My Question: SLAVERY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Hi everyone,
I have a question about slavery in the Bible.

It seems that most apologists when asked if the Bible condones slavery ignore that there are in fact two types of slavery regulated in the Old Testament.

1.Slavery of conquered peoples.
2. Indebted servitude.

The two verses that we have the most trouble with in regards to the first type of slavery are:

Deuteronomy‬ ‭20:10-18‬ ‭NIV‬‬
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.”

Leviticus 25:39-46 New International Version (NIV)
39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

I realize that this type of slavery is very different in nature to antebellum slavery because kidnapping or buying kidnapped slaves along with rape was punishable by death, and God prohibited unnecessary brutality against slaves.
I can come to terms with God allowing the Israelites to have slaves only during that time because of the hardness of their hearts just like how God allowed divorce even though he does not like it. (Malachi 2:16) (Mark 10:2-12 ) And in a time when God instructed eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life it makes sense how a spared life in battle means you owe someone your life of servitude. However, the problem is answering that question: Does the Bible condone slavery? I think here it clearly permits it. Please offer me some insight on how to answer this one!

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Three questions come to mind as I read your post and your ultimate question:

  1. What do you mean by condone? Merriam-Webster defines it as, “to regard or treat (something bad or blameworthy) as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless” (n.d.). Usually people who ask this question use it to mean “to endorse or approve” something bad, which is not the same thing, and is not technically correct. Which do you mean?
  2. What do you mean by slavery? You seem to differentiate a couple of definitions of it. You also seem to think that it does not mean race-based, perpetual slavery. Can you give a more specific definition of the term as you mean to use it?
  3. What is the social context to your question? For example, are your concerns merely personal, or did they arise because someone asked you?

Thanks for any clarification you can give.

References:

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Condone. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/condone

Hey Brenden thanks so much for the response!

  1. Allow.

  2. The slavery talked about in the Bible. Perpetually owning another human for forced labor which is only allowed for non Israelites.

  3. Months ago one of my best friends confessed that he no longer believes that God exists. I just spent some time with him and had a lot of deep theological conversations, now he has come a bit farther and thinks that God could exist but if he does it couldn’t be the God of the bible.

He struggles to see how the God of the Bible is good. When we looked at scriptures and he asked me questions it was hard to come up with answers. I can come to terms with what God allowed for that specific time because I know he is good and just however, I am struggling to defend God’s character with my answer. Maybe I’m not reading the scriptures correctly. It would be great if you can offer me some insight on how to interpret the scriptures themselves and on how to give a good answer to a skeptic who can’t see God’s goodness in this.
Some of the questions were:

Why would an all loving God ever be okay with one human perpetually owning another?
If God is disgusted with slavery even as much as me (a finite creature) why wouldn’t he commands us not to do it? Especially when he knew people would use the Bible to justify slaving millions of people thousands of years later.
When God is so specific and detailed in his commands for our worship, why wouldn’t he also be detailed for His children who would otherwise become slaves?

In light of this topic and a few more my friend fails to see how this God being all loving, all knowing, and all powerful could exist.

Please help me with any insight so I can give my friend a good answer that leads him even one step closer to seeing that God is good. Thank you so much!

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@GunnarZ Thanks for your clarifying answer. You have now given me some points of reference to direct my prayerful research and response. This issue is dear to my heart because I have some adopted siblings who have suffered racial prejudice and doubtless have ancestors who were enslaved at some point. I promise to post a response in a day or so.

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A few things come to mind on this topic, not all will satisfy your friend’s struggles. But perhaps they will add some new facets to seeking understanding.

God’s sovereignty:
He is creator and author which seems to give Him a great deal of control over outcomes. But I suggest that it is because of His loving nature he allows me/man/mankind to walk our own path. Some will walk towards him, but the majority will walk away. Whichever direction we walk, He is still sovereign. (When I judge Him and His actions, I am trying to create God in my image [or at least fit my idea of what God should be like], and that’s upside-down thinking.) The fact that God has the power to destroy anyone and everyone who does not submit to His authority and does not, is evidence to me that we are dealing with all-powerful goodness. And whenever we have questions about God, we need to try to understand Him through the lens of that goodness.

Justice:
This topic hurts our hearts because so much suffering has happened through slavery, even today. But would we yearn for justice if our creator had not written it on our hearts? Same with freedom. Would it be written on our hearts if it did not reflect the character of Him in whose image we are created?

True freedom:
Paul tells us in many of his letters that freedom IN Christ is the only thing that releases us from the bonds of slavery to sin and death. To truly understand this principle of deliverance from that slavery of sin and death, would we not have to have a cultural awareness of the concept? Is it not seeing the horrors of slavery in the world that we grasp our own peril with that enslavement? How can we look at the option of freedom and slavery and not choose freedom?

Historical perspective:
A 21st Century citizen of a democracy has a real challenge in understanding the mindset of the various peoples of the Bible and the audience for whom it was initially written and written about. Americans (I am one) have an especially hard time with sovereignty…the very idea that someone, by virtue of who they are, is owed allegiance and submission to their authority. But virtually no one in the ancient world was autonomous. Everyone submitted fully to someone: slave to master, master to regional overseer, overseers to the king, king to the emperor, and in most every case the emperor to whatever God they worshipped. The idea of freedom, autonomy, and submission to authority was a completely different kind of mindset than we have today. Certainly the Greeks invented democracy and the Romans the republic, but both ultimately failed and gave way to supreme authority. I feel there is great value in doing the historical study required to put the Bible, and most specifically the OT, in context for the culture in which it was written. Also, some of the greatest OT heroes were slaves. Joseph was given the keys to the kingdom of Egypt and exercised great authority. Daniel’s pious submission to his God and only his God changed an empire. Clearly in biblical times, slavery was not necessarily synonymous with powerlessness. When God exhibited His power through Joseph and Daniel even absolute authorities yielded to the servants of the most high God.

God and the Israelites:
Let me suggest that the OT is the story of God’s initiate to provide deliverance, and all the OT points to Jesus as our ultimate deliverer. With the Israelites we see God “embedded” with His people – delivering, leading, providing the resources they need to survive, and doing all the heavy lifting to position them as the people of the promise. This epic story and journey is evidence that God will deliver those who put their lives in His hands. The lesson of His deliverance of the Israelites from slavery is so critical to our understanding of God that over and over He tells them to “remember.” Remember who saved you. Remember who led you. Remember who provided for you. Remember who dwelt in the tabernacle. The remembering is key because forgetting is so easy.

Parables:
I also think that we will find many keys to unlocking a biblical understanding of servanthood and slavery in the parables of Jesus, as many talk about servants. This is logical as nearly every soul Jesus was speaking to was a servant to someone, so his audience clearly understood his context (if not his actual point).

Thanks @GunnarZ for this great discussion, and bearing with me as I tried to think through the things that came to my mind.

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Thank you so much for taking the time! I am looking forward to hearing your response!

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Jennifer thank you so much! I really liked some points you made and will use some of them in a response to my friend. I think you hit it right on the head with God’s sovereignty, looking at context, and God’s ultimate purpose through people suffering in slavery. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question!

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@GunnarZ Neither you not your friend are alone in asking this question. Rather than add a specific answer to Brendan’s and Jennifer’s, I’d like to widen the view, in two aspects:

  1. a common underlying cause of this type of question.

  2. a deeper and wider principle of how God deals with people - individually and collectively

I do not claim to know the motive of your friend’s asking a question like this. But I have noticed among many people who want to challenge the existence of God, the aurthority and/or consistency of the Scriptures, or otherwise, really don’t want to give up their own reasonings and life style, that they use these types of questions to deflect the discussion from becoming too personal, or as a personal challenge to the person who is trying to convince them of the truth. The Pharisees and the learned scribes of Jesus time did this constantly, seeking to catch Jesus in some inconsistency, or to make him say some politically incorrect thing that would dent his popularity among the people, and thereby enhance their own. Jesus always managed to see through them, or provide answers that totally disarmed them. Examples are when they asked him if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar or not; and how he dealt with the woman caught in adultery when they demanded that he approve of her being stoned to death. In other words, often (and I’m not saying it is so with your question) we need to sense whether or not we are being presented with a “red herring” or a genuine desire to reconcile apparent differences between various parts of Scripture. For myself, I want to learn how to identify the red herring, and to by-pass it to the deeper issue bothering the questioner. In other words how to learn Jesus’ tactics.

There are many questions similar to this slavery one that can sound “unworthy of God.” Polygamy, warfare, apparent gender inequality, the flood, extreme punishments for some things that we consider petty, natural catasrophes that kill thousands, even the so-called “problem of pain.” If God is all powerful, sovereign and above all good and loving, why does he allow these things.

This has taken me to a remarkable statement of Jesus and the implications thereof. He says (John 5:19) “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” And in John 8:28 he says " I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me."

Then I place Jesus’ words against what Paul wrote in Philippians 2 " In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing …" If Jesus told the truth as recorded in John’s gospel, what was hedoing that would also be a reflection of something the Father has done, something he had seen the Father do. What could that be? Jesus said both “I came to do your will,” and in Gesthemane “Not my will but yours be done.” These statements hint at the answer having something to do with will.

1 Cor. 13 describes one aspect of love as being “it is not self-seeking.” The Amplified version puts it: " Love does not insist on its own rights or its own way, for it is not self-seeking." In other words, God does not IMPOSE his will, his likes, his rights, his authority, on us - because God is love.

In the OT, God chose the children of Israel to be His people. He would be their God. and their King. By Samuel’s time, the people were demanding a king like the neighbouring countries. Prompted by God, Samuel told the people how they would suffer under a king. They insisted, and God, very sorrowfully, allowed them to have a human king (1 Sam 8:7). And the rest is a very sad history. But this is, counterintuitively, love in action. ?!!??! So here is God giving up something, or put another way, not insisting on his own will and desire - which he knew to be best for them. And in the same spirit, God respected the choices men and women made. We are free to make choices, but every choice has consequences, and those you cannot pick and choose - they follow automatically. Jesus also made it clear, that divorce was not what God wanted, but Moses allowed it, in the law, “because of their (the people’s) hardness of heart.”

Slavery existed in the NT and even in the church. It was practised by leaders in the church. Rather than impose a “law” against it, Paul taught that before God, and in the assembly, there was neither slave nor free, Greek or Jew. In practice he “respected” the Roman law, and sent the slave Onesimus back to Philemon, but he did it with a letter to his friend telling him what a wonderful brother in Christ Onesimus had been, and pleaded for his freedom. Over time, this attitude of “there is neither slave nor free” became generally understood and the practice of slavery disappeared among believers. It was simply incompatible with the law of love. Today we have laws in virtually all countries outlawing slavery. Yet we have more slavery than ever before. So a law doesn’t do the trick. But real love does.

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@GunnarZ At long last–longer than “a day or so”–I have what I think may be a helpful answer for you. @Jennifer_Judson and @Mohembo have already added wise perspectives to the matter; I will focus on what the Bible speaks on it.

First, some background: I have had my eye on this subject for many years. I am deeply concerned about Christian perspectives on civil rights and racism. I have felt for a long time that God ordained the American Civil War as punishment for grievous sins against humanity in the form of the persecution and enslavement of an entire race of people. Many Christians jumped off the moral cliff in defense of antebellum slavery. R. L. Dabney’s A Defence of Virginia is a case in point. Your friend’s reaction to these noxious fumes does not surprise me, and God told me through your post that it is time for me to listen intently to what he says about this matter unfiltered by third-party commentary. I hope that my discoveries help you and your friend in your spiritual journeys.

I will address three main questions that are relevant to your post:

  1. What is God’s perspective on slavery in general?
  2. What is God’s perspective on taking captured peoples as spoils of war (Deut. 20:10-18)?
  3. What is God’s perspective on indentured servitude and perpetual slavery (Lev. 25:39-46)?
  4. How does this relate to us as Christians?

(Notice that I will not try to answer why God allows slavery. This question is too speculative for me because I am not God. I believe that your friend needs to wrestle with God to find the answer to this question.)

So, what is God’s perspective about slavery in general? He certainly allows some forms of it, as you have already noted, but what forms? I did an original language word study using the English Standard Version (ESV) Original Language Tools at https://www.esv.org, but there are a number of online tools available for this purpose where you can investigate this yourself. I found in my word studies that the Biblical languages generally do not differentiate between different types of servitude like we do in English. The Hebrew generally uses the term 'ebed for someone who serves under a master. The Greek doulos means the same. Both terms are usually translated as servant in the ESV, and relatively less frequently as slave. (Your cited passage from Leviticus uses 'ebed.) Servants and chattel slaves are not linguistically differentiated; rather, they are descriptively differentiated, e.g. whether the master is kind or abusive; whether the servant can be sold or inherited or not; etc. The much abused passage of Gen. 9:25 says of Canaan, “a servant ['ebed] of servants ['ebed] shall he be to his brothers” (ESV). This illustrates the descriptive differentiation that I mean.

Biblical servitude can be an honor or a curse. Hosts and subjects frequently call themselves, “your servant ['ebed/doulos],” when addressing their guests or ruling authorities. The Patriarch, Abram, called himself this when he had guests (Gen. 18:3, 5). The angel twice calls himself John’s “fellow servant [syndoulos] with you and your brothers” (Rev. 19:10, 22:9, ESV). On the other hand, Egypt is the “house of slavery ['ebed]” (Deut. 6:12, ESV), and Jesus said that “everyone who practices sin is a slave [doulos] to sin” (John 8:34, ESV).

In fact, choosing servitude to a cruel master (Egypt/sin) or a beneficent Redeemer (God) is central to God’s message. Pay close attention to these words from the first four Commandments:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery ['ebed]. You shall have no other gods before me…You shall remember that you were a slave ['ebed] in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5:6-7, 15, ESV)

Now observe what Paul writes in Romans 6:15-19:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (ESV)

So we choose our master. If our Redeemer, then “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves [doulos] or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13, ESV). Paul applies this in Philemon, which I leave to you to study. That our Heavenly status does not erase our Earthly status also warrants further study (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22, Titus 2:9ff). These are hard things; how we respond shows who is our master. Matters of conscience (Rom. 14) apply.

On spoils of war: observe the context. Deuteronomy 20 provides rules of engagement. God commanded through Moses that Israel always offer peace to cities. Citizens of cities that surrender peaceably may be taken for forced labor. If they fight, then when God gives Israel victory then Israel is to kill all of the men and take women, children, and everything else as plunder for cities outside of the Promised Land. Cities within the borders are devoted to “complete destruction” (Deut. 20:17, ESV) if they fight because their presence will cause internal rot–which happened, as Israel’s later history shows. Remember, however, that in all cases, peaceful terms are to be offered before besieging any city.

If a city accepts peace, God expects Israel to keep its bargain. The Gibeonites provide an example of this. Joshua 9 describes how Gibeon tricked Israel into making a peaceful covenant. Israel took them into forced labor which also entailed protecting the Gibeonites. We know this because God cursed Israel with famine after Saul sought to exterminate the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1-2). This is a far cry from other countries’ treatment of captives. (Look Assyria up!) (There is also an interesting law about how to treat a woman captive who an Israelite marries in Deut. 21:14.)

On indentured servitude and perpetual slavery: remember that God cares more about how one person treats another than about a person’s social status. I think that you have already touched on the essential part here, which is that God allows things because of the hardness of men’s hearts, not because he necessarily approves of the institution. God works wonders in all cultures at all times. Morality is not a cookie-cutter.

I am now bleary-eyed and energy-sapped. I hope that I have contributed something useful to you and your friend. Please feel free to ask whatever follow-up questions you may have.

God bless!

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Brendan, wow thanks for the thoughtful and prayerful response. This is really helpful I appreciate the wisdom! It means a lot! Blessings brother!!

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@GunnarZ there’s so much charged in this question that I won’t even try to top what’s already been said – I’ll only succeed in messing it up :smiley: That said, I do think there are two aspects to this question that are often overlooked…

1 – The nature and effect of the rules that God gave regarding the treatment of slaves
2 – The type of people that these rules were given to

When God gave the Law to Israel, they were a people without an identity or a moral code. They had spent so much time in bondage that bondage was all that they knew. They THOUGHT like slaves, and it was hard enough for them to see the world through the eyes of a freed people, to say nothing of how to justly treat those that they would ultimately conquer. They were a carnal, physically minded people, not the enlightened, spiritually minded people who would be (somewhat) prepared to see the world the way Jesus described it.

In light of this, consider the rules that God set up around slavery. They demanded an ethic that was absolutely alien to Israel, giving inherent, individual value to the slaves – not merely as assets, but as people as much made in the image of God as their masters were. This ethic made the slavery that Israel was used to unworkable, and it set about reshaping the way Israel saw servitude and indebtedness.

Look at the way the American Declaration of Independence spoke of humanity – owning of “inalienable rights”, among which were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. American was built on equality, but that founding ethic stood in stark contrast to the master-slave dynamic that the nation was born in. This created a tension that was irreconcilable, and would eventually lead to the Abolitionist movement.

I tend to think that this is the kind of tension that God was building into His Law – a kind of “spiritual Aikido”, where He used the Master-says-I-do mentality of Israel against them. In such a way, they could continue to see their world through the lens of slavery that they’d always known (until such time that they saw the world in other ways) while still demanding a moral standard out of Israel that Egypt had never risen to. In this way, He could work within the paradigm that they already subscribed to and thereby CHANGE their paradigm, rather than simply demand that they think and act in ways that they didn’t know how to.

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Good question and tbought.
So just because the Bible acknowledges unfirtunate conditions in society and God set up laws to govern such things in the Old Testament, does not mean He condones such things. Slavery, among other vices, exists and existed as a result of the fall of man away from God into sin. Man at that point turned to “his own way” (Isa 53:6) which includes creating levels of society which can be fortunate for some, and/or unfortunate for others.

If we want to see God’s true ideal for society, we look at the Bible’s description of His
Kingdom still to come wherein Jesus reigns in righteousness and goodness. There are not slaves there, but every citizen of earth is seen owning and enjoying the fruit of his own labors (Micah 4:4).

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@nashdude you have quite succeeded in enhancing the conversation with a wise observation. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that God worked within a paradigm that Israel could grasp, much like how we may mentor someone who grew up in an abusive home. This is a very useful and wise approach to this matter. Thank you very much!

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Absolutely :slight_smile: And incidentally, this is precisely the same tack that Jesus used in teaching His disciples through parables – describing a truth that was beyond their grasp, but framed in commonly understood terms so that they eventually COULD grasp it.

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