What The Bible Really Says About Slavery

canstockphoto4386541Though Christians today almost universally accept that slavery is an intolerable evil, it is also almost universally accepted that the Bible stops short of outright condemnation of slavery and can even be considered to be somewhat accepting of it.

Christian slaveholders in the U.S. pointed out that Paul instructed slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5) and that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, had verses that spoke to the proper treatment of slaves but stopped short of calling for their outright release.

And the best response that we have come up with is to acknowledge that the Bible reflects the cultural norms of its times while looking forward to a time when those norms are transformed into the ideal situation in which we no longer use national, gender and economic differences between people to separate us in terms of our value as humans created in God’s image, citing 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11.

While that is true, I think the biblical case against slavery is actually much stronger than that.

Think first of all of the institution of the Sabbath. It was common throughout the Ancient Near East for the 7th day to be a holy day, it being tied to the phases of the moon and the worship of lunar deities. The Israelites also considered the 7th day to be holy but they tied it to God resting on the 7th day of creation in Genesis, disassociating it with the moon and any pagan worship connected with it.

But the Bible takes an additional step: in the Ten Commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment to observe the Sabbath day is specifically tied to the deliverance of the Hebrews from the slavery in Egypt.

They were required to let everything they had, including their livestock, to rest on the 7th day “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” (Deut. 5:14 NRSV, emphasis mine.) The clear implication is that when they were slaves in Egypt no one worked on the 7th day but them, and this was not to be repeated in their midst.

While this may seem like it still stops short of an outright condemnation of slavery, note this: in the Bible, the paradigm for salvation is deliverance from slavery.

At the end of Genesis, there is no nation of Israel, just Jacob and his family. Even as slaves in Egypt they are just a large ethnic group within the nation. The nation of Israel is formed through their deliverance by the Lord from the slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

The exodus is not just one event out of many events in Israel’s history, it is the central event that defines the nation and their understanding of Yahweh, their deliverer and protector.

While it is true that Israel goes on to practice slavery itself, it does so precisely because the people forget who they are and who God is. When Solomon instituted corvee labor (requiring men to work for the king for a month) for his massive building projects, the northern tribes viewed it as being re-enslaved by a new Pharaoh, and it led to the division of the nation after Solomon’s death.

One of the reasons given for the Exile is the refusal of Israel to observe the Jubilee. We tend to view the Jubilee as a financial issue providing for the forgiving of debt, but at its core it is a provision to make sure that people weren’t turned into slaves because of their poverty and subsequent indebtedness.

At its essence the Jubilee is an anti-slavery law for which Israel was condemned and exiled for not observing.

The gospels use the Exodus paradigm throughout their description of the Incarnation. The birth narratives of Jesus echo the Exodus, from Herod ordering the killing of infant boys around Bethlehem paralleling Pharaoh’s command to kill newborn Hebrew males to Joseph fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Jesus and their subsequent return.

The miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 echo the miraculous provision of manna and quail in the desert. Most obviously, the crucifixion and resurrection all take place during the feast of Passover, with John specifically presenting Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose sacrifice and blood-protection directly led to Israel’s freedom from Egypt. I could go on, but you get the point.

To say that the Bible condones and accepts slavery and does not condemn it ignores the dominant story of salvation in both the Old Testament and New.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus read from Isaiah and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

At the center of Jesus’ understanding of the Gospel is the release of captives and letting the oppressed go free. That is Exodus language and a clear repudiation of slavery.

Both the Old and New Testaments advocate radical approaches toward slavery that, if they at all stopped short of a full condemnation, were both a large step forward and a signpost pointing the way forward to a new humanity.

Image: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / PicsFive

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