“You believe in a God who endorsed slavery? How can you follow that Book??!!!” said every atheist in any Facebook fight ever.
“Well there’s a bit more to it than that.” I usually say, but no one is going to spend the time to read about the cultural context of thousands of years ago as Israel was a free nation, nor of the cultural contextual shift as they themselves became slaves under the occupation of the Roman Empire.
People want the quick answer. They read a headline and repost without doing the proper research. If you want the light answer, go to the summery at the end of this post.
So, was God for slavery as we know it?
The most important thing to understand is that your view of slavery is DEEPLY SHADED through the lens of the last 500 years. You have to divorce yourself of that view and let each century speak for itself in its proper context. Remember CONTEXT IS KEY. Buckle up! Let’s dive in.
Slavery in the Biblical times
To understand this we will have to understand that there is a difference between “harsh slavery” and a “bondservant” indentured servanthood. This may be hard for 21st century ears to hear. We have a hard time with tensions. We tend to say “it’s either ‘this’ or it’s ‘that’ and nothing in between.” Let’s look into the tensions and nuances of slavery in the Bible in both the Old and New Testament.
In the Old Testament: As a free, autonomous nation
There are laws about how to treat slaves.
Exodus 21:2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. 5 But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.”
This would be then called a “bondservant,” someone who works for his master as a part of his household forever. Piercing the ear to the doorpost, was symbolic of tying himself to his master’s house. this was out of the “slave’s” own volition and free will.
In verse 2—one could “buy” a servant, but there was a time restriction of 6 years. On the 7th he should go free. This was a contract between the actual “slave” himself and the “master.” It was not like stealing someone from the African continent and selling them into slavery.
Slavery because of Debt:
One could be bought because of (1.) “debt,” he has no goods to trade and will go hungry and has no way to get on his feet, so he contracts his “services” for “goods”
Leviticus 25:35 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. v36 Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you.
Slavery due to crime:
(2.) “crime.” Exodus 22:3 but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed. “Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft.” This is no different than people in jail working for the community, picking up trash or something of that nature.
But the main cause was debt, so let’s go back to that topic again
Lev 25:39 “‘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…43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly…
So here, the context points to Israelites who have become poor and are going into debt (not much different than credit card debt), they can’t pay for it and are about to have to sell the farm. There was no “credit” (or coinage for that matter) back then. You either had “goods” (sheep, blacksmith business, farm, etc.) or you had “services” (manual labor that you could lend to someone to complete a job, harvest their field, shepherd your sheep, etc.)
What about Foreigners?
Lev 25:44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” Slaves can come from other countries, but you have to “buy them” You can not steal them as seen in Exodus 21:16 “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death…”
Leviticus 25:45 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.
AH!!! See!!! Slavery!
Okay, well let’s look at this in proper context. So a fellow Israelite was not to be a slave. You were to help them get on their feet. But a foreigner you could buy as a slave and they would be your “property.”
A good question to ask is: Who were these Israelites buying slaves from? It would be the country that the foreigner came from. Now most of the surrounding countries were known for being extremely HARSH with their slaves. To be bought by an Israelite was like winning a lottery, much like getting citizenship in the U.S. via marriage. Now you would have a nice master who wouldn’t beat you.
But beyond that, the hard part to swallow is the whole “property” piece. Remember, there were no machines back then that could do your harvesting for you. Slaves were to be well taken care of and not treated harshly. They were the only nation to be commanded by a “holy book” to treat their slaves with dignity, and even as part of the family. I know, I know…still a hard pill to swallow. This is the one place that is still a bit iffy for me too.
But have you ever worked for a job that you felt like a slave because you only got paid enough to pay for rent, food, and clothing? This is not much dissimilar to being a slave in this context. If you don’t work, you don’t have a place to live or food to eat. It is true what the Proverb says, the “Borrower is SLAVE to the LENDER.” Proverbs 22:7
But the difference is, now we never leave that job. And most people won’t become small business owners. Why? Because we’d rather not have the stress and weight of responsibility. To start a business is a huge risk. Therefore we basically become “bondservants” in a sense, where we link ourselves to a certain job for years because we like it, or at the very least, we don’t want to have to move to a different job.
The Pulpit commentary says: “When he [the slave] went out free, (after he had paid his debts) his master was bound to furnish him with provisions out of his flock, and out of his threshing floor, and out of his winepress (Deut. 15:12-14), so that he might have something wherewith to begin the world afresh…”
So looking at the context of cultures back then, it is pretty clear that the way the economy worked was that either you owned land and farmed, or pastured a flock, basically you were a “small business owner” that could trade goods and services with other “small business owners.”
But if you didn’t have a flock, your crop was wiped out, you squandered your wealth, or didn’t have enough inheritance and just didn’t have enough to really get going, then you could sell yourself into “slavery” or “employment” as we would call it today, trading your “services” (manual labor) for “goods” (roof, food, clothing, etc.)
The ideal goal would have been that everyone would be a “small business owner,” but reality shows that is not really possible. Many things go wrong financially in every day life, so God made these laws that help people who are down on their luck to find work and be able to feed their families—with the goal to get out of debt and on their feet so they can go back to their land.
In the New Testament:
So it is important to know that by the time the New Testament rolls around, Israel has been conquered by the Babylonians, who were conquered by the Persians, who were conquered by the Greeks, who were conquered by the Romans in this region. So Israel had been tossed around by every new conqueror. Each of these nations were pretty severe in their treatment of slaves. Israelites were not “slaves” necessarily, but they did not have voting rights, or citizenship rights, or anything of that nature. They were not autonomous as a nation anymore. They were governed by Rome with a short leash to practice their religion. Some of their leaders could remain in a pseudo-position of power, but that was just to keep their people in check (we see this with Pilot and the Pharisees and this uneasy truce between them). As we look through history, any time a nation conquered another nation, it was a delicate balance of breaking them, and then getting them onboard with the new vision so the empire could keep expanding. Out of this time period and political context, and out of this subjected Jewish religion came Christianity.
Christianity brought about a new way of life. Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Now there is equality between slaves and free among Christians, and this was a CRAZY MOVEMENT!!!
From answersingenesis.com it says, “a better translation [than slaves] is to use the word “bondservant.” The Bible is in no way condoning the practice of bondservants who were not being paid the first century equivalent of the minimum wage. They were being paid, and were therefore in a state more akin to a lifetime employment contract rather than “racial” slavery. Moreover, Paul gives clear instructions that Christian ‘masters’ are to treat such people with respect and as equals. Their employment position did not affect their standing in the church.”
Ephesians 6:5 Slaves [employees], obey your earthly masters [bosses] with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
So in the New Testament we have the issue of “Christian slave masters,” and the issue of “Christian slaves.”Now that everything was turned upside-down by this radical transformation of “Christ in me, the hope of Glory,” how do we practically live our lives in this context? What are slave masters supposed to do? How are they to continue making a living in a day when “everybody was doing it?” What about the slaves? What are they supposed to do? These are more complicated questions than we give credit and hard decisions had to be made.
About “slave masters” we have to understand a few things. They were coming out of Roman culture, had become Christians, and this was all new to them.
“What? We are supposed to treat our slaves like family?” This was a totally new idea to Romans (Gentiles) who had become Christians.
Roman slavery wouldn’t be something that would be beaten overnight either, no different than someone who is addicted to alcohol doesn’t usually give up that addiction overnight. 1st, that person has to see that they have an addiction. 2nd they have to decide that it is, in fact, wrong. 3rd, they have to decide what process they will need to take to turn that very large ship around. It would be a lot like a farmer in today’s culture suddenly finding out that all machinery was evil and therefore had to give it all away, and yet still farm all the land he had to feed his family. Expensive? yes. Hard? yes. Would he do it? maybe.
Then there’s the issue of how a “Christian slave” should act. Was he commanded to REVOLT! GAIN THEIR FREEDOM?!!! Civilly disobey even? No.
A Christian works for God, not man. Others (people who aren’t Christians) talk behind the bosses back, but these new “Christians” were respectful even when treated harshly by their Roman masters. This won them the right to speak into their master’s life with the Gospel of Jesus Christ because ONLY someone who had been radically transformed by the joy, and love, and peace of Christ would treat someone good who had treated them harshly. Only someone who followed Jesus’ teachings would “love their enemies.”
1 Corinthians 7:21 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.
Paul says here that there is a bigger picture than our role or status on this earth. You may be living in poverty on this earth, and yet you are princes and heirs of God’s kingdom in the age to come.
In Philippians 4 Paul says that he is content in any station (poor, rich, fed, or hungry, etc.) The main thing is to know that our Hope is in Christ and that our home is in heaven. We are not citizens of this earth but of heaven and we are “pilgrims” just passing through. So anything that happens to us in this life is secondary. Eternity is paramount.
With that being said, slave masters also have souls and need a savior just like every other person on earth. The way that a “Christian slave” treated his “master” may determine that master’s view of that Christian slave’s savior. This upside-down lifestyle was radically transformative: forgive those who persecute you, love your enemy, serve rather than be served, the greatest among you will become the slave of all, etc.
In Philemon we see that Paul is dealing with Roman laws that he has no power over and so uses his influence and friendship with Philemon to see if he will release Onesimus (who was a run-away-slave and had come to Paul). Now in Deut. 23:15-16 under the Hebrew law said that you could help a run away slave, but here Paul is not under Hebrew law. Jews are under Roman Law where it was illegal to harbor a slave. So here we see Paul do both. He submits to Roman law, and at the same time encourages Philemon to take the high road and free his slave. He also encourages the slave to return to his master and serve him, not under compulsion of law, but by the love of his heart.
Our MAIN mission on this earth is to “work as unto the Lord” because we belong to Him. There is a freedom of the spirit that no one can take from you in this life. As Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Summery on Slavery:
So a HUGE thing to understand in dealing with topics like slavery or women’s rights or other things that clang in the ears of 21st century ears is the nuances and balance of several factors including: whether the writers were autonomous or under captivity (and the laws of the captors that they had to obey), or what was the context of the surrounding society.
Under Hebrew law as seen above, slavery was seen more like modern day employment. It was limited in duration, it was used to help get poor people on their feet, and if one liked his employer he could become a life long employee. Also, he was to treat his slaves/employees very well, take care of their needs, not treat them harshly, and treat them like human beings.
But under the Roman Captivity we see the New Testament, they were under the captivity of Rome, which carried way harsher laws. Roman slavery laws looked more like more recent slavery of the U.S. and Caribbean.
And here the early church had to decide what was most important. They had to keep the message of the cross central. There were many injustices to be fought in that day, but the BIGGEST message would have to remain the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To get off on a tangent, they would be seen as “oh that’s just that anti-slavery movement” or “oh those are the guys who are for women’s rights” rather than “oh those are the guys who say that Jesus is the Messiah and has come to rescue them.” They had one arrow in their quiver, and it had to be “Christ and Christ crucified.”
Paul and the others believed that if they kept Jesus central, that the rest of the injustices would eventually be removed: unbelieving husbands would be won to Christ as believing wives submitted to them as unto the Lord (1 Peter 3:1-2). They also believed that if a believing slave treated his unbelieving master in the same way as a submissive wife would treat an unbelieving husband, that too would win over his unbelieving master to the Lord.
Ultimately, our rights are trumped by the bigger picture of winning the world to Christ. Philippians 4 says that “we can do all things through Christ,” meaning that we can suffer, we can have plenty, we can have want, we can be well fed or not fed, none of that matters in the big picture. What does matter is the Gospel. What does matter is Christ and Christ crucified.
I’ll close with this. One of my favorite stories is the story of two young Moravian Christians during the late 1700s. This was during the huge missions explosion of the “Voluntary Mission Movement.” They heard of an island where a wealthy slave owner would not allow Christian missionaries to come. They knew the people on that island would never hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and so they sold themselves into slavery. The money they received paid for their passage to that island. They did this so that those people would hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is a perfect story about how the Gospel trumps my personal rights. It’s a story about how Paul had said basically, “if you’re a slave…USE IT!” It’s something no one could have asked of them, but they did it because they loved their Savior, and their heart broke for what broke His heart. And their feet followed their hearts.
As they pulled away from the harbor, as their families wept, knowing they’d never see them again, these two young men raised their fists to the air and yelled, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering!”