Countless have written on this, and still I see people on a regular basis yell “THE BIBLE CONDONES SLAVERY!” There are also Christians who don’t know how to balance slavery in the OT with a good God. The result, unfortunately, is that it gets ignored.
There are several things to remember.
- Exodus 21:16: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” Skeptics conveniently look over verses like these.
- Slavery wasn’t as what we think it is today. “Slavery” was a way to make a living for poor families; families who were starving or about to lose their homes. They would sell their children into slavery, where the children would work, have a roof over their head, be clothed, and fed. Some of the children would inherit possessions which they would give back to their parents to help them live too. Sometimes an entire family would sell themselves into slavery and receive food and shelter, in exchange for work. If not for this, these families would die.
- The culture and time were different; there were no police officers for protection, no guards, nothing for people to be able to protect themselves (from rape or child sacrifices which the “world” would do).
- The Hebrew word for “slave” is eved, which comes from the Hebrew word la’avöd, and it literally means “to work”. So, under the Jewish law, a “slave” is a worker or servant.
These four points alone clarify many misunderstandings of slavery in the OT. will help many understand what “slavery” was like in the OT. Let’s take a couple of verses that skeptics and some Christians have trouble with.
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment.” (Exodus 21:7-11).
Under the Jewish law, women were highly protected because society was dangerous and they would be vulnerable. The reason a woman was not to be freed at the end of six years was because it would be hard for her to find another person to take her in. The men were set free and found jobs a lot easier than women did. So the ‘master’ was not to set her free because of the strong likelihood that she would end up in poverty, or raped. So this law was made for the safety and protection of the woman; not to bring her harm. Technically, all these rules are to protect the “slave”, not to bring them harm.
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. (Exodus 21:20-21). (Being beaten by a rod was a common).
When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth. (Exodus 21:26-27).
An assumption that is always made by skeptics is that it is “okay” to harm a slave. However, any master that beat a slave that resulted in the death of the slave, had to be killed (Exodus 21:20). If any permanent damage was made to the slave, such as knocking out a tooth, the slave was to be released instantly. There is a sharp difference between this type of slavery and slavery in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Some people try to use the above two verses as evidence to say that this assumption is correct. However, these two verses show that slaves were to be treated equal as those who weren’t slaves. The only difference was economics, because the owner was responsible for the slave, financially.
Here are some verses of how slaves were to be treated:
- They were to rest on the Sabbath day – Ex 23:12
- Injuring or killing a slave was punishable – Ex 21:20-27
- They were not allowed to have sex with another man’s slave – Lev 19:20
- Proverbs tells us that they were actually encouraged to ‘pamper’ a slave – Proverbs 29:21
- When a slave was freed, he would receive gifts/possessions that would assist him to survive
A few verses from the New Testament also:
- There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus – Galatians 3:28
- “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made…for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers…for slave traders…” 1 Timothy 1:8-10. It puts slave traders with murderers.
- Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair,because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. – Colossians 4:1