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Slavery in The Bible

Colonial American slavery (which is what usually comes to mind when we hear the word “slavery”) was a sinful, violent, cold, evil practice. Men and women from Africa were kidnapped. Then they were forced into labor with no compensation. They could only dream of being treated as good as the family dog.  They were beaten, raped and murdered.  Many a person who claimed Christ owned slaves during this time, and used verses in the Old Testament to justify it.  Let me be crystal clear on something:

The Slavery Instituted by God in the Old Testament is VERY DIFFERENT than Colonial Slavery

To respond to this objection of slavery in the bible, first, we need to recognize that God, in His all-knowing sovereignty, chose to allow slavery to be a part of the Hebrew culture.  It seems barbaric to us, given our own vantage point (21st century America).  But how many of us, if left homeless and without any money could have survived for any length of time in similar circumstances?  How many of us would gladly take the opportunity to be provided with the necessities of life to do work for someone else?

Selling oneself into slavery allowed a person without money, a home or trade-skills, to have a place to live, food to eat, and could even become part of the family.  The only other option was to be a homeless beggar…or worse…

The type of forced slavery that we think of in colonial America, “Man stealing”, was forbidden numerous times in the Bible. 1  People sold themselves to others as a way to pay off debt 2.  The slaves were seen as human beings with inherent dignity, and abusing a slave came with severe punishments. 3 Sometimes, after a war, women and children were taken in as “slaves”.

What!?!? That’s awful!

Well, let’s think of the alternative: the soldier husband (Also usually the only one to bring home any money) is killed in battle, and instead of taking the wife and children in as slaves, they are left to fend for themselves in an unknown territory. Which sounds more humane to you? Taking someone in to provide them food and shelter as they work around your home, or literally “leaving them to the wolves”?  It’s interesting to note that “Frequently slaves were far better off than free laborers4

READ  Where is Jesus Now?

This is a fallen world.  In a fallen world, there are times where we have to choose an option that you don’t like, because the alternative is even worse (If you have ever voted in a presidential election, you probably know what I am talking about).

There is so much baggage associated with “slavery” because colonial slavery was evil and unbiblical, and it’s our natural first thought when we hear about slavery.  But, if we look at closely at the mandates around slavery in the bible, we see that most of them are stated for the benefit of the slaves, not for the slave owners.  God desired that the institution of slavery be regulated for the good of all human beings.

Slavery in the bible wasn’t a perfect institution.  There were many abuses of the system.  But as we see in all of scripture, God will use imperfect instruments to accomplish His will.  We must be humble enough to recognize that His ways are higher than ours and that He had in mind from the beginning to use slavery at this time and place for His glory and for the good of those who love Him.


  1. Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7
  2. Leviticus 25:39
  3. Exodus 21:20
  4. Elwell, W. A. (2001). In Evangelical dictionary of theology: Second Edition (p. 1112). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

About neilkhess@gmail.com

I'm a Christian who has great interest in apologetics, evangelism and theology. I also teach middle school science, enjoy camping and watching the Seahawks. I'm a fairly nice guy. Feel free to drop me a line.

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