Years ago, when I visited Israel, our tour guide was a Jewish man with a bird’s nest for hair, a pack-a-day cigarette habit, and a tires-on-gravel voice to match. He could answer most any question about history or geography in a few words, but when asked about Israeli-Palestinian relations, he would peer over his sun glasses and reply in his graveliest voice: “It’s a very complicated issue.”
The same could be said of the Bible’s teaching on slavery. Where we would like a tidy proof-text to use against those trying to discredit Christianity, Scripture offers us a narrative—a process of legal regulation, ethical reflection, and historical development that unquestionably bends toward abolition, but stops short of “thou shalt not.”
But a complicated issue isn’t a morally indifferent one. There is a Christian answer to slavery—one that requires us to read the Bible as a whole, not as a series of moral maxims designed to buttress our preexisting views or get God off the hook.
The big story begins on the Nile. Slavery’s dominant role in the Bible is at the origin of Hebrew identity. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Who is God? The one who sets people free from slavery.
Since they have been a people, Yahweh’s worshipers have understood themselves as emancipated. This is not just the story of the Jews. The New Testament makes exodus-out-of-bondage a foundational metaphor of salvation for all people—of being liberated from a Tyrant crueler than Pharaoh and a servitude worse than Jacob’s children endured in Goshen. We are captive to sin, chained as surely as the Israelites, but our Deliverer is coming.
African-American slaves in the antebellum South rightly drew strength from this account. All the way into the Civil Rights era, Exodus was a source of comfort and moral authority for those seeking freedom from their oppressors.
But puzzlingly, it also seemed to provide ammunition for those oppressors. Exodus 21 stipulates that the wife and children of freed slaves remain their master’s property and allows slaves who’d rather not abandon their families to choose permanent servitude. Leviticus and Deuteronomy go further, outlining rules for taking female captives as wives and concubines and giving Israelites permission to buy and sell slaves from the nations around them. Much of the case-law takes slavery as a given, even allowing children to inherit their parents’ slaves.
The New Testament is no less complicated, with authors instructing slaves to serve their masters faithfully. In Ephesians 6:5-8, Colossians 3:22-24, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 2:9-10, Paul repeats these commands without a word about fleeing for freedom on Harriet Tubman’s ferry. Peter is even tougher for abolitionists to parse, urging slaves to submit even to harsh and unreasonable masters.
Even Paul’s letter to Philemon has been used as often to defend slavery as to condemn it. The apostle does not demand freedom for Onesimus, the fugitive slave in his care. Where abolitionists of yesteryear and apologists of today would prefer Paul to denounce slavery and instruct this master to repent, he appeals to Philemon as a brother and asks for Onesimus’ freedom as a favor.
The most common response to all this among modern Christian apologists is to distinguish slavery as practiced “back then” from Anglo-American race-based chattel trade. It’s an important distinction. What English Bibles mean by “slavery” is sometimes a sort of indentured servitude, an ancient form of bankruptcy whereby a man could sell himself and his family into service for a limited period to recover from financial ruin.
But virtually all commentators agree that there were other forms of slavery in Israel that lasted forever, were hereditary, and in which slaves were bought, sold, and, at least at first glance, beaten and described as “property.”
How do we reconcile the Bible’s trajectory out of bondage to sin, Satan, and slavery with its specific provisions and even commands that seem to prop up this hated institution?
The boring answer is that slavery isn’t a single institution. Both Old and New Testaments condemn a practice usually translated as “enslaving” or “man-stealing.” Moses prescribes the death penalty for those who kidnap people for sale. If any practice has ever run afoul of this prohibition, it was the trans-Atlantic trade in captured African souls. Whatever type of slavery God allowed in the Old Testament, it wasn’t the kind that involved clapping people in irons and shipping them to another continent to be worked to death.
Similarly, Exodus 21:7-11, 21:26-27, Deuteronomy 16:14 and 23:15 provide protections and rights for slaves unheard of in the New World. Israelites were not allowed to return fugitive slaves to their masters. Slaves got the Sabbath and feast days off. And if a master so much as knocked out his slave’s tooth, that man or woman went free. These all point to a conception of the slave as an image-bearing human being, not as an animal or a piece of equipment.
Perhaps most importantly, the concept of racial slavery would have been unintelligible to an Israelite, except maybe as a hated memory of their own bondage in Egypt.
But distinctions can only get us so far. Ultimately a Christian challenged on the Bible’s teaching about slavery should ask a counter-question: “Why do we think slavery is wrong?” As Tim Keller points out, moral critics of Christianity are like streams trying to rise higher than their source. Secular abolitionists who look down their noses at the Bible would do well to read a history book. Opposition to slavery has rarely cropped up outside of Christendom.
The reason modern Westerners resonate with the Bible’s trajectory out of slavery and into freedom is that they are part of that trajectory. Their anti-slavery instincts are vestiges of centuries of reflection and application on the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” These late arrivals have inherited a narrative that began on the banks of the Nile, when Moses demanded freedom for his people. And according to the New Testament, that exodus from slavery prefigured a greater exodus in which the one who wants to rule must serve all.
Making the distinctions necessary to condemn slavery from Scripture may not be a picnic. But a “let my people go” without a “thus says the Lord” is a far more complicated issue.
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