Question of the Week: Was Slavery Allowed in the Old Testament?
Slavery is a very emotionally charged topic given the atrocities that have taken place within in throughout history. Like most emotionally charged topics, they can end up being seen inaccurately simply by association. In order to understand the term slavery in the Bible, we first need to clarify the term slavery itself. Slavery as portrayed through the historically debunked documentary “Roots” involving white settlers kidnapping African tribes and loading them onto ships for forced labor. While we have documentation of human rights violations and a 10% casualty rate for those who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, these ships purchased these slaves from slave markets that had already been in existence since the 7th century. The British Empire didn’t get involved in the slave trade until the 14th century, and quickly lost momentum after the Christian group led by William Wilberforce argued that the form of slavery demonstrated in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was unbecoming of a culture that held the Bible in high regard. If the Bible allowed slavery, then groups like this wouldn’t have had anything to say, let alone have accomplished their goal of abolishing the slave trade across the Western world. You can read more about the roles that Christianity actually played in the Slave Trade through the research of Sarah Foster from Pfander.
The question is if the Bible allows slavery. The clarification is what is meant by slavery. The four primary forms of slavery are as follows; Chattel Slavery, Indentured Servitude, Bondservants, and Employment. This spectrum is determined by one primary factor; the recognition of human rights. Chattel Slavery involves a total stripping of an individual of their human rights until they are reduced to property. They can be neglected, abused, or even killed with no legal repercussions to the slave owner. This is a similar view taken towards unborn children that aren’t legally recognized as human. Indentured Servitude would be a step up from Chattel Slavery in that a person in that state put themselves there voluntarily in order to pay off a debt. While in this state of servitude, the local government determined the rights they gained or lost in that state. It wasn’t a favorable position, but it wasn’t always inhumane either. Bondservants were slaves by choice and considered a legal member of the family. A familiar example would be the roles of butlers or maids in wealthy households. They would be included in the family’s will, be welcome as a part of the home, and expected to fulfill their duties as a servant in that home. While abuses can still take place in this state, the only reason people would voluntarily commit themselves to someone for life would be that those abuses weren’t likely to happen. Modern Employment is only comparable to slavery in function. While committing your time and energy to an employer, you are expected to do what your told when you are told to do so. Unlike Bondservants, you can leave this form of slavery at any time and retain all human rights you would have were you not employed to that company or individual.
The question as to whether or not the Old Testament allows slavery will now be answered. The Old Testament did not allow Chattel Slavery. As we read in Exodus 21:1-6: Slavery could not take place for more than 6 years, bondservanthood was an option that had to legally take place before the Elders of Israel rather than coercion, and marital rights were maintained. As we read in Exodus 21:7-11: Women were given separate rights from men. They could not be put into service the way men were. They were first betrothed to their master as the first year-long process of Hebrew marriage. Sexual Acts could not take place during this time. When the betrothal period ended, they retained the full human rights due to a wife in any other circumstance. As we read in Exodus 21:16: Kidnapping of any kind warranted the death penalty. As we read in Exodus 21:26-27: Any abuse that caused cosmetic harm to your “slave” instantly released them from your service. And as we read in Exodus 22:21: Non-Jewish Slaves and Non-Jewish Citizens were not to be treated any differently than Jewish Slaves and Citizens. The only kinds of slavery the Bible allowed were Indentured Servitude under the authority of God’s Law, Bondservanthood on a Public and voluntary basis, and Employment. By the time of the New Testament, Christians would not hold any form of office or influence in the Roman Empire for another 300 years. They were under the authority and definitions of slavery determined by the Roman Government. So in that state, Jesus and the Apostles spoke to people in that condition. They didn’t allow it. They redefined it as an illustration of our relationship with God. Since the God of the Old Testament didn’t allow Chattel Slavery in His nation, it’s safe to assume that wasn’t what He allowed to take place within His church either.
A Reason For Hope is a ministry of Calvary Christian Fellowship of Tucson
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