March 26, 2024

Does Scripture Endorse Slavery?

“These are the ordinances that you shall set before them: “When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 
Exodus 21:1-2 (NRSV)

Author
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Jackson Wilson

Executive Students Ministry Pastor

“Don’t you want to be on the right side of history?”
This is a question that I have heard pressed upon Christians and the church as a whole in recent years when it comes to our current progressing sexual revolution. The point of this question (which is based completely on assumptions) is meant to be a jab against Christians [whether or not they were followers of Christ is another story] in the past who manipulated the Bible to support their practice of slave-trading, and the dehumanizing of Africans and African Americans in our country’s history. Here’s the assumption that this question is communicating. 
“Christians used the Bible to oppress slaves in the past and that’s exactly what Christians are doing to oppress the LGBTQ+ community today. Don’t you want to be on the right side of history?” 

The assumption is that “the Bible DOES support slavery, but now that we know that slavery is wrong today we need to adapt scripture to fit our modern culture. Because of this, we also need to adapt scripture to not oppress those who don’t believe in a biblical sexual ethic of one man, one woman, under the covenant of marriage.” This is truly a case of “chronological snobbery” as said by C.S. Lewis. It’s the false and extremely prideful idea that, “we as a society today are FAR BETTER off and much smarter than ancient Israel…” or God!

But what do we do when we come across passages like Exodus 21 or Leviticus 25 that go into great detail about slaves, slave owners, or even the punishment of slaves? These are the very places that are taken out of context and used against Christians, and for good reason. When taken at face value, it does seem to paint this picture of God supporting slavery. This is where the beauty of biblical study comes into play! The doctrine of the clarity of scripture is the understanding that the Bible is CLEAR, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have to work to seek the right understanding. So let’s address three questions regarding this topic. 

  1. Does the Bible support slavery? 
  2. Is the slavery we see in the Old Testament the same form of slavery we see in America’s dark history of slave-trading? 
  3. Does this passage reveal Jesus in any way? 

Does the Bible support slavery?

To put it quite simply, the Bible addresses plenty of issues that it does not support. Just because God gives a law or a regulation for something does not mean that He necessarily is endorsing and supporting that issue. Most of the time the laws are given to PREVENT things from taking place that miss His holy standard and break His heart. We see Jesus addressing this similar pitfall of thinking concerning the law of Moses and divorce.

7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so.”
Matthew 19:7-8 (NRSV)

Jesus addresses two very important things here. First, God gave regulations to things like divorce and slavery, not because He encourages them, but because in His omniscience He knows that humans will choose them. “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives…” God often gives us rules and regulations because He KNOWS that humans in our fallen and sinful state will choose lesser things. Because God gives us the will to do this (choose His perfect standard or our lesser standards), He also gives us rules and regulations to keep things in order. Second, Jesus addresses the fact that “from the beginning it was not so.” In other words, “Moses gave you the option of divorce but just because he did doesn’t mean that is what God intended.” In the same way, we know that just because God addresses slavery in Exodus 21 does not mean that God endorsed and encouraged it among His people. The opposite is the case. 

“Moses did not institute slavery in any shape; the laws concerning it were made on purpose to repress it, to confine it within very narrow bounds, and ultimately to put an end to it.” 
Charles Spurgeon

Is the slavery we see in the Old Testament the same form of slavery we see in America’s dark history of slave-trading? 

This is the assumption people have. But is the Bible talking about the same type of slavery? While the word “slave” may be the same, the practice of slavery in the Bible and what it is addressing is not the same form of slavery we remorsefully hear about taking place in our own country. The slavery we see in our country’s history can be characterized as being completely dehumanizing, oppressive, violent, and forced upon by the slave traders and owners of that day. It is assumed that THIS form of slavery was encouraged with the use of the Bible by “Christians” in the past, but the opposite is true. Slave owners produced what is known today as “The Slave Bible” which was an edited version of scripture given to slaves by their owners. In this edited form of scripture, massive portions of the Bible were taken out including things like the book of Exodus and God liberating the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt! They literally had to take scripture OUT to support their form of slavery. 

So what did slavery look like in the Old Testament? The most common form of slavery in the Old Testament was called Indentured Servitude which is the mutual decision or covenantal agreement between a slave and a master. This means that most people who were slaves chose to become slaves for different reasons like being in debt, bankruptcy, homelessness, and poverty. If a person was not in a place to pay off a debt or financially/materialistically provide for themself, they had the option of selling themselves into slavery. But in doing this, they were selling themselves into the form of slavery that we typically think of which is characterized by being seen as less than human or treated violently. The opposite is true. The Bible gives plenty of regulations for the humane treatment of slaves. Not only that but the year of Jubilee is applied to slaves and their owners. After six years of service, no matter how big the debt was or whatever reason for this person’s slavery, they had to be released and viewed as totally free by their master. (See Deuteronomy 15:12-15)

The ideas of man-stealing and life-long servitude – the concepts many have of slavery – simply do not apply to the practice of slavery in the Old Testament.
David Guzik

Does this passage reveal Jesus in any way? 

One of the greatest ways to read scripture is to look for Jesus in it all. Jesus is the Word made flesh! (John 1:1) So the question is, do we see Jesus even in a passage like this? The answer is a resounding, “YES!” 

4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife, and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,’ 6 then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him for life.
Exodus 21:4-6 (NRSV)

Jesus is our suffering servant who was willingly pierced out of a deep love for the ones whom He loved. Jesus is the slave who “paid his dues” and deserved to leave this earth without having to face death, but out of love, decided to be pierced before God to be WITH US. 

He chose not to go out free without us. He could have left this earth without dying but He said, “I love My Bride. I love the sinner.” So He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross so that He could redeem us from the slavery of sin. What a picture this is of Christ - placed right here after the giving of the Ten Commandments. 
J. Vernon McGee

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