If the Bible is about God's love for humanity, how can it advocate slavery?
“‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 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. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.’” —Leviticus 25:44-46a
“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them.” —Titus 2:9-10a
Let’s be honest—these verses from the Bible can really rub us the wrong way. Everyone knows that quotes can be taken out of context. Understanding the historical and cultural contexts of statements clarifies their meanings. But however you cut it, these verses and many others seem to suggest that the Bible is fine with slavery—and maybe even supports the practice.
Then why do Christians condemn slavery today? Indeed, many people of faith have dedicated their lives to ending slavery.1 Have such do-gooders misread the Bible? Have they turned a blind eye to passages that blatantly endorse one of the worst forms of human oppression?
If so, perhaps Christians should come clean about the content of their Bibles. Sure, there are some nice platitudes, and everyone would like to believe that there is a good and loving God. But this is one issue that’s hard to get around. If the Bible supports slavery, should anything it says be taken seriously as a guide for righteous living?
So let’s tackle the issue head-on: Does the Bible advocate slavery?
Slavery in Ancient Israel
Christian slaveholders in the American South answered this question with a resounding yes. Of course, their livelihood and economic well-being had become so dependent upon the institution of slavery that it’s hard to imagine them taking any other position. Nonetheless, religious Southerners came up with intricate theological arguments to assert that the Bible really does advocate slavery.2 And with so many verses at their disposal, it’s no surprise they convinced themselves of the rightness of their cause.
But it may be important to begin by noting how different slavery in ancient Israel was from the more recent, race-based slavery in the new world.3
Israel was a small, pastoral–agricultural society in which the Hebrew word now translated into English as “slave” referred more accurately to a bonded worker or domestic servant.4 Granted, these workers lived in a state of servitude because of conquest, ethnicity, or inability to pay a debt, so their situation was a form of slavery. Nevertheless, few Israelites owned slaves, and those who did owned few.
The practice was substantially different from large-scale slavery in the ancient Greek and Roman Empires, or the commercialized slave trade that later Arabs, Europeans, and Americans perpetrated upon Africa.5 As scholar Christopher Wright notes: “We must put out of our mind pictures such as the Roman galley slaves of Ben Hur, or the neck-irons, slave-ships and sugar plantations of modern black slavery when we read the word ‘slave’ in the Old Testament.”6
This is a distinction that is often neglected, though it is unwise to impose upon the Bible such pictures of slavery.
Israel’s Origins and Laws
Slaves in Israel had more legal rights, protection, and security than those in other ancient societies. Part of the reason was Israel’s history as a redeemed people—they themselves had been rescued from slavery in Egypt.
In fact, the Ten Commandments begin with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”7 And the memory of their past guided their laws: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”8
Specifically, the laws regarding slaves were unique in the ancient world. Slaves were included in religious ceremonies, festivals, and practices.9 They were also instructed to cease work on the Sabbath, just like the families they served.10 The Sabbath was a day of rest for both slave and free.
Moreover, Hebrew Law protected slaves from severe masters; any bodily harm done to a slave meant the slave must be granted freedom.11 This is an extraordinary provision—modern forms of slavery never gave such protection. Runaway slaves were given sanctuary; they were not required to be returned to their original masters and could seek asylum in other towns.12 This likely indicates that runaway slaves were not a widespread problem in Israelite society and “lends further weight to the view that normally slavery in Israel was not oppressively harsh.”13 Finally, Hebrew slaves were allowed to go free after six years of servitude, and former owners were commanded to provide a generous gift when they left.14
A Redemptive Trajectory
The laws recorded in the Old Testament reveal that the Israelites practiced slavery in ways that were not as cruel, oppressive, and inhumane as we might imagine based on more recent history. The writings of the New Testament go a step further.
Jesus himself preached a message of liberation: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . . to set the oppressed free.”15 His followers embraced this vision, put their faith in him, and set out to change the world. Their message was that Jesus was reconciling their alienated relationships with God and with each other. Sin stood between people and God; barriers of ethnicity, class, and gender stood between people.
But the Apostle Paul proclaimed that a new era in history had begun: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”16
For Paul, this meant that the existing relationships between masters and slaves must be transformed. Slaves should serve their masters as they would God, while masters must be good, right, and fair toward their slaves, as God is to them.17
Yet there are places in Paul’s letters that seem to call into question the practice of slavery altogether. The most extended passage about slavery found in the New Testament is a letter written by Paul to a Christian slave-owner named Philemon. In the letter, he describes how Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, had become a Christian. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother . . . as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.”18
The implication was that Philemon should free Onesimus. If that was not clear, Paul made it so in the following instructions to Philemon: “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. . . . Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”19
So does the Bible advocate slavery? Ancient cultures during biblical times certainly did. But the laws and practices of ancient Israel stood in contrast to those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. They challenge our conceptions of Hebrew slavery and uphold unique values consistent with human dignity and compassion. The essential trajectory of the Bible indicates that redemption and liberation are in store for earth. This means, among other things, that all forms of sin and oppression—including slavery—are destined to pass away and be overturned.20
The Bible accepts slavery as part of the secular world, part of the landscape of human society—just as it accepts that various other sins are typical of culture. This must not be mistaken for advocacy. What some call advocacy is better understood as temporary tolerance in view of the coming liberation (which has already started in Jesus).