The Biblical type of slavery has nothing to do with the horror of African-American slavery from our history. This issue causes uninformed critics to deride the Holy Scriptures unfairly. Biblical slavery was “manservanthood.” These were people who owed money and they worked off their debt and were freed later. Like any power situation with fallen man, there are abuses, but the Bible states what proper behavior is for both the “slave” and the “master.” The 1787 Constitution’s treatment of slaves is clearly unbiblical. For example, notice how it bars runaway slaves from being legally emancipated if they escape to a free state:

“No person [slave or servant] held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged [emancipated] from such Service of Labour, but shall be delivered up [involuntarily returned] on Claim of the Party [slave-owner or master] to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

Now compare how the preceding constitutional mandate for the return of runaway slaves blatantly contradicts Deuteronomy 23:15-16:

“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not oppress him.”

So have this defense ready when people put down the Bible regarding this issue.

Chris L – Nice answer. On that same vein, I know a lot of people, including me, struggle with the passages detailing God ordering the complete destruction of men, women, and children, e.g. 1 Sam. 15. Even if we can show passages where Israel’s laws are unbelievably protective of women and children, particularly for its time, that sort of passage just has this quality that is difficult to ascribe to our notion of a loving God. Even if the people He wanted destroyed had done some horrible things to Israel, I wouldn’t normally feel that would justify killing their children. Yet we know God is perfectly just. Even the killing of Egypt’s first-born sons is a bit unnerving. I’ve heard that ‘Old Testament is different’ argument, but does that really cut it?

Dave to Chris L – On the surface, the notion of God ordering the deaths of women and children (and sometimes even the livestock) sounds horrible. But we need to understand what God was accomplishing in those OT days. He was establishing Truth and proper worship and behavior. The Jewish nation was supposed to set that example, but too often they began to act like the surrounding nations who were all pagan and had horrible practices. So I think that at times God had to execute groups of people in order to slow down the advancement of horrible behavior. Pagan behavior is strongly a generational thing. In other words, kids learn hate toward groups of people (Israel) and other ungodly behaviors from parents and their cultures. So, at critical times I believe, God in His wisdom saw what the future would be if He did NOT eliminate those families. It is much like our medical approach to cancer. Malignant cells rapidly reproduce and starve out normal cells. In order to preserve the whole (or body), those bad cells must be killed. I also think if we could actually see how those pagan nations lived and that their next generation would be worse, we could more fully understand the so-called severity of God. I am sure that, in the long run, more people come to have eternal life because the magnitude of evil was delayed at certain times throughout history.

Mark D – Does the Bible condone slavery? In a word, no. The Bible acknowledges slavery, and too many read acknowledgment as approval. While the subject is more complex than can be answered briefly, a few things need to be noted. One is that slavery as described in the Bible is not the same thing as America’s historical slavery of blacks. One size or one description does not fit all when it comes to slavery as we find it mentioned in the Bible. There were time limits, financial goals and master-slave relationships that make the slavery of the Bible a whole different animal than what we know in American history.

We need to remember that former societies were not simply versions of the current societies we know today. People’s opportunities, expectations for family and business, social structures, and economic relationships have varied wildly over the years. Back in Old Testament times, slavery was a broad name applied to several social/financial relationships.

In Old Testament Hebrew culture, slavery wasn’t based on race. They had had experience with that themselves when they were slaves in Egypt. One must think economically rather than racially if they are to understand an important distinction from what we know from our own (American) history.

Exodus 21:21, for example, regulates the treatment of slaves: “And if a man beats his male or female slave with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.” Leviticus 25:39-40 tells the Israelites that if one of their “brothers” sells himself to another for financial reasons, he was not to be treated as a slave, and was to be released at a certain point (the Year of Jubilee). Slavery was a temporary condition unless the slave determined otherwise. Again, there are far too many regulations about the treatment and eventual release of slaves to go into detail, but the two books referred to earlier in the paragraph give a picture of regulation rather than condoning. From a Biblically spiritual perspective, what God’s law brought was a series of directions and restrictions that prevented violence, extortion and permanent slavery on a nation and society that had known bondage and was surrounded by nations that often treated its slaves abominably.

Probably the biggest indicator that Western modern slavery and the various conditions called “slavery” in the Old Testament is the complete prohibition against kidnapping. Exodus 21:16 couldn’t be clearer: “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.” In the New Testament, I Timothy 1:8-10 puts kidnappers in a list of the most grievous sinners.

Yes, the apostle Paul writes to slaves in New Testament times to serve their masters faithfully, among other things. But for those who see all things politically, it may be hard to remember that the Bible is not a political document. (For those who believe that it’s God’s Word, however, we believe it transcends and affects politics at the same time, getting to the root of individual change, thereby changing societies overtime). Paul wrote to people in nearly every conceivable role and status in life (husbands, wives, children, soldiers, employers), encouraging them in their position to love and serve God. He makes it clear that spiritually, as receivers of God’s grace, everyone in every position is equal. For a glimpse at his heart, check out the book of Philemon, where he comes this close to asking/demanding a friend to release his slave, using strong persuasion instead of the authority he could have used. Lastly, for those who love history, one can find a deeply Christian and Biblical foundation to the anti-slavery movement. Britain’s William Wilberforce is perhaps the most dramatic example, but even in the US, we have Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just a little research reveals the deeply Christian roots of the modern anti- slavery movements, just as one can find the same deep roots in today’s anti-sex trade activity.

Christians see a containment of excesses in the Scriptures in the Old Testament, followed by a planting of many seeds in the New Testament (our freedom in Christ, equality of all believers) that laid the eventual groundwork for the political removal of slavery, especially in those societies that had a strong Christian influence at one time.

For more telling Scriptures on the subject, see

Lance M (a close friend and history expert, especially on slavery) – Excellent discussion on death and slavery. Dave, your cell example was awesome. I am teaching similar stuff with my Powerhouse Youth. Mark D’s slavery thought: I do have to say that the American slavery and the Egyptian format were very similar. Both groups had no choice and suffered greatly. Both were treated this way because of race (viewed as animals at best).