Slavery and the Old Testament law

There is a scene in The West Wing where President Jed Bartlett fires off round after round of ridicule as he pretends to apply Old Testament laws to his life. Should he put to death his staffer for working on the Sabbath, or get the police to take over? Should footballers wear gloves to avoid touching the pigskin ball? What price could he get if he sold his daughter as a slave?

How would you answer? A monologue like this is liable to make even well-informed Christians lose their nerve. We don’t always know how to respond to mockery of the Old Testament laws, especially those we no longer observe.

Meanwhile, many non-Christians are appalled that the Bible does not abolish slavery as simply and cleanly as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights does:

Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Why can’t the Bible be just as unequivocal? Well, I suggest that slavery is a more complex issue than may be suggested by Article 4, and the Bible, in refusing to be simplistic about it, says some things which force us to think very hard. It is both necessary and possible to mount a spirited defence of the slavery rules in the law of Moses, as it gets to the heart of what God sees as freedom.

The big verse

The first verse to notice is Exodus 21:16: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death”. Paul alludes in 1 Timothy 1:10 to this verse when he says that God’s law opposes slave traders. It shows that God’s word was always against the white people who captured Africans to work on American plantations, even though tragically those white people took centuries to realize it. One of the early rumblings of the movement to end the slave trade was a pamphlet published in 1700 called The Selling of Joseph, drawing attention to Exodus 21:16.

Israelite slaves

Of course, being captured and sold has never been the only way to become a slave. The Bible also contemplates that slavery might result from poverty (Exod 21:7; Lev 25:39) or from stealing (Exod 22:3). Some of our contemporaries might say that even these sorts of slavery are unacceptable, and write the Bible off as barbaric because it fails to share our society’s zero-tolerance attitude to slavery. However, such people ought to suspend judgement until they have learned how slaves were to be treated in Israel.

Most importantly, any slavery of Israelites was not for life, but only for six years (Exod 21:2). And masters were instructed:

And when you let [your slave] go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. (Deut 15:13-14)

This is surely one of the most beautiful slavery laws ever made (interestingly it is not without some parallels in other ancient law codes). This sort of law would have made a kind master out of anyone who took it to heart. As a result, a slave might say, “With slavery like this, who needs freedom?” Anticipating this, the Old Testament law allowed a six-year slave to elect to become a permanent one (Exod 21:5-6).

Female slaves needed special protection, which is spelled out in Exodus 21:7-11. The basic thrust of these verses is that a man purchasing a female slave must marry her, or give her to his son to marry. Even though she is sold as a slave, she is treated virtually as a free woman given for a bride price. She could not be sold into prostitution. Thus, just in case anyone should wonder, the Bible is clearly opposed to sexual slavery.

In short, the protections given to Israelite slaves were so good that this was not slavery in the ordinary sense, but a total revamping of the institution of slavery.

Even so, we cannot avoid the fact that the Old Testament law gave Israelite slaves a lower status than free persons. For example, an emancipated slave had to leave his wife and children behind if they had been given by the master (Exod 21:4). Also, a slave had less protection from being injured by his master than a free person would have (Exod 21:20-21, 26-27). The fact that slaves were accorded any protection at all indicates that they were not purely their masters’ property—even slaves were made in God’s image—which compares favourably with many other ancient slavery laws. However, Israelite slaves did have a lower status.

A reflection on contemporary economic life

Opponents of Christianity might acknowledge that the Old Testament slavery law was more humane than the ancient average, but still see the Israelite slave’s lower status as proof that the Bible is antiquated and barbaric. However, it should be pointed out that even societies without slavery, such as our own, involve some people suffering from a lower status than others.

As we have seen, slavery in Israel resulted from poverty or theft, two phenomena which are still with us. Consider our society’s response to these. For poverty, we have social security (and, where applicable, bankruptcy laws). For theft (of a serious kind), we have imprisonment. All these measures involve lowering a person’s status (if not formally then at least socially) when compared with an ordinary ‘free’ person. Imprisonment, in particular, has in common with slavery that the person is deprived of their liberty—the main difference being that the master is the state rather than an individual. Long-term welfare dependency, although preserving a person’s formal freedom, is arguably a less satisfactory solution to poverty than being placed, for a limited time, in the household of a kind master and given meaningful work to do.

In saying all of this, I am taking it for granted that the Israelite slave would never have been subjected to the sort of oppression which we associate with, say, Greco-Roman or American colonial slavery. It would be insulting to compare a suburban existence on social security with such grinding misery. But Israelite ‘slavery’ was not grinding misery. It was really bonded service, with a lower status, but for a limited time and with certain protections.

The big point is that the conditions which led to slavery in the Old Testament still exist, and our responses bear similarities to Israelite slavery, albeit under different names. Slavery of Israelites was not the sort of dehumanizing experience which we normally imagine. In fact, it was designed to help the person who had fallen into poverty or crime back into society.

Slavery of non-Israelites

With one exception, the rules I have examined up to this point applied only to Israelite slaves. That one exception is the big one, Exodus 21:16, which stands as a bulwark against capturing people for slavery whether Israelite or not.

However, some of the other rules concerning slavery of non-Israelites are much harder to ‘defend’. Leviticus 25:44‑46 allowed Israelites to buy non-Israelite slaves who would be slaves for life and whose children would apparently be born into slavery. What can we say about this?

It is difficult, because there is almost no evidence in the rest of the Old Testament that the Israelites ever held non-Israelite slaves. This is hardly surprising—after all, Israel was not a major power in its region—but it means that Leviticus 25:44-46 remains tantalizingly theoretical. We do not know quite how it would have been put into practice.

However, I think it is fair to assume that it would not have involved the dehumanizing extremes evoked in our contemporary minds by ‘slavery’. A Torah-observant Jew would have been a kind master.

More importantly, there is a really good reason why the Mosaic law discriminated between Israelite and non-Israelite slaves. It was because the Israelites belonged to God as his servants that they were not to be enslaved permanently to another human being (Lev 25:54-55). In other words, an Israelite’s economic freedom had a higher purpose: serving God. In contrast, non-Israelites would not be serving God anyway, and therefore had less need of economic freedom.

At this point, we are forced to think hard about economic freedom. Are we going to think about it as Christians, or secular humanists? For the secular humanist, economic or political freedom is the highest good. But for the Christian, economic freedom is only a means to the end of serving God.

This means that we can dare to ask: would those foreigners have been better off as slaves amongst God’s people than free amongst the godless? As slaves in Israel, they would participate in the religious life of God’s people (Exod 12:44, 20:10; Deut 16:11). If you believe, as Christians do, that Israel’s God is the only true God, then to be a slave in Israel is better than to be free in spiritual darkness. The Gibeonites realized this, and leapt at the chance to be Israel’s slaves (Joshua 9).

We must not pass lightly over the fact that foreign slaves bought for money could (if they were circumcised) share in the Passover (Exod 12:44). This was an amazingly humanizing gift. One of the criticisms which is rightly levelled at slavery is that to be someone’s property makes the slave seem somewhat less than human. But Exodus 12:44 counts the foreign slave as a fully-fledged human being at the point where it matters most; it counts the slave as part of God’s covenant people.

The rules about slavery of non-Israelites remain difficult. (Many will feel that I have not fully ‘solved’ the problem.) But if nothing else, these rules rudely remind us that economic freedom is not an absolute good. If a person is in thrall to Satan, is he necessarily better off being released from a human master in order to serve himself? And since God’s Word is deadly serious in its claim that slavery to sin and death is worse than economic slavery, it is hardly surprising that God’s salvation program did not go all out against economic slavery before the Lord Jesus’ attack on that more important spiritual slavery.

Redemption from real slavery

Since the focus of this article is on the Old Testament law, I will not say a great deal about slavery in the New Testament. But we must note two passages.

Firstly, there is a moving allusion to the Old Testament law in the Gospels. Jesus was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver: the exact amount of compensation set for the death of a slave (Exod 21:32). He redeemed us from slavery to sin by being counted a slave himself. In so doing, he also gives hope to those living as slaves, that they are not cut off from God’s love.

Secondly, as a result of God’s grace to us in Jesus, economic freedom is still not the highest good, and is not even necessary for a person to serve God. 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 makes it clear that a person can live a perfectly valid Christian life even while enslaved to another man. This might seem to be a reversal of the Old Testament position where Israelite economic freedom was protected so they could serve God. However, there is no contradiction, because Leviticus was written for a situation where God’s people would have the political power to ensure their people were free, whereas 1 Corinthians is for Christians who did not have the luxury of rewriting the statute books to fit the gospel. The common thread through both Testaments is that whatever economic freedom you have, whether a little or a lot, is not an end in itself but merely a means to serve God.

Some would caricature my position by claiming that I don’t care what happens to people’s worldly wellbeing as long as their souls are saved. I heartily reject this. Of course, other things being equal, freedom is to be preferred to slavery “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” says 1 Corinthians 7:21. But it is less important than eternal salvation. The spread of political freedoms has been a welcome by-product of the gospel’s progress throughout the world. However, these are a by-product, not the product which the gospel actually aims to produce.


The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is exactly right to oppose the slave trade, just as God’s word does in Exodus 21:16. However, as we have seen, the slaves spoken about in the Bible were not always captured and sold; there were also other types of bonded service in response to poverty and crime. We need to be sensitive to the different shades of meaning of the word ‘slave’.

As to Article 4’s aspiration to abolish the slave trade, this is of course admirable. But economic freedom is not the highest good. God has revealed to us in his Word that there is something worse than economic servitude, and something better than economic freedom.

So don’t be put onto the back foot the next time someone says, “How can you possibly take the Bible seriously when it allows slavery?” God is definitely opposed to slavery: his Son became a slave in order to redeem us from slavery of the deepest sort. But his opposition is not simplistic or shallow. God’s word and his accomplished work in Christ is the most realistic and effective response to a problem which is deeper and more complex than most imagine.

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