"Does God support the practice of slavery?"

Exodus 21:1-11 Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 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. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 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.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 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. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

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. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.

Compare Verse Translations

In Exodus 20, God hands down his 10 commandments to Moses and the Israelites. This would seem like a good time to address the practice of slavery, something that has cropped up in previous chapters; however, slavery is not mentioned in the 10 commandments (though in some translations the 10th commandment states that you should not covet a neighbor's slaves, while other translations say servants - both cases being equated with property). Even more distressing is the fact that in the chapter that immediately follows, God hands down laws regarding the treatment of slaves. This includes specifics about how to hold a married slave's wife and children hostage in order to retain ownership over them indefinitely and how to force a slave woman into marriage with yourself or one of your sons. Are we to assume that God supports the practice of slavery under these specifications? Obviously Christians today would not support the described practices. What better opportunity to reject the practice than when God handed down the laws that his chosen people should follow? The Israelites were literally escaping their own enslavement, why then would God allow the practice to continue, and not only allow it, but give explicit instructions for how it should be carried out? Why not abolish it entirely and unequivocally? If God is all-knowing and all-seeing, wouldn't he have been aware that many of these verses would later be used to justify slavery?

Christian Answers:

  • "The Bible does not specifically condemn the practice of slavery. It gives instructions on how slaves should be treated, but does not outlaw slavery altogether." The slavery described in the Bible could more accurately be described as indentured servitude. "Another crucial point is that the purpose of the Bible is to point the way to salvation, not to reform society." (Got Questions?: Does the Bible condone slavery?)

    • Follow-up Question: If the purpose of the Bible is not to reform society, then why does it contain so many direct proclamations from God instructing his people on how to reform their behavior?

  • "The Bible acknowledges slavery's existence and regulates it in the Old Testament and plants the seeds of its demise in the New [Testament]. The statutes in the Bible specifically speak against the abuse of anyone, including slaves. The Bible also promotes fair labor practices (1 Timothy 5:18) and healthy sexual relationships (1 Corinthians 7:2). At every turn, God's laws are for our protection." (Compelling Truth: Does the Bible allow for slavery?)

    • Follow-up Question: If God's laws are for our protection, why is the protection of human freedom seemingly not addressed? How are these slaves' lives being protected when their masters can escape punishment after beating them to death? How are healthy sexual relationships being protected when a slave woman can be forced into marriage?

  • In the context of these verses, slavery is a way to pay off debt. "In six years the loan is paid off, and they are set free. Bondservants who did this made a wage, had their debt covered, had a home to stay in, on-the-job training, and did it for only six years. Regarding Exodus 21:4, if he (the bondservant) is willing to walk away from his wife and kids, then it is his own fault. And he would be the one in defiance of the law of marriage. He has every right to stay with his family. On the other hand, his wife, since she is a servant as well, must repay her debt until she can go free. Otherwise, a woman could be deceitful by racking up debt and then selling herself into slavery to have her debts covered, only to marry someone with a short time left on his term, and then go free with him. That would be cruel to the master who was trying to help her out." (Answers in Genesis: Doesn't the Bible Support Slavery?)

    • Follow-up Question: This answer does not address the clause that allows the master to hold a slave indefinitely who chooses to stay with their wife and children. Why is the slave's commitment to their wife and children rewarded with perpetual slavery when they have already met the terms of their debt repayment? How can this arrangement continue to be called bond servitude? And why are the children also considered the slave master's property? They did not enter an agreement with the master willingly to pay off any debts.

  • "According to verses 20–21, if an owner severely beat his servant, and the servant died, then he would be punished—that was the law. However, if the servant survived for a couple of days, it is probable that the master was punishing him and not intending to kill him, or that he may have died from another cause. In this case there is no penalty other than that the owner loses the servant who is his temporary property—he suffers the loss." (Answers in Genesis: Doesn't the Bible Support Slavery?)

    • Follow-up Question: Which is the greater loss? The loss of the slave owner's "property"? Or the life of the slave? In today's society you can be charged with homicide after assaulting someone who then later dies of their injuries, even if you did not intend to kill them. Why is God more concerned with the financial well-being of the slave owner than with the physical well-being of the slave?

  • "So, although there are rules about slavery in the Bible, those rules exist to protect the slave. Hebrews were commanded not to make their slave work on the Sabbath, slander a slave, have sex with another man's slave, or return an escaped slave." (God and Science: Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible?)

    • Follow-up Question: Was it permissible to have sex with your own slaves? Is there any mention of punishment for slave owners who had sex with their slaves without consent? Also, why would a slave want to escape if they entered into their servitude willingly as a way to pay off debt? Could it be because there was a danger of being beaten to death or raped? All of these resources frame slavery as a willing agreement to pay off debt, but what alternative did the debtor have? What was the punishment for being unable to repay debt? Imprisonment? Death?


Secular Answers:

  • These particular verses do mostly describe a type of "indentured servitude" rather than the "harsh slavery" of early America, but there are plenty of other verses that make it clear that the Bible supported both kinds of slavery. (Patheos: Yes, Biblical Slavery Was the Same as American Slavery)

  • "The Bible identifies different categories of slaves including female Hebrew slaves, male Hebrew slaves, non-Hebrew and hereditary slaves. These were subject to different regulations." These verses describe the treatment of Hebrew slaves. "Non-Hebrews, on the other hand, could (according to Leviticus 25:44) be subjected to slavery in exactly the way that it is usually understood. The slaves could be bought, sold and inherited when their owner died. This, by any standard, is race- or ethnicity-based, and Leviticus 25:44-46 explicitly allows slaves to be bought from foreign nations or foreigners living in Israel. It does say that simply kidnapping Hebrews to enslave them is a crime punishable by death (Deuteronomy 24:7), but no such prohibition exists regarding foreigners. War captives could be made slaves, assuming they had refused to make peace (this applied to women and children—men were simply killed), along with the seizure of all their property (Deuteronomy 20:10-15)." (Rational Wiki: Slavery in the Bible)

  • "Slavery remains a modern day travesty – a travesty with the Bible and the Koran on the wrong side of the issue. You would never think that owning people as slaves is immoral if you rely on the Bible or the Koran as your sole source of morality." (Conversational Atheist: Bible: Slavery)

Referenced Verses:
Exodus 21:1, Exodus 21:2, Exodus 21:3, Exodus 21:4, Exodus 21:5, Exodus 21:6, Exodus 21:7, Exodus 21:8, Exodus 21:9, Exodus 21:10, Exodus 21:11, Exodus 21:20, Exodus 21:21