For the skeptic, the subject of masters and slaves in the Bible is a moral failing. For the beginning Bible reader in the West, it is something very foreign to our lives (unfortunately, slavery still exists in the 21st century). The problem for us is bridging the context with two different ancient cultures.
Slavery in the Old Testament was debt servitude somewhat like indentured service in U.S. history. The Mosaic law attempted to protect the poor in many ways, but servitude was the answer to extreme poverty in the ancient near east. The law regulated and humanized this practice. Paul Copeland argues that if the principles of the Old Testament had been practiced, slavery would not have existed in the United States.1 What were those principles?
- The law limited the time of servitude to six years. In the seventh year, the slave was to go free. Exodus 21:1
- The law prohibited kidnapping, so slave traders were illegal and subject to the death penalty. Servitude in Israel was something an individual entered into voluntarily because of debts. Deuteronomy 24:7
- The law protected the slave from harm. If harm came to the slave (e.g., a broken tooth), the slave was set free. Exodus 21:26-27
- The law prohibited the return of a runaway slave. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 This stresses the voluntary nature of the financial arrangement. If conditions were too harsh and the slave could escape, he or she would not be returned.
The New Testament context was different from that of the Law of Moses. Yet even here, the context was different from the American experience. Slavery was not based on race. Most slaves gained their freedom. Some slaves held important positions like doctors, teachers, and government workers. Yes, conditions could also be harsh. Slavery is never a good situation (unless the master is God).
Christianity ultimately brought an end to slavery. The New Testament prohibited kidnapping or slave trading (1 Timothy 1:10 ). It taught the human dignity and equal spiritual status of all people including slaves. It encouraged slaves to gain their freedom whenever possible (1 Corinthians 7:20-22). The end of slavery in the West came because Christianity transformed society morally from the inside rather than by political rebellion in the first century. And when slavery has occurred in history since, it has often had Christian leaders at the forefront to end it.
Once we have bridged the cultural contexts, I believe we will have answers for skeptics as well as lessons for today. From Paul’s letters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1), we can learn about Christian ethics in the workplace. From Peter’s letter (1 Peter 2:18-25), we learn how to respond to unjust treatment. But as readers we must enter into a very different world with understanding.
1Paul Copeland, Is God a Moral Monster?, p. 132
For further reading, see the relevant chapters in: Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copeland and Reason for God by Timothy Keller.