-economic standing.

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