It is difficult to think of the Western World as Christian any longer. Our societies are secular, with a significant atheist component becoming more assertive as “Christians” become more timid. Increasingly we face attacks upon the veracity and even the morality of Scripture. One topic aggressively raised is the matter of the Bible’s so-called acceptance of slavery. How a loving God could support such an appalling practice, is the challenge. So let us briefly consider what the Bible says on this matter.

Definitions

Our common Western understanding of slavery derives from American history, when Africans were sold into slavery by their fellow Africans or Arabians to work on the plantations of the American South. This was true chattel slavery, where the slave was part of the property of his or her owner, serving against their will, able to be sold or bequeathed to others and to be treated well or poorly at their master’s whim, hunted down if they escaped and with no “human rights” as we understand them.

Israel had been slaves in Egypt, constantly enjoined by God to remember that former terrible condition: “Then thou shalt say unto thy son, We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut 6:21; 7:8; 15:15; 16:12 etc).

Though slavery in both Old and New Testament times was common, and often referred to in scripture, the Old Testament strictures of the Law in relation to bondmen in Israel scarcely meet our definition of cruel chattel-slavery. As we shall see, the Law set out to regulate different levels or circumstances of servitude in a humane manner, far removed from how chattel-slaves were generally treated by the surrounding nations in those harsh times.

The Law of Moses and slavery

We might firstly note that the common practice down through history of taking someone by force and selling him or her into slavery was regarded under the Law as so serious an offence that the punishment for it was death: “Whoever kidnaps someone and sells him, or is caught still holding him, must surely be put to death” (Exod 21:16 NET Bible). This, of course was precisely what Joseph’s brothers had done to him!

The regulations under the Law, set out in Exodus 21 for a Hebrew “servant,” are designed to provide for persons in financial distress in a world where “Social security” was unheard of. Yes verse 2 uses that expression “buy an Hebrew servant” from which we instinctively recoil. But this really was a benevolent provision of the Law whereby someone who was destitute might place themselves in the household of a wealthier brother who would certainly put him to work, but provide all the necessities of life for him. The goal was a restoration of the circumstances of the poor Israelite so that he could, in the end, fend for himself. What poor chained up African slave rotting in the slave pens of the ‘Deep South’ of America could hope for this happy outcome: “six years he shall serve, and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing” (Exod 21:2). Note the emphatic repetition. “He shall go out”. How shall he go out? “Free.” Really? Yes – “for nothing.” Some little reflection on these circumstances will find spiritual lessons aplenty, but we will leave readers to think this aspect through for themselves.

The manner of treatment required by God of the master of an impoverished Israelite is outlined in Leviticus 25:39–43: “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 … thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God”. In such circumstances where a faithful brother in poor circumstances dwelt and served in the house of a wealthier faithful brother, we might imagine that a great feeling of mutual regard and affection would naturally develop. Where that occurred, the Law provided that the servant in such a case could voluntarily join himself in loving service, to that household for life (Exod 21:5–6). More spiritual lessons relating to this provision can be found in Psalm 40:6–8 and Hebrews 10:5–9.

The record of Exodus 21:7–11 outlined the circumstances where a father in Israel might “sell his daughter to be a maidservant”. Again we must be careful not to superimpose in retrospect the circumstances of 21st century western society onto the very different world of ancient Israel. This was not a barbaric transaction by a heartless grasping father, but an earnest effort by a loving father in penurious circumstances to provide a better life for his daughter than he could provide himself. The objective was that the daughter be placed in a prosperous home, to become the cared for wife of the master or his son. Yahweh through his Law placed stringent provisions on the household into which this “maidservant-wife” would enter. Note particularly Exod 21:10–11: “If he takes another wife, he must not diminish the first one’s food, her clothing or her marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, then she will go out free, without paying money” (NET Bible). Here is divinely legislated protection for the vulnerable person, and specific injunction against abuse of a position of power. Christ’s comment in another context is apposite: “But who so shall of end one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6).

There was a spirit that God was seeking to engender in His people by these provisions. All had as their goal the placing of vulnerable people in real need, into positions where they could be nurtured in a brotherly way by stronger, more prosperous brothers in Israel, who recognised that all they had was a blessing from God. See the principle plainly stated: “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates … But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee thence …” in Deuteronomy 24:14, 18. That is putting the matter in a negative way. Deuteronomy 10:18–19 puts it positively: “He (Yahweh) doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” So bond-service in Israel for fellow Israelites, can be clearly seen to be quite outside the circumstances of chattel-slavery.

Israelites and their foreign slaves

There were circumstances where someone of another nation could become a bondman for life to an Israelite; the laws of release did not apply to non- Israelites (Lev 25:45–46). The alternative in those brutal times of regular conflict was likely that the person would have been put to death in battle. They had their life, and Israel was enjoined to treat them well: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:33–34 NET Bible). Moreover, such could participate in the worship life of the nation by voluntary circumcision. Thus they could partake of the Passover (Exod 12:44), as well as the Feasts of Weeks and Tabernacles (Deut 16:11, 14). The Sabbath rest day provided for Israel, was theirs to enjoy as well (Exod 20:10; 23:12).

Here again we see the Law of Moses making provisions which, though accepting the customs of the day (which clearly no longer apply), regulated the behaviour of Israelite masters towards any foreign slaves by requiring that they treated them with kindness, even with love, giving them their weekly Sabbath “day off”, and positively encouraged masters to include their slaves in their family worship. Again, totally outside the arrangements for chattel-slaves of the US model of two hundred years ago. When we consider the often vile behaviour of the nations around Israel, offering their own children up as sacrifices etc. a life of shelter, food, time off in a benevolent environment, with the opportunity to engage in worship and possible conversion to the hope of Israel, was for them far preferable than death by starvation or war. It was surely not ideal, but divine regulation provided circumstances in Israel, under the Law, far above the norms of those times.

Slavery in the New Testament

Israel in New Testament times had lost their sovereignty to Rome, the Empire was then unchallenged. Slavery was common throughout the Roman realm, often harsh and overbearing, though outstanding individuals did exist who provided an example of a better way. The outstanding centurion of Luke 7:1–10 was one such, who not only loved the nation of Israel but had a servant, a slave “who was dear unto him” and who successfully sought the help of our Lord to heal his beloved servant from a sickness that threatened to take his life. But this situation was not common. The criticism made of the early Christian community was that they did not speak out against slavery and seek to change this generally evil institution. But this was not God’s purpose for that time.

To Christians in the first century, who unfortunately were living as slaves, the apostle Paul declared: “Were you called as a slave? Do not worry about it. But if indeed you are able to be free, make the most of the opportunity. For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman. In the same way, the one who was called as a free person is Christ’s slave” (1Cor 7:21–22 NET Bible). Indeed the apostle urges Christians who are slaves to be diligent and obedient to their masters: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in every respect, not only when they are watching – like those who are strictly people-pleasers – but with a sincere heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ” (Col 3:22–24 NET Bible).

Christ’s work was to call men and women to salvation: “thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” said Gabriel to a wondering Joseph (Matt 1:21). Jesus himself at the end of his ministry declared that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). His goal was personal not societal transformation, though that will happen in due time. He healed the sick out of compassion and as a way to highlight the gospel message, not because he wanted to right every wrong. So in Mark 1 after healing many, when the disciples came to him to advise that “All men seek for thee,” he declared, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth”(v 37, 38). His task was not to establish medical super clinics on every corner, which might provide respite for a moment; his goal was to save men and women for eternity.

So slavery as an institution of the first century was to the believers an unfortunate reality to be worked around, applying godly principles to be lived out by believers who might have been called either as masters or slaves, now all brothers and sisters in Christ, but making no attempt to change that system. They knew then, as we do now, that Christ will transform the world with all the evil that it bears in the day when he comes as king, bearing irresistible divine power. That “day of earth’s redemption” will see every slave free when Christ will “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isa 61:1).

Slavery has been a consistent, evil concomitant of man’s existence for thousands of years and still exists today. Divine principles outlined in the Law of Moses ameliorated its conditions when Israel was a nation, and the Gospel message provided hope to endure for those in New Testament times and beyond. The fact is, we were all slaves, in bondage to king Sin. The Gospel message of salvation in Christ, believed and followed, has set us free. Now we are exhorted to “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal 5:1).