Does the Bible support slavery? Many have said it does as a moral argument against the Bible. They say, “The Bible says thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not steal. But, nowhere does it say thou shalt not own slaves.” And they are right. Nowhere in scripture is slavery flat out condemned. On the contrary, there are rules regulating it.
So what makes it okay? Why would I, as a Black man, be okay defending this book that doesn’t condemn slavery? What kind of respect am I showing my ancestors who were forced from their homelands and packed into boats in inhumane conditions and treated even more inhumanely as slaves in the Americas? Why?
If you were to do any sort of Google search asking if the Bible supports slavery, I don’t think you would find any articles that give a flat out “no” answer. You see, what we do is look at slavery through the eyes of those who lived after the slave trade implemented in the 17th century. When Africans were stolen from their homes and forced to serve in different countries by Europeans. That’s our modern context of slavery. And in modern years we see the rise of sex trafficking, our newest slave plague.
So, how can we defend the Bible here? There’s a few things we must consider when speaking about slavery in the Bible.
1. Deuteronomy 15:12 “If your 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 free.” Slaves in the Bible were required to be freed after six years of servitude. This is not true of the slaves in America. They were born slaves and were forced to die as slaves no matter how old they were or how long they endured it. This is one reason the African slave trade was unbiblical.
2. Exodus 21:16 “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Also Deuteronomy 24:7). This means everyone who forced Africans on boats was deserving of death. That means everyone who owned these Africans as slaves was deserving of death. The Bible did not mince words. The African slave trade of the past several hundred years was indeed wrong and is NOT supported by the Bible.
3. Slavery was often voluntary. Slaves could even remain slaves if they wanted to for a lifetime. But it wasn’t to be forced. Exodus 21:5-6 “But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to 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.”
4. Slavery was also permitted to work off debts. But as the slave was freed the seventh year, debts were wiped clean after seven years. In chapter 15 of Deuteronomy we read in verse 1, “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts.” But when they were set free they were not to just be freed empty-handed.“If your 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 free. When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. 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. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.” (Verses 12-15)
And it makes no difference if a person was Hebrew or not. Leviticus 19:33-34, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 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.” In other words, there was to be equality amongst the races and nationalities. Many slaves were also prisoners of war. (Deuteronomy 20:10-11).
So, we see that the slavery we are familiar with in the West is NOT the slavery that we see in the Bible. When reading the Bible we have to be careful not to insert our modern preconceived notions into scripture (eisegesis). That’s not proper interpretation. What is proper is to read what scripture says and understand what it meant when it was written and then apply it to our lives now.
What then did I mean in the title when I said you probably support slavery too? Maybe you don’t condone any type of slavery for any amount of time for any reason. Well let’s consider Proverbs 22:7b.
“…the borrower is the slave of the lender.”
We see that slavery was permitted to work off debts. But how many off us reading this has become modern slaves because of our debts.
Are you a financial slave because of voluntary debt? Matthew Henry said, “Some sell their liberty to gratify their luxury.” Some of are working mainly to pay off debts we’ve incurred simply because we wanted to be like other people. As some have said “keeping up with the Joneses”.
Some have even said that any debt we incur make our lenders our masters by default. Meaning if for every debt you have, you have at least one master. Do you pay a mortgage, car note, and credit card bill? Then you have at least three masters. So if you’ve voluntarily agreed to any debt and to pay it back, then you have supported a level of your own liberty being sold. Credit card companies know this. Why do you think your unpaid debt usually stops showing after seven years?
While none of this feels good to say, I believe it’s true. And I’m not throwing stones. I have a mortgage and a couple loans. Some churches go in to debt when building and repairing their buildings. And like the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, it doesn’t condemn debt. Some have used Romans 13:8 to say that we shouldn’t borrow but Jesus permitted borrowing in Matthew 5:42. Yet, we should always seek to pay what we owe and be free from all debts. 1 Corinthians 7:21, “Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that.”
So, yes the Bible supports slavery. There. I said it. Just not the kind we usually think of. Not the kind that my ancestors were emancipated from in 1863 and not the kind the Hebrews were liberated from in the book of Exodus.