Does the Bible condone or promote slavery? Many critics have charged that it does. But what does the book say?
First, the Bible never condones it. It recognizes slavery as a fact of life in the ancient world (a very fallen and sinful world), and it restricts and regulates it. But the Bible never presents slavery as (a) the best of all possible worlds, and (b) something permanent from now until doomsday.
The Law of Moses begins with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. From the get-go in verse 2 Yahweh calls Himself the God who brought Israel up out of slavery. So, God identifies Himself as the One who desires liberty for His people.
The Law in the Old Testament set up a code that made Israel distinct from all other nations regarding slavery. For example, in Israel slaves had rights. And their slavery did not have to be permanent. Some people sold themselves to pay off debts (Leviticus 25:39; Deuteronomy 15:12-17; 2 Kings 4; Nehemiah 5:1-8). However, all Hebrew slaves had to be set free in the seventh year. This was more like indentured servitude, nothing like the chattel slavery of the American antebellum South. The spouse and children were to go free also (Exodus 21:3). Slaves who were abused were to be set free (Exodus 21:26-27). A master who murdered his slave would be put to death (Exodus 21:20; 23-25). (In Exodus 21:20 the Hebrew for “punished” is naqam and has the meaning of incurring the death penalty.) Runaway slaves from other nations (the pagan gentiles) were to be protected and freed, not sent back into slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). All slaves, whether Jew or gentile, were to be protected from abuse (Leviticus 24:17,22; Exodus 21:20). If a slave was injured, he was to be paid for his injury and set free (Exodus 21:26-27).
But there is this sticky problem with Leviticus 25: 45,46 where it says that Israelites could buy slaves from the gentiles and they would be permanent slaves. The Israelites could even pass them on as “property” to their children! How terrible! No, not exactly. Remember the awful situation of slaves under pagan gentile rule. Those slaves had ZERO rights. Their master could literally do whatever he wanted to his slaves. Not so in Israel, however. Becoming a slave in Israel was actually a step up for the pagan. Also, remember that the Law of Moses commanded that Hebrew slaves were not to be kept in bondage forever. So, if you were a pagan, and you saw Hebrew slaves being set free every few years, what would you do? Yeah, I’d convert also … and be set free. There was a way out.
And what about the Gibeonites in Joshua 9? These Canaanites were condemned to be woodcutters and water carriers for Israel in perpetuity (Joshua 9:27). But, remember that the Canaanites (including these Gibeonites) were all supposed to be wiped out by Israel because of their gross wickedness (the Canaanites were notorious for sacrificing their children to Baal and practicing every sort of sexual perversion). In this story, they tricked Joshua into swearing that Israel would not harm them (gotta read the story). When Joshua discovers that he’s been had, he does not kill them, but instead spares them and makes them slaves. There are a couple of things to understand about this. First, under the Law slaves could not be abused. That would include even the tricky Gibeonites. And if they converted to Yahweh, then as Israelites they would have to be set free. They got themselves into this mess, and there was a way out if they chose to take it.
In the New Testament, all are considered to be equal in the sight of God (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 6:5-7,9; Colossians 3:22,23; 1 Peter 2:8). The early Christians did not advocate for slave rebellion since that would be seen as insurrection by the Romans. God had a better way while living under the heel of an oppressive foreign government.
The Apostle Paul actually wrote a little letter to a slave owner named Philemon. Paul tells Philemon that he has befriended his runaway slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian, and Paul urges him to go back to Philemon. But in the letter (which Onesimus carries with him back to his master), he tells Philemon: “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little awhile was that you might have him back for good– no longer as a slave– but better than a slave– as a dear brother” (Philemon 15,16).
Receive him back, not as a slave, but as a brother. No other ancient literature says anything like that. How can you keep a brother in chains? You can’t. And that was Paul’s point.
Only in the Bible are slaves called brothers, and owners are urged to see them as equally made in the image of God, equally redeemed, and therefore worthy of being set free. Christianity so overwhelmed the Roman Empire and its barbarian successors, that by the 8th century the chattel slavery of ancient Rome no longer existed in Christian Europe. It would not make its sad and dreadful reappearance in Europe for almost another 800 years. And then, fortunately, Christians in western Europe rose up and banned it forever beginning in the early 19th century.