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God Is Not A Monster – Slavery

What do you think of when you think of slavery? If you are like most people, you probably have images of people being bought and sold, treated like property.
Read Time: 8 minutes

In our first article, we set some background necessary for understanding God’s morality. The first key concept was that God’s methods are far above our own and that He often acts in mysterious and wonderful ways. That is, God rarely acts as we think He should. Secondly, you cannot judge God or Jesus by the actions of their professed followers. Finally, the Law of Moses was always meant to be temporary and provisional.

In this second article, we will take a closer look at the topic of slavery.

What do you think of when you think of slavery? If you are like most people, you probably have images of people being bought and sold, treated like property. People are being mistreated, with lots of abuse. You may think of slaves being desperate to escape! It is usually a horrific situation.

God rarely acts as we think He should.

The Bible does address this kind of slavery in both the Old and New Testaments, but it never condones it or encourages it. In fact, the kind of slavery allowed or tolerated in the Bible is quite different from this and was actually a merciful provision.

The stereotypical view of slavery today is more in line with what occurred in ancient Near Eastern culture and has been well-documented historically and archeologically. In the culture that surrounded God’s people Israel four thousand years ago, the treatment of slaves was brutal and demeaning.

Human trafficking and profiteering were a part of society. Slaves were completely at the mercy of their masters, with no rights at all. Runaway slaves were returned to their masters and often killed.

The Old Testament laws improved significantly on this ancient Near Eastern culture, and good treatment of slaves was encouraged by various rules. For example, Exodus 21:2 says, 

If you buy a Hebrew servant [many translations say “slave” here], he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.1

Later in that same chapter, it allows slaves to choose to stay permanently with their master because they love them! Obviously, this would only happen if a slave had been treated well.

good treatment of slaves was encouraged by various rules

Also, human trafficking is strictly forbidden by the Law of Moses, and was punishable by death. Exodus 21:16 says,

“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” (NKJV)

Slaves also had rights and were to be released if abused or mistreated. In Exodus 21:26 we are told,

“An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.”

In contrast to many ancient cultures, under God’s Law, runaway slaves from other nations were to be given refuge in Israel, not handed back to their masters. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says,

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.

Considering these passages and others, it should be noted that in the Old Testament, the type of slavery that was permitted is more like indentured servitude (that is, working to pay off a debt), not what we think of normally as slavery.

You would understand the idiom when a friend says their job feels like slavery! Many of us are slaves to the grind, burdened by financial debt. Even the Bible speaks of this in Proverbs 22:7, “The borrower is the slave of the lender.”

Perhaps it would help to think of apprenticeships, school debt, and contractual obligations to find a modern-day comparison of what the Bible means by slavery or servitude permitted under God’s Law. Even in modern sports, we have owners of teams, and their players traded or sold, and no one gets upset because we understand the context.

This is more like what God’s Word provides for. It is not the oppressive slavery that took place in the United States in the 19th Century. That kind of slavery was a cruel invention of men, not God!

In Old Testament times, there was no social security network like many modern nations have today. So, Israelites sometimes had to sell themselves to get through difficult financial times. The loss of a job, a failed crop, or just plain bad luck could be devastating for someone.

Jobs were not readily available since there was no complex industry, so most people just worked for themselves by farming or trade. It could be easy to fall into poverty. God’s law allowed the provision of servitude for these desperate circumstances. Contrary to the critics of the Bible, this type of servitude was not that much different experientially from paid employment in a modern cash economy like ours today.

Leviticus 25:39-40 states,

If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee.

God’s Law could be seen as a merciful provision for people or families who found themselves in difficult times. They may have had to mortgage their land, but the Law required it to be returned in the year of Jubilee, so family inheritances could not be permanently lost due to a sudden and temporary setback.

Beyond that, they may have to sell themselves or their children to sustain the family through economically challenging times or pay off a debt. If not redeemed by a family member (another merciful provision of the Law), they would have to serve until released after six years, the maximum time allowed under the Law. Servanthood was voluntary and a far cry from the abusive and despicable behavior of slave traders and plantation owners.

Later in Israel’s history, when the inhabitants of Judah took back Hebrew servants who had previously been released, God condemned them for violating His Law. He reminded them that they had been slaves in Egypt, and they, too, had been delivered. This experience should have made them more sympathetic to the plight of their fellow brethren. (Jer 34:12-22).

With this understanding of what is meant by slavery, as permitted by the Law, we see that it is more like indentured servitude. Let’s look at a typical passage that may appear to challenge this view.

And if a man smites his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continues a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money. (Exod 21:20-21 KJV).

At face value, this may seem brutal and unacceptable. But if we dig a little deeper, and think about what we have already learned about slavery in Israel, this passage fits the pattern. Firstly, note that the rod was used for discipline, so the context is punishment for misbehavior, not abuse for pleasure at the whim of the master.

Also, if the punishment went too far and the servant died, the master was to be punished. The Hebrew word here (naqam) signifies revenge or vengeance and in Israel that meant capital punishment. As it says in verse 23, a life had to be given for a life taken. Murder was murder under God’s Law. 

However, if the servant did not die immediately, then it was to be assumed there was no murderous intent. The master only then had to suffer the loss of money. This may sound callous, but it was a reminder that good treatment of slaves would ensure the full repayment of the debt. In this case, if the slave died (or was injured severely and had to be set free), the master would have to endure loss. The debt would never actually be repaid.

Are these laws perfect and ideal, meant to inform us on how we should behave today? No. But in its time, it was progressive and humane. As one scholar wrote about these Biblical laws, “The protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near East legislation.”2

There are other passages that are difficult to read with our 21st century lenses. However, we are reminded not to focus on a single text but to see it in the context of all of Scripture. Any deviations from the ideal moral standards set at creation are the result of human fallenness, and God’s laws are trying to regulate and control the hard-heartedness of men, not idealize or condone it!

What about the New Testament? What does it have to say about slavery? 

Israel in Moses’ day was surrounded by societies wholly given over to the thinking of the flesh, where abuse, selfishness, and covetousness were rampant. Likewise, the Christians of the first century were engulfed in Roman society which was steeped in pagan idolatry and every kind of human vice. Regarding slavery, it is estimated that as much as 30% of the Roman population were slaves in the days of the Apostles! How were the disciples of Christ to handle the inevitable mixing of masters and slaves in the Ecclesia?3

Jesus opposed every form of abuse and oppression

You have probably heard someone say something like, “Why did Jesus never speak up against the abuses of slavery?” This is simply not true. Jesus opposed every form of abuse and oppression! In fact, he explicitly said that his mission was “to preach deliverance to the captives,” and to “set at liberty them that are bruised.” (Luke 4:18 KJV).

Paul was divinely inspired to write that the status of slave or free was irrelevant in Christ (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11), and rules were given on how both slaves and masters were to behave. (See Eph 6 and Col 4). Masters were reminded that they are Christ’s slaves, while slaves were encouraged to see themselves as Christ’s freemen! (1 Cor 7:22). It was these revolutionary Christian affirmations that helped to tear apart the fabric of institutionalized slavery.

Before accusing the New Testament of not condemning slavery outright and commanding masters to release their slaves, it is important to note that Scripture is clear on the following points: 

Slave trading is a sin (1 Tim 1:10 NIV); 
Slaves are to be afforded full human dignity and equal spiritual status (1 Cor 12:13) and
Slaves were encouraged to gain their freedom if the opportunity arose (1 Cor 7:21).

The case of Onesimus is interesting. He was a runaway slave who became a baptized believer after meeting Paul in Rome. What was Paul to do? He encouraged reconciliation and saw the spiritual relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was more important than their human relationship as master and slave.

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him…For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?…receive him as myself. (Phlm 1:10-17).

In summary, we can see that the so-called slavery laws of the Old Testament were there to control and regulate a fallen human problem—not idealize it or condone it!

The New Testament writers do not try to abolish slavery, but rather make it ultimately irrelevant! In fact, all the structures of human fallenness are abolished in Christ, so we can all sit as equals at His table and share a meal together in fellowship.

In our next article we hope to look at the topic of God and women.

Chris Sales,
Collingwood Ecclesia, ON

1 All Scriptural citations taken from the New International Version, unless specifically noted.

2 Nahum M. Sarna, Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), page 124.

3 Cartwright, Mark, World History Encyclopedia, November 2013, www.worldhistory.org

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