Whenever the topic of Islam-approved slavery is brought up by a Christian, a typical tu quoque (“you too”) response of Islam’s apologists is to point to some places in the Bible where slavery is allegedly endorsed – a response that ignores the fact that Christianity predates Islam by 6 centuries.
Slavery-in-the-bible also constitutes one of the garden variety arguments used by Atheists to virulently attack the God of the Bible. The “glue” binding both groups of Bible bashers – Muslims and atheists – is the dollop of emotional blackmail infused into their (mis)perception of slavery.
Whenever biblical slavery is mentioned by such people, it is often deployed to incite an emotional reaction connected with the racist slavery of the American south in the 18th and 19th centuries, or other brutal instances of slavery in the ancient world.
However, to read such concepts into Old Testament Israelite servanthood or the foreign slavery which the Bible permits, would be absolutely inaccurate and deceptive.
In this article, the stark differences between OT servanthood and American chattel slavery will be highlighted and passages often used by Bible haters will be explained. In the next article, we will examine passages pertaining to slavery in the New Testament.
1. It might interest skeptics to know that the terms “slave” and “master” used in the OT are not the best translations of Hebrew words ‘ebed and ‘adon. The word ‘ebed simply means “employee” or “servant” and should not be translated “slave.”
Old Testament scholar, John Goldingay, noted that “there is nothing inherently lowly or undignified about being an ‘ebed.” Instead it was an honourable and dignified term” (John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Intervarsity, 2009, Vol. 3, p. 460).
The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the OT notes that ebed can refer to “servant of a household” and cites Exodus 21:2 which will still be examined later in this piece.
Mounce’s Dictionary also defines the word as a “servant.” An ‘adon in Hebrew was a “boss” or “employer” in these contexts and “master” is a bit too strong of a translation.
2. The language used in the OT hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled. They were more of debt-servanthood arrangements.
When a family incurred debt or experienced a disaster, such as crop failure, an individual could voluntarily enter into a contractual agreement (that is, “sell” himself) to work in the household of another and pay off his debt. This is stated in Lev. 25:47 “one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself.”
A scholar explains:
“Even when the terms buy, sell or acquire are used for servants/employees, they don’t mean the person in question is ‘just property’ . . . Rather, these are formal contractual agreements, which is what we find in the Old Testament servanthood/employee arrangements. One example of this contracted employer/employee relationship was Jacob’s working for Laban for seven years so that he might marry his daughter Rachel.” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Baker Books, 2011, p. 125).
3. In addition to what was clarified above, indentured servitude existed primarily as a means of debt payment. These employees lived with and worked for a family for economic sustenance (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:1, 12).
It was like enlisting in the army where you forgo certain freedoms you had as a civilian to enjoy compensatory benefits. The OT affirms God ordained servitude for people as a means of survival when all other means were exhausted.
4. OT slavery was never chattel slavery like the American South was. Indentured servants had certain rights and protections accorded to them by the Mosaic law:
“The ancient Hebrews as a people knew slavery in their Egyptian bondage (Exod. 1:10-14; 5:5-14), from which they eventually were led to be free people under Moses (Exod. 12:37-42). Because of that experience, Mosaic legislation developed certain rules about the keeping of slaves: ‘Remember that once you were salves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; that is why I give you this order today’ (Deut. 15:15; cf. Lev. 25:42-45, 55).
“Even though slavery as a social and economic institution was recognized in ancient Israel, there was a clear attempt to humanize it in a way that set Israel apart from its neighbors. The social and economic structure of ancient Palestine was not, therefore, built on slavery, as it often was in other contemporary cultures and lands.” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon, Doubleday, 2000, p. 29).
This stands in contrast to American slavery. The agrarian economy of the old South was labour-intensive. Slaves were used as an easy source of cheap, mass labour.
5. OT servants were more like live-in butlers or nannies. They did not walk around with chains around their neck, enduring racism, or being worked to death like in the old South. Lifelong slavery was even forbidden.
Deuteronomy 15:16 shows servants often truly loved the leaders of the household and thought of them as family. Leviticus 25:53 says such servants were to be treated as men “hired from year to year” not “rule[d] over ruthlessly.” According to a reference work:
“Slaves were afforded a degree of legal protection in Israel. The Covenant Code stipulated three basic measures: beating a slave to death would necessitate an unspecified punishment (Ex. 21:30); if a master permanently injured a slave, release of the slave was required (21:26f.); and masters were required to provide the sabbath rest for their slaves (23:12) …
“Besides these general regulations, the law afforded Hebrew slaves further protections. They could be held for only six years (Ex. 21:2ff.; Dt. 15:12; but see Lev. 25:39f.). The Deuteronomic Code further stipulated that the master would have to provide the freedman with animals, grain, and wine (Dt. 15:13f.). They were not returnable to foreign owners if they succeeded in running away (23:15f.)…” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Goeffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans, 1988, Vol. 4, p. 541).
All of these facts destroy the emotional reaction atheists wish to evoke in people when telling them that “the bible endorses slavery.” It’s simple mindedness to meld narratives of slavery in history with this biblical servitude.
On Exodus and Slavery
A favourite passage Bible bashers use to play up their card is Exodus 21:20-21
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
Notice that according to verse 20, the murder of servants is strongly prohibited and was punishable by death. Of course, unbelievers often ignore this truth because it doesn’t go with the grand plan.
In vs. 21, the boss is given the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t intend to murder the servant but was disciplining him for doing some moral wrong he wasn’t supposed to. In that case the boss would not be put to death since it would be ruled accidental.
This didn’t mean bosses should discipline their servants so cruelly that they died after two days or that this was somehow endorsed. That’s not what the text is saying.
It’s simply saying if such an accidental death occurs after a disciplinary punishment, the boss did not deserve death. Life for a life applied only when there was a wilful intent to murder.
God didn’t allow physical abuse of servants. If an employer’s disciplining his servant resulted in immediate death, that employer (“master”) was to be put to death for murder (Exo. 21:20) – unlike other ancient Near Eastern codes (see Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics and the People of God, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2006, p. 292).
Infact, Babylon’s Hammurabi’s Code permitted the master to cut off his disobedient slave’s ear.
Some skeptics gripe over the end of vs. 21 which says, “for the slave is his money,” a remark that seems to suggest the servant was his master’s property. Such distortion of the text to fit the narrative of the bible basher is understandable. We call them skeptics for a reason.
The Hebrew doesn’t say “the slave is his money.” What it says is, “that is his money.” Ancient Near East scholar, Harry Hoffner, has shown in his work, Slavery and Ancient Slavery in Haiti and Israel, that based on the context of Exodus 21:18-19 the text should be rendered, “the fee is his money” in the sense that the fee the boss would pay for medical treatment for the soon-to-die injured servant was money.
From its Hebrew context, the text is saying that the death was accidental and the boss tried to save the servant by paying for medical treatment thus, the boss should not be executed since his punishment or “fee” for this tragic accidental death was money he paid in trying to save the servant.
Finally, another “troubling passage” is Exodus 21:7-11 which makes mention of a man selling his daughter as an ‘amah, rendered “slave” or “servant.”
Here is what an Old Testament scholar has to say:
“This paricope pertains to a girl who is sold by her father, not for slavery, but for marriage. Nonetheless, she is designated a ‘servant’ (‘amah, v. 7). Should the terms of marriage not be fulfilled, it is to be considered a breach of contract, and the purchaser must allow the girl to be redeemed; she must not be sold outside that family (v. 8). Always she must be treated as a daughter or a free-born woman, or the forfeiture clause will be invoked” (Walter Kaiser, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 1990, Vol. 2, p. 430).
Once the entire historical and linguistical context of the passage is grasped, the shrill assertions of the critic evaporate into thin air.
Sadly, in their seething rage to attack the Bible, unbelievers never pause to consider that the “50 bad bible verses” they cite (usually gleaned from a village atheist) consist of misinterpreted texts, context butchered, idioms or meanings of words vastly misunderstood, rudimentary, elementary exegetical and hermeneutical principles spat upon and scornfully dismissed.