As 21st century Americans, when we think of slavery we automatically think of the antebellum slavery of the south in early American history. Because of our cultural context, when we see the word “slave”, we automatically imagine a person stripped of his rights, dangerously overworked, and left powerless over his own life long enslavement. This is one of the hardest issues in the Old Testament. It makes believers uncomfortable and it gives unbelievers ammunition to argue against the Bible as the word of God. How do we respond to the issue of slavery in the Old Testament?
First, the Bible unequivocally attests to the equal dignity of all human beings. God made all humans, male and female, in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). This is the starting point for how we think about people, not their social status or anything else. When asking if he’d dealt unjustly with his servants, Job says “Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?” Job realized that all people come from the same Creator, born with equal dignity. Because of this, we have no basis for treating people like sub-human animals.
Second, it’s not fair to compare early American slavery to slavery in ancient Israel. They weren’t the same. What is called “slavery” in the Old Testament is actually more like indentured servitude. People could voluntarily enter into servitude to pay off debts or avoid starvation and homelessness brought on by financial destitution. Servanthood also wasn’t lifelong in Israel unless the servant chose to stay (Deut. 15:16-17). Debts were to be forgiven and slaves were to be freed every seven years (Deut. 15). The OT also clearly affirms that 1) Israelites couldn’t kidnap and force fellow Israelites into slavery (Ex. 21:16, Deut. 24:7), 2) Israelites couldn’t harm or kill their slaves arbitrarily (Ex. 21:20, 26-27), and 3) Israelites couldn’t return runaway foreign slaves to their masters, but instead were commanded to let them stay where they choose (Deut. 23:15-16). Since their slaves were image-bearers of God, it makes sense that they shouldn’t be treated this way. In his book, Is God a Moral Monster?, Paul Copan says,
“We can plainly affirm that if the three clear laws of the Old Testament had been followed in the South—that is, the anti-kidnapping, anti-harm, and anti-slave return regulations in Exodus 21:16, 20, 26-27 and Deuteronomy 23:15-16 and 24:7—then slavery wouldn’t have arisen in America.”
Third, the laws on slavery in the OT were meant to regulate, not institutionalize slavery (an already existing structure). Their society almost depended on it because financially destitute people needed a way to stay sheltered and fed. Rather than immediately wipe it out of Israel, God chose to work slowly by regulating servanthood laws to combat abuses while leaving room for improvement. God wanted there to be no poor among the Israelites, so He called people to always take care of the poor, provide for them, and help them (Deut. 15). The regulations are meant to fight against poverty, not induce it.
There may still be questions on the issue that I didn’t cover, but this should make it clear that slavery in the Old Testament isn’t anything like the slavery we Westerners think of and doesn’t show God to be the moral monster that He’s sometimes claimed to be.