Slavery in the Bible

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There are several texts in the Bible, like the one below, that seem to be in favor of slavery.

“However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

And yet, today, we consider slavery a very immoral practice so why would God allow it in the Old Testament?

There are two misconceptions that people often have when reading passages like this:

1) That if God gave Moses laws about slavery instead of outlawing it altogether that God is in favor of it.

2) That the Levitical code given to Moses exemplified God’s idea of an Utopian society with the perfect system of civil laws.

Slavery was an essential part of ancient society. When nations went to war, the victorious party often placed the enemy under tribute and turned the prisoners into slaves. This was done in order to make it as hard as possible for the enemy to regroup and attack again.

Whenever someone borrowed money and was unable to repay, they would often have to go and work for that person until the debt was paid. This was a deterrent to people going into debt irresponsibly.

More than this, neighboring nations were in competition. If one nation had a slave-based economy and the other one didn’t, the first nation would increase in wealth much faster, develop a stronger military with better weapons and overpower their neighbor.

Now all this might seem like an attempt to excuse God for enacting immoral laws. But that isn’t the point. It would have been of no use for God to give Moses laws that no one would actually follow. If the laws given to Moses, no matter how pure by our standards, had seemed overly restrictive and impractical to the Israelites, they would soon have been abandoned altogether.

Instead, many of the Levitical laws were actually intended to place limits on rather than to encourage immoral behavior.

A good exemplification of this is the New Testament passage about divorce. (Matt. 19:8) Here, Jesus explains that it was never God’s will for a man to leave his wife. However, because of the “hardness of their hearts” God permitted them to give a certificate of divorce. The idea here being that, since men were going to leave their wives anyway, at least they should give them a certificate explaining that it was not because of adultery so that they would not also be shunned by society.

In the same way, the slavery laws were meant to place limitations on the practice of slavery and not to endorse it as moral. And, the civil laws given to Moses were not God’s ideal for humanity. God’s intention was that, as the Israelites matured as a nation, their legal system would mature as well and, over time, come closer and closer to God’s ideal.

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Comments

  1. Lausten North  July 9, 2013

    Leviticus 19:20-22
    King James Version (KJV)
    20 And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.

    21 And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering.

    22 And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the Lord for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him.

    That’s not much of a God you believe in Mike. Maybe you should shop around for a better one. Really? They couldn’t have accepted a law that said, don’t rape your slaves? I think the Israelites could have handled that. Not really overly restrictive at all.

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  2. Unapologetics  July 9, 2013

    This passage is actually meant as an amendment to the command in Deut. 22:23. Because of her subservient role she should not be held as accountable as a free woman for not resisting the man’s advances. This is not referring to rape but to situations where the act appears consensual (i.e. she did not try to resist or call for help).

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