Home > Bible Study, hermeneutics, Israel, Leviticus, Old Testament > What the Bible Really Does Say… About Slavery

What the Bible Really Does Say… About Slavery


Reflecting on a recent Dr. Reluctant article, What the Bible Really Really Says, I came across yet another example of the issue addressed here, in a Cripplegate post.  Henebury’s article addresses the issue of understanding literal interpretation versus what some believers say a text means, contrasting the liberal unbelieving scholars who fully recognize what the Bible has to say about a particular doctrine — they are honest at least, recognizing that the Bible is clear on the point, only they choose to reject that truth — versus evangelicals who try to deny or twist the meaning, such as those who say they believe Genesis but it’s just poetry.  As pointed out, this principle applies for everything the Bible has something to say about, whether the truth about homosexuality (the first example here cited) or biblical creation, but so many other topics as well.

The Cripplegate post, Slavery, gay marriage, and hypocrisy in the black church, is primarily addressing the secular media’s twisted logic concerning homosexuality and African American slavery.  Overall the writer makes some good points, but fails at one important point.  His second reason given for “why a literal reading of the Bible actually condemns the institution of American slavery” does not agree with what the Bible actually says.  From the Cripplegate post:

2) Slavery in Old Testament times was fundamentally different than American slavery. It was an institution of mercy, which people entered voluntarily, for the purpose of providing for their families. It was not based on the kidnapping, sale, and ownership of individuals. Slaves were released every six years (Exodus 21:2). There is no concept of perpetual slavery in the Bible.

The article referred only to the slavery of fellow Israelites.  Notice the last line, “There is no concept of perpetual slavery in the Bible.”  But what about Leviticus 25:44-46?

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.

When this was brought up in the comments, the author responded that even these slaves were redeemed in the Year of Jubilee.  But that’s not what the text says.  The later comments illustrate very well the point of Henebury’s article above:  a non-Christian commenter, Sarah, also challenged the author several times, pointing out that indeed the Old Testament did allow the Israelites to have permanent slaves from among those of other nations.  The interaction is quite interesting, showing the author’s continued denial of that fact, while Sarah brought up various texts and reference to the commentaries on this point, regarding such passages as Leviticus 25:44-46, Deuteronomy 23:15 (refers to slaves that run away from non-Israelites to an Israelite), and Deuteronomy 20:10-15.  As an unbeliever, she of course could not reconcile what the Bible says regarding slavery: since slavery is morally wrong, therefore the Bible is not the ultimate source of authority on the matter.  The discussion did address Sarah’s errors concerning what the Bible has to say about homosexuals then and now, but since the writer maintained that the Old Testament did not really have permanent, “real” slaves and slavery, his responses failed to satisfy.  And rightly so.  Excerpts from Sarah’s comments:

This is the part that I’m not sure is true: “The key difference between American slavery and the distinctions in OT Israel is this: slaves entered OT slavery voluntarily. They were not kidnapped. They were purchased, but the money went to the slave, not to some slave trader.” Leviticus 25 says that Israelites can become indentured servants, and that people from the nations around them can become slaves for life as “inherited property” (Leviticus 25:44). … Rules protecting the slave DO condone slavery, because the rules could have just as easily been, “Don’t have slaves. Don’t let parents sell their children into indefinite slavery.” Instead, there are guidelines for properly treating a slave, which is nice except that people are not property. … Israelites could not “kidnap,” but they could purchase male and female slaves from the surrounding nations and they would become “property.”  … A person is not property.  The Bible describes people as property.  This is the single, undeniable fact (again, see Lev 25:45, Exodus 21:21) that makes people VERY uncomfortable about the use of the Bible to construct US law, especially because our country has a history of using the Bible to justify completely wrong acts. … We may be straying from your original point here; I don’t believe in the Bible as the literal word of God, so it’s every letter doesn’t matter to me as much as the overall ideas and themes expressed throughout it.  But I think that you do believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, completely true and not open for “interpretation.”  And that’s where we find a problem, because some of those who owned slaves in the past fully, 100% believed that they were biblically justified.

The biblical texts are clear enough on the point, and a look through several online commentaries, both classic ones (such as John Gill and Matthew Henry) as well as recent ones, shows complete agreement with the meaning of Leviticus 25:44-46.  All of them note that the 50-year Jubilee event applied only to Israelite slaves.  Leviticus 25:47-55 makes it clear that the 50 year release in the Jubilee and right of redemption was only for Israelites who had sold themselves into slavery to Gentile owners.   The reason comes out in verse 55: the people of Israel are servants (or slaves) to God.  As much as we may dislike it, in the Old Testament era the people of Israel had a special relationship to God, that the other nations did not then enjoy.

(v. 47) “If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, 48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. … 54 And if he is not redeemed by these means, then he and his children with him shall be released in the year of jubilee. 55 For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants.

An excerpt from Matthew Henry:  It intimates that none shall have the benefit of the gospel jubilee but those only that are Israelites indeed, and the children of Abraham by faith: as for those that continue heathenish, they continue bondmen. See this turned upon the unbelieving Jews themselves, Gal. 4:25, where Jerusalem, when she had rejected Christ, is said to be in bondage with her children. Let me only add here that, though they are not forbidden to rule their bondmen with rigour, yet the Jewish doctors say, “It is the property of mercy, and way of wisdom, that a man should be compassionate, and not make his yoke heavy upon any servant that he has.’’

A more recent commentary, Thomas Constable’s online work, provides a more in-depth answer to the issue of slavery in Leviticus 25:

God permitted the Israelites to own slaves from other nations (vv. 44-46). That they were not to mistreat them goes without saying. Slavery in itself, as the Mosaic Law regulated it, did not violate basic human rights, but the abuse of slaves did.

“In the first place, for one people or person to enslave another is, by that very act, to claim the other as one’s own; it is in a fundamental sense to claim another’s life as belonging to oneself. Such a claim, however, flies in the face of the biblical story that we have heard thus far. If the creation narratives of Genesis tell us anything, they tell us that the sovereign source and lord of life is God—and God alone. It is in just that sense that to God—and God alone—all life, ‘the work of his hands,’ ultimately rightly belongs. Therefore, from the standpoint of these biblical narratives, anyone besides God laying such ultimate claims to another’s life would in effect be arrogating to oneself another’s prerogatives. In essence, such a one would be making the most presumptuous claim any human being could make—the claim to be God.”

Israelites could also buy back (redeem) their countrymen who had sold themselves as slaves to non-Israelites who were living in the land (vv. 47-55). An Israelite slave could also buy his own freedom. In these cases the Israelites were to calculate the cost of redemption in view of the approaching year of jubilee when all slaves in the land went free anyway.

“The jubilee release does not apply to foreign slaves (vv. 44-46). A theological reason underlies this discrimination: God redeemed his people from Egyptian slavery, to become his slaves (vv. 42, 55). It is unfitting, therefore, that an Israelite should be resold into slavery, especially to a foreigner (cf. Rom. 6:15-22; Gal. 4:8-9; 5:1). The jubilee law is thus a guarantee that no Israelite will be reduced to that status again, and it is a celebration of the great redemption when God brought Israel out of Egypt, so that he might be their God and they should be his people (vv. 38, 42, 55; cf. Exod. 19:4-6).”74Wenham, The Book . . ., pp. 322-23.
. . .

c. Foreign slaves among the Jews did not have the same rights as Hebrew slaves sold into servitude because of debt; they could be held as slaves for life, though they had to be treated humanely (Exodus 20:8-11; 21:20-21).

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  1. May 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Nice work here Lynda.

  2. May 30, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Isn’t it frustrating when liberal not-particularly-Bible-believing folks handle scripture more carefully than those who should know better? I think it comes from hearing preaching that pulls out proof texts taken out of context and applies meanings to the texts that weren’t there.

    Of course the question of slavery in Judiasm is pretty clear, but that doesn’t make it right. Even in Paul’s day he recognized slavery BUT NOT IN THE CHURCH. There was to be no distinction in the meetings. WOW!
    Galatians 3:26-29(NET) For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 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, there is neither male nor female — for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

    There you have it. The culture of the day was not the particular focus of the church, but the attitudes within the body were a concern. I suppose if someone wants to see God as supporting slavery and hence not really perfect there isn’t much we can do, but it is no excuse for bad scripture handling.

    • May 30, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      Well said, Thomas, regarding the NT handling of slavery, as something that existed in their society but was not to be recognized in the church setting. The NT also condemned slave traders as among the ungodly (1 Tim. 1:10). And yes, some unbelievers are going to see God as supporting slavery, from the OT texts, but we can’t do anything about their ideas, except to properly handle and address those scriptures.

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