Christians often hear from non-Christians that there is violence, wars and slavery in the Old Testament, and therefore the Christian God is an angry God. However, is this really the case? Did God really desire slavery in the Old Testament? Let’s take a deeper look at slavery in the Old Testament.
First of all, one should know the definition of slavery when discussing slavery in the Bible. The Cambridge Dictionary defines slavery as: ‘’The activity of legally owning other people who are forced to work for or obey you’’ (see https://dictionary.cambridge.org/). Slavery, practically, means that the slave is his master’s property. This will be important in the discussion later on.
Slavery was something which occurred in both civilized and uncivilized societies, such as the Romans and the Greeks. More importantly, famous philosophers were pro-slavery. Aristotle (4th c. BC) was of the opinion that society consisted of two groups; slaves and non-slaves. He said that a subgroup of society was created to be ruled over, and that this was necessary. He furthermore argued that slaves and tame animals were not really different from each other (see ‘’The Politics’’ from Aristotle). Not only Aristotle, but Plato was also pro-slavery. Plato (4th c. BC) was of the opinion that ‘’weaklings’’ are present in animal and human societies. He mentioned that justice meant that the strong would rule over the weaklings (see ‘’The Dialogue’’ from Plato). The Roman civil law did not give slaves any rights, and slaveholders were free to do with their slaves whatever they desired.
What was the case for slavery in the Old Testament? Why was there slavery in the Old Testament?
As previously mentioned, slavery was present in the world. God did not ‘’institute’’ slavery. It was not possible to diminish any system, as the people were quite uncivilized back then. This is also what Christ mentioned, that certain things were temporarily allowed as the people’s hearts were unable to understand how it should be (Matthew 19:8). God had to introduce certain thoughts in a gradual manner, in order for the people to be able to grasp them. There was a distinction between Jewish and gentile slaves, and this was not by any means a form of discrimination (as we will see later on).
There were several reasons why one became a slave. First, one could offer himself (Leviticus 25:39-41) or his children (2 Kings 4:1) as a slave out of poverty. Second, one could become a slave by not having paid debts (Exodus 22:3). Third, one could, due to various reasons, sell his children as slaves (Exodus 21:7, 17; Nehemiah 15:5). Fourth, one could be born as a slave if his parents were slaves.
Now comes an interesting point, namely that (Jewish) slaves actually had rights, something which slaves from other communities did not have at all. Jewish slaves were ought to be treated as a brother and not as a slave (Leviticus 25:39-43), did not have to work on the Sabbath year (Leviticus 25:6) and would get the option to leave the master after having worked 7 years for him (Exodus 21:2-6). In addition, every jubilee (every 50 years) slaves would be freed (Leviticus 25:40), and furthermore, freed slaves would not leave empty handed (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). God explicitly demanded to treat slaves in a good manner (Deuteronomy 15:16). Jewish slavery was banned by the prophets after the destruction of the Temple.
Just as Jewish slaves, gentiles could become slaves due to several reasons. First, one could become a slave if seized during battles or exile (Numbers 31:9; 2 Kings 5:2). Second, one could become a slave if being sold and bought (Genesis 17:27, 37:28, 36; Exodus 27:13). Third, one could be born a slave if the parents were slaves (Genesis 16:12). Prior to the Mosaic Law, Abraham gave a living example on how to treat slaves. For instance, Abraham gave a part of his wealth to his slave Eliezer the Damascene (Genesis 15:2), and he respected and trusted his slaves (Genesis 24).
Just as Jewish slaves, gentile slaves had rights too. Gentile slaves would be free from work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), and if one murdered his slave, he would be killed for that (Exodus 21:20). In addition, if one would abduct someone and use him as a slave, he would be killed as well (Exodus 21:16) and if one caused permanent damage to a slave the slave would be freed (Exodus 21:26-27). To stress the respect and love for the slaves, slaves were allowed to join the Jewish holidays (Exodus 20:10, 23:12). Just like the Jewish slavery system, the gentile slavery system was also banned later on.
Often numerous people accuse Christians of having a history in slavery, and that therefore the Christian God would be ‘’bad’’ too. However, these claims almost exclusively come from people who did not actually read the stories of slavery in the Bible. When actually looking at the stories of slavery in the Bible, we explicitly see how slaves ought to be treated and what their rights were. No other religion, empire or philosophy gave rights to slaves and stressed the master to see them as humans. The issue of slavery began prior to the Mosaic Law, and God did not ‘’institute’’ it. God guided the people to see everyone as valuable humans, something which was impossible back then.