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Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, part 15

Derek Caldwell

Does God endorse the presence of slavery in ancient Israel?

One would be hard-pressed to think of a historical phenomenon more reviled by moderns than the institution of slavery. This is not simply modern sensibility concerning the our individual needs to express ourselves and find fulfillment in making our own destiny—though it may also be that—but the rejection of objectively cruel situations involving kidnapping, hatred based on a biological trait, cold-hearted ripping apart of families, and systematic brutality and exploitation for personal gain. The modern mind rightly recoils from such capricious wickedness.

But it was not always so. There was a time when slavery was not considered cruel (unless, of course, the one considering it was enslaved). Slavery was as commonplace, accepted, and encouraged as, say, giving every child an education is today. It was considered a foundational pillar of society. To the ancient mindset, slavery was necessary, and without slaves, society would crumble. And so, just as ending public education would seem unthinkable to us today, the idea of abolitionism was entirely foreign in the ancient Near East.

Slavery in the Ancient Near East

Old Testament scholar Richard Averbeck reminds us that it is important to differentiate between the type of slavery we think of today and the type of slavery that existed in ancient Israel. New World slavery, in which a whole people group is—because of their alleged “inferior” status as barbaric human beings or quasi-human beings identifiable through pigmentation—kidnapped from their homeland and forced to be laborers that produce their own replacements “is unknown in the ancient Near East, including the Bible.”[1] That is not to say that ancient slavery was somehow more humane. It was not. Rather, it is to point out that this is not a system of exploitation based on race. It was not a slave system based on racism.

Slaves were still viewed as inferior, but not on a racial basis; they ceased to be considered persons and were contained in lists with farm animals.[2] Most victims of forced chattel slavery were either war captives or from a non-race based slave trade (like the kind Joseph was sold into in Egypt, Genesis 37:18-36). Merchants at the time were the creditors of society, and their slave trade was often sourced from insolvent families whose most valuable commodities were family members who could work.[3] Slaves could be freed in the ancient world, but only at the owner’s discretion and not because of any inherent value as a person.

Slavery in Ancient Israel

The practice of slavery did exist in Israel—as did many other things of which Yahweh did not approve—but it was regulated to minimize its damage while also pointing toward a better way. Indeed, the overall mission of Israel—of which the laws were an initial part—is one that would eventually eliminate slavery if all things went as they should and Israel maintained fidelity to God’s plans. But we know how that story progressed.

The most common types of slavery in Israel were debt slavery of other Israelites and chattel slavery of war captives or those bought from foreign nations. Israelites were not allowed to enslave other Israelites under the latter form of slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46). We cannot always know how these individuals ended up in slavery, but Israelites were forbidden from kidnapping (and perhaps participating in a system of kidnapping). Death was the punishment for such a crime (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7), which was a unique feature of Israelite law.[4]

It is important to note, also, that the Hebrew term for Israelite and non-Israelite slaves,‘ebed, is not a derogatory term. John Goldingay explains that “there is nothing inherently lowly or undignified about being an ‘ebed.”[5] Christopher Wright adds that it was a term that simply meant bonded worker.[6] Debt slavery was well-known in the ancient world, going back as far as the third century BC.[7] In Israel, debt slavery was always temporary, unless the enslaved person wished to stay on as a permanent servant because of his love for the master, or a family he started there, or, realistically, lack of prospects when leaving their bonded labor (Deuteronomy 15:16-17; Exodus 21:5-6). In Israel, debt slavery was always a voluntary act and a way to extricate oneself from debt in a reasonable amount of time.

One final general observation on Israel’s practice of slavery is crucial to understand before we jump into specifics. As Wright has noted, “Slaves complemented, but were not a substitute for, the labor of free members of the household.”[8] Israel was not a slave society, an empire built on the backs of slaves. Their practice of slavery was relatively small and probably mostly populated with temporary debt slaves. There would not have been large plantations or anything like that. Rather, a slave was viewed as a worker with certain rights and certain dignity, for the Israelites understood that each individual was made in God’s image. And so, Israelites worked side by side with their slaves. They did not consider them an alternative source of free labor but a paid source of supplementary labor (supplementary, that is, to the Israelite’s own labor). Wright notes that this arrangement would be “little different experientially from many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy” and that in their society they “enjoyed more explicit legal and economic security than the technically free, but landless, hired laborers and craftsmen.”[9] In its time, in other words, this was viewed as anything other than an oppressive system. It was, even in the case of foreign slaves, a second chance.

Israel’s View of Slaves

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that theology and stories—whether historically true or theologically true (and the two are not mutually exclusive)—don’t matter. Israel’s laws concerning slaves stand out in the ancient world primarily because of Israel’s views on creation and their own creation as a people of God. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern cultures surrounding them, their anthropology did not start with human beings as created slave laborers for the gods. Rather, humans were created in God’s image and meant for fellowship with Him, to be His co-workers in fruitful flourishing. They were created out of love and meant for love. God allowed us to be stewards over His creation, but human beings were not the owners of that creation. All things, including humankind, belong to God and are therefore worthy of respect and certain protective rights. The first mention of slavery in the Bible is not as an ideal in the Garden of Eden but in the context of a curse (Genesis 9:25-27).[10] And Israel itself was founded as a people chosen by God and rescued out of the depths of some of the more ruthless forms of slavery known in the ancient world in Egypt. This was to guide their treatment of all others in their midst, foreigners and slaves especially. They were to “love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34, cf. Deuteronomy 10:19).

It should come as no surprise that Exodus 21—which Paul Copan says is “the first time in the ancient Near East” when servants are treated as persons rather than property—comes not too long after the rescue of Israel from slavery. Esau McCaulley agrees, noting how the Old Testament as a whole stands out in its world: “No other ancient Near East text treated an enslaved person as an agent capable of being wronged.”[11] The Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian legal text, permitted abuse such as cutting off the ear of a disobedient slave.[12] Exodus 21:26-27, in contrast, makes the case that if a master beat their slave and caused permanent damage—in this case, a destroyed eye or tooth—then the enslaved must be set free. (Notice that there are many other cases of abuse not mentioned and recall that this type of law writing was not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative and wisdom-catalyzing). Wright makes an interesting observation, noting that the value of the slave goes well beyond just what they can offer as a worker, since their freedom is gained through the loss of a tooth, which would not inhibit their work.[13]

Israel’s Treatment of Masters

Old Testament law is once again unique in its focus on the behavior of the master, not just the slave. There might be laws in other nations’ writings about how one should treat another person’s slave but not their own.[14] In other law collections, the slave is treated as property, and if you harm the slave, you have really harmed the owner of said slave. As a matter of fact, in Exodus 21:20-21 we read that if a master kills his slave, then the master must be punished. There is some leniency if the slave survives several days after the beating just in case the death was not a result of the conflict. Without the gift of modern medicine and science, it could truly be difficult to specify the cause of death. In the case that the slave died after a couple of days, then the law states that the master should not be punished.

There are a few hidden-in-plain-sight clues in this text, however, that it is not quite as unfeeling as it seems upon first glance. First, it says “if the slave recovers after a day or two,” meaning that if the slave never recovered but slowly declined a few days and then died, a judge would most likely be able to discern that the death was related to the beating. Second, saying that the owner would not be punished if the slave survived is not entirely accurate. We have already seen in verses 26-27 that non-lethal beatings could still carry stiff penalties. Third, and perhaps most importantly for understanding this text, the Hebrew term for punish used in these verses actually means something more like “avenge.”[15] To avenge a death would be to enact the death penalty on the guilty party. So, if it was shown that the master killed his slave, he would be facing the death penalty, because the slave is not mere property but an image-bearer of God (Genesis 9:6).[16] This is why discerning the cause of the death was so crucial: it meant the life or death of someone else, which was never taken lightly in Israel. And therefore, when we read that the master should not be punished if his slave survived a vicious beating, it does not mean that there would be no punishment. Indeed, there was. It just means that the death would not be avenged through imposing the death penalty. Finally, and crucially, Gane notes that the severity of the penalty would probably “serve as a deterrent against beating that could get anywhere close to immediately taking the life of a servant.”[17] So while one might say, as Gane does, that the bar for proper treatment starts very low in the post-fall world of the Old Testament, the punishment for crossing that line is severe.[18] It is perhaps so severe that it acts as a large buffer against getting anywhere near the line.

As a case study on breaking God’s law concerning the treatment of slaves, we should familiarize ourselves with Jeremiah 34:8-22. Many Israelites had begun turning temporary debt slavery of fellow Hebrews into permanent slavery. Apparently, the agreement that Hebrew slaves would be released after six years—even if their debts were not fully paid off—had been neglected. King Zedekiah, in an attempt to purify Israel of its evil to stave off the Babylonian threat, declared that to make up for this gross oversight, all of Israel should free all of their slaves at once. The people freed their slaves, but they did not live happily ever after. Soon the masters forced their former slaves back into servitude. When God speaks to Jeremiah and starts out by saying that He made a covenant with Israel’s ancestors—”I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”—you get the distinct impression that anger and disappointment are boiling over and He is about to start “throwing hands,” as they say. By re-enslaving their former servants, the Israelites have “profaned” the name of God (v. 16). And so, God gives to them what they have given to others:

You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plagues and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.

vv. 17-20

Texts like this make me think of the popular GIF of Homer Simpson slowly backing into a row of bushes. For all the discussions about hyperbole and whatnot, there are times when all we can simply say is that God’s holiness is a raging furnace that, eventually, consumes wickedness. And wickedness like that deserves no other terminus.

The Telos of Slavery Legislation

One way of seeing how God ultimately wanted to do away with the system of slavery is to look at the law itself: if it were followed with wisdom, then the need for most Hebrew slavery—caused by economic instability—would be eliminated. The law seeks to eliminate poverty and, in so doing, eliminate slavery as well (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). One of the laws instated for Hebrew slaves was that they must be released after six years, mirroring the Sabbath rhythm of Israel resting every seventh day. The slave was to be released even if his debt were not paid in full (Exodus 21:2). Even those not enslaved but owing debts were to have them canceled every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). The freed slave was not to be sent away empty-handed, but instead “supplied liberally” from the former master’s livestock, grains, and winepress. The Israelites were to do this just as the Lord supplied them liberally after their rescue from Egypt (vv. 15:12-15).

Some of the debt slaves did not want to leave, and the law makes provisions for them too. Sometimes slaves wanted to stay because they truly loved their masters and had a better life with them than they would have by returning to poverty; in other words, by leaving their debt-slavery, they would be less free. They could leave with their families, but sometimes the master might have a claim (again, temporary) on other family members, which meant that the initial slave may want to stay longer to remain with, say, a wife and child. The master was to allow them to stay for life if they wanted. Exodus 21:3-6 stipulates that there may be a claim on the woman slave in this situation by the master, but later laws from Leviticus 25:40-42 and Deuteronomy 15:16-17—which seem to be largely rehashing some laws but also clarifying or revising others—do not make a distinction. So, it appears that, once again, the Law was flexible on an issue and sought the best solution for all parties, one in which families could stay together without putting another family into poverty in the debt-servitude system. Obviously, there could be abuses on both sides of that equation, and loopholes (perhaps through marriage) could be exploited that would be a major blow to a master who may, it can be imagined, be trying to help people out of poverty with his purchase of their debt. God implores that all of this must be done with respect and gentleness, not ruling over any ruthlessly (Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53).

In a rather strange twist, some have noted that the otherwise less-gentle law of Hammurabi releases slaves after three years rather than after six. Scholars of the ancient Near East have noted, though, that ambiguity in the terms for slavery makes it sometimes difficult to directly compare. In this case, the Code of Hammurabi may have more to do with something like “ransom” for legal punishment than debt slavery. Slavery, then, may have simply been their answer to certain crimes, or perhaps there was a “cost” to certain crimes that the guilty party would have to pay (X amount for committing the crime itself, Y amount for property damage, Z amount for lost work of the victim, etc.) If someone did not have the money to pay their way out of penal consequences, they may work it off. Someone was to be released after three years of slavery for a minor offense rather than to get themselves in a better financial situation. Also, if a debt was still owed at the end of a sentence, the three years could be extended to cover the rest of the debt. The debt was never forgiven, but always paid in full. In that case, it appears as if this was a solution for either minor offenses or small debts, or both.[19]

Earlier I mentioned the somewhat unfathomable notion that some debt-slaves may want to stay with their masters long-term, and perhaps for life. This again speaks to the fact that we are dealing with a different type of slavery than we are used to—one that did, within a broken world, help to protect people from abject poverty and a much lower quality of life. But it also enters us into the discussion of the Year of Jubilee. Some slaves would wish to stay because their poverty had become so steep a hole to climb out of that they literally no longer had any land under their feet to stand on. The Year of Jubilee, which came every fiftieth year (sort of an ultimate Sabbath, it came after seven cycles of seven Sabbath years), was a year in which all debts were cancelled, all slaves were freed and, most importantly, all ancestral lands were returned to the original owners (Leviticus 25:10). This year sought to end the vicious cycle of generational poverty by resetting the balances. As we can see in our own society, the longer generational poverty exists, the harder it is to extricate oneself from it. It becomes an oppressive, self-sustaining negative feedback loop. This important year in the Jewish calendar was meant to reverse all of that and show that again, as God is recorded saying in Deuteronomy 15:4, “there need be no poor people among you.”

When I learned about this system of debt-slavery many years ago, there was still within me a tinge of self-righteous indignation toward it. I was so glad to be living in more modern, enlightened times. But a few years ago, I read a comment about this system that really helped put it in perspective and helped cure me (a bit) of what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery. It came from John and J. Harvey Walton’s book, The Lost World of the Torah. While I didn’t agree with everything in the book, what they pointed out on this topic was quite illuminating:

Today many Americans, under combined taxation of 40 percent or more, in effect work for the government for free for 40 percent of the year. As many build up debt to buy commodities that they need/want, they work another percentage of their year to pay off the banks. Student loans are paid off as people work for years passing the money on to creditors. It makes little difference whether one makes money and passes that on to others (our system) or whether one just works for free for those to whom they are in debt (ancient system). We have little justification for pontificating about the ills of slavery in the ancient world. Furthermore, and in contrast, the debt slavery of the ancient world, in which slaves were more like indentured servants, bears little resemblance to the slavery resulting from ethnic domination in early American history.[20]

Lastly, regarding Hebrew slaves, Paul Copan points out that there were other regulations meant to act as social welfare before someone had to sell themselves into debt slavery. In other words, though debt slavery was a helpful option,  God wished to avoid it. For instance, the poor were allowed to glean from the edges of fields after the harvest to receive food (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:20-21), and more comfortable Israelites were encouraged to lend to the poor without interest (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 15:7-8; Leviticus 25:36-37; notice the latter text does not even allow selling food to them for a profit). “Therefore,” Copan concludes, “servant laws existed to help the poor, not harm them or keep them down.”[21]

Foreign Slaves

Foreign slaves, however, are a different case. Leviticus 25:45-46 states that foreigners, if bought, become “property” that may become “slaves for life,” transferable as inherited property. This is, admittedly, one of the more difficult passages to square with everything suggested before this point. But I don’t think we should lose hope. And there are a few reasons for thinking that this, again, sounds a bit harsher to our modern ears, but that within the context of Old Testament laws and actual practice it would have been—if people were following Yahweh—not much different than Hebrew debt slavery.

First, what possible reason would there be for a law of this kind? In its most extreme case—and that’s what laws are often trying to protect against—it meant that someone like, say, a Canaanite, could not yet be trusted to enter Israel as a member of the community. It means that God does not want, for instance, a child-sacrificing culture to influence Israel. And this is not necessarily a negative for the Canaanite. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being in the covenant community of God, and allowing someone unprepared for the covenant to not be subject to it may be a mercy rather than a heartless condemnation.

Second, Israelites are told, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Fascinatingly, it is the model of how Israel treated foreigners that was to serve as a guide for how to treat their own poor (Leviticus 25:35), whom God clearly wants them to protect, as established above. Even this is mutual though, for Israelites are also told to treat foreigners as if native-born. This law adds, “Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). The gleaning laws mentioned above specifically applied to foreigners as well. And apparently, foreigners in Israel could do quite well, even becoming rich (Leviticus 25:47). This leads me to believe then that, though the laws were different, the discernment of a judge whose heart belonged to Yahweh would not necessarily follow certain laws to the letter but to the spirit. Once we understand the Law, there is no reason to assume that this is not the case—and every reason to assume that it is.

Lastly, we know that foreigners could escape from slavery in one particular way that was, once again, utterly unique in the ancient world. In the ancient Near East, a runaway slave was treated incredibly harshly. The Code of Hammurabi did not just punish runaway slaves but the one helping them as well, saying it was an infringement punishable by death. Other laws, such as Lipit-Ishtar, Eshnunna, and Hittite laws had admittedly less severe, non-lethal sentences, but there was a sentence—typically a fine—nonetheless.[22] In Israel, though—a nation that understood the cruelty of slavery and was ruled by a liberator God—the law was much different. It reads,

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16

The distinctiveness and significance of this law cannot be overstated. It was absolutely unheard of at that time. Not only is it a sign that the Israelites were much different than their neighbors in how they viewed a slave’s personhood (indeed, that slaves even were persons), but it also shows the complete lack of biblical grounding that the slave system in the United States had. While the claim is often made that slavery in America was founded upon the Bible, this is demonstrably false in many ways, this being perhaps one of the clearest examples. American chattel slavery laws concerning runaway slaves were firmly in line with traditions of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, not Israel. While pro-slavery voices may have used the Bible in their defenses, they willfully used spurious interpretations, as abolitionists (interpreting the Bible correctly) pointed out to them at the time. New World slavery was not supported by the Bible; rather, it was justified through twisting Scripture, where people made it say the exact opposite of what is actually there.

The runaway slave law most likely included foreign slaves and might have been primarily meant for them. Copan points out that the words for brother or neighbor (sometimes translated fellow Israelite) do not appear in this law.[23] Deuteronomy 23 specifically mentions fellow Israelites (vv. 19, 20) and foreigners (vv. 7, 20), and so the lack of a clear referent—that is, it could refer to Israelites and foreigners—probably means the law was meant for any type of slave. That it does not refer to what is to be done about any remaining debt, though, may be another sign that its primary, though not exclusive, referent is the foreign slave, who would not have debt to a foreign nation.

An implied assumption in the runaway slave law is that slavery must have been a gentler form of slavery than we are familiar with. It certainly should have been, given the laws prohibiting abuse and suggesting major consequences for breaking them. But that this law suggests that one should do all they can to protect and support a runaway slave with no questions asked implies that if a slave ran, it must have been bad, since most slaves probably did not feel the need or desire to run.

The slave laws of Israel are an excellent example of God working through a fallen situation in order to mitigate the disaster and point toward a better future. These laws give both implicit and explicit regulations that would have informed the Israelite mind of God’s views of the less fortunate and Israel’s obligation to them as a people rescued from slavery in Egypt. Israel’s laws—if followed obediently—would have eliminated slavery in Israel. And that is the goal! As Copan discerningly remarked of the regular release years of slaves, it “reminded the Israelites that poverty-stricken servanthood wasn’t an ideal social arrangement.”[24]

The Genesis of Abolitionism

For the ancient world, slavery was simply an accepted and necessary way of life. It was like having cellphones now—while they haven’t always existed, people can’t imagine living without them now. Indeed, the world has been shaped in a way that relies on this technology. So, when we look to the ancient world, we don’t hear anyone questioning the system. Perhaps in the ancient Near East there was a desire to not be a slave oneself, or to keep your own people out of slavery, but to question slavery as a whole was unheard of. And yet today, questioning slavery is the default position. Of course slavery is a moral wrong, we think. But what changed? Why do we think that today?

It might be helpful to first consider where we first heard rumblings of the thought that slavery was a dehumanizing system, and then question whether those rumblings came from a person or community with the influence to change the thought of the whole world.

Sociologist Rodney Stark has delved deeply into this issue. He points out that some of the first places we see a rejection of slavery was in ascetic and apocalyptic sects of Judaism, specifically the Essenes and Therapeutae.[25] Both groups were founded in the Second Temple period and survived only briefly into the early centuries after Christ. These groups probably meant to say only that, for their community, owning slaves would be a luxury they would do without.[26] To be fair to these groups, though, the issue was more than an ascetic one. It was not just that that slavery was a luxury providing material wealth. According to Philo’s description of the Essenses, their issue was with the unjustness of slave masters who were morally wrong for transgressing the law of nature that recognizes equality among all people. Philo speaks similarly of the Therapeutae, writing that they prohibit slavery in their community since nature “engendered all men free, but the injustice and cupidity of certain supporters of inequality, which is the wellspring of evil, having subjugated the strength of the weakest, attached it to the strongest.”[27] These condemnations are still not against slavery as a system per se, but rather, according to Tel Aviv University’s Sharon Weisser, they “describe ideal societies living according to the law of God, retreated communities living beyond the turbulences of the world.” And Philo, no abolitionist himself, does not uphold these communities as ways in which to treat the system of slavery. Instead, Philo is attempting to promote a certain way of life, so he “eulogizes poverty” and denounces arrogance.[28]

Within the New Testament there is an acknowledgement of the problem of slavery as a system in the world, the understanding that it is better to not be a slave if one can (“For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s free person,” 1 Corinthians 7:21-24), and even a rejection of slave trading (1 Timothy 1:10). What the Old Testament laws (taken as a whole) implied, Paul is beginning to state more clearly in the context of the Greco-Roman world and its decidedly brutal form of slavery: slavery is not the way God wants people to live. The world of the New Testament was not the world of the Old Testament. They were now living in the world that ancient Rome built. All of the worst outcomes of slavery had come to pass. What the Old Testament Law essentially sought to legislate out of existence had been brought forcefully into existence by the increasing desire to build empires. As S. Scott Bartchy explains concerning slavery in the ancient world,

The ancient Greeks and Romans independently transformed this long-established and widespread dehumanizing practice into the foundation for a genuine slave economy. That is, the large-scale employment of slave labor in both the countryside and the cities became absolutely essential to maintain Greco-Roman culture and society. In the patriarchal and highly stratified societies of ancient Greece and Rome, owning human beings who could be used as property (chattel slavery) became not only economically indispensable and elaborately regulated by law but also morally justified and regarded as normal.[29]

The ancient Greco-Roman world largely justified slavery as either ontologically appropriate or at least economically necessary, and the few who opposed it seemed to do so on the grounds of its spiritual consequences—people need to be spiritually free if not physically free. Such a belief would allow one to write against slavery without drawing the ire of the empire, which enslaved as many as twelve million people (sixteen to twenty percent of the population).[30] While forms of slavery in the ancient Near East could be brutal and violent, what exists by the time we get to the New Testament is unprecedented in world history. The dehumanization of people in the form of unencumbered physical and sexual abuse against the enslaved that we associate slavery with today is in full bloom in the world the New Testament authors live in. Whatever slavery Israel did employ prior to this time was mild compared to its ancient neighbors, and barely a blip on the radar compared to Greco-Roman civilization.

We do not find the strong anti-slavery rhetoric in the New Testament we might hope for today, but we should not expect to. All of the writings of the New Testament had a specific purpose, and that purpose was not to expose and demolish the institution of slavery. But it is clear that the New Testament creates an ethic which makes Christians holding another human being in bondage asbolutely unthinkable. The closest we get is Paul’s letter to Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus, whom Paul thinks of as a son. Paul tells Philemon that when Onesimus returns, Philemon should welcome him as he would welcome Paul himself, the Apostle! Indeed, Paul even tells Philemon that when Onesimus returns it will not be as a slave “but as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). Esau McCaulley describes well the clear image that makes itself evident in the Bible:

The story of Christianity does not on every page legislate slavery out of existence. Nonetheless, the Christian narrative, our core theological principles, and our ethical imperatives create a world in which slavery becomes unimaginable. The Bible, taken in its entirety, remains a light in a dark and broken world.


Our modern society—even those quick to call out the “failures” of the Apostle Paul or Christians—is only slightly better than the Greco-Roman world (at least aesthetically) on the issue of slavery, for though we have abolished it legally, we still rely on similar arrangements for economic purposes, though it is outsourced today. As McCaulley put it,

How many of us have cell phones? Or computers? Now, I think all of us know where these cell phones come from. Right? They come from the majority world. We know that those cell phones are built in factories that exploit their workers. And if it’s not just cell phones, it’s your clothes. If it’s not your clothes, it’s your shoes. If it’s not your shoes, your computer. And we know these things.


McCaulley discusses how we might try to fix some of the issues on the periphery—perhaps shopping at a thrift store or being angry at Apple for a couple weeks—but that’s about it. “We know these things, all of us know, but we do these small things to kind of calm our consciences while pointing our finger at the Apostle Paul.” The future will look back upon us, he foresees, and ask how the Christians of our age—and I would add anyone concerned with justice, but especially Christians—allowed this system to continue functioning. “It is because,” he concludes, “we can’t actually imagine an economy that functions without the exploitations of others.” And if we struggle to do this rightly though we have real cultural and economic power in the world, perhaps, McCaulley explains, “what Paul was dealing with is more complicated than we give him credit for.” But we can look to writings like Philemon and see what Paul did when he did have power: he used it on behalf of the oppressed party. What Paul—and for that matter, Old Testament legislation understood in context—did for the broken system around them is often more than we are willing to lift a finger to do today.[33]

With all of that in mind, it is not surprising that the first universal rejection of slavery as a system in the ancient world comes from a Christian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa.[34] It was so far ahead of its time that it would take centuries for peers to catch up. Gregory, the fourth-century theologian and one of the geniuses behind the doctrine of the Trinity, leveled a rather direct and condemning attack on slavery in his commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes. Gregory is considering the vanity of owning possessions, and in the case of slavery he sees the worst form of possession, the possession of human beings created in the image of God to be free. It is worth quoting a large amount of his text, which is able to argue against slavery without even appealing to the slave laws. Gregory is commenting here on the text of Ecclesiastes 2:7a, “I bought male and female slaves.”

What do you mean? You condemn man to slavery, when his nature is free and possesses free will, and you legislate in competition with God, overturning his law for the human species. The one made on the specific terms that he should be the owner of the earth, and appointed to government by the Creator – him you bring under the yoke of slavery, as though defying and fighting against the divine decree.

You have forgotten the limits of your authority, and that your rule is confined to control over things without reason. For it says Let them rule over winged creatures and fishes and four-footed things and creeping things (Gen. 1.26). Why do you go beyond what is subject to you and raise yourself up against the very species which is free, counting your own kind on a level with four-footed things and even footless things.

God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness (Gen 1.26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable (Rom 11.29). God would therefore not reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?


Gregory, by citing Scripture, points out something very important: he is not an innovator. Rather, he is merely informed by the Scriptures in such a way that he can drop his cultural trappings to call forth God’s desire for humankind rather than settling for compromises. Gregory brings the heart and desire of God to bear on the scriptural text; He brings the Edenic and New Earth ideals to this contemporary situation. And he did so at the perfect time, for it was the beginning of time in world history when Christianity had enough influence to change the world’s systems at large. And that is what happened. Stark explains,

Although it has been fashionable to deny it, antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline in Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently.


The idea that Christianity brought in an age of darkness rescued by Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers is a fiction created by revisionist historians (in the worse sense of the word revision). But this impression has been hard to change in the popular imagination. There has even been a resurgence lately from the corner of New Atheism, though these histories have been rightly rejected by professional historians, including fellow atheists.[37] One of the myths created out of this revision is that abolitionism comes from the Enlightenment. Now, the Enlightenment (or rather, enlightenments) was not as anti-Christian or atheistic and Deist-driven as one may have been led to believe.[38] Nonetheless, the influence of skeptical Enlightenment figures on slavery is, to put it mildly, overrated. One uncomfortable truth, Stark points out, is “the fact that a virtual Who’s Who of ‘Enlightenment’ figures fully accepted slavery.”[39] David Hume may not have supported slavery as a system, but he was not in favor of abolition either, which is in line with his well-attested ethnocentrism and racism (which was not uncommon among his fellow Enlightenment thinkers).[40] Some like Adam Smith, Diderot, and Samuel Johnson, among others, were in favor of abolitionism, but most considered slavery to be the way the world turns.[41] Ultimately, the popular depiction of the Enlightenment’s brave fight for liberation as the foundation of abolitionism is about as persuasive as the belief that the Declaration of Independence freed all Americans, including Africans. Yes, all the right terms may be on their lips and in their texts, but there was a failure to extend their loftiest ideals to all citizens.

Nevertheless, Christians were involved in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. Sometimes they justified their practices by appealing to the biblical text. They were objectively wrong in their interpretations of the text. I believe this was cunning and deliberate on their part, for the Bibles they produced for slave populations were heavily abridged, like a redacted CIA document withholding all of the most relevant information. Of the sixty-six books in the Protestant canon, one such Slave Bible only included partial selections of fourteen books. Unsurprisingly, Brigit Katz notes, verses like Jeremiah 22:13 (Woe to him that … useth his neighbour’s service without wages and giveth him not for his work.”) and Exodus 21:16 (one of the verses that stipulates the death penalty for someone who steals and sells another person) are absent.[42] It is a credit to the spirit that exists in African American communities (and the Spirit that enlivens them) that many African Americans struggling for their own freedom—who were denied access to theological education, constantly preached to from out-of-context biblical passages about obeying masters, and given heavily abridged Bibles, though very few were educated out of illiteracy—actually had the correct interpretation of the Bible because they had the correct understanding of the heart of God. The claim that the Bible supports and even desires slavery is a racist innovation.

In the end, we can simply look at the historical record and note that abolitionism was, without a doubt, a movement of Christian activists across a wide spectrum of denominational affiliations. Everywhere you look in the history of the abolitionist movement, you find Christians armed with God’s word fighting the good fight. Along with what Rodney Stark has described above, we also note such figures as John Wesley (who was a great influence on William Wilberforce and others in British Parliament), Moses Brown, Anthony Benezet, Benjamin Lay, Samuel Hopkins, Lemuel Haynes, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Denmark Vesey, Richard Allen, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among several others. Their methods may have been different, but they all had one thing in common: the God of the Christian Bible inspired them to reject the deeply-entrenched cultural ethos of their time and fight for the end of slavery.

For the few abolitionists who may not have directly tied their abolitionism to the Christian religion, no doubt the presumed ethical obligations they use in rejecting abolition—natural law affirming the benevolent creation and equality of all people—were borrowed from a Christian upbringing in a Christian society. One preeminent historian on New World slavery, Yale University’s David Brion Davis, writes that “[t]he popular hostility to slavery that emerged almost simultaneously in England and in parts of the United States drew on traditions of natural law and a revivified sense of the image of God in man.”[43] Yes, Davis notes elsewhere, certain philosophers like Montesquieu and Francis Hutcheson were influential in some abolitionist thought, but one could easily find in their most persuasive arguments—such as putting oneself in the shoes of a slave—very obvious, popular, and unique Christian precedents (Mark 12:31; Matthew 5:41; Philemon). Davis adds, though, that along with the influence of Quaker thought on this topic in Western culture (Quakers spoke loudly against slavery), both evangelical faith and a growing “ethic of benevolence” (a Christian ideology) were reasons for the spread of abolitionism in Europe and the American colonies/United States.[44] Esau McCaulley puts a fine point on it, adding, “no society that preceded the eighteenth-century abolitions contended that slavery itself was fundamentally immoral. The widespread move to abolish slavery is a Christian innovation.”[45]

In the Old Testament, it is apparent that Yahweh detests slavery, but Israelites needed convincing that there was something wrong with the system. In the New Testament, in the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus the King, the idea became more apparent and influenced generations of Christ’s disciples to see outside of their cultural milieu and not accept the way of the world (which is to build our own kingdoms on the backs of those we can force to do the work for us). The idea that slavery is immoral and should be eliminated did not and, I believe, would not exist without Christianity.

A Final Word on the Law

To wrap up, then, the Law was a culturally-bound set of legislations fundamentally grounded in the character of God. These legislations are “wisdom for Israel to live in covenant relationship to Yahweh in their time and place.”[46] It was never meant to be the last statement on ethics, nor the full statement on ethics. Rather, it was meant to point beyond itself to the One who rightly understood that the Law is, if understood correctly, entirely about love (Matthew 22:36-40). The message is simple: God has saved you because He loves you, so devote your lives to loving and saving others. That is what it means to be a steward of the earth. In an ideal world, it means that we must only love. In a fallen world, it means that our love must be manifested in sacrificial and salvific action, doing what we can to lighten burdens and take part in God’s great work of physical, intellectual, and spiritual liberation.

The Old Testament Law is bursting with God’s grace. We miss it, says Carmen Joy Imes, because we have lost the context in which it was written. “We miss the grace because we too often see the Ten Commandments without the glorious context of deliverance. We miss the grace because we read the judgment stories in isolation, without the long litany of second chances.”[47] We miss the language of God because we no longer speak God’s language. But when we see the whole beautiful story, we see why Christians are “no longer under the law” (Romans 6:14), yet not “without the law” (1 Corinthians 9:21).[48] Following God’s Law is not a way to prove ourselves to God. It is a way to love the world as God’s ambassadors, in appreciation to God.

All articles in this series:

Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction

God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2

God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3

God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4

God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5

The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6

Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7

Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8

Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9

Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10

The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11

Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12

Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13

Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14

Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15

To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16

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Image: Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), “The Red Sea,” 1982.

[1] Richard E. Averbeck, “Slavery in the World of the Bible,” in Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton (eds.), Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 423.

[2] D. Jeffrey Mooney, “Israel in Slavery and Slavery in Israel,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Fall 2008, 66. Accessed April 28, 2022, https://sbts-wordpress-uploads.s3.amazonaws.com/equip/uploads/2015/10/Mooney-SBJT-Fall-08-2.pdf.

[3] Averbeck, 423.

[4] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 131.

[5] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 460. Cited in Copan, 125.

[6] Christopher JH Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 333.

[7] Averbeck, 424.

[8] Wright, 333.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 337.

[11] Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation As an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 151.

[12] Copan, 130.

[13] Wright, 335.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Although verse 22 ends by calling the slave the master’s “property,” it appears to only be making the point that the master paid money to gain the services of the slave. It makes no sense for them, then, to harm that person and limit their work. As can be gleaned from this section versus anything else the Old Testament has to say about property, there was clearly an elevation of the slave—as we see in the severity of punishments for harming even one of them—exponentially over and above that of mere property. For instance, Leviticus 24:21 says that “whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death.” Clearly one type of being is elevated over the other, and the same penalty for killing a human being is given for the killing of a slave, considered in the Old Testament as a card-carrying member of the human race and eligible for all member benefits.

[17] Gane, 216.

[18] Ibid., 215.

[19] Averbeck, 424.

[20] John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 140-41.

[21] Copan, 127.

[22] Ibid., 131.

[23] Ibid., 132.

[24] Ibid., 126.

[25] Some believe John the Baptist may have been an Essene, but this is impossible to confirm.

[26] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 328.

[27] Sharon Weisser, “Philo’s Therapeutae and Essenes: A Precedent for the Exceptional Condemnation of Slavery in Gregory of Nyssa?” in Katell Berthelot and Matthias Morgenstern (eds.), Human Dignity and Otherness in the Religious Traditions of the Mediterranean (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 304-305.

[28] Ibid., 306-310.

[29] S. Scott Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World,” in Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (eds.), The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 169.

[30] Ibid., 170.

[31] McCaulley, 139.

[32] Jude 3 Project, “Problematic Passages | Dr. Jo Vitale & Dr. Esau McCaulley,” YouTube video, 2:14:46, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6obcChEQef0. Emphasis added.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Weisser writes, “From an ideological point of view, there is no extant condemnation of slavery until Gregory of Nyssa, no calling into question of the institution itself, no call to loosen the shackles.” While other Christian theologians recognized that slavery was the result of sin in the world, they never questioned its existence and almost assumed it was a natural consequence that would persist until Christ’s return. Augustine even considered it a divine punishment that had, in Weisser’s words, “educative virtues.” Weisser, 290.

[35] Stuart George Hall (ed.), Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on Ecclesiastes. An English Version with Supporting Studies, Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa. Translated by Stuart George Hall and Rachel Moriarty (Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1993),73-74.

[36] Stark, 291.

[37] See Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books, 2019); Nathan Johnstone, The New Atheist, Myth, and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018);Border W. Painter, Jr., The New Atheist Denial of History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). See also the excellent History for Atheists website run by historian Tim O’Neill at https://historyforatheists.com/. Of these, only Painter is a religious believer.

[38] The Enlightenment had varying levels of affinity to religion and religious belief depending on the particular region. For instance, in Scotland most Enlightenment thinkers were Christians. In France, however, there was a larger resistance to certain forms of religion due to the Catholic Church’s state-approved hegemony of thought. That said, some find in the different manifestations of enlightenment an unavoidable Christian foundation. Tom Holland explains: “The twin traditions of Britain and France, … of enthusiasts for the Spirit and enthusiasts for reason, had joined in amity even before the first cannon was fired at Waterloo. The irony was one that neither Protestants nor atheists cared to dwell upon: than an age of enlightenment and revolution had served to establish as international law a principle that derived from the depths of the Catholic past. Increasingly, it was in the language of human rights that Europe would proclaim its values to the world.” Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 412. Philosopher Jens Zimmerman provides further insight: “Enlightenment humanism, with its belief in universal reason and its confidence in the moral progress of humanity, is itself a secular offshoot of a deeper Christian anthropology. … In its own way, each of these two Enlightenment strands [two types of “enlightenment” that took place during the varied “Enlightenment” period, speaking specifically of the more radical French and the more theological and deistic German varieties] inverted the original relation of philosophy to religion: up to this point, philosophy had been an important means for unfolding the revealed truths of religion and their import for human life. Now, however, religion was reduced to sanctioning the universal moral truths reason could obtain on its own. This development demonstrates that the Enlightenment is itself a child of Christianity, ‘a rationalist abstraction of an unacknowledged Christian idea.’ So-called Enlightenment values, such as social welfare and human rights, with foundational conceptions of human dignity, freedom, agency, rationality and personhood, all go back to Christian roots. By Christian roots I do not mean a general notion of cultural Christianity but specific Christian doctrines. Perhaps the most important of these is the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.” Jens Zimmerman, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 29.

[39] Stark, 359.

[40] For more information on this, see my article on miracles at https://lightengroup.org/dont-stop-believing-in-miracles/.

[41] Stark, 359-60.

[42] Brigit Katz, “Heavily Abridged ‘Slave Bible’ Removed Passages that Might Encourage Uprisings,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 4, 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heavily-abridged-slave-bible-removed-passages-might-encourage-uprisings-180970989/.

[43] David Brion Davis, In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 198. Referenced in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021),111.

[44] Davis, “What the Abolitionists Were Up Against,” in Thomas Bender (ed.), The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1992), 22-23.

[45] McCaulley, 142.

[46] Averbeck, 430.

[47] Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 30.

[48] Wright, 318.