By Keith Thompson
In their suppression of their knowledge of God where they come up with petty excuses to not submit to their maker, “unbelievers” often bring up the issue of slavery and the Bible. They claim since the Bible permits slavery it is therefore immoral and should not be followed
Leaving aside the fact that if atheism were true nothing would be wrong, including slavery, since all you would have is one random biological organism that appeared on a random rock owning another random biological organism without any objective standard condemning such a concept, it is nevertheless important to address this argument. This is because when biblical slavery is mentioned by such people, it is meant to incite an emotional reaction connected with the racist slavery of the American south in the 18th and 19th centuries, or other brutal instances of slavery in the ancient world. One can think of the classic movie Ben-Hur where the slaves had chains around their necks and were worked to death, etc.
However, to read such concepts into Old Testament Israelite servanthood the Bible permits or the foreign slavery it permits would be extremely inaccurate and deceptive. The following facts serve as reasons why biblical servanthood and foreign slavery was not immoral, in the sense modern English parlance defines slavery.
Slavery in the Old Testament
“Slave” and “Master” are not the best translations of ‘ebed and ‘adon. The Hebrew word used for “slave” or “servant” in the relevant Old Testament texts is ‘ebed. It simply means “employee” or “servant” and should not be translated “slave.” Paul Copan has noted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay affirms, “. . .there is nothing inherently lowly or undignified about being an ‘ebed.” Instead it was an honourable and dignified term"(1). Likewise, on page 713 the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon notes the word can refer to “servant of a household” and cites Exodus 21:2 as an example, one of the texts we will cover. On page 633 Mounce's dictionary also defines it as a "servant." An ‘adon in Hebrew was a “boss” or “employer” in these contexts and “master” is a bit too strong of a translation(2). Copen relays, “Even when the terms buy, sell or acquire are used for servants/employees, they don’t mean the person in question is ‘just property’. . . . Rather, these are formal contractual agreements, which is what we find in the Old Testament servanthood/employee arrangements. One example of this contracted employer/employee relationship was Jacob’s working for Laban for seven years so that he might marry his daughter Rachel”(3).
Indentured servitude existed as a means of debt payment. These employees lived with and worked for a family in order to pay off a debt (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:1, 12). A father of a family with failed crops etc., would sell himself to an Israelite boss for six years to pay off a debt (Leviticus 25:47). This is similar to what took place in 17th century colonial America where European immigrants could not afford passage into America and so worked for a family in order to pay them back for paying for their passage(4).
God set up servitude as a last resort means of survival. The Old Testament affirms God ordained servitude for people to be able to survive when all other means of survival were exhausted. People would put themselves into indentured servitude to survive (Leviticus 25:35, 39-40). The conditions of this servitude must now be discussed.
Old Testament servants were more like live-in butlers or nannies. They did not walk around with chains around their neck, enduring racism, or being worked to death. The rights and dignity of these indentured servants in the Old Testament make such comparisons to other slavery erroneous. For example, Exodus 21 demands these servants be treated as persons and not property. If a servant who owed a debt came in with his wife, then after 6 years they both were allowed to leave together, not just one (v. 3). Exodus 21:26-27 says if a boss injured a servant, the servant was to be set free. Such abuse was not tolerated. Deuteronomy 15:16 shows servants often truly loved the leaders of the household and thought of them as family. Leviticus 25:53 says such servants were to be treated as men “hired from year to year” not “rule[d ] over ruthlessly.” They were even to be given a regular day off during the week (Exodus 23:12). Also, Israelite servants could not be sold by their bosses (Leviticus 25:42) and are even differentiated from slaves in this text since it says “they shall not be sold as slaves.” Lastly, Deuteronomy 15:13-14 affirms once a servant’s service was over after 6 years, he was not to leave empty handed. The boss was commanded to furnish him out of his flock, and with corn and wine. All of these facts destroy the emotional response atheists want to bring out of people when telling them “the bible permits slavery.” The images of slavery in history must not be connected with this biblical servitude.
Lifelong Servitude was forbidden. Exodus 21:2 and Deuteronomy 15:12 commands an Israelite servant who owed a debt to be freed after 6 years. However, if the servant decided to remain with the household longer, due to loving the family, he was permitted to stay with that family (Deuteronomy 15:16; cf. Exodus 21:5). Deuteronomy 15:16 says: “But if he says to you, 'I will not go out from you,' because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17. . . he shall be your slave forever. . . .” This shows the servants were to be treated very well, so much so that many chose to remain with the leaders of their household forever because of the good treatment and care exhibited by the Israelite boss.
Now that we have addressed the Israelite indentured servitude atheists almost always bring up, we will now turn to the issue of foreign slaves the Israelites were allowed to purchase. In Leviticus 25:45-46 we read that Israelites were permitted to buy foreign slaves who were in the slave trade. Although this might sound harsh to our ears some things need to be kept in mind. First, there are no chains around necks, racism or being worked to death here. Also, such people had rights even if they ran away from their bosses. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says, “15You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). This Law greatly affected the master's treatment of the worker so they wouldn't want to run away. Also, this is an example of God's mercy since he permitted Israelites to rescue slaves out of the slave trade and work for a family in a holy culture, when they would otherwise be stuck in some brutal culture where their master could treat slaves however they wanted. Hammarubi’s code for example allowed masters to mutilate their slaves, cutting their ears off etc. Exodus 21:26-27, however, says injuring slaves was forbidden and if done resulted in the release of the slave. This was great incentive to treat them well, an oddity in the ancient world at that time. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes “. . .in the ancient world . . . a master could treat his slave as he pleased.”(5) So much has to be read in, and much has to be omitted, in order for this to be identified as morally evil. So while the unbeliever, though he has no moral basis to claim anything is actually wrong, claims this slavery was wrong, the fact is it served as a way of rescuing those stuck in the slave trade who would otherwise end up in a savage land being mutilated. The Hebrews were to treat these people well on the other-hand. And it was common understanding the foreign slave could run away to another town for asylum in Israel and would not be returned to his master. This is utterly unprecedented in the ancient world. Lastly, according to the Old Testament, such foreign slaves could basically become Israelite citizens. For example 1 Chronicles 2:34-35 affirms Sheshan gave his Egyptian slave Jarha to his daughter in marriage, after which they had a child. Again, utterly disconnected from the ancient practice.
Now, atheists commonly attack Exodus 21:20-21. The text says:
"20When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money” (Exodus 21:20-21).
Notice first according to v. 20 the murder of servants is strongly prohibited and was punishable by death. Unbelievers often ignore this merciful truth. But what should we make of v. 21? Simple. The boss is given the benefit of the doubt that he was not intending to murder the servant but was disciplining him for doing some moral evil he was not supposed to (e.g. rape, theft, etc.). In that case the boss would not be put to death since it would be ruled accidental. This did not mean bosses should try to make it so that their servants died after two days or that this was somehow moral or okay. The text does not say. It’s simply saying if such an accidental death occurs after a disciplinary punishment, the boss did not deserve death. Life for a life applied only when there was a conscious intent to murder.
What about the above rendering “for the slave is his money’ at the end of v. 21 which seems to suggest the servant was property? This is incorrect. The Hebrew does not say “the slave is his money.” It just says “that is his money.” Copan notes the Ancient Near East scholar Harry Hoffner has shown based on the context (i.e., Exodus 21:18-19) that the text should not be rendered “the slave is his money” but “the fee is his money” in the sense that the fee the boss would then pay for medical treatment for the soon-to-die injured servant was money. Therefore, since the boss would already suffer financial loss for the accidental fatality, he would not be put to death(6). Hence, according to the Hebrew and context the text does not say “the slave is his money” as atheists falsely assert. It is saying the death was accidental, the boss tried to save the servant by paying for medical treatment (as the context shows), and because of these considerations the boss should not be executed since his punishment or "fee" for this tragic accidental death was money he paid in trying to save the servant.
Unbelievers also bring up Exodus 21:7-11 which mentions a man selling his daughter as an ‘amah, which is rendered “slave” or “servant.” However, based on contextual considerations, Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes,
“This paricope pertains to a girl who is sold by her father, not for slavery, but for marriage. Nonetheless, she is designated a ‘servant’ (‘amah, v. 7). Should the terms of marriage not be fulfilled, it is to be considered a breach of contract, and the purchaser must allow the girl to be redeemed; she must not be sold outside that family (v. 8). Always she must be treated as a daughter or a free-born woman, or the forfeiture clause will be invoked”(7).
In sum it is clear atheists read into the Old Testament other forms of slavery and do not allow the texts to speak for themselves. They blindly, without knowledge of the Hebrew, context or cultural background, attack Old Testament servitude out of ignorance because of their rebellion and hatred for God. They take what is not immoral at all and twist it into something immoral as an excuse not to submit to their creator.
Slavery in the New Testament
Atheists often falsely claim Jesus never condemned the slavery of his day. However, in Luke 4:18 Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1 which, in practical application, condemns the slavery of his day: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
Unbelievers often argue since the New Testament writers exhorted slaves to obey their masters in the Roman social system, this is immoral and proves the Bible is false. For example see the following texts:
“Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative” (Titus 2:9).
“Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22).
“Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
However, a few points are in order.
These texts do not support Roman slavery. The fact is Jesus and the apostles didn’t create an economic reform plan for Israel and Rome. That’s not the way the kingdom of God would come about. The kingdom of God is inward and culminates in the return of Christ at the end of the world. So, economic reform was not the goal of the early persecuted Christians. The church was born into an already existing secular social world. So when Paul exhorts slaves within the Roman systems to behave themselves, he is not promoting or advocating the situation they were in, but was calling for good-conduct while in such an already existing predicament in the hopes that the master would see such good conduct and convert to Christianity and be saved (Titus 2:10). It was for the benefit of people’s eternal salvation.
Paul exhorts slave masters to treat their slaves well. In Ephesians 6:8-9 Paul commands those who are slave masters in this existing social system to be good to and not threaten their slaves. Again, this is not advocating or supporting slavery, but calling for humane protocol since people already existed in this system and small, persecuted Christianity did not have a plan for economic reform for Israel and Rome.
Paul affirmed freedom over slavery. Gleason Archer has shown while Paul exhorted slaves to obey their masters, he also said slaves should seek to purchase their freedom as soon as possible (1 Cor. 7:21), showing Paul recognized freedom is better than slavery(8). This refutes the atheist objection.
The Bible does not Support Slave and Master Classes. The following texts show the Bible affirms the equality of all men, which is opposed to the idea behind slavery - immoral ideas which can be found in Graeco-Roman philosophers like Aristotle (Aristotle, Politics I.3). Galatians 3:28 says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). 1 Corinthians 12:13 says “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Colossians 3:11 says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). In Colossians 4:1 Paul affirms both slaves and masters are equal having a true master in heaven, and that masters on earth must not mistreat their slaves. Again, unbelievers do not mention this, they just assume Paul supported slavery when really he was giving protocol of good-conduct in the context of an already existing social system. That does not necessitate support. That would be like me exhorting homosexuals to wear protection to not spread aids. It wouldn’t mean I support sodomy, it would just mean I am calling for protocol in an already existing negative situation. The New Testament writers, though they did not support these slave-master classes, nevertheless did not call for a violent uprising against Rome because they did not want Christianity to be characterized or viewed with that kind of emphasis.
The Bible condemns slavery and the slave trade. In 1 Timothy 1:9-10 Paul castigates those who engage in slave trade in the context of his “vice list” of things to avoid. Why don’t unbelievers ever mention this? Moreover, in Revelation 18:10-14 Babylon is rebuked and judged in the context of treating humans as cargo, trafficking slaves and idolatrously and greedily making wealth with merchants.
In sum, this is the other side of the story militant atheists do not inform people about when they rant against the Bible on this issue. This is because they do not really care about truth. Their agenda does not allow for the careful and responsible handling of these issues.
Credit is due to Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? for supplying me with many arguments I used in this essay.
1) John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 3, [Intervarsity, 2009], p. 460
2) Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, [Baker Books, 2011], p. 125
4) Joshua Rosenbloom, Indentured Servitude in the Colonial U.S., http://eh.net/encyclopedia/indentured-servitude-in-the-colonial-u-s/
5) Walter Kaiser, Exodus, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, [Zondervan, 1990], p. 433
6) Harry Hoffner, “Slavery and Slave Laws in Ancient Hatti and Israel," in Israel, ed. Daniel I. Block, B&H Academic, 2008
7) Walter Kaiser, Exodus, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, [Zondervan, 1990], p. 430
8) Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, [Zondervan, 1982], p. 87