Does the Bible Condone Slavery?
What does the Bible say about slavery? Does the Bible condone it? There’s much confusion on some of the most controversial texts in scripture regarding slavery. Let’s take a closer look at these, while also answering the question unequivocally: No, the Bible does not condone slavery no matter how you contextualize it.
For starters, we must address the cultural and linguistic barriers when approaching any text in Scripture. It is often difficult to read a text written by ancient easterners in the Hebrew language when many of us are post-modern westerners reading a translation in English. Many people quote a Bible verse with no context, no cultural understanding, and little, if any, grasp of the original language. That’s not to say that we can’t understand what the Bible is saying. We can. However, we cannot ignore the various barriers that time, language, and culture create.
I often like to use the example of “breaking a leg.” If you read a letter between two people in which one person expresses interest in breaking the other person’s leg, that would be a shocking statement and interpreted as harmful. But if we understand the context of the letter is between a husband and wife before the wife is about to perform in a theatrical play, a letter ending with “Break a leg” suddenly becomes clear. Anyone who knows our culture, language, and context understands that the phrase in the letter was meant to convey a loving expression: “good luck.”
Many confusing Bible verses become clearer when we take a moment to understand the context, culture, and language.
Let’s start with the language.
Language: Understanding the Hebrew Word for Slave
Sadly, most of us have probably read or heard someone claiming that the Bible promotes or condones slavery, or some version of it. The instant picture that our minds leap to, as modern westerners, is the horrific acts carried out during the Transatlantic Slave Trade between the 16-19th centuries. This antebellum slavery was one of the most atrocious acts in history in which men, women, and children were stolen, sold, and shipped across the seas to be owned, degraded, and dehumanized by other men.
Before we go any further, know that the Bible abhors this idea of forced slavery so entirely that the death penalty was instituted for anyone attempting it.
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)
“If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he mistreats or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7 ESV).
We will return to that topic in more detail later. But for now, let’s look at the original Hebrew word that is often translated as “slave.” This word is עבד.
The word (עבד ) transliterated into English is “eved” or “evad” and perhaps “ebed” and a slew of other pronunciations, given one’s preference. For this article’s purposes, I will refer to it as “eved.”
“Eved” is written 800 times in the Torah and, like many Hebrew words, has a meaning that changes depending on the context. This may seem like a biblical “cop-out,” but it is the reality of the Hebrew language. There are roughly 8,000 words in Biblical Hebrew compared to 400,000 words we have in English. As someone who is learning ancient Hebrew, it can be frustrating to learn a word in Hebrew and have to memorize a minimum of three or four possible English translations.
The Hebrew word נפש (nephesh) can be translated as “throat,” “neck,” and “soul.” The Hebrew word אַף (af) can be translated as “nose,” “face,” or “angry.”
The Hebrew word דבר (dabar) can be translated as “word,” “to speak,” “to command,” “to sing,” “to threaten,” and many others.
The word עבד (eved) carries the connotation of serving someone. “Eved” can be translated as servant, bondservant, slave, worker, companion, ambassador, delegate, and many other English words.
The modern Oxford definition of a slave is: “a person who is forced to work for and obey another and is considered to be their property.”
The word “eved” is often correctly translated as “slave,” as it refers to people forced to work by an oppressor, like the Israelites in Egypt. But other times, “eved” should NOT be translated as “slave” because the person was hired to do a job, is in a place of high position, or is working as an act of love. Followers of God are called “eveds of God” as we serve Him.
We have to be careful not to superimpose the word “slave” onto every “eved” found in scripture. We must also be careful not to superimpose our image of “antebellum slavery” onto every mention of “slave” in the Bible.
Now, I am not suggesting that the problematic passages regarding slavery in the Bible are invalid because of mistranslation. Many times “slavery” is the proper translation for “eved,” but it’s essential to know which ones. This will give us far greater clarity to examine and confront the text for its meaning.
Since we have covered the language aspect, from this point forward, I will leave all the original “eveds” mentioned in scripture as “eved’ and not translate them differently as slave, servant, worker, etc. I will let the context speak for itself.
Here are some examples of “eved” being used in various contexts:
“Eved” as Slave
When God gives the Law to His people, He reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt and must treat others the way they want to be treated.
“Always remember that you were “eveds” in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)
“I will free you from being “eveds” to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.” Exodus 6:6
“Eved” as Servant
God tells Joshua that the Prophet Moses, whom God loved and spoke to as a friend, was dead by saying…
“My ‘eved’ Moses is dead.” (Joshua 1:2)
“Eved” as Ambassadors
King David sends “eveds” to show kindness to a foreign king in mourning. The NIV translates them as a “delegation,” and the NLT translates them as “ambassadors.”
“So David sent ‘eveds’ to express sympathy to Hanun about his father’s death. (2 Samuel 10:2)”
“Eved” as a Servant of God
Psalm 119 uses the word “eved” 14 times, and the writer self-identifies as an “eved.” The author of this Psalm doesn’t see himself as a denigrated slave because he mentions that as an “eved,” he is in a relationship with God, calls on God, trusts in God, and depends on God.
When the word “eved” is used in a spiritual context, it can be defined as an act of serving, worshipping, or honoring the Lord. When “eved” is used in a practical context, it is usually defined as an act of working, laboring, or serving another person.
I struggle to put the word context as a subheading because I’m not too fond of answering a genuine biblical concern with, “You just don’t understand the culture.” Although that may be true to a degree, we can always learn and understand ancient cultures to provide clarity for Scripture. That is what we plan to do as we look at these difficult passages. Now that we know the word “eved,” let’s look at the hot-button passages often used to portray the Bible’s allowance of slavery. The most common scriptural referrals are the ones found in Leviticus, Exodus, and Deuteronomy where God is instructing His people how to treat “eveds” in Israel and from other nations.
Let’s start by talking about the Hebrew “eveds.”
Fellow Hebrew Eveds
One could become an “eved” through a variety of different paths. One could become an “eved” as a profession, a way to pay off a debt/loan, or a means to avoid poverty. First, we must remember that ancient Israel was not a modern nation with a welfare system, bankruptcy laws, or other modern financial inventions to help keep people from poverty. Therefore, the God of Israel, in His infinite wisdom and compassion, listed several commands to His people on how to care for those who fell into financial hardships.
God commands farmers not to harvest the entire field to remember those in poverty.
“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop…. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10
God commands His people not to charge interest when loaning money.
“If you lend money to any of my people who are in need, do not charge interest as a money lender would. (Exodus 22:25)
God allowed His people to offer themselves and their services to a person or family to earn money or pay back a debt. God allows His people to sell themselves into service but explicitly states that the person in authority can not make them serve as a slave, but as a hired worker.
“If your brother has grown poor among you and sells himself to you, you must not make him serve as an “eved” but a hired worker or a sojourner. He will work for you until the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:39-40)
God makes it clear that if a fellow Israelite becomes poor and sells himself (his service) to another, he is not to be treated like a slave but as a hired worker. They could earn money and/or pay off the debt owed.
Exodus 21 outlines many parameters God instituted around Hebrew “eveds” to ensure something as horrific as the Transatlantic Slave Trade would never happen in His holy nation.
Hebrew “eveds” maintained their rights as Israelites and humans. Hebrew “eveds” were required to cease all work on the sabbath and all major holidays. They were allowed to marry, be adopted into the family, and could not serve longer than six years. “If you buy a Hebrew “eved,’ then he shall “eved” for only six years. After six years, he will be free, and he will have to pay nothing. (Exodus 21:1)
Not only does the “eved” go free after a maximum of six years of service, but the law commands that they must not be sent away empty-handed.
And when you let him (an “eved”) 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.
Exodus 21 limits the use of corporal punishment and commands the requirement of proper food and clothing. A violation of any of these rights immediately ends the service of the “eved” and charges the abuser of authority with severe punishment. In cases of extreme abuse of an “eved,” the abuser faces the death penalty.
Deuteronomy 23:10 16-19 states that “eveds” could not become prostitutes. Also, if an “eved” ran away from his master to seek refuge, he was not to be given back to his previous master but could choose where he wanted to serve and, again, God stated they were not to be mistreated.
“You are not to hand over to his master an “eved” who seeks refuge with you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst, in the place he chooses within one of your town gates—the one that is good for him. You are not to mistreat him.
Exodus 21 also gives the “eved” the option of staying with his master and becoming a servant for life. This passage is puzzling if you think of these “eveds” as slaves working against their will. Why would any enslaved person choose to stay in bondage over freedom? It is because being an “eved” was a job to earn money, and some loved what they did.
But if the “eved” 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 “eved” forever.”
I’m hoping that you see that the parameters given by God regarding “eveds” are nothing like slavery in our modern definition. God never condoned slavery in Israel. He allowed His people to sell themselves and their service to one another but never to be degraded, dehumanized, or abused. God instituted severe consequences for the abuser of an “eved” and condemned the stealing and selling of humans.
“Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as “eveds” (Exodus 21:16 NLT).
“If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he mistreats or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7 ESV).
We have covered how an Israelite can voluntarily offer their service as an “eved” to a fellow Israelite, but what about the instances where slavery is a form of punishment? It seems cruel at first glance for an all-loving God to punish someone with slavery. But let’s take a moment to unpack this idea.
Sold As Punishment
“If a thief found breaking in is struck so that he dies, there is no bloodguilt for him. But if the sun has risen, there is blood guilt, and he is to make full restitution. If he has nothing, then he must be sold for his theft. If the item is found in his hand alive—whether ox, donkey, or sheep—he is to pay double.”
Here we see God’s law applied to a typical circumstance we expect to see in any society, theft. In our current society, there are several ways our governing laws deal with such an offense, and it’s the same in ancient Israel. In our contemporary society, a thief would mainly be subject to fines or incarceration. We find a similar structure in scripture, with a slight twist.
Where we would expect a criminal to be charged a fine and insurance to take care of the lost or stolen items, in ancient Israel (before State Farm came on the scene), the criminal was expected to pay back what they stole – and, not just what they stole, but double what was taken.
The other consequence we have in our modern society is incarceration. If someone commits a certain level of crime, they go to prison. In ancient Israel’s case, if the thief cannot restore double what they have stolen, they receive a similar punishment, with one significant difference: there were no prisons in ancient Israel.
We see prisons mentioned in the Bible by non-Israelite societies, like Joseph put into prison in Egypt or Samson by the Philistines. The closest thing we see in Israel is a holding cell where Jeremiah was kept for a time, but incarceration as the national penal code was never instituted in Israel.
So, what would you do with criminals like those mentioned in Exodus 22, ones who could not pay back their crimes to the victim? They were sold for their theft. This may seem cruel and barbaric to a modern reader, but in Israel, the same commands we read earlier applied. They were not treated as slaves but as hired servants. They were still given each sabbath to rest; they were still able to marry, have children and contribute to society.
Many modern rabbis have commented on this text as a much more humane punishment than modern incarceration, which removes the offender from society and their families and forces them into a confined area with very few rights. Explaining our modern-day incarceration system to an ancient person might sound to them an awful lot like their system of punishment. Someone who chooses to commit a crime is therefore forced to “serve” time under the state’s authority with the removal of certain freedoms.
It’s easy to point the finger at the Bible for being cruel. But lest we forget, when we point the finger, three point back at us. The God of Israel established a just and fair system that detoured crime, saw righteous justice executed, and protected the freedom and safety of the people.
The next question is what about “eveds” from other nations? The texts we’ve mentioned primarily dealt with “eveds” in Israel, but many people struggle with the passages regarding foreign “eveds” as the real issue.
Leviticus mentions that Israelites can acquire “eveds” from other nations.
As for your male and female “eveds” whom you may have: you may have male and female “eveds” from among the nations that are around you.
This passage is one of the most difficult because it is stated in juxtaposition to Israelite “eveds.” Israelite “eveds” were to be released at a certain point in time; the “eveds” from other nations could remain “eveds” forever, and even be bequeathed to the next generation. How can this be just for a loving God?
We must continue to remind ourselves this is not slavery in the way we often picture it. These foreigners were not to be stolen and sold into slavery, which was punishable by death, nor were they to be mistreated by the Israelites. These people from other nations, or “foreigners” born in the land as Leviticus 25 puts it, were people who had committed what would be called crimes against humanity. A few verses before in Leviticus 18, we see what these nations/foreigners were involved in.
“You are not to give any of your children in sacrifice to Molech and defile the Name of your God.”
Why would God mention that to Israel? Well, verse 24 explains that this act (and others) were done by the previous people/nations in the land.
“Do not defile yourselves in any of these things, for in all of these ways, the nations which I am casting out before you were defiled. The land has become defiled, so I will punish its iniquity, and the land will vomit out its inhabitants. You, however, are to keep My statutes and My ordinances, and do none of these abominations, neither the native-born, nor the outsider dwelling among you. For all these abominations were done by the men of the land who were before you, and the land became defiled.”
For some quick cultural context, sacrificing children to the god Molech was one of the most horrific and appalling practices of the ancient world. This abhorrent ritual is well documented in ancient history. We know about the child sacrifices of Molech from the Bible, 12th century Rabbi Rashi, Greek writers like Plutarch, and many others.
Molech was a giant idol with the face of a calf holding out his hands. They would light the fire at his base until the idol’s hands became deathly hot, and the priests of Molech would then take the child to be sacrificed and place them in the hands of the Molech. Rashi and Plutarch mention that they would then bang with drums to drown out the child’s cries so, as Rashi puts it, “the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.”
I know this is incredibly graphic, but these are some of the crimes these foreigners were guilty of committing.
Is it morally permissible for God to have allowed the nation of Israel to punish these people? God judged this nation, and many were destroyed, but many were allowed to live. They were subjected to a lifetime of service, much like a lifetime prison sentence in our modern society.
Another completely understandable objection to this narrative is found in Leviticus 19:20, where a man sleeps with a bondservant, and she is punished for it. This verse is often quoted in the KJV, which grossly mistranslates the text. I will first list the King James Version of Leviticus 19:20, so you can understand people’s initial shock at the reading.
Leviticus 19:20–22: KJV
“And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to a 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.”
(The word “bondmaid” in Hebrew is not “eved” like we have been talking about in this article. It is the word שִׁפְחָה֙ which is of the root word מִשְׁפָחָה “mishpachah,” meaning family, so this is most likely a servant that is seen as part of the family or maybe even adopted into the family.)
When read in the KJV, it sounds as if the situation was about a man that slept with a bondmaid who was betrothed, and the punishment for this was SHE got scourged, and the man supplied a ram as a trespass offering. How backwards does that sound? Well, as we dig a little deeper, it is backwards.
- The word the KJV translates as “scourged” is בִּקֹּרֶת “bikoret,” and it means a punishment (after judicial inquiry) or compensation. Much less gruesome than what we picture as a scourging.
- The KJV writes that “she shall be scourged” as if she was the only one to face punishment. This idea is found nowhere in the original Hebrew. Plus, the following line says, “They shall not be put to death,” strongly inferring that both had to face בִּקֹּרֶת “punishment” or “compensation” for their sin.
There are many other Scriptures people try using to make the point that God condones slavery or is not the just and loving God He claims to be. But after understanding the culture, context, and language of ancient Israel, the problems, like the ones we laid out here, don’t carry much weight.
In conclusion to all the issues we have covered regarding slavery in the Bible, I think it is important to mention that one of God’s most repetitive commands to His people was, “Don’t forget you were slaves in Egypt.” God never let the Israelites forget, lest they became the oppressors. This idea was the psychological backbone of the law, and was to live consciously in the mind of every Israelite as they interacted with each other.
Deuteronomy 24:18: But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 15:15 “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 5:15 “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.”
Exodus 13:3: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
God never wanted His people to forget the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated.
For the Lord, your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore, love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
The more I learn about the language, culture, and context of Scripture, the firmer my conviction that God’s commands regarding ‘eveds” are full of justice, mercy, and love. When the topic of slavery in the Bible is analyzed fairly and thoroughly, the idea that God condones slavery is preposterous, and the claims of His justice and mercy rise to the forefront.
By David Blease
Gateway Center for Israel