Slavery in the Bible

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"Slavery" is referenced, permitted and regulated in the Bible. The Hebrew word ebed is translated as "slave" or "servant", but the concept is not fully the same as the modern understanding of "slave", the institution of which was not a monolithic institution. Slave included various types of "persons in subordinate positions"[1] Therefore, "all the subjects of Israel and Judah are called slaves of their kings",[1] while loss of freedom and degree of subjugation more distinctly defines subjects of institutionalized slavery.

Some biblical passages mentioning slavery are:

  • "And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant."—Genesis 17:12-13, showing that slaves were considered subject to the Old Covenant.
  • "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money."—Exodus 21:20-21
  • "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free: Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever."—Exodus 21:2-6. Hebrews may be slaves for a maximum of seven years, then must be freed. Any children produced during the period of slavery shall however remain the property of his owner.
  • "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour."—Leviticus 25:44-46 (Leviticus 25 contains more detailed rules regarding who may or may not be enslaved)
  • "And all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, which were not of the children of Israel, Their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy a tribute of bondservice (slavery) unto this day. But of the children of Israel did Solomon make no bondmen: but they were men of war, and his servants, and his princes, and his captains, and rulers of his chariots, and his horsemen."—I Kings 9:20-22
  • "And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger's family: After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him:"—Levitcus 25:47-48
  • "Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant (slave)? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather."—I Corinthians 7:20-21
  • "Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven."—Colossians 4:1
  • "Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward."—1 Peter 2:18
  • "Let as many servants (slaves) as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort."—I Timothy 6:1-2
  • "We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, ... for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine..." 1_Timothy 1:9-10
  • The book of Philemon is a record of Paul sending a slave back to his master "no longer as a slave but more than a slave-- a beloved brother." (Philemon 1: 16)
  • Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Ephesians 6:5
  • Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. 1 Timothy 6:1-2

Old Testament

The Hebrew Bible sanctioned the use of its regulated forms of slavery, in a world in which slavery existed as a long established socio-economic institution. This sanction was often used to justify slavery later on. The Old Testament requirements were both similar to other cultures as well as often being counter-cultural in making it more humane,[2] and are contrasted to slavery based upon race, such as when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.[3] The law of Moses broadly prohibits the permanent enslavement of the native inhabitants of Israel but permits the enslavement of immigrants and the occupants of other countries. Depending on the precise circumstances, ethnicity, nationality and any enslaved relatives of a slave, some must be freed after a specified time, while others remained slaves for life.

The first mention in the Bible of slaves (servants in some translations) being used is that of Abraham's army, by which home-born servants he rescued his nephew Lot. (Genesis 14:14-16)

Later, in Israel's preparation for conquering the Canaanite nations, they were instructed to take as tributary states neighboring cities of enemies which surrendered to them, but which were not part of the Canaanite nations. If they choose war, the women and children were saved alive and became Israel's. (Deuteronomy 20:10-16) The women could be taken to be a wife (after a month of mourning), but must go free if later divorced. (Leviticus 25:44-46); (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) Israel did not go to war with distant nations, and though slaves were often obtained through warfare in the ancient near east, apparently such means were not a significant source for Israel,[4] at least after the initial conquering of the land.

The main source of slavery was by means of purchase. The prevention of poverty by constant employment seems to have been a priority in ancient Israel. While both Israelites or "a stranger or a sojourner" fell into "decay" were to be relieved by being taken in by those in Israel, (Leviticus 25:35) this also could result in slavery. Israel was instructed that they could buy - including from foreigners - temporary Israelite slaves who sold themselves into such due to poverty, or were sold. However, Israel could also purchase permanent foreign ones, the latter being from foreign nations or from strangers living among them, and which purchased servants became the property of the owner's posterity as well. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

While the permanency of purchased slaves was determined by nationalism, race did not mandate slavery. Though foreign slaves were the permanent property of the family, yet certain benefits were realized by being part of the family, while certain injuries by the owner afforded them freedom, as did escape, without others returning him. This aspect would seem to foster good treatment of slaves. In addition, there appears to have been no provision for selling or trading slaves after they were purchased.

The following are pertinent conditions of slavery.

  • It was specified that Israelite slaves were not to be made to serve with rigor, “but as an hired servant, and as a sojourner.” (Leviticus 25:39-43,53)
  • Except for the following situation, Israelite slaves were required to be given freedom after six years of servitude. (Exodus 21:2-6)
  • A Hebrew father could sell his daughter to be a wife, or concubine (an additional wife),[5] of the owner or his son, in which case marriage took the place of release. However, if the owner broke the betrothal (engagement) and so failed to marry her, then he was required to let her be redeemed to freedom. If she was married to his son, the neglect of equal care for her in food, or in clothing or in sexual relations also mandated her release. (Exodus 21:7-11)
  • The male Hebrew slave was to be released with abundant provisions, designed to help economically establish him. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)
  • Israelite servants were also required to be released in the 50 year Jubilee, when sold or mortgaged land, which had been originally divided by lot (Numbers 26:52-56), also returned to the original owner. (Leviticus 25:8-13) Provision was made for Hebrew slaves who freely choose perpetual servitude. (Exodus 21:5-6; Deuteronomy 15:16-18)
  • Foreigners who dwelt among the Hebrews were not to be oppressed, but loved as one of their own (Leviticus 19:33-34), and could buy and sell Hebrew slaves. However, these could be redeemed out of slavery by close kin, for a price corresponding to the year of the jubilee. If not redeemed the slaves was to then go free at that time. (Leviticus 25:47-55)
  • In contrast to Israelites, foreigners could be bought to be slaves, and normally this was for life, and the offspring of slaves also become servants of the family perpetually. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
  • The owner was to be punished for killing any servant unjustly, with the penalty likely being death,(Exodus 21:18-21), by being slain with the sword, as the Targum and Jarchi understand it.[6] (Exodus 21:21-22; cf. Leviticus 24:21-22) Philo stated that premeditated murder of the servant, with malice, required the master's death.[7] If fatality was not evidenced for a day or so then no punishment was prescribed regarding a foreign servant. For freemen a monetary compensation was mandated in the latter case.
  • Freedom was mandated for any slave which suffered a loss of eyesight or a tooth due to his master striking him. (Exodus 21:26-27)

All slaves, Israelite and foreign, were to rest on the seventh day and other sabbaths, and from planting and sowing during the seventh year and the fiftieth year Jubilee. (Leviticus 25:1-13KJV)

New Testament

Under the New Testament, the primitive church as a model organic community had no slavery (Acts 2:41-47), but it initially grew within the slave states of Greece and Rome, and in which Christian faith was oppressed persecuted. As the practice of slavery seems so antithetical by nature to the second Great Commandment, esp. at least as was common practiced, the regulation of it rather than an outright repudiation of it by the church - in which all races are spiritually one - (Gal 3:28) appears problematic. However, under the N.T. the totality of commands regarding slavery radically reformed it, and while slaves were only recommended to obtain freedom, and owners were not outright commanded to give them such, yet it is seen as working toward such, with slavery being left as a cultural appendage that the fuller outworking of Holy Christian love could jettison when a greatly revived church and social/political opportunity enabled it. Applying the requirements of fraternal love enabled tolerance of slavery without a radical change in the entrenched economic system, in a society in which opposition to slavery at that time likely would have made it worse for the slaves. Instead, the primitive church, much of which was made up of slaves, focused on freeing souls from spiritual bondage, and of being victorious and useful in whatever situation they were found, and being a "holy nation" themselves.

In the New Testament, Christian slaves are admonished to obey their masters, "as to the Lord, and not to men" (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25; 1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18), with the like attitude being required of masters toward their servants, as they also had a Master in Heaven. Masters were to act without threatening (Ephesians 6:9), rendering just and equal recompense to their servants (Colossians 4:1), with freedom being the ideal for slaves if it could be lawfully obtained (1 Corinthians 7:21-23).

The Epistle to Philemon by the apostle Paul was an important text in regard to slavery, and was used by both pro slavery advocates and abolitionists,[8][9] the former because Paul is returning Philemon, an escaped slave back to his master Onesimus, seemingly in contrast to Old Testament law. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16) However, as Roman law required the return of escaped slaves, not returning Onesimus would have left him a servus fugitivus,[10] with a bounty on his head and perhaps a brand on his back.[11][12] Moreover, Paul made it clear he was not returning a slave, but one whom was to be received back no longer "as a slave, but as a brother beloved" (he had been converted by Paul while both were imprisoned), even as Paul's own son or Paul himself, though Paul would have preferred Philemon to remain and minister in place of Onesimus. Paul further offers to pay for any debt owed by Philemon (Philemon 1:1-25).

In contrast to laws regarding slavery, purely moral laws of the Old Testament, versus judicial and civil legislation, are affirmed and even made stricter.[13]

Later history

There was little or no opposition to slavery by Christians until the late 18th century, when Quakers in Britain and the American colonies started to become involved. The Second Great Awakening and the evangelical movement in Britain in the 1790-1840 period led to the rise of abolitionism as a religious force.[14]

Pat Robertson while acknowledging the Old Testament's teachings on slavery, argues that "we have moved in our conception of the value of human beings over the years" until we have realized that slavery is "terribly wrong."[15]

Christian apologetics and slavery in the Bible

Christian apologists have written a number of work relating to slavery in the Bible some of which are cited below:

Atheism and slavery/forced labor

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Does God condone slavery in the Bible? (Christian ThinkTank)
  2. anthropologist Dexter Callender
  3. Slavery and the Torah -
  4. Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman (main ed.), DoubleDay:1992
  5. Genesis 25:1; cf. 1 Chronicles 1:32; Genesis 30:4; cf. 35:22
  6. Dr. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, Exodus 21:20
  7. The Special Laws, III, 15:141
  8. Religion and the Antebellum Debate Over Slavery, by John R. McKivigan, Mitchell Snay
  9. God Against Slavery, p. 140, by Rev. George B. Cheever, D.D
  10. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law, by Adolf Berger
  11. Rome Exposed - Roman Life
  12. [1] Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome By Professor Keith Bradle
  13. Sex Laws versus Slavery
  14. David Brion Davis, The problem of slavery in Western culture‎ (1967); Davis, The problem of slavery in the age of revolution, 1770-1823‎ (1975)
  15. Pat Robertson on the Bible and slavery