There seems to be a lot of ignorance and confusion among Americans (especially on the Left) about what the Bible says about slavery and the impact that the Judeo-Christian tradition had on that peculiar institution. So it’s time to set the record straight: the Bible does not encourage or approve of slavery and it is the Judeo-Christian tradition that provided the moral force to abolish it.
First of all, it is important to realize that slavery was by and large uncontroversial and accepted in the ancient pagan world. Slavery was widely practiced in every ancient civilization, but only one civilization took it upon itself to abolish slavery within its own communities by force of law: the Christian West. In fact, slavery still exists today in some parts of the Islamic world and Asia.
It is not surprising that historically the Judeo-Christian tradition is responsible for abolishing slavery if one takes a careful look at the Bible. Equality before the eyes of God became equality before the law for all.
The Old Testament and Slavery
In ancient times, slavery was not based on racism. In ancient Israel, the slaves were prisoners of war, criminals, or indentured servants. Relative to the time, slavery was a humane alternative to slaughter, cruel punishment, starvation, or debt imprisonment. Most Hebrew slaves were probably bondsmen who voluntarily bound themselves to a master and thus not really “slaves” in the modern understanding of the term.
Keep in mind one crucial point when reading the Old Testament: just because it regulated a practice does not mean that it approved of that practice. For example, the Old Testament regulates divorce, but it also says that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). And Jesus tells us that the Father tolerated divorce among the Israelites because of the hardness of their hearts (Mk 10:4-5; Mt 19:8) Thus, though the Old Testament regulated slavery, it did not approve of it.
Moreover, compared with the other ancient civilizations of that time, the regulations of slavery within the Old Testament were almost always to moderate the practice. For example, according to the Code of Hammurabi, a person who harbors a runaway slave should be put to death. In contrast, the Old Testament prohibits one from returning a runaway slave to its master: “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deut 23:16-17).
Anyone who abducted another person and sold them into slavery (cf. the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis): “A kidnapper, whether he sells his victim or still has him when caught, shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).
It was required that slaves be freed after six years or on the Jubilee Year:
“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, sells himself to you, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year you shall dismiss him from your service, a free man” (Deut 15:12; see also Exodus 21:2).
“When, then, your countryman becomes so impoverished beside you that he sells you his services, do not make him work as a slave. Rather, let him be like a hired servant or like your tenant, working with you until the jubilee year, when he, together with his children, shall be released from your service and return to his kindred and to the property of his ancestors. Since those whom I brought out of the land of Egypt are servants of mine, they shall not be sold as slaves to any man. Do not lord it over them harshly, but stand in fear of your God” (Lev 25:39-43).
A slave could also buy his freedom or be redeemed by relatives: “When one of your countrymen is reduced to such poverty that he sells himself to a wealthy alien who has a permanent or a temporary residence among you, or to one of the descendants of an immigrant family, even after he has thus sold his services he still has the right of redemption; he may be redeemed by one of his own brothers, or by his uncle or cousin, or by some other relative or fellow clansman; or, if he acquires the means, he may redeem himself” (Lev 25:47-49).
Moreover, a slave was to be treated quite generously upon emancipation! “When you do so, you shall not send him away empty-handed, but shall weight him down with gifts from your flock and threshing floor and wine press, in proportion to the blessing the LORD, your God, has bestowed on you.For remember that you too were once slaves in the land of Egypt, and the LORD, your God, ransomed you. That is why I am giving you this command today. If, however, he tells you that he does not wish to leave you, because he is devoted to you and your household, since he fares well with you, you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear into the door, and he shall then be your slave forever” (Deut 15:13-17; emphasis added).
A slave not wanting to leave his master? Obviously, this is not the kind of slavery that most Americans envision when they hear the word.
The Mosaic Law recognizes that slaves are human beings, not merely property. The punishment for killing a slave is the same as for killing a free person, i.e. death: “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished…. But if injury, ensures you shall give life for life….” (Exodus 21:20, 23). This was unique in the ancient world at that time.
All slaves were expected to participate in religious ceremonies and duties of the household too, including observing the Sabbath and all holy days:
“…but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you” (Exodus 20: 10).
“In the place which the LORD, your God, chooses as the dwelling place of his name, you shall make merry in his presence together with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and the Levite who belongs to your community, as well as the alien, the orphan and the widow among you” (Deut 16:11).
If a household had no heirs, the slave could inherit the estate: “Abram continued, ‘See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir'” (Genesis 15:3).
There are even special regulations for female slaves. Whereas sex slaves were common in the ancient Near East and in the Islamic world, it was forbidden under Mosaic Law: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house. But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive’s garb. After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife. However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion” (Deut 21:10-14).
And of course, we must not forget the Exodus story, how God freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. God continually reminds them of the freedom he gave to them and thus to take it to heart not to mistreat their own slaves. And let’s not forget that black slaves in America looked to the story of Exodus for hope and inspiration.
The New Testament and Slavery
In the Roman Empire (the time of the New Testament), slaves were apprentices and indentured servants. They represented a broad social and legal category. Some slaves were very well educated and thus more valuable to their owners (e.g. Epictetus). It was common for slaves to live apart from their masters with their own home and families. In fact, many slaves did not want to be free, and some owners wanted to be rid of their slaves! Slaves were expensive to feed and house. (The high cost of feeding slaves is a common motif in Roman literature.) With this context in mind, the following statement of St. Paul makes perfect sense: “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor 7:21).
Also, when Jesus talks of slavery (which is not often) in the New Testament, it almost always in the context of a parable. Thus, Jesus is not approving of slavery; he is merely using examples of everyday life in Roman Palestine.
Like Jesus, St. Paul does not seem to think it is important whether one is a slave or free man: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian. For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:25-29; emphasis added of course). Thus sprang the Western conception of equality of dignity of all human beings. For the Christian community, there is no slave and free.
Moreover, St. Paul and the early Christians believed that the Apocalypse, Christ’s 2nd Coming, was near. There was no reason for sweeping social reforms if Jesus was to going to establish justice soon enough.
St. Paul also says, “Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Do not be concerned but, even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of it. For the slave called in the Lord is a freed person in the Lord, just as the free person who has been called is a slave of Christ. You have been purchased at a price. Do not become slaves to human beings” (1 Cor 7:21-23). He urges people not to bind themselves in servitude to others.
Paul did not approve of slave-trading: “We know that the law is good, provided that one uses it as law, with the understanding that law is meant not for a righteous person but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, practicing homosexuals, slave traders, liars, perjurers,…” (1 Tim 1:8-10).
The most important slavery that concerns Jesus and St. Paul is spiritual slavery, slavery to sin. But even so, the entire book of Philemon is an emotional appeal by St. Paul on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul writes to the master, Philemon, and asks him to show mercy and receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ: “Perhaps this is why [Onesimus] ran away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 15-18).
Slaves and masters are brothers in Christ. This spiritual equality laid the foundation for social and legal equality.