Biblical Slavery – The uncomfortable truth

This is a very uncomfortable topic to think about. It’s even more uncomfortable for those who believe in verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the biblical texts, or that each of the words in the Bible were specifically picked and inspired by God to contain ultimate and unchanging truth. This can cause all manner of logical gymnastics. I was involved in a few discussions about the biblical texts and slavery and to my dismay heard a few friends argue that the Old Testament affirms slavery for a good reason,  that slavery was a good way to order society at the time. (Unfortunately this was a real statement.)

Others, who are more astute look at the Biblical texts on slavery and cannot accept these at face value, so they make apt comparisons to indentured servitude, saying things like “slavery was a temporary form of indentured servitude, where you worked for seven years to pay off a debt.” (Yes, that’s another real statement). Unfortunately, this is not true, even if it sounds much softer and we would rather it be true. Instead of simply telling you this, let me show you.


 1. Hebrew slave

  • Hebrew free-persons could not sell themselves into slavery because of financial difficulty:
    If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man(Leviticus 25:39-40)
  • Hebrew males would go free after seven years:“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.”(Exodus 21:2)
  • Male Hebrew slaves could be provided a wife: “if his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters” (Exodus 21:4)
  • The wife and children are eternal property; slave families were separated, children were taken from the father:“If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.” (Exodus 21:5)
  • The only way to keep from being separated from ones children/wife is to commit to a life of slavery:“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.” (Exodus 21:6-7)
  • Daughter could be sold, but would never be liberated “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.” (Exodus 21:7)
  • However, there were safeguards against female abuse: “If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her.” (Exodus 21:8)
  • Girl slaves could be adopted as daughters, though keep in mind all women were treated like property (daughters were sold into slavery per Ex 21:7): “If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.” (Exodus 21:)
  • If a man owns a female slave, and obtains another woman he must provide food, clothing, and sex to the woman slave or else free her“If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. “If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”(Exodus 21:10-11)
  • Some slaves could be beat, as long as they survive a day or two: “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. “If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for [slave] is his property.” (Exodus 21:21-22)
  • Permanent deformities led to the liberation of Hebrew slaves: “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. “And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” (Exodus 21:26-27)
  • A slaves life was worth 30 shekels of gold: “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall give his or her master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (Exodus 21:32)

2. Foreign captive / slave

  • Slaves are possessions not people: “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. 45‘Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. (Leviticus 25:44-45)
  • These are permanent possessions, even handed down through the generations:“You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.” (Leviticus 25:46)
  • These slaves can to be treated worse than the Hebrew slaves in Exodus 21: you can use them as permanent slaves but in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.” (Leviticus 25:46)
  • Slaves can be captured in war: “When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. “Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 20:13–14)
  • Women could be captured, shaved bald, and enslaved as a wife: “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. “She shall also 1remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:10–14)

3. Other interesting observations

  • There was indeed a difference between a slave bought with money, and a hired servant: “but every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it.  A sojourner or a hired servant shall not eat of it.”(Exodus 12:44-45)
  • The slave became property of the house, and got to eat the Passover meal: “But if a priest buys a slave as his property with his money, that one may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food.” (Leviticus 22:11)
  • Premarital sex with a slave woman doesn’t lead to stoning for adultery because she wasn’t free: “Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment; they shall not, however, be put to death, because she was not free.” (Leviticus 19:20)
  • Slaves are punished with their masters “and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.” (Exodus 11:5)
  • One biblical text allows slaves to escape and be free! This is probably my favorite one! It seems as if there was some development of doctrine and debate during this era, and at least one genuinely good idea made it. That said, this verse doesn’t simply invalidate the others, its a minority opinion in the text (yes there are different opinions in the Bible). “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.  He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
  • Another Deuteronomist text also forbids Hebrews to be forced into slavery (though this only applies to men and only to those of the same nation): “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 24:7)
  • Virgin girls captured in war could be kept as spoils of war, likely for sexual abuse (this explains why boys are not kept): “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. “But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:17–18)
  • Some people were bought, others born into slavery: “I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.” Ecclesiastes 2:7


In the New Testament the power dynamics are different, because at the time Christianity was a minority religion without political power or standing armies (unlike the Hebrews of the Old Testament, and 1800 years of Christian history after the writing of the New Testament). This means the New Testament doesn’t actively in-state and regulate the institution of slavery, rather it merely accepts it. In addition, likely to avoid ill words from being spoken against Christian doctrine, the early church writers command slaves to remain slaves, in order that “our doctrine will not be spoken against.”

While there were hundreds of opportunities for the New Testament authors to renounce slavery, they did not. This is the most unspeakable fact that must be noted, they did not renounce slavery. To be fair, in one passage (Galatians 3:28), Paul did say that slaves spiritual worth is equitable to their masters, however, a dozen other places clearly promote and uphold slavery. There is no unison of voices speaking out against the ownership of people, though at least there are two commands for masters to be “fair.” Incidentally, in the Southern US era slavery, masters read these passages, and interpreted their actions as “fair,” because they only beat their slaves if they “deserved it.”

  • Jesus interacted with a slave and didn’t renounce the institution of slavery: “And a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die.” (Luke, 7:2)
  • The epistles (that were written by deutero-Paul) commanded slaves to obey their masters: Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth” (Col 3:22-25)
  • Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling” (Eph 6:5-8)
  • Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything” (Titus 2:9-10)
  • The New Testament commands slaves to honor their slave-master because this promoted good Christian doctrine. All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.” (1 Timothy 6:1)
  • Peter commanded slaves to be submissive, even to abusive masters:“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1 Peter 2:18)
  • In an exception to the passages above Paul advises some to become free if they have the opportunity. howerer, this is not a request for the total abolition of slavery, nor is it a condemnation of the practice: Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. (1 Cor 7:21)

Was slavery in Antiquity much better than Southern slavery?

For most contemporary Christians, slavery connotes nothing but a bitter distaste under the tongue. Very often the last resort is that “slavery in the Greco-roman world was not the same slavery we are familiar with, it is much better.” Unfortunately this is not wholly honest. Was it different? Yes, of course it was, time changes many traditions and customs. But the question we should be asking is “was it better?” The answer is no.

  • Slaves in the Greco-roman world could be beat and tortured. There is even a formal roman era law (AE1971) that created rules about how to pay someone to torture and beat your slaves.
  • The only slave testimony that was admissible to court was under torture. “The principle was that slaves, and only slaves, should have their evidence taken only if they were first subjected to torture”
  • Some slaves were indeed paid, but historians cite that this was rare, rather than the common situation, most weren’t given wages but just treated poorly. Workers in the same era, on the other hand, were always paid. Some apologists like to obscure this fact, but there indeed were two separate classes, (a) hired workers and (b) slaves.
  • Slaves were property sold and separated at will by their masters choices, children could be separated from parents, wives from husbands, and so forth.  Even in the Greco-Roman world, slaves were not people but property.

A few short thoughts

After 5800+ years of biblical history, after  1700+ years of New Testament Christianity, after hundreds of millions of people suffered miserable and cruel lives as slaves, before slavery was finally abolished. For some reason the Bible was never clearly against slavery. It certainly cannot be due to a desire for brevity, for there are thousands of words dedicated to ritualistic killing of animals and other obscure laws dealing with vaginal discourse and the like, but nothing that clearly forbids slavery. A simple “Don’t keep slaves, people are not property” would have sufficed, and not have taken up too much room, but its not there. Unfortunately this is our uncomfortable truth, and we have to live with it: (1) the Hebrew Bible establishes slavery, (2) the New Testament permits it, and (3) Christians for over a millennium and a half engaged in it.

The most widespread abolition of slavery happened in very close proximity to the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and other modernist humanist movements. Even John Newton, the Christian, abolitionist, and author of “Amazing Grace” had first spent 4 years as a Christian slavetrader, a decade as a slave investor, until 34 years later, finally joining the abolitionist movement. In this movement were many devout Christians, humanists, freethinkers and more, but it was a movement rooted in humanistic ideals and a “love thy neighbor” method, it was a systematic Biblical teaching, nor part of nearly 6000 years of Hebrew-Christian history.

Before the church joined this movement, many Christians were against it. It was commot to see, as recorded in an era newspaper, abolitionists being rejected by churches: “Also in New Hampshire, in that same year, in a church in Northfield, George Storrs, was lifted from his knees while offering an anti-slavery prayer, and thrown out of the church.” Fortunately today the church has not offered apologies for racism and slavery,  the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists, the Methodists, and the Episcopalians have all admitted their part in promoting slavery and racism. (Lest you think I’ve invented the idea).

In any case, the abolition of slavery was so connected with modernistic ideas of intellectual freedom, that James H Thornwell, a famous American preacher, wrote that abolitionists are “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans.” And we should all be ashamed of this, that it wasn’t Paul, or Peter, or most Christians living during the first 17 centuries, but the “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans” who ended mainstream acceptance for slavery.

Finally, while slavery has ended in Europe and America, it is still very much in action in other places on this globe, to this end there are organizations working diligently to end this horrific institution, and we ought to do all we can to help.

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One response

  1. Yuriy, thank you for your refreshing and honest take on biblical slavery. Attempts to justify the worst of scripture are nauseating.

    I wonder how you account for mandated slavery in a book that’s supposed to have been given to us by the most perfectly moral being imaginable. As a Christian, all I had on supply were fuzzy allusions to “progressive revelation” and slippery arguments about man’s hand in an otherwise holy book. As a non-believer, I’m quite untroubled of course, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts since you seem frank, intelligent, and honest.

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