“The Bible condones slavery. The Bible condones genocide. The Bible condones…(enter immoral act here).” These are claims that atheists and skeptics often charge the Bible and Christianity with. They paint God, specifically in the Old Testament, as evil, immoral, unjust, murderous, and oppressive. One hot topic is the issue of laws about slavery in the Old Testament. Skeptics often cite Exodus 21 or Deuteronomy 15 to point out that the Bible condones the institution of slavery or even encourages it. This is a rough claim and one that Christians should take seriously. Does the Bible actually condone such things as slavery?
Understanding Old Testament Law
Before we get into the topic of slavery, I think we should understand the context of where these questions of laws come from. Misunderstandings about OT law lead to other questions and accusations such as: “Why don’t Christians still follow the OT law?”, “Why don’t you stone adulterers?”, “Aren’t you supposed to stay away from pork?”, etc. While some of these might be honest questions of individuals trying to find understanding between the testaments of the Bible, these questions and claims are normally from skeptics attempting to debunk the Bible. I would say such claims are often due to lack of study. I have noticed that many skeptics of the Bible merely reiterate and regurgitate whatever New Atheist claims they have read or heard recently. These claims are recycled and reused without much real study and research being applied. I think by diving a bit deeper, we can come to a better understanding.
First, the Mosaic Law was solely for the people of Israel. Paul Copan in his book “Is God a Moral Monseter? explains that the Mosaic law was not “binding upon all humans or all cultures” (1). The law was meant for ancient national Israel. Secondly, the OT law was not meant to be permanent. The New Testament makes this plainly clear in several places. The author of Hebrews calls the covenant by the Mosaic law “obsolete” because there is a “new covenant” (Hebrews 8:13). Even the Old Testament points towards this new covenant, showing the temporary function of the Mosaic law:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will make a new covenant…” (Jeremiah 31:31).
Despite the temporal nature of the Mosaic Law, it still had a purpose. In the long term, the giving of the law was a part of the covenant, and thus a continuation of the fulfillment of the promise God had given Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 and 17:6-8. It was through this new nation, with the law, that God would spread the promised blessing to the rest of the nations. More immediately, the Mosaic law governed how the Israelites would relate or act towards God and other individuals within their Ancient Near Eastern context (ANE). God makes this plainly clear:
“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8).
These laws were supposed to set Israel apart and to draw others to God. God also looks inward to how the Israelites are to act towards Him and their fellow Israelites. If we were to look at the ten commandments given in Exodus 20, we would see that the first four relate to how God was to be worshiped or related to. The last six are how the Israelites are to treat each other. Indeed, Jesus makes this abundantly clear:
“Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
To summarize, the Mosaic law was a temporary law given solely to the nation of Israel in order to govern the way the Israelites would act towards God and others with the goal of reflecting God’s love and light to the other nations. Christians now live under a new covenant, Christ having fulfilled the covenant of Mosaic Law. We have now been “grafted in” to the blessing originally given to Abraham and his descendants (Romans 11:17). I can understand why non-believers might not first understand this idea. Indeed, many Christians don’t fully understand this connection either! However, if you are going to apply a negative in an attempt to debunk or find fault within a worldview, you better do your homework or at least try to understand some of the more intricate ideas and concepts.
The ANE Context of the Law
When looking at the laws of the OT, especially when it discusses institutions or customs which are completely foreign to us, we must remember the context they were given in. These laws were given to a nation which was familiar with the customs of nations such as Egypt, the Hittites, Mesopotamia, etc. This context is far removed from my own 21st-century American understanding. When we look at the OT law with the correct context, we actually find many similarities to the laws within other ANE nations. For example, the covenant regulations given to the Israelites seems to be patterned after the vassal/suzerain treaties of the Hittites (2). Likewise, many of the specific laws seem almost verbatim from other law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi. These similarities seem to be included for a specific reason. If we look back to the previous section, we see that God’s goal was to reach the attention of the other nations. God was using such similarities to shine his love through their context. The other nations would notice that the Israelites lived much different and more moral lives.
In addition to this, Copan offers another explanation for the similarities. He states that God knew the Israelites lived in “a culture whose social structures were badly damaged by the fall” (3). Since the Fall of man (Genesis 3), “God’s ideal” for human life, originally found in the garden of Eden, had been “deeply distorted” (4). In Genesis, man and woman were created equal, each bearing the image of God. At the fall, their relationships to God, each other, and even the earth were damaged or severed. Just looking at the topic of this post, slavery, we see that man is indeed not equal. God’s ideal for man had deteriorated, and God knew this. Additionally, God knew that the Israelites were stubborn and hardhearted. They would not immediately turn away from their current lifestyles back to this Eden ideal. Returning to such an ideal would prove to be too great a contrast due to their stubborn hearts. God’s solution was to move “incrementally” back towards this ideal (5). Copan summarizes this:
“So Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions. God ‘works with’ Israel as he finds her. He meets his people where they are while seeking to show them a higher ideal in the context of ancient Near Eastern life.” (6).
He says again here:
“God didn’t banish all fallen, flawed, ingrained social structures when Israel wasn’t ready to handle the ideals.” (7).
“Being the practical God he is, Yahweh (the Old Testament title for the covenant-making God) met his people where they were, but he didn’t want to leave them there.” (8).
Indeed, while God’s laws echo in similar language to the ANE context, the Mosaic law is a moral upgrade compared to the laws of other nations. Just as God progressively revealed his plan for the salvation of the world throughout history and Scripture, He also progressively leads Israel “toward restoring the Genesis ideals” (9). Copan calls this a “moral advance” or even a “redemptive movement within Scripture” (10,11).
In fact, Jesus testifies that God did exactly this through his law:
“‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.'” (Matthew 19:8).
Notice, God merely permitted the law about divorce because the hearts of the Israelites were hard or stubborn. Even more so, Jesus points back to the ideal! He tells them that divorce was not meant to be. From the beginning, Man and woman were to become one flesh in a loving and committed relationship.
We can even see this incremental moral advance within the OT law itself. Many laws, originally given in Exodus and Leviticus, change slightly or are updated within Deuteronomy. In fact, there is actually an account of Israelites petitioning for a change in law (Numbers 27). This law which was to point Israel towards the moral ideal was working!
What About Slavery?
One more thing before I get into the OT laws on slaver: we need to address our assumptions of what the term “slavery” means, especially in the ANE context. Personally, as an American, the word “slavery” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It brings me back to the accounts of pre-civil war slavery. Individuals were kidnapped from their homes, trafficked across the ocean, beaten, whipped, raped, owned as property, and overall dehumanized. It seems justified to recoil from even the inclusion of the institution of slavery within the Bible. However, I think we will see that the term “slave” isn’t always a good translation within the OT laws. Copan goes as far to say that “A mistake that critics make is associating servanthood in the Old Testament with antebellum (prewar) slavery in the South” (12).
The Hebrew word “eber”, which is often translated as slave, should probably be translated as “servant”. Copan likens this idea of Hebrew servanthood with the indentured servants of “colonial America” who had to “contract themselves out, working in the households…until they paid back their debts” (13). This is extremely similar to how slavery worked within Israel. An Israelite could “sell” himself to a more wealthy individual in order to pay back a debt (Leviticus 25). Also, don’t get tripped up on the old Testament language of “selling” oneself or “buying” a servant. This does not mean that these servants were property. Copan uses a modern example to explain this:
“Think of a sports player today who gets ‘traded’ to another team, to which he ‘belongs.’ Yes, teams have ‘owners,’ but we’re hardly talking about slavery here! Rather, these are formal contractual agreements, which is what we find in Old Testament servanthood/employee arrangements. On example of this…was Jacob’s working for Laban for seven years so that he might marry his daughter Rachel.” (14)
So instead of being an object owned by a harsh master, a Hebrew servant was “voluntarily” entering into this agreement to work in someone’s house in order to get out of debt. These servants would work for the household for six years and then be freed on the seventh. As we can see, this is not meant to be permanent either! Copan states, “The release year reminded the Israelites that poverty-induced servanthood wasn’t the ideal social arrangement.” (15) However, if someone desired to stay a servant of that family, he or she could choose to become a permanent servant. Again, this is voluntary! Also, why would a servant want to stay a servant if the job entailed harsh conditions? As we shall see, servants were not to be treated poorly.
God even makes explicit his purpose for this institution of servanthood: ‘There need be no poor people among you…” (Deuteronomy 15:4). In other word, “God didn’t want there to be any poverty in Israel…Therefore, servant laws existed to help the poor, not to harm them or keep them down.” (16).
We should also note that debt servanthood was supposed to be a last resort. God institutes many laws and commands for the Israelites to help the poor and to take care of them (Leviticus 25:35). God was caring for the poor, not commanding slavery.
Beating your slaves (servants)?
The topic of beating slaves is a favorite among skeptics of the Bible and the OT. Again, this attack on Scripture can be solved by reading the cherry-picked passages within their context and within the context of ANE law. A repeated example of the condoning of slave abuse is Exodus 21:20-21:
Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
Two things arise out of this passage. First, skeptics point out that this passage states that masters could beat their slaves (servants) as long as they didn’t kill them. Secondly, they point out the word “property” to show that this is condoning owning someone.
I will first make a note that these servants were still considered human beings. What I mean by this is that should a master beat them to death, they were to be punished and the word for “punished” here almost always denotes death. So the punishment for killing someone, servant or not, still calls for the death penalty. In other ANE civilizations, killing a slave merely resulted in basically a fine. Servants were not treated as people as they were in Israel.
As for the skeptics’ first point, I will disagree. This law is not condoning beating your slave up until the point of death, but rather is is an attempt to prevent such oppressive behavior. I think this next passage makes this point clear:
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).
If someone was to injure their servant, such as damaging their eye or teeth, the servant went free from the household and free from their debt servitude. This would be fiscally harmful for the master since he has a deal with the servant for six years of labor in order to pay off some sort of debt. Should this individual beat this person, they might very well lose a helpful hand in their home and lose out on payment. We can see how this law was meant to deter and prevent abusive and oppressive behavior. It is also worth noting that many of the regulations within the Mosaic Law were case laws, or examples of how the law was to be used. Each case, or example, showed the heart or root of the law rather than a strict step by step process.Walt Russel in his book “Playing with Fire” explains case laws as such:
In these laws God gives His people representative and illustrative examples of case law in which they could see righteous and just principles at work and thus make just judgments not only in cases like the examples, but also in similar instances. (17).
Therefore, in the above example for the case law of beating your slaves can be summarized as this: Don’t beat your servants. If you do, they are to go free. The root of the law was to treat servants well. Let me also repeat God’s call for the Israelites to remember their own oppression in Egypt and to therefore not oppress others, including foreigners, the poor, and the needy. (Ex. 23:9, Lev. 19:33-34, Deut. 23:15-16, 24:14-15).
Secondly, I will address the idea of “property” within this verse. Again, while reading this alone seems harsh, reading it within the context of the law tells me that servants were treated well, not to be oppressed, and meant to go free. So, what’s going on here then? This is solved by looking at the Hebrew word used here for “property.” The phrasing here denotes a “loss”. Specifically, the word “literally means money” (18). This does not mean that the servant is money to be used or to be spent. Remember that the servant had agreed to debt-servanthood because they had gained quite a bit of debt from the individual whom he was working for. Therefore, the servant’s service was in a sense the master’s money. Their six years of service was taking the place of the monetary debt that was owed. So, beating a servant was considered a loss of their “money”. Beating someone to death or near to death would obviously keep the servant from working. The master would lose out on their servant’s time and labor. Servants were not considered property.
It is important to note the existence of a law for the situation of a runaway servant:
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.(Deuteronomy 23:15-16).
Should a servant run away from his household, most likely due to an abusive master, the individual who found the servant was commanded not to return them. Note the imperative language of “You shall not”. So even when a master went against the calls to not oppress others, the servant was protected. God did not want to subject that servant to further abuse. In fact, this individual was to go free! Additionally, it is possible that this also included foreign slaves who were fleeing from the surrounding nations. They knew that they were to be treated well in Israel and chose to run to safety. If we look at the laws of the surrounding nations, we would also see that such protective laws were absent. Slaves were treated as property and were required to be returned should they have runaway and been found. Individuals found with runaway slaves in other Mesopotamian nations could be punished for not returning them. For an example, lets look at a law from the Code of Hammurabi:
(Law 19). If he [the individual who found the runaway] hold the slaves in his house, and they are caught there, he shall be put to death. (19)
The master was allowed to punish the slave harshly for fleeing, even to the point of cutting his ear off (Law 282). Additionally, the punishment for killing or hurting a slave was merely a payment of money. Punishments for crimes were often based upon class systems. Attacking someone of a lower “class” had a lower punishment. Not everyone was of equal value. In the Mosaic law, murder was murder and assault was assault, regardless of whether you were a servant, priest, or otherwise. Indeed, the Mosaic Law should be considered a moral upgrade from its contemporaries in many regards. Recall, this was a moral upgrade that also hoped to move towards God’s ideal.
Again, these tough verses become much easier when they are read in context of the entire law. Servants were people and were to be treated as such. The Bible did not condone the beating of others. Further study into a culture and law that is out of context to the modern reader should stir further study before claims are levied against it.
Tackling Leviticus 25:44-46
The text reads:
“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. 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. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves.”
At first glance, the above verse seems to be advocating for enforced slavery, specifically from foreign nations.
However, before we jump to conclusions, we must look at other laws concerning slavery. Both Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 prohibit the kidnapping of anyone. In fact, those caught in the act of kidnapping are to be put to death. Again, we see that God treats acts against the lives of others humans extremely seriously. Israelites were not allowed to take people by force from their homes in order to “aquire” slaves. So then, how would Israel “acquire male and female slaves” (servants)? Lets look at verse 45. It states that slaves could be acquired from “out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you”. So these servants being addressed in this passage could be “acquired” from people whom God specifically told the Israelites to not oppress (Ex. 23:9, Lev. 19:33-34, Deut. 23:15-16, 24:14-15).
These individuals were not to be oppressed, could not be kidnapped, and were to be treated well. Therefore, the only way Israelite could acquire servants from these individuals was again voluntary servitude. These sojourners could willingly choose to be servants of other households. The inclusion of the phrase “you can use them as permanent slaves (servants)” need not alarm us either, as Hebrew servants could also be permanent servants, by choice. There seems to be little difference between sojourners or Hebrews when it comes to servanthood. Indeed, it is possible that the term of “Hebrew” or Habiru was “broader than the term Israelite” (20). Copan explains that the “habiru were people not formally attached to established states like Egypt or Babylon; they were considered foreigners and non-citizens…”(21). Indeed, the “Hebrew” people from their beginnings of nationhood included a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) most likely including Israelites, Egyptians, and slaves of other nations once held captive in Egypt.
So these servants which could be obtained from the “sojourners” would also be considered Hebrew and released with the seven-year release date. These once foreigners are now considered a part of Israel. Another passage from Leviticus 19:34 solidifies this:
The stranger who resides with you shall be to as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
Those who were not originally Israelite could be considered a “native” and would therefore fall under all of the servant laws! Therefore, Leviticus 25:44-46 is not advocating for slavery. It is further defining the servant laws with those who were foreigners though now residing in Israel.
Prisoners of War
The last place in this topic of slavery which I think needs to be addressed is in times of war. To save space and due to some overlap already, I will only briefly address this. There are times where individuals were forced to labor for Israel after a period of war. There are regulations for this as well:
When you approach a city to fight against it, you are to make an offer of peace. If they accept your offer of peace and open their gates, all the people there will become forced laborers to serve you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-11).
Isn’t this slavery? No. We must remember that the Israelites were not allowed to oppress individuals or kidnap them as slaves. We must also remember that slaves, i.e. servants, were to go free after six years. It is important to note once more that God specifically told Israel all throughout the Law that they are to remember how they were oppressed into labor in Egypt and to not act in such a way. So, it seems more likely that this labor was not back-breaking slavery. Lets look at the example of the nation of Moab. Moab was along the southeastern border of Israel and was often at war with the Hebrews. In 2 Samuel 8:2, David defeats the Moabites and they are forced to pay tribute to him. In 2 Kings 3:4, we see what kind of tribute or “forced labor” they were forced to give Israel:
Now Mesha king of Moab raised sheep, and he had to pay the king of Israel a tribute of a hundred thousand lambs and the wool of a hundred thousand rams.
This could definitely be considered a forced labor. What was the purpose of this labor? Copan argues his point here:
“If Israel fought against other nations, some POW’s might need to be assimilated into Israelite society. Structures needed to prevent them form rising up in rebellion against their new master or remaining consolidated in their own land where they could muster forces and launch a counter attack.” (22).
This institution seems more like vassalage. The foreign nation was now considered a vassal under Israel and was forced to pay tribute. This is similar to how many Israelite and Judean kings paid tribute to Assyrian kings. For this example of Moab, we must remember that Moab had continued to attack Israel or lead the nation astray from their covenant with God. This subjection to vassalage can easily be seen as righteous judgement for their crimes. This vassalage or even servanthood would’ve subdued and reduced the “internal threat to Israel’s safety” (23).
Salvation of the Nations
Overall, the Mosaic Law was a temporary set of regulations and stipulations given to the people of Israel to mark their covenant with Yahweh. It pointed Israel towards God’s ideal for the world, challenging the laws and moral codes of the ANE. The slave laws within the Mosaic law were to combat debt and poverty. God desired that there would be no poor in Israel. The institution of debt-servitude held a six year release cycle, showing that such servitude was not ideal, was temporary, and was merely serving a purpose. Additionally, several laws were set in order to protect servants from oppressive behavior and to deter harsh masters. These regulations on servitude are largely absent from the codes and laws in other ANE civilizations. These laws are far from the oppressive, people treated as property laws that skeptics make them out to be. The Bible does not condone slavery.
In addition to the laws regulating the covenant relationship between God and Israel, the overall goal was the salvation of the nations of the world. While God sought to spiritually form and grow his people, he also sought to reflect his character in a fallen, morally corrupt context. Through Israel, he desired to reach out to the peoples of the world. God’s commands to the Israelites were to love him and to love each other. He directed them to restrain from oppressive behavior and to accept people of others nations into their fold should they desire to join them. Anyone who was not a native to Israel, anyone who was considered a foreigner, sojourner, or alien, could “embrace Israel’s ways” and be considered a native (24). These new natives would be allowed to join in celebrations and worship of the God who so desired for them to join in the covenant.
We actually see this process of foreigners becoming natives in the story of Ruth. Ruth is a moabitess who becomes a part of Israel. Notice, she is from a nation which is often considered wicked and rebellious! Another example is where a descendant of Caleb marries an Egyptian servant (1 Chronicles 2:34-35). Notice here, a citizen of the nation which had once enslaved the Hebrews was now becoming a Hebrew herself! There is also the classic example of the Canaanite Rahab and her family becoming a part of the nation of Israel.
Throughout the OT, we see rich descriptions of God looking forward to when all of the peoples of the world would once again seek him. The covenant blessing of relationship with God that was promised to Abraham would spread to people of all nations and tongues. This promise came to fruition within the person of Jesus Christ. God became flesh, dwelt among his children, and died to redeem them to himself. Through Christ’s death and resurrection we now are able to join into the original promise, dwelling with God. Our position with God which was lost so long ago at the fall due to our rebellion, is now regained. We are returned to God’s side. Just as the law was future looking, pointing towards the next part of God’s plan, so do we look forward to Christ’s return and the redemption of our bodies and this world. Death, which reigned at the moment of the fall, will be put away. The law was meant to reflect God’s love to the people of the world and now we are meant to reflect God’s love to the world as well.
- Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. 2011. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Bakerbooks (p. 61).
- Hill, E. Andrews & Walton, H. John. 2009. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
- Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. 2011. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Bakerbooks (p. 58).
- Ibid, (p. 59).
- Ibid, (p. 61).
- Ibid, (p. 62).
- Ibid, (p. 125).
- Ibid, (p. 126)
- Ibid, (p. 127).
- Russel, Walt. 2000. Playing with Fire. How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul. NavPress. (p. 122).
- Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. 2011. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Bakerbooks (p. 135).
- The Avalon Project: Code of Hammurabi. Retrieved from: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp.
- Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. 2011. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Bakerbooks (p. 138).
- Ibid, (p. 143).
- Ibid, (p. 146).