By Matt Lefebvre


In the first article I wrote on the relevance of the Old Testament, I mentioned some reasons that sometimes lead people to rarely read, or completely neglect, the Old Testament of the Bible.  While I explained that I feel these reasons to be overstated, I do not want to suggest that everyone just take my word for it and force themselves through the Old Testament.  I would hope that I would instead encourage those who have questions about the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, to honestly inquire and seek understanding concerning lingering issues.  I do not see it as a lack of faith to ask earnest questions and the psalmist gives us a wonderful picture of this throughout Psalm 119.

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.  I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me!  My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times.” (Psalm 119:18-20)

There are many resources for how to go through the different books of the Bible, but I will recommend one in particular because it is first of all written by scholars, and second of all, written for everyone, so it is very helpful for anyone looking to understand the Bible better without having to get a degree in biblical studies.  The book is How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, and it goes through the different types of literature in the Bible, which actually need to be interpreted differently, so they are very helpful in that respect.  While that should give a good, simple overview in studying the Old Testament to those who are interested, what I intend to do is to take a closer look at the more specific, difficult issues which readers are sure to find in the Old Testament and almost as sure to find troubling.

“Slavery?  In the Old Testament?”

Not the subject of many Sunday morning sermons, the mention that there might actually be slavery in the Bible can catch many an earnest Christian by surprise.  A general response might be to think that it is condemned, but a cursory reading seems to treat slavery as quite normal and nothing out of the ordinary.  This would very naturally bring up images of the southern United States before the civil war and the Klu Klux Klan with their burning crosses afterward, with many members of both groups not only claiming to be Christians, but claiming that their actions were not in conflict with the Bible.  Extending things further in modern times, there are more people in slavery now than there have ever been, in spite of anti-slavery legislature.  Many believers in Christ, past and present, have felt it is their duty to do something to stop this great injustice, but what are we to say of the fact that the Bible does not call for an end to slavery?  Well, that’s an interesting question to ask and I will try to offer some helpful perspectives on it.

What do we mean by “slave”?

Answers to this question reveal quite a lot about different times and cultures.  Definitions range from a slave being barely indistinguishable from a servant on one side, to a slave being nothing more than someone else’s property with no freedom of action or right to property (and that’s the politically correct version) on another side.  Though I believe the former definition to have been the case in ancient Israel and the Old Testament, the connotation of slave often conforms to the latter definition, seeing slavery as something to be avoided at all costs.  Paul Copan brings attention to this in discussing the words commonly used to describe a master-slave relationship in Israel.

“Calling him a ‘master’ is often way too strong a term, just as the term ‘ebed (“servant, employee”) typically shouldn’t be translated ‘slave’.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.125).

Something to avoid is taking modern perceptions and assuming that they have not changed over three thousand years.  The concepts of servanthood and slavery in the Bible are similar, evident in the same word being used for them, so if the word “slave” is already troublesome, it would be good to attain further information.  The best way to understand the Bible is to understand as much as possible about the time the Bible was written and the issues that related to that day.  As it turns out, slavery was a part of the ancient Near Eastern culture, in which context Israel became a nation.  Now, it is certainly true that this does not make it right, but through understanding the historical context of the Israelite law, it can shed light on the concept of slavery contained therein.

What role did slavery play in Israel’s history?

The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt before God brought them out.  It might make sense that God would want them to forget that time of slavery, but quite the opposite is true and for a specific purpose.  Deuteronomy 5:14-15/15:14-15/16:11-12/24:17-22 all contain a similar refrain and interestingly, a similar context.  All these passages include “you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt/the land of Egypt” and the context has to do with how they would treat the poor of society and the slaves, giving to them financially or giving them rest.  Israel was not to forget their history in Egypt, because it would remind them both of the LORD’s grace in redeeming them and the fact that they were slaves themselves once.  This was naturally intended to set the standard for how the Israelites would act in their graciously given freedom.  In one of the above mentioned examples, there is a description of the release of a Hebrew slave that is illuminating in this respect.  Deuteronomy 15:12-18 describes how a Hebrew slave would serve 6 years and then go free in the 7th year.  This slave was not to be sent out empty-handed, but was to be given to liberally, being based on the fact that the LORD had blessed the slave-owner.  There is again this reminder that Israel was a slave in Egypt and was redeemed, but then comes something quite unexpected to our modern understanding of slavery.  As it turns out, a slave could decide to not go out from his master because he loves his master and is well-off with him, and he would then in fact serve the master forever.  This says a lot about how slavery could be practiced in Israel, to actually say that it did not have to be something that a slave would want to run away from at the first opportunity.  However, should freedom be a higher prerogative, his master was still to send him out ungrudgingly.  The perspective of the master also tells us more about the conditions of slavery, for the master was not to see it as a hard thing that the slave was going free.  It says that he served the master 6 years at half the cost of a hired servant (or some translations say double the worth of a hired servant, but the point is that the slave does the same work for the master).  This adds to what was said before about the possibility of a slave being well-off, even while in slavery, but to some people this raises the question of why there should be slavery at all, instead of just paying the man full wages as a hired servant.  This is best understood through knowledge of how a person would become a slave in Israel, but even through seeing the conditions of slavery, I hope it is clear that the situation was very different from the modern understanding of the word.

How did an Israelite become a slave?

Deuteronomy 15:12 concerns a Hebrew sold to another Hebrew, but we are not told who sold him (or her, as 15:12, 17 reveals that the same rules apply for female slaves).  However, what we can conclude from other passages in Israel’s law is that it was not another Israelite who this Hebrew was originally a slave to.  Deuteronomy 24:7 describes that to try to enslave an Israelite was a crime punishable by death.  If we think of human trafficking in our times, people are routinely kidnapped or tricked into becoming slaves against their will, but this was not the way things were to be done in Israel.  In addition, Leviticus 25:39-43 shows that a poor brother (understood to be any Israelite from 25:46) was not to serve as a slave if he sold himself.  Again, it is mentioned that God brought Israel out of Egypt, and also that His people were not be sold as slaves and ruled over ruthlessly by their brethren.  So where is this Hebrew slave coming from that cannot be made a slave by his fellow Hebrews?  Leviticus 25:47-49 lets us in on one such scenario, in that if the Hebrew is poor, he can sell himself to a rich foreigner who lives in the land.  What is interesting about this is that it is the choice of the one going into slavery.  True he does not have a lot of choice because he is poor and had he been rich, he probably would not have sold himself into slavery, but the point is that he is selling himself because he has fallen on hard times and needs help.  Then what happens next is a situation where a fellow Israelite might redeem or “buy back” his Israelite brother.  In this situation, the other rules as stated in Deuteronomy 15 (and earlier in Exodus 21) would apply.  Jeremiah 34:9-22 records an example of this release happening, but then how angry the Lord is when they turn around and bring their former slaves into bondage again.  So all this is to say that an Israelite could become a slave for financial reasons; to work off a debt or to be provided for, but he was also protected from harsh masters by the command of the Lord.  In addition, there was even a law that prevented giving a slave back to a master he escaped from (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), which suggests that the slave was being mistreated by the master, leading to the desire to run away.  So slavery in Israel was intended to be voluntary and people were never to be subject to harsh rule.  In contrast to the slavery in the United States prior to the Civil War, Paul Copan compares servanthood in the Old Testament with conditions in colonial America.

“Paying fares for passage to America was too costly for many individuals to afford.  So they’d contract themselves out, working in the households—often in apprentice-like positions—until they paid back their debts.” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.125).

It is certainly fitting, as I explained above, that some of these passages that mention slavery also mention helping the poor and needy, while at the same time remind the Israelites that they were slaves and would thus need to treat their slaves with respect.  In fact, they were to be shown a respect that was not found in other ancient Near Eastern law codes.

Were slaves merely the property of their owners?

In another one of the passages mentioned above, Deuteronomy 16:11-12, it is noteworthy that the servants are invited to celebrate with the rest of the people, based on the refrain in verse 12 that we have already seen, remembering that they were slaves in the land of Egypt.  Something else to consider, which is probably something that a Christian would take for granted, is that slaves are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), as opposed to other ancient Near Eastern cultures, where it was the king who was the image of god on earth and not the slave (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.129).  Copan also brings attention to Job 31:13-15.

“If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me, what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him?  Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?”

Not only were slaves considered people in the sense of being made by God, but also in the sense of having the same protection in the laws of the people of Israel.  Exodus 21:20-21 seems initially to be a law that puts slaves as second class citizens, but when the context is examined, I think a different picture emerges.  The law says that if a man strikes his slave and the slave dies, he shall be avenged (meaning the master would get the death penalty, just like in any other case of murder).  However, if the slave survives a day or two, he is not avenged, “for the slave is his money.”   Especially this last phrase makes it seem like a slave is just property, but what does it say right before this passage?  Exodus 21:18-19 describes two men fighting, and one striking the other.  The penalty for this is that the man who struck the other pays for the loss of time and makes sure the man is thoroughly healed.  If we recall what was said above about why a person goes into slavery in Israel, it is because of some debt or lack of money.  So, if a master intentionally beat a slave to death, he would lose that time or money.  The thought is that because the slave does not die right away, it was not intentional, and there were other laws protecting those who cause death unintentionally (Numbers 35:9-29), and in this case the master would be given the benefit of the doubt, especially since he stood to lose money.  Paul Copan also has a suggestion that is plausible, in that “the slave [hu in Hebrew, which could mean “he” or “that”] is his money.” could be translated “that [fee] is his money.” following the Hittite law that required masters who had hurt their slaves to pay for medical treatment (Is God a Moral Monster?, p.129).  In this scenario, the money is referring to what the master would pay for his slave to recover, which would even further reinforce the thought that the cause of death was unintentional and thus, not worthy of the death penalty, as with any others.  This fits well with the passage after this, Exodus 21:23-27, which describes the old eye for eye, tooth for tooth formula.  After saying all those punishments, it is stated that if the slave-owner strikes an eye of a slave and destroys it, or knocks out a tooth, he had to let the slave go free.  Many are surprised to find out that “eye for an eye” was not literal, but it just meant that the punishment was not supposed to exceed the crime.  It limited vengeance and was not an excuse for vengeance.  It made sure that justice, and not revenge, was the way to handle disputes.  Sometimes, as in the case of releasing the slave, monetary compensation would be given in proportion to the offense (J.A. Thompson, Deuteronomy, p.239-240).  So this was another incentive for the slave-owner to not mistreat his slave.  All that considered though, I would say the most important point is that slaves are made in the image of God, just like every other human that ever lived, including the ultimate Servant.

Slavery?  In the New Testament?

Though this article is about the relevance of the Old Testament, a few things could be said from the perspective of the New Testament.  Though the situation was different in the New Testament times, with the institutionalization of slavery (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, p.151), some observations can still be made in regard to slavery in general.  As I hinted in ending the last section, Jesus Himself could be described as a Servant.  Matthew 20:25-28 records the contrast of Gentile rulers lording their authority over others with what Jesus suggests; namely, the greatest being a servant or a slave, even as He came not to be served, but to serve.  Now, this must be understood for the comparison that it is, but the point is that Jesus saw the oppression and hierarchy as contrary to His kingdom principles of service and humility.  In John 13:3-16, Jesus takes on the role of a slave in washing the disciples’ feet (Daniel Lewis, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, p.68).  Paul also shows how Jesus, in simply coming to earth in the incarnation, took on the form of a bondservant (Philippians 2:7).  Paul sheds more light on this perspective that Jesus demonstrates so beautifully, that of laying down rights.  Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1 speak both to slaves and to masters, indicating that both have a Master in heaven and should serve Him accordingly; with the slaves not simply attempting to please men, but God.  Paul also draws no dividing lines between slave and free (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).  However condoning this might seem, 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 indicates what attitude people should have toward slavery, in that slaves should not be concerned if they were called while a slave.  This does not mean they are stuck this way, so they should just live with it, but it means that they can serve God in that situation too.  This is clear in that 7:21 commends them to gain freedom if they can.  Moreover, 7:23 forbids becoming a slave of men, so it is not that becoming a slave is ideal, but merely that in whatever circumstance a person may be in, they can serve the Lord.  It is not an issue of whether slavery is good or bad, though this does not make it look good by any measure, but that it is not a hindrance to the gospel message.  This gospel message is one of freedom for the captives and freedom from oppression, so it is not surprising that slavery has been condemned by many Bible-believing Christians, and I say, rightly so.


Near the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19thcentury, William Wilberforce campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade.  Based on that cursory reading I mentioned above, it might have appeared that Mr. Wilberforce was going against what the Bible allowed, if not condoned.  However, if anyone is serious about faith and actually understanding what the Bible means, it needs to be read in its historical and literary context.

William Wilberforce

I believe whole-heartedly that Wilberforce’s actions were biblical.  He saw the image-bearers of God, those for whom the great Servant Himself came to give His life as a ransom, being treated like dirt.  They were taken from their home, not taken care of, branded with the mark of an “owner”, and overall, just treated like they were less than human.  In Israel, these would be the kind of masters it would be right to run away from and wrong to be sent back to.  I have said before and I will say again that the law was never meant to be perfect and it worked with fallen human beings.  However, it was also not meant to license the deprivation of people’s dignity as God’s creations and is in fact completely contrary to what Scripture reveals about the value of human beings.  So is slavery biblical?  If all one means by that is whether it is in the Bible or not, the answer is clearly yes.  However, if it is meant that the Bible warrants the capture, sale, and mistreatment of human beings as if they were an animal or a piece of machinery, I hope I have shown the answer to be explicitly no.  Though we live in a world where Jesus says there is likely to be oppression, God forbid that we should be the oppressors.

  1. Samuel Chun says:

    Hi Matt, this is a very detailed and much needed explanation of slavery. Dima and I were talking about this pointed this out to me last week. Thanks for the emphasis on what a “slave” is and how important it is to know the Word and see the historical background before making decisions in one’s life, especially the dark period of the USA and slavery which still has left scar and is a sensitive issue for many.

    • Hey Sam,
      I’m glad it was helpful. I do believe that the Old Testament is so important, so I count it a great privilege to help people understand what the Bible meant in its original context and how we are to think about applying it today. Thank you for your comment.

  2. curtis says:

    I had an interesting conversation with a good friend this morning on this subject that made me go hmm.. This was exactly the information I was looking for in a quick easy and accurate form. Thank you..

    • You’re very welcome, Curtis. It is my pleasure to provide information on these issues, and I hope you and your friend can continue to talk about the Bible and how to understand it.

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