Here are a podcast and notes on Slavery and the Bible (43 minutes).

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  • North American slavery had precedents in the Arab slave trade, though slavery throughout human history was hardly limited to Africa.
    • 400 years' duration, 40 million dying in the middle passage.
    • "Enslavement is almost ubiquitous in human history. What made Atlantic slavery unique was its vast, industrial scale, its racial determinism, and its absolute nature, in which slaves' legal status was hardly distinct from that of animals" (Alex Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World [New York: Viking, 2016], 184).
  • American Civil War.
  • Racism is still an ugly issue in the United States.
    • "Slavery was abolished in Great Britain in 1807 and in all the British Empire by 1833. In the revolutionary U.S. it would not happen until the 1860's, and at a cost of at least 618,000 lives and the destruction of much of the South. Staggering. Can we really argue for 'American Exceptionalism?'" (Tom Jones)
    • The Jim Crow laws persisted in the United States through 1968, in effect impeding the rights of citizenship for Black Americans, even after the Civil Rights Act and the legal right to vote.
  • And slavery still exists globally (girls are abducted to become sex slaves [Asia], and boys to become child soldiers [Africa]).
  • Does the Bible support slavery, a thoroughly demeaning, dehumanizing institution? Slavers quoted the Scriptures to support their inhumane practices. Yet American chattel slavery was very different from slavery in the ancient world. As we shall soon see, Antebellum slavery provides a false analogy.

Slavery in the Ancient World

  • Became slaves because of poverty or war, often by personal choice. Usually they were not kidnapped; they entered servitude in other ways.
  • Not permanent.
    • Hope of eventual emancipation.
    • Indentured servants paid off debts.
  • Slaves possessed some legal rights.
    • Due process.
    • Right to own their own slaves.
    • Abusing or killing slaves was a punishable crime.
  • Not racially based:
    • Only one's clothing indicated his status as a slave.
    • Not the color of his skin!
  • Not socially based.
    • Not necessarily lowest rung of society. Not necessarily degrading. Could in fact be upgrading. Consider Joseph, promoted under Potiphar and Pharaoh.
    • Could own property, lead a normal family life, and sometimes even participate in the same clubs as their masters!
    • Easiest for city slaves, then farm slaves, and hardest for those working in the mines, or even as prostitutes.
  • Not necessarily menial positions.
    • Civil service, doctors, nurses, accountants, writers.
    • Some famous ex-slaves in the ancient world: Felix (Acts 23-24), Aesop (5th century BC), Patrick (5th century AD).
    • Sometimes freed because their labor was cheaper when the master wasn't paying room & board.
  • Around the first century they were so often freed that Augustus Caesar made a law that none could be freed before the age of 30.
  • Obviously if this is slavery, it has far less in common with the North American variety than we ever imagined.

Slavery and the O.T.

  • Dignity: regulating an inferior work arrangement, not idealizing it.
    • Anti-kidnapping laws—Exodus 21:16; Deut 24:7. Amos and other prophets spoke of the evil of human trafficking (Amos 1:6 etc).
    • Anti-harm laws: Freedom for bodily abuse. Exodus 21:20, 26! No other ancient law holds master accountable for treatment of his slaves. Code of Hammurabi permitted master to slice off disobedient slave’s ear. Law held masters to account for their own servants, not just someone else’s. Exodus 21:6-7.
    • Hittite laws – fines for sheltering runaways. Hammurabi: death for abetting runaways. But slaves were still just property. Babylon: returned slaves were branded, ears slit…. Anti-return laws – Deuteronomy 23:15-16.
    • Laws in favor of the poor, e.g. automatic debt cancellation.
    • Deuteronomy 15:4,11 – God did not desire poverty or servitude.
  • Hebrew slavery was an oasis of liberty compared to typical slavery among the pagans.
    • In other law codes in the Ancient Near East, this subject is dealt with at the end, but in Exodus it follows the Decalogue immediately. Direct connection between righteousness before God and righteous dealings with our fellow man.
    • Slaves were to be set free if master knocked a tooth out. Human rights.
    • Indentured servitude (Exodus 21 – dramatic improvement over slavery). Servitude existed because poverty existed.
    • Slaves freed in the 7th year, though with the option to make the slave relationship permanent.
    • Suboptimal (Nehemiah 5).
    • Re: Exodus 21:9 ("He shall deal with her as a daughter"): "She is virtually his foster-child. The old Chinese custom of buying a slave-girl, as wife for the son in days to come, is an exact parallel. Probably the origin of the custom was the same in either case: to avoid paying a higher bride-price at a later age, and to rear the future daughter-in-law within the family, ensuring that she 'fitted in'. Such an attitude to slaves abolishes slavery, except in name" (R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction & Commentary, in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, IVP, 1973).
    • Exod 21:16 and Deut 24:7 have serious implications for the slave trade.
  • Non-Hebrew slaves
    • Kidnapping forbidden (Exodus 21:16), yet that did not mean there wasn't a supply of slaves.
      • They did not enjoy the same freedoms as Hebrew slaves. Leviticus 25:42-46: Male and female slaves from the pagan nations.
      • Could be bequeathed to their master's children.
    • Yet given the biblical emphasis on compassion, and the imperative to love the alien, it seems likely even foreign slaves were treated with a modicum of dignity.
      • Leviticus 19:33-34 – Israel to love the stranger in the land.
      • Exodus 21 – protect all servants from abuse.
      • Slaves could acquire servants themselves, and even purchase their own freedom.
      • Foreign servants might be elevated (as in 1 Chronicles 2, with marriage to an Egyptian servant). Inheritance rights.
    • Non-Israelites could not acquire land, so they might have had no option but to attach themselves to an Israelite family.
    • "Slavery in the Old Testament was not simply tolerated with a 'rubber stamp' of uncritical approval. Aspects of Old Testament thought and practice in this area virtually 'neutralized' slavery as an institution and sowed the seeds of its radical rejection in much later Christian thinking. Certainly, these aspects…made Israel unquestionably unique in the ancient world in its attitude to slavery. This is a fact unanimously acknowledged by ancient Near Eastern scholars." — Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 179.

Slavery and the N.T.

  • In the context of the Roman Empire.
    • Perhaps 1/3 were slaves, another 1/3 freedmen. If this figure sounds too high, consider that when the Czar freed the serfs in Russia (1861), one third of the populace were toiling in this enslaved condition.
    • Romans ruthless in putting down slave revolts (e.g. under Spartacus).
    • Anachronistic of us to fault Paul and other early Christians for not stirring up dissension.
  • N.T. scriptures
    • 1 Corinthians 7 — slaves should take the opportunity of freedom if possible, otherwise be content.
    • Ephesians 6, Colossians 3-4: powerless mentioned first: wives before husbands, children before parents, slaves before masters.
    • Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11: status in Christ not dependent on socioeconomic factors.
    • Paul sending Onesimus back to Philemon: freedom of travel. Compare Deuteronomy 23:15.
    • Slave trade mentioned in Revelation 18:13, condemned in 1 Timothy 1:10.
    • 1 Timothy 6:1-2: Nowhere are masters told to demand submission from their slaves.
    • Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 7, John 8 etc -- true freedom has nothing to do with political rights, and real slavery is slavery to sin.
  • The early church (after 1st century)
    • Ministrae tortured under Pliny (Bithynia, early 2nd century). Slaves occupied positions of leadership.
    • No automatic exemption from requirement to show good character just because one was a slave.
      • "Those, that first come to the mystery of godliness... let them be examined as to the causes for which they come to the word of the Lord; and let those that bring them exactly inquire about their character, and give them... testimony. Let their manners and their life be inquired into, and whether they are slaves or freemen. And if any one is a slave, let him be asked who his master is. If he is slave to one of the faithful, let his master be asked if he can give him a good character [reference]. If he cannot, let him be rejected, until he show himself to be worthy to his master. But if he does give him a good character, let him be admitted. But if he is a household slave to an heathen, let him be taught to please his master, so that the word isn't blasphemed (Apostolic Constitutions 8.32).
      • Perhaps this was requiring more than the church expected in the first century, but it is an interesting piece nonetheless.
    • 1 Clement 55:2 (about 96 AD) -- people selling themselves into slavery to free others.
    • "But when Christ came he annulled even [slavery], for in Christ Jesus 'there is no slave nor free.' Therefore, it is not necessary to have a slave; but if it should be necessary, then only one or at most a second... Buy them and after you have taught them some skill by which they may maintain themselves, set them free" (John Chrysostom, Homily 40 on 1 Corinthians 10).
  • Many slaves were attracted to the Christian faith.
    • Why, if (as some critics allege) Christianity put them down?
    • For the same reason that minorities and women were attracted: they were respected, welcomed, loved, and honored.

Fugitive Slave Law.jpg


  • Hebrew slavery saw increased humaneness over that in slavery in the secular world.
  • Through the course of biblical history, an ethic of dignity and respect is cultivated. Pedagogical function.
    • Progressive revelation: God enlightening his people more and more through the course of biblical history.
    • There is a difference between recording and approving; between regulating and approving.
    • God's highest standard and will are revealed only in the New Testament.
    • Overall trajectory
      • Chattel slavery—Israelite treatment of foreign slaves—Israelite treatment of Hebrew slaves—socioeconomic freedom. Those who labored for emancipation, esp. in Britain and the United States, were inspired by biblical principles.
      • Through Christian influence, slavery was eventually eliminated in most of the world. This did not take place because of the influence of Hinduism, or Islam, or any other major world religion.
  • Slavery in N.T. times was radically different from slavery in the more recent American experience.
  • Most criticisms of slavery in the Bible are based on caricatures of Christianity, ignorance of Hebraic law, and lack of exposure to the true message of the gospel.
  • Christianity is not a cause for the injustice and brutality of slavery. It was through the effects of the Spirit of Christ, after all, that the great emancipation movements were inspired and to some degree successful.
  • As believers, we need to be ready to defend the Bible from unfair attack. In our interactions with outsiders, you and I need to know our stuff.

Further thought & study