Slavery: How God mitigated and abolished it.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 April 2018

Back in bible times, people had slaves. Slavery was legal.

This is a weird and troubling idea for a lot of Christians. In the United States, slavery is illegal, and we consider it immoral. So it’s troubling to read about slavery in the bible as if it’s normal or okay.

Especially considering our history with slavery. We fought a whole war over it, y’know. Many southerners are in denial about that, and claim the War Between the States was really about states’ rights and local sovereignty… but history doesn’t bear ’em out at all. Confederate politicians and generals proudly declared they were fighting to retain their peculiar institution of slavery—because unlike southerners today, they didn’t consider slavery to be immoral. Hey, it’s in the bible!

Thing is, American slavery wasn’t at all like biblical slavery. What Americans practiced was chattel slavery, in which slaves were considered cattle—a word which evolved from chattel. What the folks in the bible practiced, for the most part, was penal slavery, in which people were enslaved because they broke the law, got themselves deep into debt, or lost a war. What Americans did was try to find excuses to claim what we were doing, was what they had done—then claim the bible permitted, even endorsed, their behavior. They pretended there was no huge difference.

But there was, and Americans were in fact guilty of violating a biblical command:

Exodus 21.16 KWL
“Anyone who steals a man and sells him, anyone found with the victim in their hands:
They’re dead. Put them to death.”

Slave traders, slave buyers, slave owners, their descendants, and every northerner who looked the other way and permitted the southerners to do their thing: All of them were complicit in the divinely-condemned capital crime of kidnapping. As Abraham Lincoln speculated time and again, our Civil War was likely God’s judgment upon us. Southerners who pretend the war wasn’t about slavery and racism, who claim it was really about heritage and self-governance and a noble lost cause: Their pride and willful blindness is just risking more judgment upon them and their people.

Because chattel slavery is kidnapping. It’s entirely immoral. God said so. Had American slaveowners properly interpreted their bibles, they’d discover every last one of them deserved to die. The Civil War is still the bloodiest, deadliest war in American history—and we got off light.

So yeah, keep in mind American slavery isn’t at all what the bible’s depicted. It’s far closer to what we do with our prisons—’cause convicts aren’t free either, and sentenced to various forms of forced labor. Well, in bible times they didn’t have anything close to our prison system. How did convicts serve their time after they committed a crime? Slavery.

Slavery as punishment.

Slavery is any form of involuntary service: When a person’s forced to work for another person against their will, that’d be slavery.

I know; some people are gonna object to that definition because they feel they work against their will, but they don’t consider themselves slaves. Like a guy who has a job he hates. Is he a slave? No; he can leave that job whenever he wants. (He may hate the alternatives—unemployment, poverty, etc.—but he has free will; he can leave. Now if you don’t have free will, ’cause there’s a guard blocking the door, that’d be slavery.

So yeah, your work might feel involuntary, ’cause you sure don’t wanna do it. Like an overworked mother whose husband won’t do his fair share of the chores. and she feels she’s gotta do his chores or they’ll never get done. She really doesn’t gotta. But just because you feel you have no other options, doesn’t mean you actually have no other options. If it’s truly involuntary, it’s slavery. Got that?

So who works against their will in our society? Convicts.

Y’see slavery didn’t begin just because one person decided it was okay to own other human beings and work ’em to death. It was invented to punish evildoers. Fr’instance two tribes might fight a war, and one side won. What do you do with the losers? Kill them all? Well yeah, sometimes that’s precisely what they did. But more often they’d just enslave the losers. 1Sa 17.9 Free labor was more convenient than dead enemies. Kinda merciful, too.

So when one person injured another in bible times, part of making things right was involuntary servitude. The perpetrator had to serve the victim. Or serve the king who sentenced them. There were no jails nor prisons back then—other than as temporary holding cells for people who were gonna be executed. (In Roman times there were islands where convicts might be exiled to, which served as prison colonies. That’s as close to our prison system as the ancients got.)

Since human nature is vengeful, punishment seldom truly fit the crime. Ancient slavery might be for life. Or till they, or their family members, could gather enough money to buy back their freedom. A lot of ancient slavery was the result of debt: You owed money, so you sold yourself to pay your bills. Or worse: You sold your children to pay your bills. Some forms of slavery were entirely unfair.

And let’s not be naïve: Still are. The United States has a higher percentage of our citizens in prison than any other developed nation. Way too many of those citizens are black: Our courts tend to give black convicts jail time, and white convicts community service, for the very same crimes. Our voters demand that for three minor crimes, or “strikes,” habitual criminals can be jailed for life; or that drug addicts or the insane oughta be jailed rather than treated. We got problems.

But from ancient times to today, people don’t care if punishment doesn’t fit the crime: That’s just your lot in an unfair world. And the reason chattel slavery came to exist was because people took advantage of penal slaves and enslaved their children as well. They’d invent caste- or race-based excuses to justify it, and keep ’em in bondage forever, like the ancient Egyptians did with the Hebrews, or Americans with native Indian or imported African slaves. They were declared subhuman, considered unfit for freedom, and their human rights ignored… and so they were abused, murdered, and raped as their kidnappers pleased.

Mitigating slavery in the scriptures.

Slavery wasn’t created by God. He never declared, “When a person sins in this way or that, make a slave of them.” Slavery was created by humans, and slavery existed as an institution before the LORD ever issued commands about its limitations. The Egyptians and Sumerians had slaves in Abraham and Jacob’s day. (Hence we see Abraham and Jacob’s wives making concubines out of their slave girls.) Since slavery existed, the ancient Hebrews might get or purchase a slave.

But what we see in the scriptures is how the LORD lessened the greater abuses which took place in slaveholding cultures.

Hebrews who sold themselves into slavery were to be treated as employees, and no worse. Lv 25.39-43 Foreign slaves might be treated as property, Lv 25.44-46 but not beyond a certain point: When their masters injured them, God ordered they be automatically freed. Ex 21.26-27 When their masters killed them, they were punished, Ex 21.20-21 arguably the same as if they killed a freeman. Ex 21.12-14

Yes, women slaves were treated differently. Most of that has to do with the way patriarchal cultures treated all women as property and underlings. But when their masters decided to make concubines of them (as was often the case), God ordered they be treated as wives and family members, not slaves. Ex 21.7-11

Most significantly: Male slaves were to be freed on the sabbath year. Ex 21.2 Slavery wasn’t meant to be lifelong. Not unless the slave voluntarily chose that lifestyle for himself. Ex 21.5-6

These commands were a huge contrast with the way the pagan nations round Israel, or with the way ancient Greeks and Romans, treated their slaves. Or with the way Americans treat our convicts. (Or debtors.) We sentence many of our convicts way longer than seven years. If the idea of freeing everyone after seven years bothers you (“Wait, did they adequately serve their time?”) bear in mind if we bothered to follow God’s commands today, we’d definitely dedicate those seven-year sentences to making really sure convicts worked off their sentence and were ready to re-enter society. Not merely sticking them in a cell for decades, and teaching them to adjust to life behind the walls.

True, there’d be people in this system trying to game or abuse it. There always are, in every system. But we need to bear in mind God doesn’t want people to be in bondage forever. Jesus came to set captives free.

Luke 4.16-21 KWL
16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he was raised.
As was his habit, he went to synagogue on Sabbath, and stood to read.
17 A bible was given to Jesus—the prophet Isaiah.
Opening the bible, he found the place where it’s written,
18 “The Lord’s Spirit, who’s on me because he anoints me to evangelize the poor.
He sends me to preach freedom to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind,
to send freedom to the broken, 19 to preach the Lord’s acceptable era.”
20 Closing the bible, returning it to the assistant, Jesus sat to teach.
Every eye in synagogue was staring at him.
21 Jesus began to tell them this:
“This scripture has been fulfilled today, in your very ears.”

Jesus never specified which type of captives he meant—whether captives because they committed crimes, captives because they went into debt, captives because they were defeated by foreign powers, captive to sin: Jesus came to be gracious to all. Including convicts.

True, when a convict has done great harm, their victims are gonna object. They’re gonna want revenge, and I don’t entirely blame them. Well, I do if they’re Christians, and should know better—that they have to forgive, and “I forgave but they still owe society a debt” is a cop-out. When Jesus told us to forgive others, lest God not bother to forgive us, Mt 6.15, Mk 11.26 he didn’t stutter. If a convict has seen sabbath years come and go, they’re not where God wants ’em. God does grace.

Slavery in God’s kingdom.

In writing about slaves, Plato of Athens wasn’t sure whether they were any good for anything other than working for their masters. Politics 1.1259B Much like people nowadays figure convicts aren’t capable of doing much beyond committing future crimes, or going to prison forever.

The apostles obviously assumed otherwise. Slaves (and convicts) are human beings, same as the apostles. Not inferior to them, for in Christ there’s neither slave nor free. Ga 5.23, Cl 3.11 Slaves weren’t to be treated as inferior just because they made poor choices, or fell into rough times, which eventually resulted in slavery. But Christians who were in the condition of slavery were expected to make the best of it. Be like Christ in their condition.

Colossians 3.22-25 KWL
22 Slaves, be responsible to the masters over your body about everything.
Don’t just try to please them while they’re watching, but with an undivided heart, and fear of the Master.
23 Whatever you do with your soul, you do as if to the Master, not people,
24 knowing you’ll receive your payment from the Master,
the inheritance of Christ the Master, whom you serve.
25 Wrongdoers will be repaid for wrongdoing, and there’s no favoritism.
Ephesians 6.5-8 KWL
5 Slaves, be responsible to the masters over your body with fear and trembling,
with your undivided heart, as if to Christ.
6 Not just while they’re watching, like people-pleasers, but like Christ’s slaves.
Do God’s will from your soul, 7 with enthusiasm,
slaving like it’s for the Master, not people.
7 Remember each of you, when you do good works,
the Master rewards it whether you’re slaves or free.
1 Timothy 6.1-2 KWL
1 Whoever’s under slavery’s yoke: Think about your own wardens with all appropriate respect.
Thus you don’t slander God’s name and the teaching.
2 Don’t show disrespect to believers who are wardens just because they’re family.
Instead slave for them even more because they’re beloved brothers, whose good works can help you.
Timothy, teach this and help them with it.
Titus 2.9-10 KWL
9 Slaves are to obey their own wardens
in every acceptable way.
Not to argue.
10 Not to embezzle.
Instead demonstrate all good faith
so God our Savior’s teaching will decorate everything.
1 Peter 2.18-20 KWL
18 House slaves, be submitted in all fear of your wardens.
Not just the good and gentle ones, but also the twisted ones.
19 Anyone in pain and unjust suffering:
You get grace when you put up with it and stay conscious of God.
20 What good is it when sinners put up with a beating?
But if you do good, yet live in suffering, this gets grace in God.

Though Paul taught you weren’t gonna automatically change your life situation just because you became Christian, he did teach slaves that they oughta get out of slavery if they could, and stay away from it. For Christ called them—and us—to be free. We’re to be Christ’s slaves, and no one else’s. 1Co 7.20-24

And just as Christian slaves had to be like Jesus, Christian slaveholders had to be like Jesus too.

Ephesians 6.9 KWL
Masters, do likewise for the slaves: Keep threats to a minimum.
Remember, both they and you have a heavenly Master. There’s no favoritism in him.
Philemon 1.15-18 KWL
15 Maybe this was why Onesimus was separated from you for a time—
so you could have him in the age to come,
16 no longer like a slave, but more than a slave: A beloved brother. Especially to me!
Even better for you: Both a brother in the flesh, and in the Master.
17 So if you consider me family, accept Onesimus like you would me.
18 Whatever Onesimus wronged you or owes you, bill me.

Paul’s letter to Philemon shows us particularly how we’re to consider slaves or convicts: As sisters and brothers in Christ. And for that matter, we oughta adopt Paul’s example: If there’s any way we can take care of a convict’s penalty—say, get it reduced, or help pay off fines—we should help free them if we can.

Yeah, I realize that’s gonna outrage unforgiving, grace-deficient people who insist convicts oughta pay their own way. But there’s plenty of precedent in the scriptures. In the Law, the LORD actually ordered the Hebrews to free their family members whenever possible. Lv 25.47-49 And since Jesus considers us family, that’s a command he himself fulfilled by paying the penalty for our sins. So it’s hardly a command he’s done away with!

Hence we should pay his grace forward by freeing our sisters and brothers in Christ when we can. Practice a little radical forgiveness, and join with him in setting captives free. That’s good news.