The issue of slavery usually conjures up thoughts of the harsh “race-based” slavery that was common by Europeans toward those of African descent in the latter few centuries. However, slavery has a much longer history and needs to be addressed biblically.1
Some “white”2 Christians have used the Bible to convince themselves that owning slaves is okay and that slaves should obey their “earthly masters.” Regrettably and shamefully, “white” Christians have frequently taken verses of Scripture out of context to justify the most despicable acts. In some cases, it could be argued that these people were not really Christians; they were not really born again but were adhering to a form of Christianity for traditional or national reasons. Nevertheless, we have to concede that there are genuine “white” Christians who have believed the vilest calumnies about the nature of “black” people and have sought support for their disgraceful views from the pages of the Bible.
But what does the Bible really teach?
Greek and Hebrew Words for “Slave”
The Hebrew and Greek words used for “slave” are also the same words used for “servant” and “bondservant,” as shown by the following table.
In essence, there are two kinds of slavery described in the Bible: a servant or bondservant who was paid a wage, and the enslavement of an individual without pay. Which types of “slavery” did the Bible condemn?
A Brief History of Slavery
It is important to note that neither slavery in New Testament times nor slavery under the Mosaic Covenant have anything to do with the sort of slavery where “black” people were bought and sold as property by “white” people in the well-known slave trade of the last few centuries. No “white” Christian should think that he or she could use any slightly positive comment about slavery in this chapter to justify the historic slave trade, which is still a major stain on the histories of both the United States and the UK.
The United States and the UK were not the only countries in history to delve into harsh slavery and so be stained.
- The Code of Hammurabi discussed slavery soon after 2242 BC (the date assigned by Archbishop Ussher to the Tower of Babel incident).
- Ham’s son Mizraim founded Egypt (still called Mizraim in Hebrew). Egypt was the first well-documented nation in the Bible to have harsh slavery, which was imposed on Joseph, the son of Israel, in 1728 BC (according to Archbishop Ussher). Later, the Egyptians were slave masters to the rest of the Israelites until Moses, by the hand of God, freed them.
- The Israelites were again enslaved by Assyrian and Babylonian captors about 1,000 years later.
- “Black” Moors enslaved “whites” during their conquering of Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century AD for over 400 years. The Moors even took slaves as far north as Scandinavia. The Moorish and Middle Eastern slave market was quite extensive.
- Norse raiders of Scandinavia enslaved other European peoples and took them back as property beginning in the eighth century AD.
- Even in modern times, slavery is still alive, such as in the Sudan and Darfur.
We find many other examples of harsh slavery from cultures throughout the world. At any rate, these few examples indicate that harsh slavery was/is a reality, and, in all cases, is an unacceptable act by biblical standards (as we will see).
The extreme kindness to be shown to slaves/servants commanded in the Bible among the Israelites was often prefaced by a reminder that they too were slaves at the hand of the Egyptians. In other words, they were to treat slaves/servants in a way that they wanted to be treated.
Slavery in the Bible
But was slavery in the Bible the same as harsh slavery? For example, slaves and masters are addressed in Paul’s epistles. The term “slave” in Ephesians 6:5 is better translated “bondservant.” The Bible in no way gives full support to the practice of bondservants, who were certainly not paid the first century equivalent of the minimum wage. Nevertheless, they were paid something (Colossians 4:1) and were therefore in a state more akin to a lifetime employment contract rather than “racial” slavery. Moreover, Paul gives clear instructions that Christian “masters” are to treat such people with respect and as equals. Their employment position did not affect their standing in the Church.
The God-given rights and rules for their protection showed that God cared for them as well.
Other passages in Leviticus show us the importance of treating “aliens” and foreigners well, and how, if they believe, they become part of the people of God (for example, Rahab and Ruth, to name but two). Also, the existence of slavery in Leviticus 25 underlines the importance of redemption, and enables the New Testament writers to point out that we are slaves to sin, but are redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Such slavery is a living allegory, and does not justify the race-based form of slavery practiced from about the 16th to 19th centuries.
As we already know, harsh slavery was common in the Middle East as far back as ancient Egypt. If God had simply ignored it, then there would have been no rules for the treatment of slaves/bondservants, and people could have treated them harshly with no rights. But the God-given rights and rules for their protection showed that God cared for them as well.
This is often misconstrued as an endorsement of harsh slavery, which it is not. God listed slave traders among the worst of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:10 (“kidnappers/men stealers/slave traders”). This is no new teaching, as Moses was not fond of forced slavery either:
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)
In fact, take note of the punishment of Egypt, when the Lord freed the Israelites (Exodus 3–15). God predicted this punishment well in advance:
Then He said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” (Genesis 15:13–14)
Had God not protected slaves/bondservants by such commands, then many people surrounding them who did have harsh slavery would have loved to move in where there were no governing principles as to the treatment of slaves. It would have given a “green light” to slave owners from neighboring areas to come and settle there. But with the rules in place, it discouraged such slavery in their realm.
In fact, the laws and regulations over slavery are a sure sign that slavery isn’t good in the same way the Law came to expose and limit sin (Romans 5:13). One reverend explained it this way:
In giving laws to regulate slavery, God is not saying it is a good thing. In fact, by giving laws about it at all, He is plainly stating it is a bad thing. We don’t make laws to limit or regulate good things. After all, you won’t find laws that tell us it is wrong to be too healthy or that if water is too clean we have to add pollution to it. Therefore, the fact slavery is included in the regulations of the Old Testament at all assumes that it is a bad thing which needs regulation to prevent the damage from being too great.3
Does the Bible Support Harsh Slavery?
There are several passages that are commonly used to suggest that the Bible condones harsh slavery. However, when we read these passages in context, we find that they clearly oppose harsh slavery.
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. 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. 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. But if the servant plainly says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,” 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. (Exodus 21:2–6)
This is the first type of bankruptcy law we’ve encountered. With this, a government doesn’t step in, but a person who has lost himself or herself to debt can sell the only thing they have left: their ability to perform labor. This is a loan. In six years the loan is paid off, and they are set free. Bondservants who did this made a wage, had their debt covered, had a home to stay in, on-the-job training, and did it for only six years. This almost sounds better than college, which doesn’t cover debt and you have to pay for it!
Bondservants who did this made a wage, had their debt covered, had a home to stay in, on-the-job training, and did it for only six years.
Regarding Exodus 21:4, if he (the bondservant) is willing to walk away from his wife and kids, then it is his own fault. And he would be the one in defiance of the law of marriage. He has every right to stay with his family. On the other hand, his wife, since she is a servant as well, must repay her debt until she can go free. Otherwise, a woman could be deceitful by racking up debt and then selling herself into slavery to have her debts covered, only to marry someone with a short time left on his term, and then go free with him. That would be cruel to the master who was trying to help her out. So this provision is to protect those who are trying to help people out of their debt.
This is not a forced agreement either. The bondservants enter into service on their own accord. In the same respect, a foreigner can also sell himself or herself into servitude. Although the rules are slightly different, it would still be by their own accord in light of Exodus 21:16 above.
If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted. He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed. And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. (Exodus 21:18–21)
This passage follows closely after Moses’s decree against slave traders in Exodus 21:16. We include verses 18 and 19 to show the parallel to servants among the Israelites. The rules still apply for their protection if they already have servants or if someone sells himself or herself into service.
Regarding Exodus 21:20–21, consider that many of those who sold themselves into servitude were those who had lost everything, indicating that they were often times the “lazy” ones. In order to get them up to par on a working level, they may require discipline. And the Bible does say to give discipline—even fathers were to give their children “the rod;” to withhold it is considered unloving (Proverbs 13:24, 23:13). So beating with a rod (or more appropriately “a branch”) is not harsh, but required for discipline. Even the Apostle Paul reveals he was beaten with a rod three times (2 Corinthians 11:25), and he didn’t die from it. In fact, the equivalent in today’s culture (spanking) was commonplace in public schools until just a few years ago. Only recently has this been deemed “inappropriate.”
According to verses 20–21, if an owner severely beat his servant, and the servant died, then he would be punished—that was the law. However, if the servant survived for a couple of days, it is probable that the master was punishing him and not intending to kill him, or that he may have died from another cause. In this case there is no penalty other than that the owner loses the servant who is his temporary property—he suffers the loss.4
Some have also complained that God is sexist in his treatment of servants (though sexism is outside the realm of this chapter, we will still address this claim).
If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her (Exodus 21:7–8, NV)
There is a stark delineation between male servants and the female servants in Exodus 21:7. A Hebrew male could sell himself into servitude for his labor (to cover his debts, and so on) and be released after six years. A Hebrew female could be sold into servitude, with permission of her father, not for labor purposes but for marriage. Verse 8 discusses breaking faith with her, which means that they have entered into a marriage covenant (see Malachi 2:14). If God approved of the female leaving in six years, then marriage is no longer a life-long covenant. So God is honoring the sanctity of marriage here.
Imagine what would happen if this rule wasn’t in place. It would mean that men would have the free reign to marry a woman for six years and then “trade” her in for another woman. This is not approved of in the Bible. Of course, when a man buys a male servant, they are not married, and so the male servants were to be set free.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God. And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor. (Leviticus 25:38–46)
God prefaces this passage specifically with a reminder that the Lord saved them from their bondage of slavery in Egypt. Again, if one becomes poor, he can sell himself into slavery/servitude and be released as was already discussed.
Verse 44 discusses slaves that they may already have from nations around them. They can be bought and sold. It doesn’t say to seek them out or have forced slavery. Hence, it is not giving an endorsement of seeking new slaves or encouraging the slave trade. At this point, the Israelites had just come out of slavery and were about to enter the Holy Land. They shouldn’t have had many servants. Also, this doesn’t restrict other people in cultures around them from selling themselves as bondservants. But as discussed already, there are passages for the proper and godly treatment of servants/slaves.
Sadly, some Israelite kings later tried to institute forced slavery, for example Solomon (1 Kings 9:15) and Rehoboam with Adoniram (1 Kings 12:18). Both fell from favor in God’s sight and were found to follow after evil (1 Kings 11:6; 2 Chronicles 12:14).
Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has. But if that servant says in his heart, “My master is delaying his coming,” and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more. (Luke 12:43–48)
As for Jesus’s supposed support for beating slaves, this is in the context of a parable. Parables are stories Jesus told to help us understand spiritual truths. For example, in one parable Jesus likens God to a judge (Luke 18:1–5). The judge is unjust, but eventually gives justice to the widow when she persists. The point of that story was not to tell us that God is like an unjust judge—on the contrary, He is completely just. The point of the parable is to tell us to be persistent in prayer. Similarly, Luke 12:47–48 does not justify beating slaves. It is not a parable telling us how masters are to behave. It is a parable telling us that we must be ready for when Jesus Himself returns. One will be rewarded with eternal life through Christ, or with eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46).
Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men–pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Ephesians 6:5–9)
Again, Paul in Ephesians is not giving an endorsement to slavery/bondservants and masters, but gives them both the same commands, showing that God views them as equals in Christ. Again, bondservants were to be paid fair wages:
Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)
Christians Led the Fight to Abolish Slavery
The slavery of “black” people by “white” people in the 16th to 19th centuries (and probably longer) was harshly unjust, like many cultures before. This harsh slavery is not discussed in Moses’ writings because such slavery was forbidden in Hebrew culture. This is not surprising. Paul tells us in Romans 1:30 that people are capable of inventing new ways of doing evil. Peter even reveals that some slave owners were already being disobedient and treating slaves/bondservants harshly (1 Peter 2:18). Of course, the Bible gives no endorsement of such treatment. “White” on “black” slavery was opposed by Christians such as William Wilberforce, but not by examining passages on slavery because the slaveries were of different types.5 “Racial” slavery was opposed because it was seen to be contrary to the value that God places on every human being, and the fact that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). The last letter that the revival evangelist John Wesley ever wrote was to William Wilberforce, encouraging Wilberforce in his endeavors to see slavery abolished. In the letter, Wesley describes slavery as “execrable villainy.”
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a “law” in our colonies that the oath of a black against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this?6
Wesley concentrated on the value of a man, irrespective of the color of his skin. It is this principle of the value God places on human beings—a biblical principle—which was Wesley’s motivation in opposing slavery.
The famous hymnwriter John Newton at one time actually captained slave ships. He did so even after his conversion to Christianity, because he was influenced by the prevailing attitudes of his society; it took time for him to realize his errors. But realize them he did—and he spent the latter part of his life campaigning against slavery. He wrote movingly and disturbingly of the suffering of slaves in the ships’ galleys in his pamphlet “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.”
If the slaves and their rooms can be constantly aired, and they are not detained too long on board, perhaps there are not many who die; but the contrary is often their lot. They are kept down, by the weather, to breathe a hot and corrupted air, sometimes for a week: this added to the galling of their irons, and the despondency which seizes their spirits when thus confined, soon becomes fatal. . . . I believe, upon an average between the more healthy, and the more sickly voyages, and including all contingencies, one fourth of the whole purchase may be allotted to the article of mortality: that is, if the English ships purchase sixty thousand slaves annually, upon the whole extent of the coast, the annual loss of lives cannot be much less than fifteen thousand.7
Like Wesley, it was the biblical value of human life that was the deciding factor in Newton’s opposition to slavery in his latter years.
The use of the term “one blood” in Acts 17:26 is very significant. If “races” were really of different “bloods,” then we could not all be saved by the shedding of the blood of one Savior. It is because the entire human race can be seen to be descended from one man—Adam—that we know we can trust in one Savior, Jesus Christ (the “Last Adam”).
Many other Christians could be named in the fight to abolish slavery, which seemed to culminate with Abraham Lincoln in the mid-1800s (slavery was one of the reasons for the Civil War in the United States).
Is the Bible Racist?
Some “white” Christians have assumed that the so-called “curse of Ham” (Genesis 9:25) was to cause Ham’s descendants to be black and to be cursed. While it is likely that African peoples are descended from Ham (Cush, Phut, and Mizraim), it is not likely that they are descended from Canaan (the curse was actually declared on Canaan, not Ham).
However, there is no evidence from Genesis that the curse had anything to do with skin color. Others have suggested that the “mark of Cain” in Genesis 4 was that he was turned dark-skinned. Again, there is no evidence of this in Scripture, and in any case, Cain’s descendants were more or less wiped out in the Flood.
Incidentally, the use of such passages to attempt to justify some sort of evil associated with dark skin is based on an assumption that the other characters in the accounts were light-skinned, like “white” Anglo-Saxons today. That assumption can also not be found in Scripture, and is very unlikely to be true. Very light skin and very dark skin are actually the extremes of skin color, caused by the minimum and maximum of melanin production, and are more likely, therefore, to be the genetically selected results of populations moving away from each other after the Tower of Babel incident recorded in Genesis 11.
The issue of racism is just one of many reasons why Answers in Genesis opposes evolution. Darwinian evolution can easily be used to suggest that some “races” are more evolved than others, that is, the common belief is that “blacks” are less evolved. Biblical Christianity cannot be used that way—unless it is twisted by people who have deliberately misunderstood what the Bible actually teaches. On top of this, rejecting the Bible, a book that is not racist, because one may think evolution is superior is a sad alternative. Recall Darwin’s prediction of non-white “races”:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian [aborigine] and the gorilla.8
Though this short chapter couldn’t delve into every verse regarding slavery, the basic principles are the same. In light of what we’ve learned, here are a few pointers to remember:
- Slaves under the Mosaic Law were different from the harshly treated slaves of other societies; they were more like servants or bondservants.
- The Bible doesn’t give an endorsement of slave traders but just the opposite (1 Timothy 1:10). A slave/bondservant was acquired when a person voluntarily entered into it when he needed to pay off his debts.
- The Bible recognizes that slavery is a reality in this sin-cursed world and doesn’t ignore it, but instead gives regulations for good treatment by both masters and servants and reveals they are equal under Christ.
- Israelites could sell themselves as slaves/bondservants to have their debts covered, make a wage, have housing, and be set free after six years. Foreigners could sell themselves as slaves/bondservants as well.
- Biblical Christians led the fight to abolish harsh slavery in modern times.