Does the Bible condone modern day slavery as we understand it today from our country’s history? This issue is much deeper than a question of intellectual curiosity. It is about the authority of God’s Word, which reveal God’s morals to us and how we are to treat one another. The tension before us is, “If God condones one human being owning another, how can I love and follow Him?” Abraham Lincoln said it best, “If anything is wrong, slavery is wrong.” Today we are seeking to answer the question, “Does the Bible condone slavery?”
Let’s begin with what we know from the Bible…
Exodus 21:16 “Whoever steals a man (a person) and sells him (or her), and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
This passage alone CONDEMNS modern day slavery as we have known it in our country. Let me say it REALLY CLEARLY, the Bible DOES NOT CONDONE modern day slavery as we understand in our country and in our country’s history.
And I know you have a number of, “But what about this passage, pastor?” We will get there. But let me give you a second passage to reinforce this one.
1 Timothy 1:10 The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders,[a] liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching.
So, here is what we know the Old Testament and the New Testament CONDEMNED modern day slavery as we understand it from the history of our nation.
Does the Bible condone slavery?
- THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS BOTH CONDEMN HISTORICAL AMERICAN SLAVERY.
The God of the Bible that we follow NEVER approved of what our nation did to the Africans they brought over on slaves ships.
Therefore ANY PASSAGE in the Bible that speaks of a master “buying” a servant should be understood as referring to a VOLUNTARY ACT, in which the slave was not sold by another, but sold his own labor to another.
- BIBLICAL SLAVERY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT WAS VOLUNTARY.
Another important law that should inform our understanding of what was legal in ancient Israel is Deuteronomy 23:15-16
Deuteronomy 23:15 “You shall not give up to his master a slave[a] who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.
According to the law of Moses, it was actually illegal to return a fugitive slave. Here is what we know, slavery in Israelite law was entered into voluntarily and could be ended voluntarily.
Now let’s look at this passage…
Leviticus 25:39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave:40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.
So, let’s make some observations here…
- Your brother becomes poor.
- Your brother sells himself voluntarily to you.
- You are not to make him serve as a slave but as a hired worker.
- You are to let him go at the year of Jubilee which is every 50 years. So, he could be there theoretically for almost 50 years.
Exodus 21:3 When you buy a Hebrew slave,[a] he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone.
Notice a few things here, remember you are buying a Hebrew slave on his own will and volition. This is not force but choice. If he comes in single, he goes out single. If he comes in married, then his wife goes out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons and daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s. Now what does that mean? Remember, slavery was voluntary. The Bible does not contradict itself and all of the Bible is inspired and is God’s Holy Word, all of it.
So, what is happening? If a male becomes a slave and he is single, then when he leaves, he leaves as a single. If his master during that time gives him a wife and she has children for him, she remains the master’s and so does the children. Why? Here’s why? She is a slave herself, and she still owes her master money. The male is free to go, but she still owes her debt. He either has to wait for her to finish her debt or look at what it says…
Exodus 21:5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
This is one of two places in the Bible where slavery is FOREVER. And in this instance it is due to the fact that the slave who has been given their freedom doesn’t want it. Why? Because they perceive their life better with their master than on their own. I know this inconceivable due to the damage the slavery of our nation did to people, but actually this person didn’t want to leave because their life was better with their master than it would be on their own.
- A SLAVE CAN REMAIN A SLAVE FOREVER IF THEY CHOOSE IT.
Now let’s look at an even harder passage…
Exodus 21:7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. (that is, she shall not be released from her service at the end of six years) 8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her[b] for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
The woman has been given in marriage to the master’s household. She is either married to the master or to his son. Now I realize this raises the ire of the females in the room and I don’t blame you, but here is what is going on. The father owed a debt. It was customary in that day that children understood that they could be sold to pay off their family’s debt. This was a type of arranged marriage.
Remember the principle, ALL SLAVE DEALS IN THE BIBLE ARE VOLUNTARY. That is extremely important and that you not read the baggage of our slave system today back into these passages. God condemns all forms of involuntary slavery in the Bible except a couple situations. One of those is during times of war when the nation of Israel was sieging a city or nation, they plundered its goods and kept the virgin women alive.
I want you to understand these passages are written with an understanding that these are voluntary choices and acceptable ways of living that didn’t infringe on anyone. The other example of involuntary slavery has to do with a person who is already a slave in a pagan society. We will address this in part two.
In verse 9 she is to be treated as a daughter meaning her children would inherit like a normal grandchild would inherit from the family. Now you notice in verse ten that if the master takes another wife, meaning, he divorces her (not polygamy). He still has to pay alimony. That’s what we call it today. And if he doesn’t want to pay her alimony, then he has to release her from what she owes him. She goes out for nothing without money meaning, she doesn’t have to repay him what her father owed him. Women listen to me on this, this passage sounds like an insult, (because of the damage our society and even the church have done to women) it is actually God protecting the woman and making sure she gets what she deserves so she can be taken care of.
- FEMALE SLAVES ARE TO BE CARED FOR AND GIVEN INHERITANCE.
This would be unheard of in any other nation in the world at that time.
Exodus 21:20 Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result,21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
Now you may say, “Wait, they can abuse them as long as they don’t die?” Verse 20 and 21 were all you read, I could see why you would think that, but we have to keep reading to understand that the rod of punishment like it is in Proverbs for our children as parents is not meant for abuse. How do we know that is the case here? Look at verse 26…
Exodus 21:26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. (NIV)
- GOD NEVER CONDONES THE ABUSE OF SLAVES.
God NEVER condones the abuse of slaves in the Bible. NEVER! Discipline, yes. Abuse, never!
Here is the rule, if you injure your slave, He or she owes you nothing anymore. The only reason you would injure a slave is if you wanted to lose a lot of money. See, slaves then, meant you got your money back. Slaves in our country, meant you gave money to get them. The systems were very different with very different moral and ethical ramifications. In American slavery the slave was your property you could do to them whatever you wanted. In Biblical slavery, you were to treat them with respect, discipline them, yes, but if you harmed them, you lost your authority over them and the money they owed you.
The Bible NEVER condones abuse of slaves. It makes provision for the if/when situations to PROTECT the slave. You might say, “But what about Exodus 21:20-21
Exodus 21:20 20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
Once again the Bible is not approving of this, it is simply saying, that when it happens, here is how you are to deal with it.
If the slave dies then he shall be avenged. What does that mean? It means the master must die for the taking the life of the slave. Nowhere in American slavery would you have seen this.
If the slave survives, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. What does that mean? Remember slavery was a voluntary transaction between two voluntary participants. That is important to remember.
So, then what is happening in verse 21. That verse is specifically addressing how to deal with a master who has hurt his slave to the point that he has caused him potential death? Here is the answer, if he gets back up, don’t kill the master. Now you might say, “but does that give the master the authority to abuse his slave?” No! If he knocks out a tooth, the slave goes free. The point is, if you mistreat your slave, you forfeit your chance to get your money back. So, when it says the slave is his money, it is not a demeaning thing to the slave but it is speaking to the master, the slave is his master’s capital investment (his money), and losing him under the law is punishment enough; it hits him in the wallet.
In closing, I want to reiterate the overall point. The Old Testament and the New Testament CONDEMNS modern day slavery as we understand it from the history of our nation and SO SHOULD WE.
There is no place for this in God’s house, God’s people, and God’s Kingdom. We must outright declare what the Bible clearly declares. Slavery as we understand it in our nation’s history is a sin and we condemn it because God’s condemns it.