Slavery in the Old Testament poses a difficult challenge for Bible teachers. Granted slavery in the New Testament is a difficult issue as well, but slavery in the Old Testament is a greater problem. In New Testament times, Christians could be found throughout the polytheistic, slave-supporting Roman Empire. New Testament authors addressed the topic of slavery from within that context. But ancient Israel formed a distinct society set apart by God and located in a particular place. The people of Israel received moral, judicial, spiritual, and political laws directly from God. And here’s the problem: some of those God-given laws included stipulations for slavery. So how are we supposed to understand something that we think of as immoral and at the same time divinely inspired?
Since Old Testament slavery is mentioned in many places, I am not attempting to address every issue. My only goal is to make three brief points that should be included in a fair treatment of Old Testament slavery.
Three Points of Consideration
- Slavery in the American South should not be equated with slavery in ancient Israel. Slavery in the Old Testament was governed by laws which made it a more humane institution than slavery in the New World. First, slavery in ancient Israel was voluntary. The poor sold themselves into slavery (Lev. 25:35, 47). Kidnapping was not only banned, it was punishable by death (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7). Second, slavery was temporary. The slave could be released through the payment of a relative or even by making a personal payment (Lev. 25:48-49). If no payment was made, slaves were released after their sixth year of service (Ex. 21:2; Dt. 15:12). Third, slaves were treated humanely: given a day of rest (Ex. 20:10), released from masters who caused physical injury (Ex. 21:26-27), and runaway slaves were given safe harbor (Dt. 23:15-16). For these reasons, some argue that servititude in the Old Testament is similar in many respects to paid employment in the U.S. New World slavery, on the other hand, was fueled by the crime of kidnapping, masters frequently injured slaves, and runaway slaves had to be returned.
- Compared to other ancient Near Eastern cultures, Israel’s laws concerning slavery greatly elevated the status of slaves. That means we should not merely look back at ancient Israel from our modern standpoint. Instead we should make an attempt to project ourselves into the culture of their time period in order to judge Israel’s laws fairly. (See the resource below for a comparison of Israel’s laws to other ancient societies.)
- The purpose behind a given law is not always to establish the ideal situation. Sometimes laws are given to manage the evil in society, not to eliminate it. For example, while divorce is not God’s plan for marriage (Mk. 10:6–9), stipulations for divorce were given (Dt. 24:1–4) because of the hardness of the human heart (Mk. 10:5). Likewise, slavery was not an ideal institution. Slavery in ancient Israel was the result of poverty and poverty was far from ideal. The ideal economic state of affairs is clearly stated: “there will be no poor among you” (Dt. 15:4). If that ideal had been met, slavery in ancient Israel would have ceased to exist.