Slavery In The Bible

[Note:  The following is the split sermon I gave in 2003 at the Eternal Church of God, when it was in Southern California, on the subject of slavery in the Bible, which has long been of interest to me.  I had thought the essay lost, but I was able to find it, and so I would like to share it as an example of my thoughts on the relevance of the topic of slavery to Christians today.]


In a fragment that historians have tentatively dated to October 1858, Abraham Lincoln said the following:

“Suppose it is true, that the negro is inferior to the white, in the gifts of nature; is it not the exact reverse of justice that the white should, for that reason, take from the negro, any part of the little which has been given to him? “Give to the needy” is the Christian rule of charity; but “Take from him that is needy” is the rule of slavery.


The sum of pro-slavery theology seems to be this: “Slavery is not universally right, nor yet universally wrong: it is better for some people to be slaves; and in such cases it is the Will of God that they be such.”

Certainly there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases. For instance, we will suppose the Rev. Dr. Ross has a slave named Sambo, and the question is, “Is it the Will of God that Sambo shall remain a slave, or be set free?” The Almighty gives no audible answer to the question, and his revelation-the Bible-gives none-or, at most, none but such as admits of a squabble, as to its meaning. No one thinks of asking Sambo’s opinion on it. So, at last, it comes to this, that Dr. Ross is to decide the question. And while he considers it, he sits in the shade, with gloves on his hands, and subsists on the bread that Sambo is earning in the burning sun. If he decides that God wills Sambo continue a slave, he thereby retains his own comfortable position; but if he decides that God wills Sambo to be free, he thereby has to walk out of the shade, throw off his gloves; and delve for his own bread. Will Dr. Ross be actuated by that perfect impartiality, which has ever been considered favorable to correct decisions?
But slavery is good for some people!!! As a good thing, slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.

Nonsense! Wolves devouring lambs, not because it is good for their own greedy maws, but because it is good for the lambs [1].”

Here we have, as blunt as can be, a condemnation of slavery, or more precisely, of slaveholders. And yet the Bible, both in the Old Testament and new, refers frequently to slavery. What is to be done about this seeming contradiction? In what ways is it important for us to look at slavery and seek to understand it? In the time allotted to me for my split sermon, I will look at slavery in the nation of Israel, in the New Testament Church, and finally in ways that are relevant to us today as member’s of God’s church here and now.

Slavery in the Nation of Israel

The first mention of slavery in the Bible is in Genesis 9, starting in verse 18, and continuing through verse 27. Here we see slavery in a form that is permissible even in the United States after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery here is used as punishment for a crime. Beginning in verse 18: “Now the sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated. And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered [or naked] in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what is younger son had done to him. Then he said: Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants he shall be to his brethren. And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem; and may Canaan be his servant.” It seems that Ham was guilty of some kind of sexual offense, which is the reason he is condemned. Here we see slavery as a just punishment of crime or sin. It is also the first of many references to the peculiar institution in the Bible.

There are also scattered references in Genesis 14, verses 13 through 16, as well as the experience of Joseph in Egypt, before we come to the nation of Israel being enslaved itself. At this point, however, we will digress, for in the book of Job, in chapter 31 and verse 15, is a brief commentary on slavery that demonstrates that slaves are just as human as their masters. In this verse, Job says quite simply, “Did not He that made me in the womb make him (the slave) also? And did not One fashion us in the womb?” Here we see clearly that there is no difference in humanity between slave and master. And it is this germ which we will follow in viewing slavery in the New Testament Church. Since the slave and the master are both equally human, those rights and privileges that belong to human beings as human beings belong equally to both. Therefore plantation slavery, with all of its horrors, is against the very principles of the Bible. Here, in what was the oldest written book of the Bible, we have the genesis of the inherent equality of mankind, with all it portends.

Now we turn to the nation of Israel. Starting in Exodus, we see that God turned a slave people into his chosen people. In Exodus 1, from verse 1 to 14, we see how the Israelites were put into bondage, and we will then turn to Exodus 12 verses 35 and 36 to see the end of slavery in Egypt. Beginning now in verse one of chapter one of Exodus, “Now these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt, each man and his household came with Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin,; Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All those who were descendants of Jacob were seventy persons (for Joseph was in Egypt already). And Joseph died, all of his brothers, and all of that generation. But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel. So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage-in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.”

Needless to say, the Egyptians strike us rather like the southern plantation owners before the civil war, and if one looks at history, like all of those peoples who profit off of the labor of a permanent underclass that has no hope of advancement. In looking at the curses that fall on Egypt, it is important to remember that these curses were not merely because God chose to make Israel important, but because the existence of permanent underclasses and institutionalized slave labor is against the very word of God when it comes to all humankind being of one flesh and one blood. As we are all children of Adam, and all potential children of God, none of us, by virtue of ancestry, is superior at all to anyone else.

What shortly followed, as God cursed Egypt with the ten plagues, can rightly be seen as divine judgement on an unjust society, and it should be a historical lesson to us all. Of particular note is the aforementioned scripture in Exodus twelve. Let us now turn to that chapter, looking at verses thirty five and thirty six: Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they granted them what they requested. Thus, they plundered the Egyptians. It may be noted here that they were merely gaining back their back wages, which had been denied to them for generations.

It is without question that the aspect of servitude has specific laws and regulations in the Bible. In fact, it may be said clearly that any system of servitude which does not meet the standards of both the Levitic covenant as well as Paul’s statements in Philemon, which we will look at later, fails the biblical criteria for a just society. What were these regulations? Let us turn quickly to two passages.

First, let us look at Exodus 21 verses one through eleven. These verses deal both with male and female slaves, as well as the relationships of both with the family. Beginning in verse one, “Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself, if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children, I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.” We shall see that this is not exactly forever, but that will come later. Continuing on, now dealing with a young woman sold as a concubine, “And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.” Woe be unto the man who deals deceitfully with a young woman under his care. According to historical documents, this relationship of adopted daughter-ship or wife-ship was not uncommon, as it is recorded in the Nuzian laws, an ancient code of the city of Nuzi in modern Mesopotamia.

Now let us go to Leviticus 25, from verses 39 to 46. These verses deal with the way an Israelite should treat an Israelite slave. Beginning in verse 39, “And if one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave. But as a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you, both he and his children with him, and he shall return to his own family, he shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God. And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have-from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who sojourn among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land, and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession, they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.” Indeed, the Israelites dealt with the Gibeonites, who deceived them, in this matter, by considering them as permanent slaves [2]. It is of note, however, that slavery was only justified among those pagan peoples who had already been condemned to death, not as a way of dealing with people of the faith.

There are other such references to slavery, which include the admonition not to leave a servant empty handed at the end of his service, as well as the prohibition on selling a slave concubine, even of a foreign nation. There is even a story about how the value of the life of a slave, in this case the aforementioned Gibeonites, was equal to the value of the life of an Israelite, when Saul killed the Gibeonites and demanded lex talionis, and so David killed seven descendents of Saul to pay for the bloodguilt of the murder of seven Gibeonites. Also, a master who injured his bondservant would have to set them free, in Exodus 21:26-27. However, we lack the time to go into detail. For those of you who have an interest in the subject, I recommend it as an area of further study. One could even compare, if one had the interest, the biblical law concerning treatment of slaves to the treatment of slaves in Rome, or in the antebellum South.

Slavery In The New Testament Church

Moving on to the early New Testament church, we also see some issues with slavery. There are really two passages that detail the treatment of slaves that I will discuss concerning how God through Paul chose to deal with the issue of slavery. First, we will look at Ephesians 6 versus 5 through 9. In this passage we see how God commands both slave and master to act in ways that are service oriented and not selfish. “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.

In Roman times, a master had the absolute power of life and death over a slave. This has generally been the case in wicked slaveowning societies. Here, instead of confirming the wicked customs of the Romans, Paul puts an injunction even on threatening slaves, much less carrying out beatings or murders. However, the slaves are not to take advantage of this by being sullen in their service. Their action of voluntary submission is to serve as credit to them, as much as the voluntary service of the slaveowner to them is accounted as credit. The issue of how someone can be a slave or master and be equal is a problem without a solution, since the equality of mankind makes slavery a living lie, unless one is to, as the Bible says, enjoy no gain in power by being a master or a loss in rights by being a slave.

These matters are brought even clearer into relief when one looks at Philemon, a small epistle that deals almost entirely with the fate of one slave. We shall look at a large portion of this tiny book now. Beginning in verse four, and continuing through verse twenty-two, let us begin. “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you-being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ-I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable (a pun on the meaning of Onesimus, which is profitable), but now is profitable to you and me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the Gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave-a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if h has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will repay-not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord, refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust through your prayers I shall be granted to you.”

The practical consequences of the book of Philemon on slavery are hard to exaggerate. Here we have a runaway slave who may have stolen from his master before absconding to freedom. However, instead of beatings or death, which were entirely within the right, by Roman law, of Philemon to give to his runaway slave, Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would Paul. This means there is to be no punishment at all. I want you to imagine yourself in the spot of Philemon and Onesimus. Paul was asking a great favor of both Onesimus and Philemon, for the one to return to slavery after having risked so much to escape it, and for the other to give no punishment at all to a runaway slave, and a thief to boot. That is a lot of courage and forgiveness on both sides-on the side of one for forgiving the injustice of slavery, and on the other for the injustice of theft. If one is to treat slaves like this, then what is the purpose and gain of owning slaves. One may as well merely hire servants or employees, as we do today. Perhaps that was the point.

Application of Slavery In Our Own Lives

But what of it? Slavery, at least in this country [the United States], has been banned since 1865. What is the importance of looking at slavery here and now? I propose to you two reasons for caring about slavery. The first is that we are all slaves of God. Let us turn to Romans 6 so you may see what I mean. Verse 18 says “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Those who say they have been set free from all sense of obligation to God clearly do not know what they are talking about. Though we are to become sons in the Kingdom of God, as human beings we only have the choice to be slaves to God or slaves to Satan. It should be obvious which we should prefer.

The second reason we should look at slavery is because issues of inequality still exist. I say that in two ways. One way is that of sinners and sinned against. While, technically, we are all sinners, there are some people who may see themselves as wronged and see other brethren as evildoers against them, having caused great offense. The following passage should be a sober reminder to all of those who are nursing wounds and looking for payback. Let us look at Matthew 18, beginning in verse 23 for a vivid reminder of the necessity of forgiveness. “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had began to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents (which is equivalent to 60 million day’s wages, an impossible sum). But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (that is, a hundred day’s wages, not that large of a sum, about a third of a year’s worth of payment), and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My Heavenly father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” I want you to think about that for a minute. Far from holding grudges and dismissing others who have wronged us, we are to forgive. The difference between the amount of forgiving God does to us and what we do to others is truly staggering. To put it on dollar terms, God has forgiven us a debt of a quarter-million dollars in comparison to the debt of four dollars we forgive a brother for. That kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Finally, I will endeavor to explain, briefly, the symbols of the story I began with. Abraham Lincoln, in his passage on pro-slavery theology, paraphrases John 10 verses 7 through 21. The three characters of interest are the sheep, the wolves, and the shepherd. The sheep are common humanity, those who are of average strength and intelligence. Perhaps there are some of you who, like myself, dislike being mere sheep. That is normal for human pride, I figure, especially that pride that comes with ability and intelligence. The choice, for those who do not desire to be sheep, is to be a wolf or a shepherd. A wolf is someone who uses his abilities and gifts to abuse and dominate others. Whether that is through fraud, through slavery, through bullying, through being a super-deacon, it amounts to the same thing, that pernicious pride that Jesus warned against when he said that those who would be chief among you should be servants. And that is what a shepherd is, a servant to the sheep. Though the shepherd is stronger and wiser than the sheep, he does not use that strength to dominate the sheep, but instead to serve them.

And so I have one question for all of you. Do you use your strengths to serve others, or to gain power and influence for yourself?



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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