“Slavery in the Law?”

“… you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”

(Leviticus 25:39-46)

The Problem

If you are like me, the first time you read through the law and came to a passage like Leviticus 25 you were gobsmacked. After redeeming the Hebrews from slavery God provided his newborn nation with his law and ethic at Mount Sinai. It would seem a good time to outlaw the practice of slavery but instead he does not condemn it but merely regulates it. What is more, although they were not to make slaves of their kin it seems the Israelites were allowed to enslave non-Israelites. What is going on?

It is helpful to remember that we all read the Bible through the lens of our experience and culture. When our western ears hear “slavery” we think of owned property, dehumanization, human trafficking, kidnapping, violence, rape, racism, chains, persecution, etc. This has led some people to ignore passages like these or write off the Bible as fiction. 

Different Answers to the Problem

First, many opposed to the Bible use passages like these as ammunition against its credibility. ‘The Bible allows slavery so I don’t want any part of it!’ Richard Dawkins, the modern champion for Darwinian evolution, said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Second, liberal scholars use passages like these to teach the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God and question its reliability. ‘The author was speaking in the world that was and we’ve moved beyond such archaic beliefs.’ The same is said about issues concerning homosexuality or women in ministry.  

Third, some have even used passages like these to justify the practice of slavery. Men actually used Scripture to defend the Trans-Atlantic slave trade! I believe all three of these views are incorrect. Consider a more nuanced and preferable reading of texts like Leviticus 25 below.

A More Preferable (Biblical) View

I don’t believe Mosaic Law is referring to the kind of exploitive labor that Africans were subjected to in this country in the not-so-distant past. The kind of slavery in Lev. 25 was more like service in the payment of an accrued debt; a temporary giving of oneself to a “master” for the purpose of paying off a debt. The master does not have total authority over his bondservant but was to treat him with dignity and love (see 1 Cor. 7:21-24Eph. 6:5-9Col. 3:22-4:1; Philemon). Some modern translations have picked up on this and have replaced the word “slave” with “bondservant.” 

So, what does the passage teach?

First, we must recognize Lev.25 does not promote or even allow ruthless treatment of non-Israelite slaves. Lack of prohibition against ruthlessness here does not imply such brutality was ever authorized. The other portions of the law still apply and must harmonize with ch.25 (Lev. 19:18).

Second, Lev.25 does not imply the evils of slavery our American ancestors inflicted upon Africans were allowed or promoted. In fact, the evils of slavery we are familiar with are explicitly prohibited:

  • Kidnapping was punishable by death (Ex. 21:161 Tim. 1:10)
  • Violence against slaves was not permitted; slaves killed by their masters were to be avenged & injured slaves were to be set free (Ex. 21)
  • Dehumanization was strictly forbidden; slaves had human rights being made in the image of God; for instance:
    • Slaves could appeal to legal courts against their masters being equal image bearers of God (Job 31:13-14)
    • Runaway slaves could find asylum & freedom in certain cities & were not to be sent back to their masters (Deut. 23:15-16)
    • Slaves could take the Passover & be circumcised (Ex. 12:43-44)
    • Slaves were given Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:10)

So, if slavery could be used for such evil (and it was, even by the Israelites, Amos 5:11-13), then why not just ban it? “Slavery was such an integral part of social, economic, and institutional life of the ancient world that it is difficult to see how Israel could have excluded it altogether or effectively abolished it. So the Bible seeks to regulate, reform and correct the practice.” (Christopher J.H. Wright, “Old Testament Ethics”) To ban slavery outright would have thrown the ancient world into chaos. Imagine if our government passed a law today banning all automobiles. Such a law would cripple American life as it is. This is why God's Law only sought to regulate the practice instead of doing away with it altogether. 

We must seek to understand the way God intended for Israel to use this system (again, see 1 Cor. 7:21-24Eph. 6:5-9Col. 3:22-4:1; Philemon!). This type of servitude was not ideal but “was certainly realistic given the realities of poverty in a fallen world” (Jay Sklar, “Leviticus”). In a society where poverty produced starvation and death, this type of system aimed to help the poor, giving them food, shelter, and a stable family. In this way, it is not so different than many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy today. For the apostle Paul's treatment of slavery in the New Testament see this article on Philemon.