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Biblical Slavery

Modern Slavery Forbidden

God is a God of justice. Many have pointed to the slavery mentioned in the Bible as something that is wrong and inconsistent with the morals of God. But they read it incorrectly. Modern slavery and biblical slavery are completely different and cannot be rightly compared. Modern slavery denies the justice and rights the Bible teaches should be practiced. Modern slaves were kidnapped, brutalized, and treated like cattle solely because of the color of their skin. The Bible never teaches the superiority of one person over another by divine right. Rather, the Bible teaches we should “love your neighbor as yourself” in Mark 12:31 and that “there is neither slave nor free” Gal 3:28

“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” Exodus 21:16 (This is the modern definition of slavery, and the Bible specifically forbids it.)

We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine. 1 Tim. 1:9-10 (The new testament strictly forbids this form of slavery as well. This is also translated as "kidnappers" or "menstealers.")

And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.–Exodus 3:9-10 (The Israelites slavery to the Egyptians was a forbidden form of slavery because it was oppressive and it was forced.)

Biblical Slavery

So if modern slavery is forbidden, then what is being talked about in the Bible when it seems to give slavery credibility as a legitimate form of relationship. A slave could refer to a few different types of situations. 

1) Criminal Slave - A 1st type of slavery is a prisoner who has committed a crime. When a man is convicted of a crime it sometimes justifies a prison sentence. During his time in prison, he is forced to do, or not do, certain things. He is justly confined to a small living space, and his freedoms are revoked. Sometimes, he is forced to work long hours, for which he does not receive even minimum wage. Would it be justifiable to label such a loss of freedom as a type of slavery? Yes, it would. However, is his loss of freedom a morally permissible situation? Certainly. He has become a slave of the State because he violated certain laws that were designed to ensure the liberty of his fellow citizen. So this type of "slavery" is seen as justified.

2) Prisoner Of War - A 2nd type of slavery is a prisoner of war. Who has the right to determine when slavery can be imposed on a certain person or group of people? The answer, of course, is God. In the Old Testament, immoral nations who practiced unspeakable evils surrounded the Hebrews. In order to rid the world of their destructive influence, the children of Israel dealt with them in several ways. One of those ways included forcing the wicked nations into slavery. Many of the slave regulations in the Old Testament deal with the treatment of individuals and nations who had committed crimes against humanity that were worthy of death. The wicked people were graciously allowed to live, but they were subjected to slavery. It was an alternative to the massacre of enemy populations in wartime. I believe that most would agree that a "prisoner of war" is a necessary and justified form of slavery. Don't worry, we will see that God does enforce regulations on how the people are to be treated.

3) Hired Servant - The 3rd type of slave is a form of servant, or like a live-in maid or butler. This is a mutually beneficial relationship in which the "slave" enters into this relationship by choice as not everyone could survive on their own. And the slave is able to leave that relationship at any time. This offered many people guaranteed housing and care.  We also see slaves having the right to observe the Sabbath day and Feasts of God in Deut. 16:14 & Exodus 20:10. This is someone deciding to sell their labor in exchange for compensation. We are all very aware of this type of slave as most people today call them employees. The masters are the business owners. So slavery doesn't seem so bad when you redefine the term as the Bible uses it.

4) Debt Slave - The 4th type of slave is a debt slave. This is another legitimate form of slavery in which a person may work to pay off their debts. Most people today are in debt and are enslaved to their jobs in order to pay their debts. Anybody that lives paycheck to paycheck is a slave. God does not want us to live in that type of situation, but it is the slave that many times enslaves themselves, not the master. 

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 1 Cor. 7:21-23 (God does not desire for us to enslave ourselves with bad choices, he wants us to make good choices so that we may gain freedom.)

"Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. Ex. 22:3 (This is a system of justice. Is it not fair for the thief to labor in order to pay restitution?)

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. Deut. 15:1-3 (God provided a solution that provided both justice and mercy.)

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. Lev. 25:10 (Here is God's solution for mercy on all mankind from debts and other loses.)

“ ‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. “ ‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.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. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly. “ ‘If a foreigner residing among you becomes rich and any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to the foreigner or to a member of the foreigner’s clan, they retain the right of redemption after they have sold themselves. One of their relatives may redeem them: An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in their clan may redeem them. Or if they prosper, they may redeem themselves. They and their buyer are to count the time from the year they sold themselves up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for their release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired worker for that number of years. If many years remain, they must pay for their redemption a larger share of the price paid for them. If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, they are to compute that and pay for their redemption accordingly. They are to be treated as workers hired from year to year; you must see to it that those to whom they owe service do not rule over them ruthlessly. “ ‘Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev. 25:39-55 (All 3 scenarios God says not to rule over them ruthlessly.)

Regulations On Biblical Slavery

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. Exodus 22:21 (Obviously treating a slave rightly and without oppression is mandated.)

And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. Ephesians 6:9 (No threatening slaves. And masters and slaves are equal in value to God, just not equal in social status in the world.)

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.–Colossians 4:1 (Fairness and doing the right thing are principles that masters should follow in treating their slaves.)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Col. 3:22 (Slaves also had a moral duty to obey and work hard for their masters.)

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” 1 Peter 2:18 

Servants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of your heart, as to Christ” Ephesians 6:5

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Deut. 23:15 (Servants were free to leave at anytime as it was a mutual relationship. So if a master mistreated them, they could flee to another master who treated them better.)

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Deut. 24:14

“ ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Lev. 19:33-34

If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. Deut. 15:18

“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. 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. 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. “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 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. “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. “Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. Exodus 21:2-12 (We see that slavery had nothing to do with someones skin color back then, as Hebrews were even slaves sometimes. Hebrew slaves had a set limit of time they served. They could work no longer than 6 years, and after that, had to be released from their contract for nothing. Some people actually became slaves forever by choice, simply because they would have bonded with their “master,” and would have preferred to stay with them. They didn’t want to be freed in some cases. You might ask how a man could justly sell his daughter into slavery? Well say the man did not have the financial means to care for his daughter, this is an alternative to death by starvation. The daughter would be protected by God's law from the master. But you can never completely rid people of sin.)

Explaining Slave Beatings In The Bible

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his moneyExodus 21:20-21 (This is not condoning beating of slaves unjustly. It is simply stating what is and isn't suitable for the death penalty. However, we must understand that there were no police or prisons back then. Masters were tasked with the duty of disciplining slaves as some were unruly, destructive, and rebellious. These slaves would fall under the category of "prisoners of war" and "criminal slaves." Let's see what additional laws were in place for that.)

When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth. Exodus 21:26-27 (Here we see God's protection to slaves. The slave is to go free if the master is to harm them in improper ways. It is not to the master's benefit to do this because the master would lose the value that that slave provided.)

“ ‘Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death. You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.’ ” Lev. 24:17-22 (The law is just and penalties were consistent with that which was committed. Life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. This is all protection for slaves.)