The idea of forcing a fellow human being to work for you is repulsive, even more so when history shows us that this barbaric behavior actually happened in our country. Today, slavery still exists in the form of forced labor, sex trafficking, and others.
Slavery is mentioned many times in the Bible, so how can God be good when slavery exists? Does God condone slavery?
Before diving into this topic, we need to understand terminology. When the term “slave” is used in the Bible, it is not the same type of slavery as that which Americans did to Africans in the past few centuries. That type of slavery was forced. People in Africa were removed from their homeland and brought to America to do manual labor. Refusal to work for the White Americans resulted in punishment. What’s worse is that certain people of African descent were specifically bred so as to allow the procreation of stronger and healthier offspring who would later be sold into slavery. There strong bodies would bring a higher price at the auctions. There is no argument that this was a dark time in America’s past, and it is a shame that a human could do this to another person.
The idea of “man-stealing,” which is what White Americans did to the Africans, is condemned in the Bible (Exodus 21:16). In the New Testament, “man-stealing” is comparable to sins such as patricide, matricide, murder, adultery, and lying (1 Timothy 1:8-10). There is no way the Bible could have been used to support the slave trade.
So what kind of slavery was the Bible talking about? Slavery is mentioned many times, but this refers to a different type of slavery. The word for slavery is better defined as “bond-servant.” A bond-servant is a person who owed a debt to another person, and if they had no assets with which to pay that debt, the bond-servant would work off his debt. The bond-servant did this willingly, as opposed to being forced against his will or stolen from his homeland.
Slavery, as we read about in the Old Testament, was not based on race or nationality. People chose to be bond-servants so as to pay off their debts and provide for their own families. The bond-servant would work, and in return he had food and shelter. In addition, a person could choose to remain a bond-servant even after the debt was paid because they would continue to have their needs provided. If a land owner was abusive, which was forbidden by Mosaic Law, the bond-servant would not want to choose to remain with him. If the land owner was kind and protective, continued servant hood would be an appealing option.
Now that slavery has been defined, we know it is not the same as the slavery that once existed in America. But, what about the Mosaic Laws pertaining to punishing bond-servants? Before answering this, think about your position at your place of employment. You are under the supervision of someone above you in rank. You may be a front-line worker, and you have to answer to a foreman or supervisor. If you don’t perform your job duties as you were hired to do, you will be reprimanded, corrected, retrained, disciplined, or terminated. These options are in place for corrective action. Such administrative decisions would be a justified result of an employee not doing what they were hired and agreed to do.
With that being said, a bond-servant in Old Testament times had the duty to fulfill his obligations to the land owner in order to pay back his debt. Failure to work, laziness, or lack of commitment by the bond-servant would justify in a punishment. Could the bond-servant’s wages be reduced? No, because he had no wages. Could he have property removed? No, because he had no property. The only way to punish (correct) a person was through physical discipline. The Mosaic Laws were made to limit the amount and degree of punishment.
While some may think the laws were cruel, let us remember a few things. First, we are only told about the laws. We do not find references in the Old Testament where bond-servants were actually beaten. Second, this was written to a different culture in a different time. Judging them by today’s standards would make one ethnocentric. To reiterate, the law gave limits as to what could be done, not what was already being done. Let us remember that there are heinous things done by historical figures in the Bible, but that does not at all mean God condoned it.
Compare the Mosaic laws for slavery to that of the Egyptian brutality placed upon the Israelites prior to their release from bondage. The Egyptians were very cruel to the slaves. When the Israelites were freed from slavery, they very well could have had the same mindset that beating another person to death was okay, because that is what they themselves experienced. God put the laws in place to prevent this. God limited the degree of punishment thereby separating the Israelites from the cruel Egyptians. In fact, God ordered the death of a master if he beat his slave and the slave died as a result (Exodus 21:20) In addition, if a land owner was to cause injury to his servant, he would have to set that servant free, and this would result in the land owner not only losing a worker but also not getting his debt paid back. If a land owner broke one of the laws, the results would be devastating to himself, his business, his finances, and his reputation. Because of these laws, it is likely the case that slaves were rarely, if ever, abused.
In this sinful, fallen world, there is a great amount of suffering. It was never God’s plan for people to fall on hard times and have to sell themselves to be bond-servants. When sin entered the world through Adam, the downfall started and spread exponentially. The groaning of this world is even worse today (Romans 8:22).
Are you a slave? The Bible tells us we are a slave to sin. We naturally do that which is sinful. Jesus came to take away our sin. He cancelled out the certificate of debt so that we no longer have to be slaves to sin. He paid the price for our sins, and we who repent of our sins and confess Jesus Christ as Lord become free from sin’s bondage.
We have only scratched the surface of this topic. One needs to understand the culture, the economy, the ethics, the terminology, the era of time, and the original languages to fully understand this issue. Please visit this blog/podcast by a former atheist who goes into much more detail on the topic.