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Does the Bible promote slavery in Leviticus 25:44?
Greetings in the name of the Lord,
My son is full of questions. Recently, he quoted Leviticus 25:44 saying ownership of slaves is permissible. What do I say?
Praise the Lord Jesus,
– E.J., USA
Let’s take a look at Leviticus 25:44, along with some of the verses around it. Reading the entire section will help us to better understand its meaning.
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. Leviticus 25:38–45
These verses do not encourage or support slavery as we often perceive it. It’s important to remember that the type of slavery mentioned in Leviticus was different from the harsh slavery to which the Israelites were subjected. It was also different from the harsh slavery endured by African Americans in the United States and United Kingdom. The type of slavery mentioned in Leviticus was typically a way for people to pay off their debts. If they were deep in debt, they could sell themselves for a period of time in order to become free of debt.1
There were times, however, when a debt could never be paid off, such as when one nation conquered another and made slaves of the captives (1 Sam 17:8–9). Even under those circumstances, Israelites were not allowed to impose harsh slavery upon their captives. In verse 38, God reminded the Israelites that He delivered them from harsh bondage under the Egyptions. He certainly wanted them to remember the horrible years of suffering that they endured, and to treat their servants/slaves in a way that is kind.
Typically, things that are considered good do not need rules or limitations. For instance, there is no limit on how kind you can be to others. There is no limit on how much fruit of the Spirit you can cultivate. God places limitations, or laws, on things that can be harmful to ourselves and others (see Galatians 5:19–25). The Bible is full of limitations placed on harsh slavery. In Exodus 21:16, God condemns kidnapping and forced slavery. In this verse He says, “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”
The question of slavery is discussed in The New Answers Book 3, and Leviticus 25:44 is addressed. The following is an excerpt from the book.
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. 1
For a New Testament example of slavery, let’s look at the story of Paul and Onesimus. Onesimus, a slave, had escaped from Philemon, his owner. Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus, who became a Christian! Over the course of time, Onesimus returned to Philemon with a letter from Paul. In the letter, Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back as if he were Paul himself, not as a slave but as a brother. Paul also takes the responsibility for any debt that Onesimus might owe upon himself personally.
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. Philemon 8–21
Do you realize that there are parallels between this Bible passage and gospel of Jesus Christ? This passage is a wonderful example of the depth of Christ’s love and grace. Because of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden, we were born into slavery, under bondage to sin (Romans 6:20–23). Jesus died on the cross to pay the debt for our sins. That is a debt that we could never pay without Him. As Christians, Jesus has freed us from the slavery of sin, adopted us into His family, and will allow us to spend eternity with Him (Galatians 4:4–7, John 3:16).
Children, if you have not made the decision to trust in Jesus to pay your sin debt, and you would like to learn more about doing this, please read our kid’s webpage that explains the Good News.
We love to hear from you! If you have any questions, please ask an adult to help you submit them using this page on our website. We’ll be looking forward to receiving more interesting questions!1 Taylor, P and Hodge, B. 2010. Doesn’t the Bible Support Slavery? The New Answers Book 3. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books.