Kingdom Lifestyle Ministries International
Kingdom Lifestyle Ministries International

Understanding and Contrasting Biblical and American Slavery

I wrote this article because anti-Christian writers have used American slavery to denigrate both the Bible and Bible-believing Christians, and because slavery as a practice has been inextricably connected to the economics of cultures for thousands of years.

Although the United States and many other countries have laws against slavery, it is still taking place in many nations in various forms. For example, in parts of Africa, slavery still exists, and the sex slave trade is still going strong today in places such as Asia and the Middle East. Thus, a study on kingdom economics would not be complete without including a brief explanation on the concept of biblical slavery.

In spite of many U.S. southern Christian slave owners using the Bible to justify slavery, biblical slavery was far different from chattel slavery. Slavery in American history was also driven by economics, not only racism; the financial aspect was motivated by the economic advantage of the elite.

Chattel slavery is when one ethic group assumes the right to own another group because of its supposed racial superiority.

New World slavery was a unique conjunction of features. Its use of slaves was strikingly specialized as unfree labor-producing commodities, such as cotton and sugar, for a world market.…By 1850 nearly two-thirds of the plantation slaves were engaged in the production of cotton…the South was totally transformed by the presences of slavery. Slavery generated profits comparable to those from other investments and was only ended as a consequence of the War Between the States… In the Ancient Near East (and Old Testament), this was not the case. The dominant (statistically) motivation was economic relief of poverty (i.e., ‘slavery’ was initiated by the slave–not by the owner–and the primary uses were purely domestic (except in cases of State slavery, where individuals were used for building projects). The definitive work on Ancient Near East law today is the two-volume work History of Ancient Near Eastern Law… Use of the term slave is much different in how it is used and thought of today compared to biblical times. First of all, we will have the same wide range of meanings of the terms for slave here, as we did in the Ancient Near East. It will refer to general (and sometimes vague) subordination…The word however, denoted not only actual slaves occupied in production or in the household but also persons in subordinate positions, mainly subordinate with regard to the king and his higher officials. Thus the term ebed is sometimes translated as servant. Besides, the term was used as a sign of servility in reference to oneself when addressing persons of higher rank. Finally, the same term was also used in the figurative meaning ‘the slave (or servant) of God.’ Thus, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and prophets, David, Solomon and other kings are regularly called slaves of Yahweh (Exod. 32:13, Lev. 25:55, 1 Sam. 3:9, Ezra 9:11). Similarly, all the subjects of Israel and Judah are called slaves of their kings, including wives, sons and brothers of the latter (1 Sam 17:8 and 29:3, 2 Sam. 19:5, Gen 27:37 and 32:4). Addressing Moses and prophets, the Israelites called themselves their slaves (Num. 32:25, 1 Sam. 12:19). Ruth refers to herself as a slave girl of her relative Boaz (Ruth 3:9). Being a vassal of the Philistine king Achish, David called himself his slave (1 Sam. 28:2).

In reality, biblical slavery was actually more humane than our present penal system, which is another form of involuntary servitude, in which many prisoners are sodomized by other prisoners and must work for the benefit of the state instead of repaying the people they victimized.

The fact that many today blame the Bible for slavery is ludicrous. It was the Bible and Christianity that became the impetus for the abolition of slavery. This movement was led by Evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce, who successfully led the fight to outlaw slavery in the British Empire in 1807, and others like Charles Finney, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and Theodore Weld in the United States. The Bible is so replete with an anti-slavery theme that American slave owners wanted to keep slaves illiterate, or stop them from reading the whole Bible, because of their fear it would result in a slave revolt.

Regarding the history of slavery among the African nations:

Slaves have been owned in black Africa throughout recorded history. In many areas there were large-scale slave societies, while in others there were slave-owning societies. Slavery was practiced everywhere even before the rise of Islam, and black slaves exported from Africa were widely traded throughout the Islamic world. Approximately 18 million Africans were delivered into the Islamic trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades between 650 and 1905. In the second half of the 15th century, Europeans began to trade along the west coast of Africa, and by 1867 between 7 million and 10 million Africans had been shipped as slaves to the New World. The relationship between African and New World slavery was highly complementary. African slave owners demanded primarily women and children for labor and lineage incorporation and tended to kill males because they were troublesome and likely to flee. The transatlantic trade, on the other hand, demanded primarily adult males for labor and thus saved from certain death. In the Ancient Near East (and especially the Old Testament), the opposite was the case. This should be obvious from the motive aspect. These were choices by the impoverished to enter this dependency state, in return for economic security and protection. Some slavery contracts actually emphasized this voluntary aspect….A person would either enter into slavery or be sold by a parent or relative. Persons sold their wives, grandchildren, brother (with his wife and child), sister, sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, nephews and niece. Many of the documents emphasize that the transaction is voluntary. This applies not only to self-sale but also to those who are the object of sale, although their consent must sometimes have been fictional, as in the case of a nursing infant.

Some biblical passages that were used to fuel the abolitionist movement:

Exodus 20:2 is the great exodus theme in which God delivered a whole nation from slavery.
Leviticus 25:10: This great jubilee passage spelled freedom for all slaves and released all those who were in debt, thus demonstrating God’s highest ideal for societal relationships.
Galatians 3:28 is the famous egalitarian verse that puts male/female, slave/free on the same footing before God. This was a primary verse used by both feminists and abolitionists in the early to mid-1800’s that led both to the abolition of slavery and the women’s suffrage movement.
In Gal. 4:1-5:1 Paul distinguishes between the believer who is free and the non-Christian Jews who he called slaves.
In 1 Cor. 7:21 Paul encourages the slave to be made free if possible, thus showing the Lord’s disapproval for slavery.
In 1 Cor. 7:23 Paul says “not to become the slaves of men.”
In Philem. 16 Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus (his runaway slave) not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. (Many theologians believe the future Bishop of Ephesus by the name of Onesimus was this same person.)
The following are biblical passages and principles regarding slavery:

Kidnapping people for slavery was forbidden by Exod. 21:16.
There were four ways a person could become a slave:
They were purchased from foreign countries. In Lev. 25:44-46 they were sold by their own countrymen. This was humane because it gave these unbelievers a chance to be converted to Judaism, which in turn would require their eventual release.
They were captured in war, as in Num. 31:32-35 and Deut. 21:10-14. The rules for slaves captured in war are more humane than the way prisoners of war are treated by most nations in similar situations.
Penalty for theft. In Exod. 22:1-3, the thief had to work for the family he or she stole from until restitution was made. This is more just than the present American penal system, in which the victims receive no benefit from the forced labor of the person incarcerated.
To pay debt. In Lev. 25:39-42 and Exod. 21:7, those who sell themselves as slaves to pay debt are to be treated as hired persons not as slaves. Female slaves were treated differently. Many times female slaves were concubines or secondary wives (Gen. 16:3, 22:24, 30:3, 30:9 and 36:12, and Judges 8:31 and 9:18). Some Hebrew fathers thought it more advantageous for their daughters to become concubines of well-to-do neighbors than to become the wives of men in their own social class.
They could buy their own freedom (Lev. 25:49).
All were freed in the seventh year or in the year of jubilee (Deut. 15:1-2, Lev. 25:40-41).
They were given gifts when freed (Deut. 15:14).
Unbelievers weren’t freed (Lev. 25:40-46).
In Deut. 23.15, this great passage forbidding the return of a slave to their owner motivated those in the American underground railroad: “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.”
General Treatment of Slaves

The remainder of this paper is taken from:

“The law protected slaves from being abused by their masters. Killing a slave was punishable by death, (Exod. 21:20). Permanently injured slaves had to be set free, (Exod. 21:26-27). Slaves who ran away from oppressive masters were effectively freed, (Deut. 23:15-16). The law also gave slaves a day of rest every week (Exod. 20:10 and Deut. 5:14).

Hebrews could become slaves of a fellow Hebrew if they committed a crime such as theft and had no other way of paying the fine (Exod. 22:1-3) or if they became impoverished and sold themselves or their family into slavery….Kidnapping someone and selling him or her into slavery was forbidden (Deut. 24:7).

When one Hebrew owned another Hebrew as a slave, the law commanded lenient treatment:

Slaves were to be treated as hired workers, not slaves (Lev. 25:39-43)
All slaves were to be freed after six years (Exod. 21:2, Deut. 15:12)
Freed slaves were to be liberally supplied with grain, wine and livestock (Deut. 15:12-15)
Every fiftieth year (the year of jubilee), all Hebrew slaves were to be freed, even those owned by foreigners (Lev. 25:10 and 47-54).
In special cases, slaves could choose to remain with their masters if they felt it was in their best interests (Deut. 15:16-17). If a Hebrew sold himself as a slave to a foreigner, he reserved the right to buy his freedom (Lev. 25:47-49) and was still to be treated as a hired man (Lev. 25:53).

While foreign slaves could be made slaves for life, the laws regarding the general treatment of slaves applied to them as well (Lev. 24:22, Num. 15:15-16). The law made it clear that foreigners were not inferiors who could be mistreated (Exod. 23:9). Instead they were to be loved just as fellow Israelites were (Lev. 19:33-34)….

In some cases, fathers could sell their daughters as a maidservant and wife. Since they were then married to their master, they were not automatically set free after six years (though unmarried female slaves were freed, as Deut. 15:12 explicitly states). However, they were still protected by the law. If the husband divorced his wife, the law labeled it “unfair treatment” and allowed for her to be freed (Exod. 21:8). If someone bought a wife for his son, he was to treat her as his daughter (Exod. 21:9). Neglected wives were automatically freed (Exod. 21:10-11).

Captives of war apparently became slaves, and men could choose to marry female captives. There were similar laws for the protection of these women, even though they would have been in the lowest class of society. Captive women were given a month to mourn their families and adjust to their new home before marrying (Deut. 21:13). If divorced by their husband, they were freed (Deut. 21:14). Also, they could not be sold to anyone else (Deut. 21:14).

The law explicitly condemned rape (Deut. 22:25-27), prostitution (Deut. 23:17-18), sex outside of marriage, whether consensual or not (Exod. 22:16-17, Deut. 22:28-29) and sex with a slave who was betrothed or married to someone else (Lev. 19:20-22). Therefore any forced intercourse would have been against both the letter and the spirit of the law.

The New International Version translates Exod. 21:21 as, “…but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” While there is an argument for this translation, it is at the least unclear that it’s the correct one, so I am using the standard meaning of “he is not to be punished if the slave survives for a day or two.”

Most likely, this law was intended to distinguish between cases where a slave died as a direct result of their master’s mistreatment and where they died of natural causes. It could of course be the case that a slave was severely beaten but didn’t succumb to their injuries for a few days. In that situation, the case could have been brought before the priests and they could have used common sense and ruled that it was murder (Deut. 17:8-11). One should keep in mind that the laws given in the Old Testament are examples, not legalese. For instance, Exod. 21:33-34 mentions only an ox or donkey falling into a pit, but that hardly means that if another animal fell into someone’s pit the owner wouldn’t receive compensation.

Did slavery take advantage of the poor? Skeptics have objected that poverty would force people to sell themselves as slaves. Impoverished Hebrews could not then be said to have chosen slavery of their own freewill. However, the law provided several safety nets for the poor within society. Gleanings left over from harvest were left for the poor to pick up (Deut. 24:19-21). Towns had the equivalent of food pantries for the poor, which were stocked using tithes (Deut. 14:28-29). People were commanded to lend generously to the poor and provide for them (Deut. 15:7-11, Lev. 25:35-37) without charging interest (Exod. 22:25).

Finally, the law was adamant about providing justice for the poor and not taking advantage of them (Deut. 27:19, Exod. 22:22-27). Only under extreme circumstances would someone be forced to sell themselves into slavery because of their poverty. If the Israelites had followed the law faithfully, there would not have been any financial need at all (Deut. 15:4-5).

Were slaves forced to say they “loved” their masters and/or serve them for life? The law plainly states that Hebrew slaves were to be freed after serving six years (Exod. 21:2, Deut. 15:12). If a slave wished to remain, it was his free choice. Since Hebrews typically became slaves only due to poverty, some may have felt they were better off working for a rich family and being provided for rather than struggling to make it on their own (Deut. 15:16).

Slaves weren’t forced to say they loved their masters if they wanted to stay; the speech given in Exod. 21:5 is only an example. A parallel passage in Deut. 15:16 only has the slave saying he doesn’t want to leave.

As for whether slaves could be forced into lifelong slavery, Exod. 21:6 says the ceremony for lifelong slaves was to take place in front of a judge. Slaves had to publicly state their intention to remain as slaves; their master couldn’t lie and say they’d expressed their intentions privately. While an evil master could force his slaves to make the proclamation by threatening them, it was the responsibility of the priests, judges and community at large to observe masters’ treatment of their slaves (Lev. 25:53). This observation was also in their best interests, since one person’s disobedience brought guilt on those who knew what was going on and failed to do anything about it (Lev. 19:17), which in turn would result in adverse consequences for the entire community (Deut. 11:26-28)”

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