Slavery in the Bible
A usual talking point of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ is that of biblical slavery, the point they try to show is that the bible is somehow suspect, as, if the bible is inspired by God, then surely God should have banned slavery as immoral, and no slavery should have been recorded. The issue of inspiration isn’t relevant to the discussion.
By slavery they seem to have in mind the slavery of the Antebellum south or that in the plantation fields, where ‘slaves’ were routinely beaten, raped, murdered, starved, locked up, and made to live in conditions we wouldn’t even consider fit for a dog, without any repercussions for the slave owners. But is this analogous to the so-called slavery in the bible?
I will maintain and try to show that ‘slavery’ that was practiced in the Hebrew nation, wasn’t akin to the Antebellum south, and that the idea of biblical inspiration or inerrancy is unjustified and unreasonable for cultural and linguistic limitations.
In a recent twitter debate with Scott Clifton and most notably Dr. Joshua Bowen about biblical slavery in October 2021. The debate ended with Scott inviting me to debate or discuss the topic with Dr. Bowen on Scott’s YouTube channel; I didn’t think this was going to be a fruitful discussion as the discussion became a critique of my credentials, the sources I have used, the scholarly consensus and how I am not in line with it! My intentions will be to give a defence of the position I defended in my debate with Scott and Dr. Bowen in a more detailed way and hopefully give Christians reasons to hold that the bible isn’t endorsing slavery in the analogous way of the Antebellum south.
Some Initial Points.
What this isn’t about:
I don't have an issue per se with what Dr. Bowen had to say regarding his research; Dr. Bowen is a highly credible and worthwhile source for anyone looking into this subject. Where I will differ with him is on his conclusions about the bible and how this relates to slavery.
For example, I have no disputes with his understanding of Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures, or his depiction of their slavery laws. Much of the evidence I will be gathering my thoughts, points, and references, will be from Paul Copan and Peter J. Williams, both experts who have written and spoken on this subject for many years.
What is slavery?
This becomes a difficult word to define, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica writes:
“(C)ondition in which one human being was owned by another. A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel, and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons. There is no consensus on what a slave was or on how the institution of slavery should be defined. Nevertheless, there is general agreement among historians, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and others who study slavery that most of the following characteristics should be present in order to term a person a slave. The slave was a species of property; thus, he belonged to someone else. In some societies slaves were considered movable property, in others immovable property, like real estate. They were objects of the law, not its subjects. Thus, like an ox or an ax, the slave was not ordinarily held responsible for what he did. He was not personally liable for torts or contracts. The slave usually had few rights and always fewer than his owner, but there were not many societies in which he had absolutely none. As there are limits in most societies on the extent to which animals may be abused, so there were limits in most societies on how much a slave could be abused. The slave was removed from lines of natal descent. Legally, and often socially, he had no kin. No relatives could stand up for his rights or get vengeance for him.” (1)
Obviously if you change the definition to limit it to just owning another person, one could argue being a parent of a child is a form of slavery, but this is obviously wrongheaded. Although a parent is in one sense of the word “owning” or “responsible” for a child, parents usually love and care for their children and go out of their way to provide a flourishing environment to allow their children to grow up into adults.
So, a complete definition should be sought to give a good working definition for the word slavery. I will define slavery like this:
Property – the slave belonged to the owner, complete control of their life and what they were to do.
Chattel – like animals, the slave could be used in any way the owner saw fit.
Few rights – slaves had little or no rights in law, had no legal redress, no rights to complain or runaway.
Some people might want to disagree with this definition, but I feel justified in maintaining this definition, as this seems to be the impression sceptics want to demand on the bible, and then as a result conclude the bible isn’t inspired by God.
A key question is, was the bible depicting as “slavery”, akin to what we would call slavery, that is like the antebellum south E.g. widespread, systemic abuse, or was it more akin to servitude? I will maintain it wasn’t slavery, but more like servitude.
Another important distinction to make in this discussion is that to mention slavery or owning slaves isn’t necessarily proof that the bible endorsed slavery. In the 21st century there is now more slaves in the world than there has ever been in all history past. But no one accepts that slavery is correct or would support slavery is good practice and anything but evil. So it could be the case that, although the bible mentions slavery and owning slaves, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was seen as acceptable or that, even if they did own ‘slaves’ they were kept as chattel and were beaten every day.
General Comments and Translations:
It is clear to anyone who has studied the subject for even a little, that there is a clear distinction between “slavery” for Jews and Gentiles.
Another point, which should be clear, but might not be to some; that what we call the Old Testament, was in fact, in many cases separate books, separated by thousands of years and written by different people and social standings. The Torah (the first five books of the OT) is said to have been written by Moses, but the authorship isn’t particularly relevant to the point.
So, the Torah, was written for the people of Israel in the ancient past, with customs and culture completely alien to us moderns, so many verses are not necessarily going to be understood by plain text readings. It is important to notice that many of the verses that are in the Old Testament that is relevant to the topic of slavery are analogous to what we call ‘case-law’, or put another way, descriptive not prescriptive, that is, it gave an example of what might be common cases in the lives of Hebrews almost 3500 years ago, but not what always happened, just the most extreme cases.
Moreover, these cases of ‘case-law’ are steeped in traditions, us moderns, unless we have studied ancient Hebrew traditions are not necessarily going to understand. For example, the notion of a Kinsman Redeemer isn’t going to be readily understood unless you have done some study into Hebrew culture, as the Bible has very little to say on the subject (2)(3), but the Hebrew people have many independent traditions in the Talmud (4)(5)(6).
The English Bible translations uses the word slavery many times, but does this mean that this is the best translation?
I have done a fairly comprehensive study (7)(8) of the usage of the words used for slavery or slave, the Hebrew word is עֶבֶד (ébed) and the approximate 800 occurrences of that word in the OT, 744 times it is translated as ‘servant’ or ‘servants’, 23 times it is translated as ‘manservant’ or ‘male servant’, 21 times it is translated as ‘bondman’ or ‘servant’, 10 times it is translated as ‘bondage’ or ‘slavery’, interestingly these passages exclusively refer to the time the Jewish people were in Egypt. One time it is translated as ‘bondservant’ or ‘slave’, this verse Lev 25:38-39(ESV) “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave(ébed): he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.” And finally, one time where it is translated ‘on all sides".
Additionally, there is the Hebrew word אָמָה ('āmâ) there are approximately 55 times in the OT, 22 times it is translated as ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant women’. 19 times it is translated ‘maidservant’ or ‘female servant’. 8 times it is translated as ‘maid’. Four times it is translated as ‘bondwoman’ or ‘slave women’, these 4 occurrences exclusively involve Hagar the handmaid to Sarah when Hagar is sent away for her actions to Sarah Gen 21:10-13 ESV So she said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman('āmâ) with her son, for the son of this slave woman('āmâ) shall not be heir with my son Isaac." And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman('āmâ). Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman('āmâ) also, because he is your offspring.". One time it is translated to ‘bondmaid’ or ‘female slave(‘s)’ Lev 25:44 “As for your male(ébed) and female slaves('āmâ) whom you may have: you may buy male(ébed) and female slaves('āmâ) from among the nations that are around you.”
You can see that the usage of the words ‘ébed’ and ‘'āmâ’ are not clear-cut examples of usage only meaning one specific term. Additionally, we have seen its most common usage is servant. So, it seems we have some kind of case that the word used to mean ‘slave’ isn’t necessarily the correct one and is best interpreted as ‘servant’ and only ever specifically used to denote slavery when referencing the time in Egypt.
What Does the Bible say on Slavery:
Before we start looking at what the bible actually says on slavery, I wanted to detour you on a separate but related point, which I believe is key in understanding this issue at hand. The point being that the intentions of God was that everyone was to be treated fairly; there is a often used phrase that is used in the OT “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt..” the point being, was to remind the Israelites, to not forget how badly treated they were in Egypt, and do not repeat the same deplorable behaviour to their captures. (All verses used are in ESV, unless otherwise stated.)
Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."
Exodus 22:21-24: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless."
Leviticus 19:16-18: You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."
Deuteronomy 5:12-15: “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On 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 livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Deuteronomy 10:17-19: For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 16:9-12: “You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. 10 Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. 12 You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.
Some initial points in case you’re confused, sojourner in the context was to reside somewhere for a period of time e.g. The Israelites sojourned in Egypt. And stranger just means foreigner or someone not native born.
I have introduced six verses (there are many more) that clearly show that God’s intentions were that the Israelites were to treat the foreigner as the native born Jew and to not show favouritism, they were required to love their neighbour as themselves, and that the foreigner’s were to receive the same treatment as the native born. In other words, everyone was to be treated the same, whether they were rich or poor, or wherever they were born, God’s intention was for everyone to be treated the same.
So, with this is in the back of our minds, we shall return to the point in hand.
So, what does the bible have to say on slavery?
Exodus 12:43-49: And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
The implication of this text is that everybody could eat the Passover, if they choose to. The only stipulation was that any male not circumcised, which wanted to participate in the Passover would require them to be circumcised. Circumcision, is of course another topic entirely, but is an important outward sign of faith as outlined in Genesis 17: 9-14 “And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”” A covenant between God and the Hebrew people.
It is widely accepted that the laws regarding the treatment of ébed’s was different for that of the Hebrews and that of the foreigner. I will pay attention to the treatment of Hebrew ébed’s first then to that of the foreigner.
Leviticus 25:39-46: “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. 42 For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. 43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.
In Paul Copan’s book ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ lays out three points of basic characteristics of slavery in the ancient world;
1. A slave was property.
2. The slave owner’s rights over the slave’s person and work were total and absolute.
3. The slave was stripped of his identity – racial, familial, social, material(10).”(9)
Paul continues by saying “…this doesn’t describe the Hebrew servant at all.. Israel’s servant laws were concerned about controlling or regulating – not idealizing – an inferior work arrangement. Israelite servitude was induced by poverty, was entered into voluntarily, and was far from optimal. The intent of these laws was to combat potential abuses, not to institutionalize servitude.”(9)
We can see that for the Hebrew at least, if they found themselves in financial difficulties, they could ‘sell’ themselves to pass on the debt to another, who was able to redeem their debts, they would be realised after seven years, or the jubilee, and will be released with goods ‘liberally’ from the persons stock (Deut 15:12-14) the idea of this, was so the person in debt didn’t become destitute. Copan continues “Once a person was freed from his servant obligations, he had the “status of full and unencumbered citizenship(11)””(9)
The Hebrews were forbidden to sell another Hebrew into slavery, (Deut 24:7) and it was required that they be treated well, and not dealt with ruthlessly, by this, they mean, they were to be treated like a normal hired hand.
Now verses 44 onwards takes a different tack, this is now referring to ébed’s from other nations, does this paint a different picture?
It is important to remember a few issues before addressing this topic;
The Hebrew nation was a relatively new nation-state, and as such, didn’t invent slavery, it was part of the culture of the time and not something they necessarily condoned. See Exodus 21:16: Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. It is important that the word man in Hebrew is (אִישׁ (ish) meaning any man, everyone.)
The laws that were created in the O/T were designed to protect and regulate the treatment of the ébed’s which they inherited. The laws and treatment of ébed’s was preferable than that of neighbouring nations.
Peter J. Willams, Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. Shows that many of these passages aren’t to be understood as allowing or permitting slavery, but regulating it. E.g. like when councils or governments regulate gambling today, it doesn’t mean the legislators approve of gambling, rather they are setting limits to help stop abuse! So too with the so called slavery laws in the OT, it wasn’t that slavery was approved or the ideal, but that something that should be regulated and stop abuse. (20)
There are several issues going on in this text, this snippet of text (verses 44-46) we should note this is an instance of case law, and isn’t meant to be considered an exhaustive source to mine for data. Note that the same word for male and female slaves is the same as ébed and 'āmâ. So, it isn’t clear what that means accurately. But as it stands, we have a situation where the Israelites can buy (the Hebrew word ‘qanah’, which means to buy, bought, acquire) ébed and 'āmâ’s from the nations around, what does this mean? Considering the background information we have to hand; Slave trading was forbidden (Ex 21:16), the continuing refrain to remember that you were slaves in Egypt, as a reminder of the Hebrews to not treat others as slaves (Lev 19:33-34, Deut 5:15, Deut 10:19, Deut 16:12), that they were to love their neighbours as themselves (Lev 19:33-34, Ex 22:21-24, Lev 19:18, Deut 10:19). Is it conceivable that these laws are not quite what the plain text reading might portray?
Paul Copan writes “when the terms buy, sell or acquire are used of servants/employees, they didn’t mean the person in question is “just property.” Think of a sports player today who gets “traded” to another team, to which he “belongs.” Yes, teams have “owners,” but we’re hardly talking about slavery here! Rather, these are formal contractual agreements, which is what we find in the Old Testament servanthood/employee arrangements.(13)”(12). Notice the language used, ‘you may buy (acquire) ébed..’ it isn’t a prescriptive law, that meant they had to, like it was against the law or something not to acquire ébed’s. What about verse 46? Could they pass on the ébed to their children as inheritance? It certainly seems that way, but notice again ‘you may bequeath..” not you must. Also it should be considered in context of the next few verses v.47-48 (see below) that the stranger could become rich and he may buy Israelites, so it isn’t a situation where foreigners were kept down, additionally, they were forbidden to mistreat their ébed’s (Ex 21:20-21) if they were to be mistreated, they could go free. Furthermore, and possibly more importantly the situation for the ébed was very favourable, Days off, legal redress for wrongs, they could runaway if they were ever mistreated and go to another home without the fear of being sent back, sexual protection. (14)
Leviticus 25:47-48: “If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger's clan, 48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him.
We can see that from the context of this, foreigners could become wealthy in the land of Israel and it was possible for Hebrews to sell themselves to the foreigner if they are destitute, they only stipulation is that they could be redeemed later by a family member later.
Exodus 21:1-6: “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.
Hebrew ébed’s could be bought, that is, their debts are taken, and they would work for them for six years and on the seventh, they will go free. V3 if they were single or married at the time of being ‘sold’, they would leave the way they came in. So far so good, nothing that is controversial! V4 is the trouble verse! “If his master gives him a wife..” so the person who has purchased their debt, and for whatever reason they ‘give’ (the Hebrew means allow/appointed,deliver) the ébed a wife, the women involved had a choice, it wasn’t forced. “…and she bears him sons or daughers, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone…” Paul Copan writes “At first glance, this text seems to treat females (and children) unfairly… Our first point in response is this: we’re not told specifically that this scenario could also apply to a woman, but we have good reason to think this situation wasn’t gender specific. (We’ll see shortly that Deuteronomy 15 makes explicit that this scenario applied to a woman as well.) This is another example of case law… Case law typically wasn’t gender specific. Furthermore, Israelite judges were quite capable of apply the law to male and female alike. An impoverished woman, who wasn’t given by her father as a prospective wife to a man or his son (Exod. 21:7-11), could perform standard household tasks. And she could go free by this same law, just as a male servant could.” (15)
Exodus 21:7-11: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
As we have seen in previous passages, about buying, and selling in relation to the wider context, that is, it was illegal to sell slaves. The implication of this text is that a potential husband will give a dowry, in order to settle the family’s debts. At first glances this may not sound to great, but in the ANE and still throughout the world a dowry is given; as in context of this passage, compensation of loss of workforce and skills needed in the hostile environment, they were in.(16) Also it was a safety net, if the daughter was to come back, if for whatever reason, she didn’t please the husband. Verse 8, seems strange to our sensibilities, but the meaning isn’t as bad as it may first seem, Paul Copan states “The idea of bride-price is presented by the New Atheists as thought it’s a matter of buying a world like you would a horse or mule. In actual fact, the bride-price was the way a man showed his serious intentions towards his bride-to-be…”(17), so the idea of a man giving the dowry was a sign of serious intention and commitment. Additionally, marriage is to be taken as a partnership of equals. The reason for not pleasing her master, wasn’t a trivial matter, it had to be substantive Copan writes “The Hebrew text of verse 8 indicates that the man decided not to take the servant girl as his wife.” (18) Paul in the paragraph before the one I quoted, refutes the idea that v8 indicates the institution of polygamy he writes “This conclusion [that the master is married because he has a son v9] is too quick, however. It goes beyond the evidence. Two obvious options present themselves: (1) the man’s first wife died; or (2) the man and his first wife divorced. Let’s not forget that the son was of marriageable age – typically, in his twenties (as was the girl.)”(18) v10 indicates if the man takes another wife, the first woman isn’t to be diminished her food, clothing or marital rights, Paul Copan believes this word marital rights could indicate that this included lodgings, not keeping multiple wives. (19) If she didn’t receive all 3 of these things, the girl could go free.
Exodus 21:20-21: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
The passage shows that the ébed or 'āmâ who are beaten and dies, the man (person) will be avenged, that is they would be killed themselves, this is clear evidence that would prevent a person from beating a ébed or 'āmâ severely. V21 but if the ébed survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the ébed is his money. Peter J Williams parodies this with Deuteronomy 22:25-27 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.” Williams shows that the judge that was to judicate in such a case was to assume the woman’s innocence and the man was at fault. Similarly in Exodus 21:21 the master is assumed innocence, as any injury (see Exodus 21:26-27) from severe beatings would likely require the ébed to be set free or result in their death.
Exodus 21:26-27: “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.
These verses are clear evidence that the OT forbid the mistreatment of the ébed’s, as if an ébed was beaten and it resulted in damage, that is, they lose function in some way, they were to go free, with rewards. (Deuteronomy 15:14) The prevailing intent in the OT is that everyone was to be treated as yourself, or put another way, treat everyone the way you would want to be treated, that we are to love everyone as ourselves.
Exodus 21:32: If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
Copan writes “Ox-goring legislation provides an interesting contrast between the Mosaic law and other ancient Near Eastern codes. Codes like those of Hammurabi or Eshunna, for example, didn’t reflect as high a regard for human life as did the Mosaic code. In the other codes, if an ox was in the habit of goring but the owner took no precautions to prevent it so that it gored and killed a free-born person, then a half mina (or two-thirds of a mina) in silver was paid to the victim’s family and the ox lived. (21) By contrast, Exodus 21:28-36 presents a more severe maximum punishment because of the value of human life, which was reflected in Israel’s laws. The requirement was to put a goring ox to death (cf. Gen 9:4-6). And its meat couldn’t be eaten. Furthermore, if an ox was in the habit of goring and the owner did nothing to prevent this so that the ox killed a man or a woman, the owner – not just the ox – could be put to death as a maximum penalty…” (22) So, if an ox was in the habit of goring and the owner didn’t do something to prevent this, and it gores someone, including an ébed or 'āmâ the owner as well as the ox could be put to death. But in the case of v32. The ox owner was to give the master 30 shekels of silver, and the ox shall be put to death. R. Alan Cole writes “...whether slave or freeman had been gored to death, the ox had incurred blood-guilt, and its flesh must not be eaten. Even in Israel, a slave was still a man: his blood brings blood-guilt, like that of any other man.” (23)
Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.
The laws provided days off all; ébed’s or 'āmâ’s (see Deuteronomy 5:14), slave or free are to have a sabbath’s rest.
Leviticus 19:20-22: “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; 21 but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering. 22 And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed.
Unfortunately, the ESV hasn’t translated the word they choose as ‘a distinction shall be made’, the root word is בִּקּרֶת ‘biqqoreth’ which means punishment. The general intent of this passage is implying both were consenting to the act, that is, not rape.
Additionally, there seems to be some ambiguity on the translation, it may imply both are punished. Copan writes “In this murky and oft-debated passage, two issues are highlighted. First, the girl was engaged and not married. Second, she was a servant girl and not free; she hadn’t yet been redeemed by a family member or liberated by her master. (This is the reason given for not punishing the girl or the seducer.) So her master wouldn’t have had the typical claim on her, nor could he be compensated because she was engaged. This presents a kind of gray area in Israel’s legislation with a mixture of a free person and an engaged servant…As with other laws regarding women, the goal of this law was to protect those who were more vulnerable.” (24)
Leviticus 22:10-11: “A lay person shall not eat of a holy thing; no foreign guest of the priest or hired worker shall eat of a holy thing, 11 but if a priest buys a slave as his property for money, the slave may eat of it, and anyone born in his house may eat of his food.
The law state that a ébed’s or 'āmâ’s of a priest had the same rights of the priest, in that they could eat the same food.
Deuteronomy 5:14: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On 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 livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.
This shows that everyone, had the same rights of the sabbath rest.
Deuteronomy 15:12-18: “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 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. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. 18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.
These are laws for Hebrew ébed’s or 'āmâ’s, they (ébed’s or 'āmâ’s) can sell themselves, due to poverty and debt to someone who would redeem (buy) their debt. These ébed’s or 'āmâ’s would then work for this ‘master’ or redeemer for six years and being released on the seventh, they will then go free with goods from their stores. Again, it says “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” reminding the Israelites to remember that they were slaves and to not to do the same.
It goes on to say, that if they (ébed’s or 'āmâ’s) says they love their master, they (the master) will take an awl and put it through his/her ear. They will then serve them forever, this is an indication that they (ébed’s or 'āmâ’s) are not mistreated or beaten, oppressed and raped ruthlessly.
Deuteronomy 23:15-16: “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.
This is a clear passage that shows that slavery of any kind (see Exodus 21:16), either foreign slavery or Hebrew slavery, is wrong! The implication of this, is that a master is abusing their ébed or 'āmâ and they have escaped and looked for refuge from another person, they are obligated not to hand them back, they (ébed or 'āmâ) are allowed to go wherever it suits them. Copan writes “…some claim that the runaway slave in Deuteronomy 23 isn’t a foreigner but an Israelite, we have plenty of reason to reject that idea. For one thing, no mention of the word brother or neighbor is used. In addition, according to Leviticus 25, Israelites weren’t allowed to enslave fellow Israelites.” (25)
Deuteronomy 24:7: “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a
slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst…"
This is clear, that actual slavery is wrong in the sight of the OT, see Exodus 21:16. The evidence of this verse is that Israel slavery is wrong, but given Exodus 21:16 it is clear that the law intended all were equal.
So, here is the entirety of the scriptures in relation to slavery as it pertains to the OT, does this sound like the slavery of the antebellum south? If you are looking at this objectively and fairly, you will agree with me that the OT didn’t intend to have slavery as I defined it.
Having said all this, this doesn’t prove that this is what actually happened, which is what Dr. Bowen tries to point out, and I probably agree. But I’m not trying to prove that every Israelite followed the law to the letter, all the time! In fact it is false, the whole of the OT is a liturgy of failure to follow the law. The point of the matter is, the OT didn’t intend for slavery, which I believe I have shown.
What if you object to my definition of slavery?
Some might object that this isn’t the correct definition of slavery, maybe the best definition of slavery as:
Simply the owning of another person
So, what about this new definition?
Maybe on this definition, in the case of foreign slavery, we could define it that way, but this is an oversimplification and unhelpful distinction; If you can permit me to trivialise the topic for a minute, if we ‘own’ a horse for example, is that necessarily wrong? If the owner, beat the horse daily, starved it, didn’t look after it in the manner it requires, that person would be evil, and such actions should rightly be condemned. But the average horse owner, looks after the horse, ensures it has food, shelter, health etc. to maintain that the horse has a good life.
Similarly, in the case of the foreigner, given the laws (above reasoning) we have excellent reasons to think that they were to be protected like the native-born Jew. If the Israelites really loved the native-born and the foreigner as themselves, the issue isn’t an issue, they are going to treat everyone they meet with dignity, respect, and love, is that conducive to the kind of actions that is analogous to slavery of the antebellum south? If you are being honest, you should say no.
What about the New Testament (NT)?
Doesn’t the NT allow for slavery? Well, no. At the time of the NT, Romans were in charge at the time. Slavery was the backbone of Roman society and what was allowed was in virtue of that society not based on anything written in the NT.
Why doesn’t the NT writers condemn slavery and call for slaves to be set free?
The Roman’s weren’t known for tolerance, any such rebellion that threatened their way of life wouldn’t be tolerated, if Paul or any of the key pillars of Christianity suggested that they should rebel or suggest they (the Romans) weren’t moral, would quickly face justice.
What was taught was that:
Slave owners and slaves a like were equal under God. 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:26-28, Ephesians 6:5-9
Christian Owners were urged to be kind. Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 4:1
To gain freedom if possible. 1 Corinthians 7:21
In whatever position one finds themselves in, are in fact slaves in some regards. 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, Colossians 4:1, Ephesians 6:5-9
Peter J. Williams gives good evidence about the slavery topic in general but shows that in particular in the time of the NT, even if Christian slave owners wanted to, they couldn’t change the law, and by law couldn’t set free all their slaves;
Lex Fufia Caninia (BC2): only 1 free if you had between 2 or 3 slaves; up to half could be freed if you had 4-10; a third could be freed if you had 11-30.
Lex Aelia Sentia (AD4): slaves under 30 can’t be freed without legal procedure.
Slaves manumitted under 30 could never be citizens. (26)
So, it seems that the legal framework available at the time, didn’t allow for the freeing of slaves, or that ancient people didn’t think slavery was necessarily wrong, it was an institution that was practiced throughout the world and was part of regular life.
This is a much debated and contentious question, whether or not the bible condones slavery, I think have shown that the intent of the scriptures in the OT wasn’t to condone slavery, rather to limit it’s abuse by legislating laws to prevent abuse, like in states or countries that legislate for gambling, this doesn’t necessarily mean they approve gambling is good, just that they want to stop foreseeable abuses from occurring, so too with the OT. Another point I wish to hammer home is that we now in the west have condemned slavery as the evil that it is, and have laws forbidding it, yet slavery is still part of modern life to date, yet no one says we condone slavery. Analogously, the OT doesn’t condone slavery in the same way, it has legislated to stop such abuses.
Furthermore, I believe both Dr. Bowen and my views are not radically different, in that we both agree the OT tried to protect ébed’s or 'āmâ’s. Where we disagree is did the bible or law turn a blind eye to the actual atrocities that likely happened, the bible clearly condemns such acts of the antebellum south. Again, we need to distinguish and clear between what happened in actuality and what the law intended to happen. I’m not saying that everything the Jews did were perfect, in fact that bible makes it very clear, they never followed the law fully.
I believe the bible is very clear, those who have broken God’s moral law, will face judgement, and such people that have mistreated humans, treated them like slaves will face punishment for their crimes, as we all will at the correct time. The actual issue is, did the bible condone slavery? I think we can say with confidence NO!.
I used PocketBible by Laridian version of Strong’s concordance
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 126-127
Davidson, Flame of Yahweh. 359,519
Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 21:10-34:12, World Biblical Commentary 6B, Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2002. 474-75
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 125
Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 460.
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 137
Daniel I. Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in marriage and family in the biblical world, ed. Ken M. Cambell (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003), 57, 63; Davidson, Flame of Yahwey, 249; Gordon Wenham, “Family on the Pentateuch,” in Family in the Bible, ed. Richard S. Hess and Daniel Carrol (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 23-24; and Stuart. Exodus, 509-510.
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 117
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 114
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 115
Does the Bible Support Slavery? - bethinking.org or Lecture by Peter Williams on Vimeo
Laws of Hammurabi 251. If he killed a slave, then a third of a mina would be paid to the master (252; Eshunna 54)
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 95
R. Alan Cole ‘Exodus’ Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 2008
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 139
Paul Copan ‘Is God A Moral Monster’ BakerBooks. 2011. 132