Many non-believers claim that the Bible and therefore God approves of slavery. Is this true? What do the Scriptures say about this?
The Letter to Philemon
The Apostle Paul, when he was imprisoned, had a runaway slave, Onesimus help him and apparently Paul led him to saving faith in Christ (Phil 1:10 and considered himself as Onesimus’ father and Onesimus as Paul’s spiritually begotten son. When Paul writes Philemon, who was Onesimus’ slave owner, Paul requests to have Onesimus be freed from being a slave to become one of a fellow bondservants of Christ, which means a bondservant to the Lord which Paul considered himself to be (Phil 1:1). Paul “preferred to do nothing without [Philemon’s] consent” though (Phil 1:14) and wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus “back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Phil 1:15c-16a). If Paul believed that God condoned or approved of slavery then Paul was going against God because Paul wanted the slave or servant Onesimus freed and to be accepted “as a beloved brother” and not a servant anymore.
Slavery Well and Alive Today
There are actually more slaves today than there were in the ancient days and even though it was estimated that as much as 30 to 40% of the inhabitants of Rome were slaves, in that day they were often loved just like family and could earn their way to freedom. A slave was so much dearer to the Roman’s than were servants. Hired servants only did their job with minimal effort and then went to their own home after they were finished with their duties but a slave lived with the family and became very close to the members of that family with which they lived.
Instructions for Slavery Treatment
Duet 15:12-18 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold [literally sells themselves] to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that.”
God’s law about servants or slaves does not give approval to slavery but it does give guidelines in the merciful and fair treatment of anyone that was made a slave. Many of these had sold themselves as a slave so the best translation of this was that the Hebrew was a servant, not slave.
Let’s break down God’s major command about what many feel is command about slavery.
Deuteronomy 15:12-15 says “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.”
Where it says “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you” means that they were not taken as a slave but people sold themselves to others because of a debt that was un-payable so it was really about allowing them to survive and not starve to death. It also says that they were not supposed to “let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally” so they gave them provisions on which to build a living on (“out of your flock”) and supply them with food (“out of your threshing floor”) and drink (“out of your winepress”).
Next, “if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever” (Duet 15:16-18) which means that if they come to love the family in which they worked for they were to be marked with awl through their ear signifying that they voluntarily stayed out of love and they could remain with them forever but more as a servant.
Finally, when they did want to leave and by the way, they were allowed to always leave voluntarily, so they were not captive slaves but willingly stayed to serve, it says “It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that.” So we see that they were free to go and in letting them go, “God will bless [them] in all that.”
Slavery or Stealing Humans Punishable by Death
Exodus 21:16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
How clear this Scripture is that to steal someone or kidnap them and be “found in possession of Him” (or her) to make a slave of them they “shall be put to death” so the idea that God allowed slaves to be captured against their will is wrong and carried with it the death penalty. This is because stealing someone was the same as kidnapping and this is a crime that God sees as worthy of death, therefore there is no truth to the belief that the Bible teaches or God says that slavery is condoned or acceptable. Clearly, slavery is sin and God detests it.
1 Timothy 1:9-10 “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers.”
The original Greek where it says “enslavers” is a word that means those who take others to make slaves out of because that is what an enslaver was. God says this is “unholy and profane” and just as much of a grievous sin as is murder and sexual immorality. The word “enslavers” should read and the original manuscripts support this that “enslavers” means “those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery.” How clear it is that slavery is sin and is named among the most heinous crimes in the New Testament and in the Old Testament it was punishable by death (Ex 21:16).
We must conclude from the Bible and the Scriptures that we have examined that God never condones slavery. Sometimes Israel’s enemies became indentured slaves because they had committed heinous and grievous sins. Some of these nations were so evil that they were sacrificing their own children in the fire to false, pagan gods and they actually deserved death so to make them indentured slaves was better than being put to death which is what the punishment was for killing innocent children. Even with this, after seven years they could go free. Let no one convince you that the Bible promotes, condones, or makes slavery acceptable. God hated slavery then just as He does today and as I said before, human trafficking and making slaves of people will not go unpunished by God. There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today according to the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights. Every single one of us, including those who steal and make slaves of others, will have to stand before God and give an account for every idle deed and every idle word (Rom 14:21; Math 12:36). Of that, you can be certain.
Another Reading on Patheos to Check Out: What Did Jesus Really Look Like: A Look at the Bible Facts
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon