Many words in the Bible had one meaning for those who lived in New Testament times and another for those of us living today. When we think of the institution of slavery, for example, most of us think about the bondage and oppression experienced by African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries here in America. But the New Testament Servitude (NTS) of the Ancient Near East had little in common with the New World Slavery (NWS) of our American ancestors. So before we, as Christians, become defensive with atheists who claim God somehow approved slavery in the Old and New Testament, we need to examine the difference between these two forms of servitude. Many historic Christian leaders failed to understand these differences as they errantly used the Bible to defend their slave ownership; others learned the historic place of indentured servitude and came to understand how such a system could be reconciled with the words of Jesus. This latter group eventually answered the call of Scripture and abolished New World Slavery altogether.
Let’s look at several common characteristics of slavery to see if there are any differences between the ancient New Testament Servitude (NTS) and the more recent cultural New World Slavery (NWS) we understand so well:
1. A Difference In the Motive Behind Slavery
We first need to understand why slavery existed in each case we are examining. In NWS here in America, slaves were taken so that their masters would have a better life (for economic gain), but in ancient NTS, the primary motive for slavery was often the economic relief of the servant:
Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Do not take usurious interest from him, but revere your God, that your countryman may live with you. You shall not give him your silver at interest, nor your food for gain.
2. A Difference As to How People Entered Into Slavery
Next, it’s important to understand that in our American version of NWS, people were taken into captivity (and slavery) against their will. They were simply kidnapped or were later born into captivity from parents that were enslaved. But in ancient NTS, the path into slavery was varied and in many cases voluntary. There were several types of servant/slaves in the New and Old Testament:
Voluntary Temporary Indentured Hebrew Servants
People who needed assistance, or who simply could not pay their debts, might turn to a voluntary form of servitude. The Bible had guidelines for this kind of voluntary subjection:
Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today
Voluntary Permanent Hebrew Servants
It was also not uncommon for a temporary indentured servant to want to stay in service to his or her master (they were not treated harshly like slaves in the NWS version of slavery as you will soon see). The Bible also offered guidelines for the treatment of these types of servants who became part of the family:
But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently
And it shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. And also you shall do likewise to your maidservant. It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do
And there were very strict Biblical laws preventing the Israelites from holding their brethren as slaves against their will:
If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.
Involuntary Hebrew and Gentile Criminals in Restitution
Just like today, there were several crimes that required restitution as part of the penalty following a conviction. But what if the criminal was unable to make the restitution to the victim? And how were criminal convictions enforced in a world without an established jail system? In these situations, convicted people found themselves in servitude as slaves, paying off their debt to society and to God:
If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.
Permanent “Pagan” Servants
The ancient Hebrews did have permanent slaves obtained from the non-Jewish nations that surrounded them. They came into their possession as the result of military conquests:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have — you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession
But, remember this does not mean the Israelites were allowed to kidnap a man (even a “pagan” man) against his will to hold or sell him:
And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death
Unlike New World Slaveryin which slaves entered into slavery involuntarily, the ancient New Testament Servitudeof Biblical times was far more varied and often voluntary.
3. A Difference In How People Were Treated Once They Were Slaves
And there was also a great difference between the way slaves were treated in the New World and in the Ancient Near East. We are all familiar with early American stories chronicling the harsh and often brutal mistreatment of slaves. They were considered the lowest of properties and often treated as though they were not human. But ancient NTS is another story altogether. Slaves were treated humanely and their treatment was regulated by Biblical law. Look at just a few of the legal requirements for the treatment of slaves:
Slaves were not to be treated harshly. They were to be treated humanely and with respect:
Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53
You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God… You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves… Like a man hired year by year he shall be with him; he shall not rule over him with severity in your sight.
It shall not seem hard to you when you set him free, for he has given you six years with double the service of a hired man; so the LORD your God will bless you in whatever you do
Slaves were allowed to make a decision about whether or not they would stay with their masters:
But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.
And it shall come about if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever
Slaves were often released and when this was done, the slave was to be released with his or her possessions:
“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free.
Slaves were allowed religious privileges and were also allowed to rest on the Sabbath along with everyone else:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.
Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor in order that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.
Slaves were also allowed to celebrate other religious holidays and celebrations:
And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.
But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings.
Masters were to be held accountable for the way they treated their slaves:
And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.
And even though the law allowed for the punishment of slaves, this punishment was exactly the same as that prescribed for non-slaves and even for the sons of non-slaves:
And if a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.
If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, then it shall be if the wicked man (a non-slave) deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt.
On the lips of the discerning, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks understanding (whether a slave or not).
A whip is for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools (even non-slaves)
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently
And Slaves could actually be freed if they were not treated properly by their masters:
And if a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.
Foreign slaves were prescribed refuge under Biblical Law. They were not treated as property:
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.
Slaves could actually be brought into the Jewish Covenant and become Jewish believers alongside their masters:
And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it; but every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it.”
And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
No layman, however, is to eat the holy gift; a sojourner with the priest or a hired man shall not eat of the holy gift. But if a priest buys a slave as his property with his money, that one may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food.
Slaves had rights within the homes of their masters and, as a part of the family, they could even share in the inheritance:
And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned…
A servant who acts wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, And will share in the inheritance among brothers.
4. A Difference In How People Freed Themselves From Slavery
Finally, let’s take a look at how people were able to free themselves from their servitude in ancient times and compare this with the more recent version of slavery with which we are familiar. In NWS here in America, there was very little recourse for slaves who wanted to be free of their master, but in the ancient NTS form of the institution, there were a number of pathways to freedom:
A family member could purchase your freedom by simply paying your debt:
Now if the means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient, and a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to him as to sell himself to a stranger who is sojourning with you, or to the descendants of a stranger’s family, then he shall have redemption right after he has been sold. One of his brothers may redeem him, or his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or one of his blood relatives from his family may redeem him
A slave could purchase his own freedom by simply paying his debt:
…or if he prospers, he may redeem himself.
Slaves were freed as part of a national day of debt forgiveness and rest every 7th year:
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you.
An injury to the slave would often be a means by which the slave could gain his or her freedom:
And if a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye
While it is clear that the ancient Israelites did possess slaves, it is also clear the reason for their possession, the manner in which they were treated, and the manner in which they could be released was very different from the institution of slavery in more recent times in Europe and America. When American slave owners used the Bible to support their practice, they were either ignorant of the nature of New Testament Servitude, or willfully denying the truth about New Testament Servitude. These slave owners may have tried to use the Bible to support their position, but by doing so, they clearly twisted the intent and meaning of the scriptures, applying guidelines for one form of servitude to an entirely different form of slavery. It is unfair to say that the God of the Bible supports the institution of slavery as we understand it in more modern times. That version of slavery had little in common with the version of servitude in Biblical times. One final question remains, however. Why would God permit any form of slavery or servitude? I’ll address that question in my next post.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email