Slavery in the Bible

Suppose you had a book written by the ultimate authority on morality, a book that was said to provide all the moral instruction anyone needs. One thing you would definitely expect to find in that book would be a clear, explicit, absolute condemnation of slavery. You won’t find that in the Bible, though. You might find a few vague passages that you could interpret as denouncing slavery if that’s what you really want it to say. Or you might find some passages that disapprove of slavery in specific cases. But mostly what you’ll find is that the Bible is very pro-slavery.

The Bible says “righteous” Noah made his own grandson into a slave (to punish someone else).

It says Abraham always did just what God wanted him to do, which included owning slaves.

Joseph threatened to make one of his brothers a slave, and he actually did enslave the entire nation of Egypt. Joseph is never portrayed as a bad guy at all, but as a hero doing God’s will.

Moses told the Israelites that God wanted them to attack random nations that weren’t even anywhere near the land they were trying to take over, and that they should subject the inhabitants of those nations to forced labor (if they didn’t just kill them all).

God approved of everything David did, which included enslaving whole cities. His son Solomon made tens of thousands of his own people, as well as the native Canaanites, into forced laborers1 in order to build his palace, the temple, the wall of Jerusalem, etc. And God was pleased with him. When the Bible lists some of these kings’ officials, it casually mentions that one of them was “in charge of forced labor“.

Esther said if all the Jews were sold into slavery, that would be no big deal. She thought it wouldn’t be worth the bother to ask her husband the king to do anything to stop it.

When the exiled Jews returned from Babylon, it casually mentions that they brought thousands of slaves with them.

There are passages in Ezekiel and Revelation that mention humans being sold, not as a bad thing or a reason for punishment, but just as one of many things that used to be sold in the glory days of the marketplaces of Tyre and Babylon.

The Roman soldiers seized a random guy who was just passing by and forced him to carry Jesus’s cross. Jesus didn’t object.

When Paul thought people were doing wrong, he wasn’t averse to telling them to change their ways, even if it meant they had to break the law. But when he encountered a fortune-telling slave girl, he didn’t tell her owners they should set her free, because slavery was perfectly normal to him, because he wasn’t any more morally enlightened than anyone else in his time. He thought slavery was fine as long as the owners provided for their slaves.2 Instead of helping the slave girl, Paul angered her owners by taking away her useful psychic abilities.

Paul encouraged slaves to always fear and obey their masters, submitting to them as if they were God. He thought slave owners were worthy of full respect, and he insisted that the slaves should agree that their masters were worthy of full respect. He thought this would somehow prevent his teaching from being slandered.3

Does the Bible ever portray slavery negatively?

Sort of. It does present slavery as an undesirable thing when it’s being done to the Israelites. It’s an unpleasant fate that they wish on their enemies. But to use punishment as an analogy, if you don’t want to be punished, or if you want your enemies to be punished, that’s not the same as thinking punishment is morally wrong.

And indeed, while the Israelites don’t like being slaves, they never conclude that there’s anything wrong with enslaving other people, or even enslaving each other. The biblical law specifically says slavery is allowed, so the God portrayed in the Bible clearly doesn’t have a problem with it either. He allows people to be enslaved, he causes people to be enslaved, and he commands for people to be enslaved. He owns slaves himself, and he thinks that makes him respectable.

When the Israelites colonized the land of Canaan, they enslaved the native inhabitants, which wasn’t really what God wanted them to do… He wanted them to kill all the people of Canaan, and to only enslave people who lived farther away.

After some slaves ran away and their master found them and brought them back, Solomon had that slave owner killed… but for unrelated reasons.4 The Bible says if runaway slaves take refuge with you, you shouldn’t give them back over to their masters. But if God didn’t want people to do that, he sure didn’t give us a very good example to follow.

After Judah separated from Israel, Israel attacked Judah and took hundreds of thousands of their people as slaves. A prophet of God told the Israelites that God was angry with them and that they needed to let those people go back to Judah… But was the slavery really the part God had a problem with? Or was it the theft, or the murder? After the prophet mentions the Israelites making people from Judah into slaves, he says they’re also guilty of sins against God. So I guess he doesn’t consider slavery to be a sin.

When some of the Jews complained that they “had to” sell their children into slavery, Nehemiah was very angry. But what he seemed most upset about was that the Jews were charging each other interest. As for the slavery, it sounded like he mainly just didn’t want Jews to be owned by Gentiles. God doesn’t usually seem to like it when his people are enslaved. He punishes the foreign slavers… by letting his people enslave them. So he’s not actually opposed to slavery in general.

There is one passage that, in the version of the Bible I’m working with here, makes it sound like slave trading is always a sin. But more accurate versions make it clear that this part is only about kidnapping people and making them into slaves. The Bible says you can’t just randomly kidnap people like that… You have to get your slaves the proper way, by buying them, or making people indebted to you, or having children with the slaves you already have, or getting your slaves to have children for you, or taking captives when you defeat your enemies, etc.

There’s a verse that’s ambiguous in the original text, that most translations interpret as Paul advising slaves to become free if they get a chance. But that’s probably not the correct interpretation, since the rest of that chapter consistently tells people to stay in whatever situation they’re already in. In any case, Paul clearly doesn’t think slavery is a big deal. He tells slaves to just not let their situation trouble them.

Paul did once actually suggest that if a slave stopped being a slave, that might be better (for the owner). He says this as he’s preparing to send the runaway slave back to his owner to be with him forever, with no guarantee of actually being freed. Paul seems to be more concerned about the owner’s freedom than the slave’s.

There are also a couple of verses where Paul tells people not to become slaves, which is pretty pointless since people don’t generally do that on purpose.

How bad was this slavery?

Defenders of the Bible often say that the slavery it condones wasn’t like how we tend to think of slavery today, that it was much more benign.5 I suppose that’s worth considering, since all the racism and beating and rape and stuff isn’t actually required as part of the definition of slavery. So let’s look at what biblical slavery was actually like.

The Bible (at least in some translations) sometimes uses the word “servant” instead of “slave”, which doesn’t sound as bad. But in many cases, it’s definitely still talking about slavery; otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to talk about setting “servants” free.

There are actually different kinds of slavery that the Bible allows for different kinds of people. The most benign form was mainly for male Israelites, who could sell themselves into indentured servitude as a way of paying off a debt. God approves this practice in the Old Testament law, and in the New Testament Jesus reaffirms that he thinks it’s okay to enslave not just the person who’s in debt, but their whole family as well. He says people who do this are acting just like God.

The biblical law gave an indentured man the choice to either be enslaved for six years and then be separated from his family if he had started one during that time, or to be violently branded as a slave and have to stay one for the rest of his life. So if the master wants to coerce the slave into staying with him for life, all he has to do is give him a wife and let him start a family that he won’t want to leave.

And even if the slave does choose to leave after six years, any children he had during that time would be slaves for life. Those Hebrew slaves aren’t just indentured servants, so they don’t get to go free after six years. They don’t have it any better than the children of foreign slaves, who were automatically made slaves too. People in ancient Israel had slaves who were slaves just because they were born to slaves.

Violent treatment of slaves

That temporary debt slavery is what apologists like to focus on when they discuss biblical slavery, since it’s the least terrible kind. But it sounds pretty bad already, and the Bible’s laws allow worse forms of slavery for everyone else. Female Israelites could be sold by their fathers as sex slaves regardless of whether they were in debt, and they were not freed after six years.6 If the slave’s new master decides he doesn’t like her, he can choose to either keep her anyway, give her to his son, let her father buy her back, or set her free.

Slaves who weren’t Israelites had it worst. The biblical law says if the Israelites want real slaves, they can enslave foreigners. There are limits to how slave-like you can treat Israelites. But slaves from other nations can be kept for life, treated ruthlessly, and passed on to the owner’s children.

Foreign women could be captured and made into sex slaves.7 When Moses told the Israelites that God wanted them to attack random nations that weren’t even anywhere near the land they were trying to take over, he told them they could take women as plunder for themselves, and that they were allowed to “use the plunder” God was giving them. It seems very unlikely that these women would be willing partners to the men who had kidnapped them and slaughtered their families. And indeed, the Bible describes what happens to them using the same Hebrew word that’s usually translated as rape.

“Wise” Solomon claims that servants can’t be corrected by mere words. As long as you don’t knock out an eye or a tooth,8 the Bible says it’s okay to beat your slaves till they’re nearly dead and they take days to recover, because slaves are your property.9 It says the owner should be punished if the slave actually dies from the beating, but the punishments even for causing the death of a slave weren’t as severe as those for causing the death of someone who wasn’t just property.10

Jesus reaffirms that he thinks this is a perfectly godly way to behave. He told a parable portraying God as a master who beats his slaves and even kills them, even though some of them didn’t even know what he wanted them to do.11

When a slave ran away because she was being mistreated, God sent an angel to tell her to go back and submit to her abusive owner. Peter said slaves should submit to their masters no matter how badly they treat them. He thought it was great if they had to painfully suffer when they’d done nothing wrong.

So no, it doesn’t sound like biblical slavery was any better than any other slavery. People who claim it wasn’t so bad probably haven’t read the Bible.

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