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WVW: Does the Bible Support Slavery - Leviticus 25:44-46

Leviticus 25:44-46


44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.


Admittedly, this has not been one of the topics I’ve spent a lot of time on, however I’ve been seeing the trend of claims that the Bible promotes slavery. So, for this Weird Verse Wednesday we’re going to dive headfirst into one of the toughest topics facing the modern Christian.

At first glance, when someone presents you with Leviticus 25:44-46, or perhaps Exodus 21:20-21, your belief in a loving and just God may be significantly stirred.


Exodus 21:20-21


20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.


Is the Bible saying you can buy slaves and beat them half to death? As long as they don’t actually die? This is a big problem for Christians who promote love, and believe the Bible teaches us to be at peace with everyone. Not only Christians, but really just 2019 western thinkers in general. Slavery is widely condemned, and the fact that we have an “inerrant”, “infallible” (quotes added by imagined atheist in my head) holy bible that seems to promote slavery appears to be in direct contradiction with our modern moral standards.


However, I’d like to propose that maybe if the South would have actually believed the Bible’s teaching about slavery, they would have never believed in the harsh treatment and enslaving of their human brother or sister that was made in the image of God. (I’m not attempting to throw shots at the South, as I know many in the North had slaves too. But the typical image of slavery that comes to mind is that of the Antebellum South.)


There are several things to keep in mind when discussing the Bible’s treatment of the topic of slavery



1. The Mosaic Law was temporal


Of course, we understand that much of the Mosaic Law does not directly apply to us today. God gave the Mosaic Law to the Israelites in order to speak directly to their situation somewhere in the 1400’s BC. This was a completely different world than the one we live in today. Certainly, any laws regarding issues that no longer exist, don’t apply to us today. Also, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial aspects of the law, which is why we no longer sacrifice and perform rituals, etc. However, we can glean ethical principles from the law, as it is a reflection of man’s heart. It reveals to us what our sinful nature desires.


I say all that to say, that God’s law given to Moses for the Israelites in the 1400’s BC was a means to deal with the present situation and steer them towards the correct method of living. It is not necessarily a reflection of God’s character or an all-encompassing look at His desire for mankind.


So, am I saying that God’s law isn’t transcendent and timeless? The audacity!!

Well don’t take my word for it. Take God’s. Here’s Jesus –


Matthew 19:3-8


3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The Mosaic Law was given to a specific audience, in order to steer their hard hearts down the right path. It does not, however, claim to be an overarching, applicable set of laws that reveal God’s entire desire for mankind for all time. With this understanding, we now see that God was directing a situation in which Israel was already living. He clearly does not support or even condone slavery as we understand it, but we will get into that further along in this post.



2. The Mosaic Law presses Israel towards freedom for slaves


There are a ton of scriptures that prove to us that God desires freedom for people that Israel has enslaved. Here are a few –


Deuteronomy 15:12-17


12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him 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. 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 this today. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.


Wow, so many good things in this text that I’d like to break down. First of all, not only is God commanding the Israelites to free their servants after six years of service, He is also commanding that they give their former servants from their flock and threshing floor and winepress liberally. This was an agricultural economy, so these things equal money $$.

Secondly, the option for the servant to stay is given for those slaves who “love you and your household”. This should confuse you if you’re currently projecting your view of slavery onto the historical context of the Bible. How could a slave possibly love the person who has enslaved them? Clearly, this can’t be the same type of slavery we’re familiar with. This is true, and we’ll dive deeper into that in the next section.


Thirdly, this portion shows that God is sentimental towards the suffering of the slave, as His reason for commanding the blessing and freeing of slaves is because of His empathy for Israel’s past slavery in Egypt. The narrative in Exodus very clearly shows that God is willing to move hell and high water in order to free those who are enslaved. He withheld nothing in order to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.


The next portion of Scripture is a threat that God issued to Judah for not freeing their slaves according to the Mosaic Law.


Jeremiah 34:8-24


8 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them, 9 that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother. 10 And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that everyone would set free his slave, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again. They obeyed and set them free. 11 But afterward they turned around and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them into subjection as slaves. 12 The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 13 “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, saying, 14 ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service.’ But your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me. 15 You recently repented and did what was right in my eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before me in the house that is called by my name, 16 but then you turned around and profaned my name when each of you took back his male and female slaves, whom you had set free according to their desire, and you brought them into subjection to be your slaves.

17 “Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts— 19 the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf.20 And I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. 21 And Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials I will give into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives, into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon which has withdrawn from you. 22 Behold, I will command, declares the Lord, and will bring them back to this city. And they will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire. I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.”


Because Judah did not allow their slaves to go free, as commanded by God in the Mosaic Law, He issued death threats to them, and said things like “their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.” God is serious about freedom for slaves that are owned by the Israelites.


Besides the freeing of servants after six years of service, Israel is also required to free their servants on the year of Jubilee, which was every 50 years.


Leviticus 25:39-40


39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.


On top of that, if a slave wanted to be free before any of these timeframes took place, they were allowed to buy their freedom.


Leviticus 25:48-52


48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49 or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself. 50 He shall calculate with his buyer from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his sale shall vary with the number of years. The time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired worker. 51 If there are still many years left, he shall pay proportionately for his redemption some of his sale price. 52 If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall calculate and pay for his redemption in proportion to his years of service.



How about a couple of my all time favorites -


Exodus 21:16


16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.


Deuteronomy 24:7


7 “If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.


So, in a world where people already own slaves, we see all over the Mosaic Law that God commanded freedom for slaves and gave provisions for slaves to free themselves. Also, any kidnapping and selling or buying of a person was rewarded with death and the person participating in slave trade is labeled as evil.



3. Slaves sold themselves and were more like hired workers


This is another important point. God did not allow slave trade the way we perceive it. There was to be no kidnapping or stealing of people followed by selling. Rather, people were allowed to sell themselves into slavery voluntarily. This was typically in order to pay off debts, or simply because a family was poor and selling yourself into slavery gave you provisions that you would not otherwise have. We’ll dive further into that in the next section.


Leviticus 25:39-41


39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers.


Leviticus 25:47-48


47 “If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger's clan, 48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him,

Also, God reminds His people that they are to treat the slaves as hired workers


Leviticus 25:53


53 He shall treat him as a worker hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight.



4. The Mosaic Law required good treatment of slaves by Israel


The Mosaic laws pertaining to slavery are starkly contrasted by other laws of this day. This is clear when we observe the day to day treatment laid out in ancient texts. Hammurabi’s code, law number 282 says, "If a slave says to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear." It seems that those who claim that the Bible supports slavery should be able to find verses as damning as this one. However, that is not the case. All of the laws concerning treatment of slaves are restrictive in nature in regard to the “master” in the Mosaic Law. There is a massive amount of verses that command Israel to treat their slaves with respect.


Exodus 21:26-27


26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.


Exodus 21:20


20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.


These are two verses that prohibit violent treatment of slaves. This was an extremely prohibitive deterrent, meant to scare anyone away from beating their slaves. Exodus 21:20 for instance – the penalty here, or “avengement”, is death. If you beat your slave and they die because of it, you will lose your life over this. Also, verses 26 & 27 in Leviticus 21 make it clear that even injuring your slave will allow that slave to go free. This created too much risk for the slave owner to mistreat their slaves, as they would either lose their slave or their life entirely.


There are several other examples of God commanding respect for slaves. For example, if a slave ran away from their owner and found refuge with an Israelite, that Israelite was not allowed to give up the slave. In fact, the law commands them to let that slave live wherever he likes within the town!


Deuteronomy 23:15-16


15 You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.


Here are a few others that speak to respecting slaves


Leviticus 25:53


53 He shall treat him as a worker hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight.


Exodus 21:12


12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.


This next one refers to women that were bought as wives


Exodus 21:7-8


7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her.9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.


Women did not sell themselves for labor purposes. They sold themselves as wives. Essentially, verse 7 is telling us that on the seventh year, women slaves were not to be freed in the same way that male slaves were. The whole reason for this, was to protect the women. Marriage was a covenant and verse 8 alludes to the fact that they were in covenant together (married). It says that HE has broken faith with HER if she does not please him. Therefore, putting the blame on the man who is not “pleased”.


If God did not put this rule in place, the man who bought her as a wife could just “free” her after six years and be done with her. This law protects her in that he must keep her as a wife, or else he must redeem her. Redeeming includes the giving of clothes, food, means, etc. On top of that, if he buys her in order to marry her, and is generally not happy with the marriage, God requires that the man still cares for her and treats her lovingly. If he does not take care of her and treat her lovingly, she has the right to just leave! Doesn’t sound a whole lot like slavery as we know it. In fact, if a man pays for his son’s wife, the Bible requires that she be treated like his daughter.

So, we’ve really only spent time analyzing the Mosaic Law’s codes that pertain to slavery, and what have we learned from these? We’ve learned that God presses Israel through His laws to free slaves. That is observed in all the texts where God commands slaves to be free in all kinds of different scenarios. We also see God threatening death to those who do not free their slaves. On top of that, we see for the slaves that remain, God requires that they be treated with respect and dealt with “as daughters”, wives, or kin in general. They are not allowed to injure or kill the slaves. They are required to provide food and homes and possessions to the slaves. God’s heart towards slavery was soft and commanded kindness to people who sold themselves into slavery. For the last section I want to tackle the following point –



5. God had a plan to abolish slavery.


As I stated in the first section, the Mosaic Law was temporal and was a reflection of the hardness of Israel’s heart at the time. So, let’s see if we can understand God’s heart towards slavery using the rest of the Bible.


Colossians 4:1


Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.


In this passage, God, through Paul, equates us to “bondservants” (slaves) and God as our “Master”. So following this analogy, how does God, our “Master”, deal with his servants? Well that is an easy one, He loves us unconditionally and died for us so that we may spend eternity with Him. He is slow to anger and quick to forgive. He is gracious and merciful and just. He treats us as His children and has a beautiful plan for our lives. He knows us and calls us friends. I can rant forever about how good God is to us, but you get the idea.


Here’s a few self-explanatory verses to show us more of God’s heart on this topic -


Exodus 23:9


“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.


James 2:8-9


8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality [racism/classism], you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.


James 5:4


4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts


1 Timothy 1:9-10


9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers,10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,


Leviticus 19:33-34


33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.


Ephesians 2:13-14


13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility


1 Corinthians 12:13


13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.


Ephesians 4:32


32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


Galatians 3:28


28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.


Genesis 1:26-27


26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.


I think you get the picture! We are all one in God’s eyes and He has a tender heart towards the oppressed and the sojourner. There’s one last portion of Scripture I want to cover, and then I promise we’ll wrap this puppy up. There is one book of the Bible completely devoted to slavery that we tend to miss. Let’s check out Philemon.


Philemon 1:8-21


8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.

21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.


In this text, Paul is appealing Philemon to receive back a slave named Onesimus who had run away. Paul is appealing for Philemon not to take him back as a slave, but as a brother. There are a few things to break down in this text.


A. In verses 8-9 Paul has the authority to command Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother instead of a slave. This is God’s ultimate desire and requirement. That the slave be free and treated as a brother. Paul is implying that he has authority to command this on God’s behalf.


B. Paul’s view of Onesimus as a son is deeply moving. Those who claim that the Bible speaks to slaves as if they’re property clearly have a superficial understanding of the text. All throughout Scripture we see that God loves the slave and considers them as equals to everyone else. And even here, we see Paul tenderly pleading on Onesimus’s behalf as if he is his own son.


C. Slaves are brothers, both in flesh and in the Lord. Verse 16, I believe is the crux of the book and God’s attitude towards slavery. God, and consequently Paul, is reaching straight for Philemon’s heart in order to cause a shift in his mindset towards slavery. Instead of politically upending a major part of the ancient world, which would cause chaos, revolt, and a bend towards disobedience, God worked patiently in the heart of man to change our minds about slavery. He desires us to view the slave as our beloved brother, which in turn will cause us to eradicate slavery of our own free will and loving hearts.


D. Paul is a type of Christ in verses 17-19. A type means that Paul points us to what Christ did for us on the cross, through his actions or speech. Paul is taking the slave’s burden and putting it on himself, and he is telling Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul. What a beautiful picture of what Christ did for us. Christ died for us and carried our burden on His shoulders. Now God the Father receives us just as if we are Jesus. We are God’s sons and daughters, and that includes the slave.



6. God’s plan to abolish slavery worked.


As I stated in the previous section, instead of politically upending a major part of the ancient world, which would cause chaos, revolt, and a bend towards disobedience, God worked patiently in the heart of man to change our minds about slavery. If we systematically look at all the Scriptures regarding slavery, which we did, we see this to be true. Therefore, you would presently expect mankind to have a different view of slavery than it once held.


Well, the truth is, although the Bible was grossly misused to support slavery in the south in America’s early years, it was also the basis of which abolitionists launched their campaign against slavery. William Wilberforce was one of the leading abolitionists of the day and said this, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and Reformation of Morals.” Charles Spurgeon had some of his sermons burned in America due to his hatred of slavery, calling it "the foulest blot" and which "may have to be washed out in blood.” In other words, abolishing slavery is worthy of a war. Methodist founder John Wesley called slavery "the sum of all villainies”.


The first wave of slave abolition in America was among America’s Christian population. They freed their slaves in droves and turned things around by creating black schools, churches, etc. In 1801, in order to become a member of the Methodist church, you had to denounce slavery! Many Baptist and Methodist missionaries were sent to the south in order to evangelize the farmers and sway them towards freeing their slaves, in the same way Paul did with Philemon.


Conclusion


To summarize there are six major arguments I’ve made concerning God’s attitude on slavery


1. The Mosaic Law was temporal

2. The Mosaic Law presses Israel towards freedom for slaves

3. Slaves sold themselves and were more like hired workers

4. The Mosaic Law required good treatment of slaves by Israel

5. God had a plan to abolish slavery

6. God’s plan to abolish slavery worked


The Bible does not support or even condone slavery. God has been patiently working in man’s hard heart in order to overthrow one of the largest sinful institutions that mankind has ever instated. To outright prohibit slavery would not have produced the results that we see today. On the contrary, I believe that the way in which God went about abolishing slavery is by far the best means which could have been used. Slavery is abhorred. We widely condemn it and view each other, now, as brothers and sisters. Glory be to God for working in the background when we do not understand His mysteries!


- Ryan

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