Many evangelicals and Christian apologists go to great and sometimes surprising lengths to minimize and accommodate the social institution of slavery in the laws of the Old Testament to align with their preconceived theology and ethics. In spite of their apologetic efforts, as the survey here shows, the Old Testament laws clearly sanctioned and endorsed the institution, including both debt and chattel slavery.
By Joshua Bowen
Of all the questions that I might have anticipated hearing in my work on social media, perhaps the least expected came in a recent conversation with a Christian apologist: “But how do we even know that slavery is immoral?” After the initial shock of the question, I realized that the reason we had arrived at this point – where my interlocutor was actually contemplating whether slavery was immoral – was that I had taken him through the various legal passages in the Old Testament that sanctioned or endorsed the social institution of slavery. Faced with this reality, his only options were either 1) to conclude that the Old Testament (at least in part) was not the divinely inspired and inerrant word of God, or 2) that God had endorsed slavery, which meant that it might not be immoral after all.
Nevertheless, at the risk of moving the discussion from “Did the Old Testament endorse slavery?” to “Is slavery even immoral?,” I think it is first important to understand what the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible says about slavery. I would therefore like to take the reader through portions of the three primary legal passages in the Hebrew Bible that deal with and endorse this social institution: Exodus 21, Deuteronomy 15, and Leviticus 25.
Perhaps one of the most significant chapters in the Old Testament concerning slavery is Exodus 21, which include laws concerning Hebrew debt slavery, the Hebrew female slave, and the treatment of slaves.
The Hebrew Male Debt Slave
Exodus 21:2-6 contains laws concerning a Hebrew debt slave, who could be made to serve for a maximum of six years in order to pay off his debt. The text then describes three possible scenarios that could arise at the time of his manumission. In the first scenario, the slave had come into his master’s home single (unmarried); in this case, he would leave single. In the second scenario, if he was married at the time of his enslavement, his wife would also go with him. In other words, he would leave as he came in. In verse 4, however, we see a third scenario: the slave entered the master’s service single, and the master gave the slave a wife during his six-year term of service. In this case, the wife (and any children that she bore) would not go free; rather, they would belong to the master.
The obvious problem, of course, is how immoral this practice seems from our modern point of view. Indeed, this passage causes problems for many evangelicals and Christian apologists; some go to great lengths to give the rationale for God giving such laws. For example, concerning the choices facing the newly freed slave, Paul Copan writes:
“1. He could wait for his wife and kids to finish their term of service while he worked elsewhere ... Yet if the now free man worked elsewhere, this would mean (a) he would be separated from his family, and (b) his boss would no longer supply him with food, clothing, and shelter ... 2. He could get a decent job elsewhere and save his shekels to pay his boss to release his wife and kids from contractual obligations ... 3. He could commit himself to working permanently for his employer – a life contract (Exod. 21:5-6).”
While this may seem like a logical approach to understanding the situation found in the text, the scenario described by Copan is likely one that simply did not exist. The husband did not go out with the knowledge that his wife and children would be released, as they were chattel slaves. The law in Exodus 21:2-6 is concerned with his release, the different circumstances in which he could find himself, and the regulations that would apply in each of these situations. If the male slave was given a wife by the master, she would almost certainly have been a female slave. As chattel slaves, neither her release, nor that of their children, was required.
In other words, the male slave is not choosing between permanent slavery and leaving his wife and children temporarily, awaiting the day that he can either free them from their “contractual obligations” or until their term of service is up. Neither of the latter situations apply. The wife is almost certainly not a debt slave; their children are simply house born slaves. Neither the wife nor the children are expected to be released. Thus, the choice facing the male slave is one of leaving behind his wife and children or taking an oath to serve his master in perpetuity (Exodus 21:5-6)
Having laid out stipulations concerning the male Hebrew slave and his terms of service, the text moves to the female slave (Exodus 21:7-11). Again, a general principle is explored, applying it to two different scenarios. The law states that, unlike male slaves, if a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not released after a six-year term, as she is being sold as a slave and concubine/wife to her master. This is almost certainly the rationale behind the six-year law of release not applying to her, as she is most likely being sold into some form of sexual or marital relationship with her master.
However, the law requires that, if the master loses his liking for her, he cannot sell her to a foreign nation, as she has moved out of the status of being strictly a slave and is thus to be accorded a measure of protection. Whether the master chooses her for himself or his son, she is to continue to receive those things that are due her (food, clothing, etc.). Failing this, the master must allow her to go free, without requiring any payment.
Even with this form of protection contained in the law, one can see how this would be considered grossly immoral by today’s standards. Selling one’s daughter into slavery concubinage or marriage, while better than general slavery, would by no means be acceptable today.
Perhaps the most cited sections of this chapter are Exodus 21:20-21 and 26-27, as they concern the physical treatment of slaves. It seems quite clear that slaves were expected to be beaten (see Proverbs 29:19-21). When we see a rod spoken of in Exodus 21:20-21, it is almost certainly being used on the slave as a form of discipline or motivation. What is likely in question is the intent of the master: if he were to beat the slave so that the slave died immediately, it would be clear that the master intended more than mere discipline. However, if time were to pass between the beating and the death, then it would be assumed that other circumstances may have been involved in causing the death of the slave. The master would be given the benefit of the doubt and would not be held responsible for the death of the slave.
This interpretation accords well with verses 26-27. The head would be considered extremely vulnerable to blows from a wooden rod; if a tooth were to be knocked out or an eye to be damaged or destroyed, this would likely indicate that the master had intended to do more than discipline his slave.
The passage in Deuteronomy 15 parallels laws dealt with in Exodus 21, particularly with respect to the release of Hebrew debt slaves. However, some of the laws in this passage appear to have changed or developed when compared to Exodus 21.
Female Slave Release
One of the things that we noticed in Exodus 21 was the distinction that was made between the release of Israelite male and female slaves. Male slaves were to “go out” after serving six years, while female slaves were not to be released. Now, however, when we read Deuteronomy 15:17, we see that the seventh-year release is also to be applied to the female slave. Is this a genuine development in the law from Exodus 21, or is the situation distinct here in Deuteronomy 15, concerning a different type of female slave?
To state the problem succinctly, there appears to be a contradiction between Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15, particularly with respect to the release of the female slave in the seventh year. There are at least two possible explanations for this inconsistency. The first would be that there was a development in the laws over time, in which the female slave was granted the same release as the male slave in Exodus 21. This may indicate that the writer in Deuteronomy 15 added the stipulation that the female slave was also to be released in response to the restriction found in Exodus 21.
Another possibility is that a different scenario is envisioned in Deuteronomy 15; the female slave who is to be released had not been taken into slavery in the capacity of a concubine or wife. As a “standard” type of Hebrew slave, she would be entitled to release after six years.
Release with Provisions
Perhaps the most obvious development that appears in Deuteronomy 15 – when compared to Exodus 21 – is the requirement for the master to release his slave after six years with significant provisions in hand (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). The rationale for providing the newly released slave with substantive means can be seen in the overall context of the passage. In verses 1-6, the text stipulates that all debts owed by Israelites were to be canceled every seven years. This was to aid in keeping poverty at a minimum – as much as possible – for the nation of Israel. Similarly, in verses 7-11, if fellow Israelites were to fall on hard times and desperately needed loans, their brethren were not to calculate how close they were to the year of canceling debts. Instead, they were to provide for their countrymen as Yahweh had provided for them.
Thus, when we come to the release of slaves in Deuteronomy 15:12-18, the generosity that the master was to show to his Hebrew slave was to be in the same vein. Ostensibly, this was to keep the slave – at least to some extent – from falling back into poverty after their release. Having served the master for six years, it would have been difficult for the slave to go out on their own having no financial wherewithal. This development in the law provided the slave with the ability to make a fresh start.
Perhaps no other chapter concerning slavery in the Hebrew Bible is as cited or debated as Leviticus 25, particularly verses 44-46. What makes this passage so contentious is probably immediately apparent to the reader: the Israelites were allowed to purchase foreign slaves, who were able to be kept for life and passed down as inherited property.
One of the key aspects of this passage is the distinction that is made between Hebrew slaves and foreign slaves. The regulations found in verses 44-46 stand in contrast to the laws that come immediately before; the section leading up to these laws about foreign slaves concerns the treatment of an Israelite who has fallen into poverty.
We can summarize this section in this way:
- If an Israelite sells his land, it gets redeemed.
- If an Israelite can’t support himself, the community aids him.
- If an Israelite sells himself into slavery, the Israelite buyer is not to treat him like a slave, but instead like a hired worker.
This is how the Israelites were to care for their brethren. As we noted above concerning the laws in Deuteronomy 15, there also appears to be a development in the laws of Leviticus 25. If you remember, Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 say that you can have Hebrew slaves, but you must release them after six years of service. However, here in Leviticus 25, we see that the Israelites were NOT to treat their brethren as slaves, but rather as “hired workers.” These must be released in the “year of Jubilee,” which occurred every 50th year.
Given this development and restriction on holding fellow Israelites as slaves, the question would naturally arise: “If an Israelite cannot have another Israelite as a slave, whom can he buy?” The answer begins in verse 44: “And as for your male slaves and female slaves that you may have: from the foreign nations that are around you, from them you may purchase male and female slaves.” While Leviticus 25 appears to be creating a better situation for the Israelites who fall into poverty, this improvement does not apply to the foreigner. If an Israelite wants to own slaves, he can no longer obtain them from among his brethren; slaves could only be acquired from among the foreigners, either from the nations around them or from the foreign residents that were living among them. If an Israelite wanted to own a slave, therefore, Leviticus 25 restricted him to only purchasing foreigners; he could no longer treat Israelites as slaves.
We should discuss the word “property” (Hebrew: ahuzzah) that appears in Leviticus 25:44-46. In various discussions and presentations on social media, many evangelicals have argued that this term does not indicate that the person is owned, but simply refers to the labor output of an individual. If correct, this interpretation would soften the tone of the passage, leaving the master merely owning the work or labor of the slave, rather than their personhood.
The word ahuzzah appears many times in Leviticus 25, almost exclusively referring to the portions of land that were allotted to the Israelites. It is also used in passages like Genesis 47:11, where Joseph gives his family an ahuzzah in Egypt: “So Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them landed property (ahuzzah) in the best part of the land, in the land of Rameses, just as pharaoh commanded.” The noun ahuzzah can also be joined with other words to specify the type of property that is being spoken of, as in Genesis 23:20: “And the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham as burial land (ahuzzah + qever ‘grave’) by the Hittites.” While the word is normally used to refer to land or objects that are owned, it is striking that the word ahuzzah is used in Leviticus 25:45-46 to refer to purchased slaves. In the same way that objects can be considered “property,” so also can slaves.
Nevertheless, some have turned to the verses that follow this passage to attempt to demonstrate that the term “property” should only be equated with labor output. The situation presented in the following passage (Leviticus 25:47-55) involves an Israelite that sells himself to a foreign resident. At the time of the Israelite’s redemption – either by a kinsman or by himself, using his own accumulated wealth – he should determine the correct redemption price by calculating the length of time that he would have served until the Jubilee (when he was to be released).
What is significant here, however, is that the text is describing how an Israelite is to be viewed and treated, not a foreigner. Not only is the word “property” (ahuzzah) not used in this section to refer to the Hebrew slave, it is not even mentioned at all. Remember, the contrast in this passage is between how an Israelite who sells himself into slavery is to be treated compared to how a foreigner may be treated. One of the central points is that the Israelite cannot be treated as a slave and must be released at the Jubilee. The foreigner, on the other hand, need not be released, and may be treated as a slave.
While the information presented above concerning the nature of slavery in the laws of the Old Testament is not generally up for debate in academic circles, and most of us consider it grossly immoral by today’s standards, it remains a highly contentious issue with Christian apologists on social media and with evangelical friends and family. And although I run the risk of leading some of these to revisit the morality of the social institution of slavery (much to my chagrin), I believe it is important for us to understand exactly what the Old Testament said about the issue. It is my hope that the reader has gained some perspective on the types of slavery that were indeed endorsed in the laws of the Hebrew Bible and what these passages meant in their original contexts. We must not downplay the reality of slavery in the Old Testament, no matter how we approach the Bible, and this applies especially to Christian apologists and other evangelicals who try very hard to justify God’s giving of such laws, or explain away contradictions between them, or soften their tone so that they appear less immoral than they actually are.