Why does the Bible seem to endorse slavery?

The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. Watercolor ...

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Question: Leviticus 25:44 says “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” I’m thinking after reading the entire chapter that slaves were only permitted at that time because they were paying off debts and in the year of jubilee they were to be freed. In this case, even though they are called “slaves”, they are simply working off their debt as in Proverbs 22:7. Am I on the right track? Is there anywhere else in the Bible that God speaks of having slaves as okay?

Answer: I would answer that there are no places in the Bible where God endorses slavery. What we do see in the Bible is legislation and teaching regarding something that was already a reality in most cultures during which the Bible was written. It was common to make slaves of those you defeated in battle, probably with an eye to getting the spoils of war, but also as a practical response to what you were going to do with the survivors on the losing side to keep them from getting back at you. If you keep them enslaved and oppressed they can’t get strong enough to defeat you. This was the attitude of Pharaoh toward Israel in Exodus 1.

What the Bible does that is counter-cultural, however, is to legislate fairness in the treatment of slaves and to regulate the way to freedom for slaves from among brother and sister Israelites. Mistreatment of slaves was punishable (for example, Exodus 21:26,27). Liberation of Israelite slaves was required in the year of Jubilee legislation (Leviticus 25:8-55). Fellow Israelites could not be forced into slavery but could only voluntarily sell themselves to an Israelite to pay off debt and they were to be treated as hired hands (Leviticus 25:39-46).

Paul picks up in the New Testament where Moses leaves off. By writing what he does to Philemon about his slave Onesimus, who has become a believer, it becomes apparent that in Christ there really isn’t room for believers to allow slavery among themselves. And by extension, it is not right to allow slavery period. That is the direction the Bible is leading us, even if it doesn’t come right out and state it.

Randall Johnson


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