In your reading of Scripture, have you ever questioned God’s acceptance of slavery within the Israel / Hebrew nation? I know, I have. Why would God allow such a seemingly evil thing, knowing what we have known about slaves in our own nation and how their value was less than dirt and were treated even worse? Well, let’s dig in today to see why slavery was a positive thing within the nation of Israel and why God ordained slavery.
First, what comes to your mind when you think of slavery? I would tend to bet you think of men in chains being whipped for every little thing, overworked to the point of near death, starved, denied medical treatment, and given less than livable conditions in which to sleep. We see slavery as brutal and inhumane as people were taken against their will by force from their very homes, families, and lives. Slavery, as defined here, is a crime against all of humanity.
In contrast to this picture, we see a form of the true Biblical slavery which still exists today within the US Military. People join the military for various reasons such as a feeling of duty, family tradition, educational assistance, lack of options for other employment, development of skills, providing for their family. When a person enters the military, he or she enters into a contract for a certain agreed upon number of years. The government allows the new recruit certain rights and it also provides for shelter, food, clothing, medical, money, and some other things. The recruit has basically traded their labor in exchange for these items for this set period of time. In return, the recruit expects something better in the end for themselves, or a better way of life after their service ends either because of their new skills obtained and /or their ability to save their income during this time to use towards their future. Did you know that this form of service is very much like how God prescribed slavery for the Israel nation?
The whole point of Biblical slavery is to help a person in a bad place, having a bad time, to use this opportunity to improve their way of life and get them back on track for success. It is not what has been painted for us from Hollywood nor is it what we have learned from the history books of the slave trades. Let’s honestly research this topic from what God actually says about slavery.
Misconception about Biblical slavery:
- You can force someone into slavery
- In opposition, if you take someone who is free and force them into slavery, it is punishable by death.
- “16 “He who [l]kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his [m]possession, shall surely be put to death.” Exodus 21:16
- “10 [f]and [g]immoral men [h]and homosexuals [i]and kidnappers [enslavers] [j]and liars [k]and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching,” 1 Timothy 1:10
- In opposition, if you take someone who is free and force them into slavery, it is punishable by death.
The Hebrew word for slavery is ‘ebed’, Strong’s H5650. English translators should have translated it more correctly to be as a servant or a bondservant (a servant held in a contract). ‘Slave’ is not really the correct English word because in our definition of slaves, they have no rights, are considered property, are less than human, and can have anything done to them at no consequence to the owner. Eded, on the other hand, is a contractual servant who has human rights and benefits. They are similar to our nannies or butlers. It is a misconception by filmmakers that Biblical slaves were chained, whipped, and beaten. This is all untrue of Israel’s slaves (however, we do see other nations not following Biblical principles for their slaves, such as the nation of Egypt during Israel’s captivity).
Biblical slaves were given at least one full day off from work per week, the Sabbath, and they received time off for other Biblical holidays (feast days) as well (see Leviticus 23).
“12 “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as [k]your stranger, may refresh themselves. ” Exodus 23:12
Biblical slaves were not to be treated ruthless, but rather they were to be treated with kindness. They were to be given adequate provision such as food, shelter, and clothing and generous provisions at the close of their contract. They were to be cared for and there was a responsibility for their well being and health. There were Biblical commandments to back this up and reinforce it. Many times in Scripture, there were reminders to the Hebrews that they were also once slaves, so be sure to treat their own slaves with extreme loving kindness as they, themselves, would want to be treated, not as they were harshly treated when they were slaves in foreign lands.
- “43 You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God. ” Leviticus 25:43
- “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.” Colossians 4:1
Hebrew servants (slaves) were contractually committed for six years. In the seventh year, the contract was fulfilled and the servant’s obligations were complete. This was the year of release for them. However, many times the servants were treated so well by their owners / masters, that they would choose to extend the contract to be perpetually ongoing as they would come to love and respect the master so much during their time serving them. As a sign of their willingness to continue in service under their master, they would receive the sign of an ear piercing showing his willingness. Note also that there is reference to a wife and children. In this case listed below, the master / employer provided a wife for the servant because the servant chose to accept the wife (He could have chosen to instead remain single or he could have went to find his own wife in town). Because the servant accepted the wife provided by the employer, and he had children with her, his contract would have expired at a different time as the wife’s contract. Legally, the employer could not let both the husband and wife go free at the same time, as they both needed to fulfill their set contracts, so the husband always has choices. #1 He could have not accepted a wife, but because he did #2 He has the choice to leave to find other employment while his wife finishes her contract, #3 He can choose to remain under the care of his employer permanently and remain with his wife and kids, or #4 He can choose to redeem his wife and children for a price if he didn’t want to remain permanently under his employer. The main point is that the servant knows all of this before hand and can make the right choice for himself. He is not forced into any situation that he did not choose for himself.
5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to [d]God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.” Exodus 21:5-6
If a servant decides to leave at the close of his contract, the servant is to blessed substantially upon his departure so that he has a step up in life and can continue in supporting himself.
“12 “If your [f]kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him [g]free. 13 When you set him [h]free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you. 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 [i]this today. ” Deuteronomy 15:12-15
Servants injured by the employer were to be released from the contract. Such behavior by the employer was not tolerated and the servant had every right to seek justice and terminate the contract due to being mistreated. There was a zero – tolerance policy on this. The servant was to appeal to the elders who would then question the employer at the gates for judgement. As even further protection, a servant was always free to run away if the working conditions were not considered fair or safe. Note that slaves of other nations did not have these rights.
- “23 But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, [x]bruise for bruise. 26 “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. 27 And if he [y]knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” Exodus 21:23-27
- “15 “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has [l]escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your [m]towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.” Deuteronomy 23:15
Hebrew servants could not be sold by their employers. A slave of other nations did not have such rights.
- “42 For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. ” Leviticus 25:42
- “34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34
How does one become a slave? If no one can force you to become a slave, then it must mean that you must choose to become one on your own free will. If you are a Hebrew, you have the opportunity to sell your labor and become a servant. You might do this because you may have become poor and all you have as an asset is your labor itself. In this case, you may choose to come under another family to exchange your labor for food, shelter, and clothing, etc., for a contractual period of time. Or, perhaps, you’d like to learn another trade like becoming a blacksmith. Today, we would call that an internship, or being an apprentice. At the end of the contract you can choose to leave with adequate provisions, or choose to continue in your employment with that family. You can also become a servant by being a thief. If someone steels something from someone, he must repay the person back either with like for like, or if he has nothing, he has to give his labor. This was done instead of sending someone to prison where more burdens came upon others.
““[a]If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. 2 “[b]If the thief is [c]caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. 3 But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.” Exodus 22:1-3
Sadly, some within the nation of Israel fell into sin by forcing slavery on some people. We see this from Solomon (1 Kings 9:15) and Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:18). Both of these two men fell from the favor of God because they were found to be following after evil ways. 1 Kings 11:6, 2 Chronicles 12:14
If you are a slave in a foreign land, a Hebrew can rescue you from the harsh forms of slavery in that foreign land and bring you into his Biblical servant hood. What this doesn’t say is to seek out or endorse the slave trade in other lands, but rather when possible, they can seek to rescue anyone they find in their dealings with other nations.
“39 ‘If a [z]countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. 40 He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. 41 He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. 42 For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. 43 You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God. 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. 45 Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have [aa]produced in your land; they also may become your possession. 46 You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your [ab]countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.” Leviticus 25:39-46
Slaves could be redeemed by others (as one might do for your wife and children) or a slave could even redeem himself by buying his way out of a contract. So, we see that slaves do make money as well.
“47 ‘Now if the [ac]means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient, and a [ad]countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to him as to sell himself to a stranger who is sojourning with you, or to the descendants of a stranger’s family, 48 then he shall have redemption right after he has been sold. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49 or his uncle, or his uncle’s son, may redeem him, or one of his blood relatives from his family may redeem him; or [ae]if he prospers, he may redeem himself. 50 He then with his purchaser shall calculate from the year when he sold himself to him up to the year of jubilee; and the price of his sale shall correspond to the number of years. It is like the days of a hired man that he shall be with him. 51 If there are still many years, he shall refund part of his purchase price in proportion to them for his own redemption; 52 and if few years remain until the year of jubilee, he shall so calculate with him. In proportion to his years he is to refund the amount for his redemption. 53 Like a man hired year by year he shall be with him; he shall not rule over him with severity in your sight. 54 Even if he is not redeemed by [af]these means, he shall still go out in the year of jubilee, he and his sons with him. 55 For the sons of Israel are My servants; they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:47-55
There is also a clear separation between male and female servants. A Hebrew male could sell himself into servitude for his labor to cover his debts and such and could be released after the six years. A Hebrew female could be sold into servitude with permission of her father, not for labor purposes but for marriage, and her contract would not expire in six years, but would be for life, and God has ordained marriage for life. The master could not “trade her in” for another wife after the six years. We see that female servants are called, “amah,” instead which is not based on a contract for her work, but rather for her marriage. Should the master not fulfill his end of the marriage contract, then the master must allow the female to be redeemed back by her family as she was not treated fairly in the marriage. This protected her from abuse within the marriage and protected her from being sold to someone outside of her family.
“7 “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to [e]go free as the male slaves [f]do. 8 If she is [g]displeasing in the eyes of her master [h]who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his [i]unfairness to her. ” Exodus 21:7-8
Let’s look at some New Testament Scriptures related to the servant and master relationship continued from the Old Testament. In this regard, God is the master and we are the slave who is over other slaves.
“43 Blessed is that slave whom his [v]master finds so doing when he comes. 44 Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master [w]will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47 And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of [x]a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Luke 12:43-48
“5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your [a]masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not [b]by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the [c]heart. 7 With good will [d]render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. 9 And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” Ephesians 6:5-9
There is more related to slavery within the Bible, but this gives us an overall picture of what Biblical slavery looks like. And, this helps us to see our own slavery in regard to Jesus Christ. Many of the writers of the New Testament considered themselves Biblical slaves to Jesus Christ, bought with a price by Him, and they were under His contract of service. They were His and under His direction, guidance, protection, and care. We are to also look at ourselves as bondservants to Jesus Christ, bought by His precious blood. We were slaves to sin, in a harsh form of slavery, but now we are under the care of a truely loving master, willing that we should be fully cared for and nourished, but our end of the contract is that we are owned by Him and we are to do His will. Are you following as a Biblical slave of Jesus Christ?
- “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, [a]called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,” Romans 1:1
- “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.” 2 Corinthians 4:5
- “10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” Galations 1:10
- “just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf,” Colossians 1:7
- “Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness,” Titus 1:1
- “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings.” James 1:1
- “Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ:” 2 Peter 1:1
- “Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:” Jude 1:1
- “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John,” Revelation 1:1
“21 Were you called while a slave? [l]Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather [m]do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called. 25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who [n]by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. 26 I think then that this is good in view of the [o]present distress, that it is good for a man [p]to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Yet such will have [q]trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. 29 But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; 30 and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; 31 and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.” 1 Corinthians 7:21-31
“16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin [j]resulting in death, or of obedience [k]resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that [l]though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, [m]resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, [n]resulting in sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 Therefore what [o]benefit were you then [p]deriving [q]from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. 22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you [r]derive your [s]benefit, [t]resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:16-23
Like the Hebrew slaves served their contract for six years and were given freedom and new life after the six years, we are given freedom and new life, as a human race, at the end of 6,000 years, which is the designated period of the slavery to sin. After the 6,000th year, a new period will be ushered in, and this is when we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, with new, imperishable bodies, free from the slavery of sin forever and ever. This day can’t come soon enough and is just around the corner.
““Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place.” Daniel 9:24
“29 Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, [a]recognize that [b]He is near, right at the [c]door. 30 Truly I say to you, this [d]generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Mark 13:29-31
Father God, We as humans can be so cruel and can corrupt everything we touch, like what we did with your Biblical slavery. Our forefathers raped your commands and twisted what you established as good and turned it into forced evil onto innocent lives. We cry out to you in our humbleness that we never fall into twisting of your word and following the paths of the wicked. For those trapped in slavery even in this day, including those innocent people trapped in the slavery of sex trafficing, help them and free them from this wicked of wickedness. Your heart is for the weak and downtrodden and these are being used and abused against their will. We know that in the end your justice will prevail, and we cry out to you to release those within these prisons. Redeem them and restore them to the life you wanted for them. And, help us to fully appreciate you as our master and understand our roles as your servant. Help us to live our lives for you and not for our own selfish ways. Prompt us daily of the things we can do to please you and serve you so that others might also know the love and forgiveness you offer through Jesus Christ. It’s in His name we pray. Amen.
*Thanks to 119 Ministries for compiling information on Biblical slavery.