Does the Bible condone slavery? (Part 2)

It took the United States almost 90 years after it was founded, supposedly on Christian principles, to end slavery.  Finally people understood it was wrong to own another person.  Even after that, African Americans have been kept down and discriminated against. 
In Leviticus 25 it gives instructions on how to purchase foreigners, even their children, and treat them like property.  But they were told that the people of Israel must not be treated that way.
In Exodus 21 it talks about how to buy a Hebrew slave—that they must set him free in the seventh year, and if he got married while he was in slavery, he can’t take his wife with him when he’s freed.  If he wants to keep his wife he has to say he’s happy with his master and have an awl pushed through his ear lobe, and agree to slavery for life.
Also in Exodus 21 it tells you it’s all right to beat your slave to the point of death, as long as he doesn’t die right away.
Jesus didn’t seem to condemn slavery either, and the apostle Paul even says that slaves should obey their earthly masters with respect and fear, as sincerely as they would serve Christ (Ephesians 6:5).
Why would God permit the Israelites, and later the Christians, to treat people like this?

In my first post in answer to this question I showed that when we look at the big picture in the Bible, we see that it presents freedom from slavery as God’s intentions for every person.  Let me now speak to the individual passages you cited.

•  In the instructions in Leviticus that allow purchasing foreign slaves, there is paradoxically an implicit teaching against slavery.  The people of Israel were supposed to create a society that would be model for all the nations around them.  They were not allowed to enslave fellow members of their society, and this implies that God’s ideal for society is freedom, not slavery.

And even though the laws in this part of Leviticus permit foreign slaves, we need to put these laws in conversation with laws in other parts of Leviticus that say things like, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  If resident foreigners really were treated like native-born, they wouldn’t be enslaved, even though another law in the same book permits this.

This is the kind of puzzle in the Law—seemingly contradictory statements—that Jesus sorted out in the Sermon on the Mount when he taught, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.”  For example, while revenge was permitted, Jesus said not to engage in it, on the basis of a higher principle.  While divorce was permitted, Jesus said to be committed to marriage, again on the basis of a higher principle.  We can see, on the same basis, that while enslaving foreigners was permitted, Leviticus itself contains a higher principle that would lead a thoughtful follower of the Law not to own slaves.

•  The regulations in Exodus about Hebrew slaves specify a six-year period of indentured servitude for those who sell themselves into slavery.  If a man is married when he first becomes a slave, he can leave with his wife and children.  But if the master provides a wife (presumably from among his female slaves), she is not automatically granted her freedom when her husband’s term of service ends.

But once again, this law needs to be put in conversation with another law, in Leviticus, that says that a fellow Israelite who sells himself into slavery must be treated as a hired worker and then set free with his children (and presumably his wife), with nothing said about an exception for cases when the master has provided a wife for the slave.

And so, if a master in ancient Israel had provided a wife for a slave, he could insist on the “letter of the law” and force the slave to choose between his freedom and his new family.  Or he could live out the “spirit of the law” and release them all.  Once again, this is the kind of dynamic that Jesus highlighted in his teaching, to encourage his followers to live out the highest principles in the law and so “be perfect, as their heavenly Father was perfect.”

• The law in Exodus about beating a slave should not be understood in any way as giving permission to masters to beat their slaves severely, so long as they don’t quite kill them.  For one thing, this law specifies that if a slave dies immediately from a beating, the master must suffer the death penalty, just as in the case of a free person being murdered. The Hebrew says literally, “vengeance shall surely be taken.”  The NIV says that the master “must be punished,” but this is not specific enough; the ESV says that the slave “shall be avenged,” and this is clearer.  The first part of this law provides the same protection for slaves as for free persons, an unusual and perhaps unique piece of legislation among ancient cultures.

The second part of this law says that if the slave does not die immediately, but after a day or two, “he is not to be avenged,” that is, the master does not suffer the death penalty.  The reasoning behind this stipulation is that the slave’s survival for a time suggests that the killing was not intentional. The law of Moses carefully distinguishes between the penalties for murder and manslaughter (that is, for intentional and unintentional killings).  The explanation “for the slave is his money” does not mean that the master has bought and paid for the slave and so can do anything with him that he wants.  Rather, the meaning is that the loss of the price of the slave, a significant sum in the ancient world, punishes the master sufficiently for manslaughter.  The master has, in effect, punished himself.

Even though understanding more about the background and intent of this law can help us recognize that it is designed to protect slaves, not the masters who beat them, it is still a very difficult law for compassionate followers of Jesus to read today in the Bible.

•  Paul’s encouragement for slaves to obey their masters comes within a section of Ephesians in which he stresses that authority relationships are reciprocal:  If wives must respect their husbands, husbands must also love their wives; if children must obey their parents, parents must also not exasperate them and bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  In the same way, if slaves must obey their “earthly masters” with respect and fear, then those masters must treat their slaves “in the same way,” that is, realizing that they are answerable to a heavenly Master, and so they must not threaten or abuse.

And we must put these comments here in conversation with Paul’s other statements, noted last time, about slaves gaining their freedom if possible and there being neither slave nor free in Christ.  Indeed, right here in Ephesians Paul arguably undercuts the master’s absolute authority by saying that the slave is really serving the Lord, not the earthly master.

In conclusion, we may still wonder how the Bible could regulate an institution like slavery instead of opposing it outright.  But I hope I have shown that the Bible does contain principles that would lead a thoughtful person, ancient or modern, who wanted to live out its highest ideals to realize that slavery was not something God intended, and to work actively for freedom for everyone.  This work is certainly the historic legacy of the community of Jesus’ followers and its continuing mission.


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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