What’s going on here?
It’s no secret that Christianity has a troubling relationship with slavery, but this relationship is sometimes overstated, confused, and conflated. Before I go any farther, I will say that if the idea of slavery does not make you pause, it should. For most of its history, slavery has been a horrible, dehumanizing, and abusive institution that has oppressed millions of people, especially people of color. Such an evil practice must be condemned unequivocally. But slavery is in the Bible, so how exactly does that work?
First, let’s be clear that there have been some people who have taken the name of Jesus who have not taken this position. They have used the Bible to excuse their blatant racism and mistreatment of other humans. In two independent statements, James Henry Hammond, a 19th century southern politician, endorsed slavery:
I firmly believe that American slavery is not only not a sin, but especially commanded by God through Moses, and approved by Christ through his apostles.
The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot separate what God hath joined.
Hammond was not alone in this sentiment, but his statements sufficiently represent it for my purposes. The opinion of many American Christians in the Antebellum south was that black people were less valuable than they were and could be treated like animals.
I cannot say this more strongly; this is evil, and it’s not what’s going on in the Bible.
To figure this out, let’s start at the beginning.
In the Beginning, They Were Equal
Genesis 1:26-27 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. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (ESV)
From the moment that God records creating humans, they are recorded as being created equal. In Genesis 1 both man and woman were created in God’s image (the basis for ascribing value to human life), and both are told to rule over creation, and to be fruitful and multiply. No human is greater than any other in God’s good creation.
But the fall destroys this ideal. Humans try to define good and evil for themselves, and the world is cursed because of it. In Genesis 3:16b God says to the woman, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” It seems that the implication here is that any human ruling over another was never intended in the garden. I think we will see quickly that the Genesis story seeks to show that humans are now fundamentally flawed in their thoughts and actions, and that they will abuse any power they are given.
The Beginning of Slavery
Genesis 9:20–27 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.” (ESV)
Something striking about the Bible is its brutal honesty. Noah has been set up as a second Adam with a chance to do things right, but at the end of his life he blows it and becomes a drunk. It’s possible that there is some euphemism at play in v. 22, so Ham may have done something wildly inappropriate, leading to the curse of Canaan.
Ham and his descendants are the first in the Bible to be condemned to slavery, although this reality is not immediately realized. Don’t miss the narrative progression, Noah’s sin leads to Ham’s sin which leads to the curse of Canaan. Bad consequences come from bad actions; humanity is moving farther and farther away from the garden ideal. Slavery then should be seen as a consequence of the progressive decline of humanity into greater evil.
Abraham’s Subjugation of Hagar
Genesis 16:1-6 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.
Genesis 16 records the first account of abuse of a slave in the bible. Notice how quickly that happened- this is the second time we see slavery in the Bible, and the first actual case of slavery it records, and this woman is being treated terribly. The author is trying to show us that this is not the way things are supposed to be.
This passage is supposed to make you think about the Garden of Eden. Abraham and Sarah are set up as new Adam and Eve, and Hagar is supposed to be seen as the fruit. The same verbiage is used in both stories: Abraham listens to the voice of his wife, then Sarah takes Hagar and gives her to Abraham. The author is trying to show that this whole situation is evil; Abraham and Sarah are defining what is right on their own terms at the cost of another human’s autonomy.
What’s more, Sarah then gets jealous and continues her abuse of Hagar. The author is making it clear that humans are freely acting outside God’s desire. This is not the way the world is supposed to be.
One more thing about this episode: God’s special concern for the oppressed is displayed as the story continues. In the same chapter, Hagar calls God the God of seeing because he cared for her when she fled to escape Sarah’s cruelty. In Genesis 21, Sarah continues to give in to the evil within, and forces Hagar and Ishmael out with no one to care for them. But God cares and provides for her needs. God cares deeply about the marginalized and oppressed. Slavery is evidently not his design.
The Oppression Continues
The first few references were really important, so I wanted to take some time to establish the foundation, but now I am going to pick up the pace.
Jacob and Joseph both live in slavery for a time in their lives and are treated unjustly. Jacob enters the engagement willingly (showing that the Ancient Near Eastern conception of slavery was not intrinsically bad) and is deceived by Laban. Joseph is sold against his will by his brothers into Egypt where things get much worse before they get better. Both scenarios depict slavery as an institution used to perpetuate injustice and oppression. Both men are exploited for personal gain.
Joseph’s story begins the descent of Israel into slavery at the hand of the Egyptians. Abraham’s narrative is now flipped on its head; instead of the family of Abraham enslaving and oppressing an Egyptian, the Egyptians have now enslaved and oppressed the family of Abraham. God seems to make his view on slavery abundantly clear in this section; slavery is bad and he wants to free the captives.
Israel will constantly be reminded of this part of their past. They will be called to pursue social justice because of the injustice their ancestors suffered.
What About the Laws that Allow for Slavery?
So, there are actually a lot of laws in the first five books of the Bible that deal with slaves. If the narrative so far from the first two books is to be believed, why wouldn’t God order that slavery be abolished?
To understand why, let’s fast forward to Jesus. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees are trying to corner Jesus to prove he doesn’t know the law as well as they do. The passage reads:
Matthew 19:3-9 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (ESV)
Notice how Jesus goes back to the garden to determine God’s intentions and recognizes that there are laws are built for a post-Eden world. The relationship of God’s intentions and laws concerning slavery should be viewed similarly. They are regulations on human sinfulness, not divine principles.
In fact, when taken seriously, I would argue that the biblical narrative sows the seeds for abolition. This is not simply a modern idea that came from Christians who realized their predecessors were terribly mistaken on this view. I will demonstrate this toward the end.
While it would take too long to list it out here, the Jewish laws actually furthered social progress compared to other Ancient Near Eastern law codes. Please don’t mistake what I’m saying. There were still Jews who acted barbarically toward their slaves (as the Bible makes no attempt to hide), but the laws in the Old Testament demanded the equitable treatment of slaves regardless of whether or not they were followed.
- Kidnapping and forcing slavery is expressly forbidden (Ex. 21:16, Deut. 24:7).
- Hebrew slaves would only serve for 6 years (Ex. 21:2).
- Freed slaves were to be well taken care of (Deut. 15:12-15).
- A slave who flees is to be granted freedom (Deut. 23:15-16).
- Punishment of slaves was severely limited compared to contemporary nations (Ex. 21:20-21).
- Slaves who were abused were freed (Ex. 21:26-27).
- A day of rest was mandatory for slaves too (Ex. 20:8-11).
Some of these passages in particular are hard to swallow. Leviticus 25:44-46 reads:
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. 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. 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. (ESV)
Well-meaning Christians will often claim God forbade chattel slavery, where slaves are treated as property, and in most cases, they are correct, but not all. As this passage reveals Israelites were allowed to purchase and own foreign slaves for life and treat them as property – and we should not try to conceal or dismiss that.
Rather, we should remember the principle gleaned from Mt. 19, that this is a law code for a post-Eden world, it is not intended to be perfect, but to teach Israel how to relate to God and thereby advance social justice. It is therefore incumbent upon us to understand the setting that this law was recorded in.
James D.G. Dunn’s comment on these verses are instructive:
[Leviticus 25:45–46] are a plain contradiction of the spirit of [Leviticus 19:33–34]. The chapter is concerned with maintaining the connection between Israelite families and their land. One can understand that resident aliens did not have that connection to start with; but a proper working out of the implications of [Leviticus 19:34] would surely have led to second thoughts.
Ownership of foreign slaves is permitted here because they are not connected to the land. Is it perfect? No; it’s not intended to be. Is it ideal? Not even close. But the very same book of the Bible sows the seeds that led later readers to reject the practice that this text permitted because of the hardness of the human heart. These foreign slaves were to be loved powerfully and treated more justly than in the country they were purchased from. If their master failed to do this, they had a legal code that could protect them, and they would find refuge and freedom if they fled. While this law is an admission of a dehumanizing view of people, it is not intended to be the ideal but to advance social progress.
I’ll admit that I have a hard time with some of these passages. But I have to remember that they were written thousands of years ago to people in a very different cultural context. In their time, these laws would have represented a radical change in the way slaves were treated.
As the story advances, this social progression becomes more evident.
Jesus’ View of Slavery
Something interesting happens in the New Testament. Slavery has been a huge part of the story so far, the Old Testament word for slave is used 800 times, it’s clearly an idea that the authors want us to catch on to. Jesus caught on, and wanted to change the way people thought about slavery.
Mark 10:42–45 “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (ESV)
The hope of the Jews was that the Messiah would bring the Kingdom of God by overthrowing their oppressors and reclaiming the promised land. Jesus had a different view on the Kingdom though, and carefully tried to teach it to his disciples.
He viewed the Kingdom in an upside-down sort of way. It seemed like every intuition about it was wrong. Two of his disciples wanted to rule with Jesus in the kingdom. Now stop really quick and think about Genesis 1. Ruling was what God told humans to do in the garden and this is the idea that Jesus is about to latch on to. It’s also the same idea that humans abused to give us slavery. James and John are stuck thinking about this from a post-Eden mindset.
Jesus points the way to how to truly rule, and that is through service to others. Ruling done God’s way is not lording over someone but coming below them like a slave. So, slavery is getting flipped on its head; apparently, it’s not the lowest social rung, but somehow it points to a greater spiritual reality. Jesus claims that this is the path he is taking, and that with his life he will pay the price to purchase the freedom of many, specifically the freedom from slavery.
So, this is kind of confusing. Jesus describes slavery as admirable in the kingdom, so he wants to go into slavery to free others from it – using his life as payment. So, it seems like there is something commendable about slavery, but it’s also bad because he’s apparently trying to free people from it. Let’s keep going.
John 8:31–36 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV)
Now what Jesus is thinking comes into focus. Slavery is good in that it represents the Kingdom ideal of serving others and loving them as yourself, but institutionally it should inspire a longing for freedom.
He uses the institution metaphorically to represent humanity’s relationship to sin. Sin is the evil, unjust master, making us do things we don’t want to do. In order to be able to live the way we were meant to, someone has to pay the price to free us. Jesus is saying that price is his life, and he’s willing to pay it for our freedom.
The portrait of slavery in the Bible makes a whole lot more sense now. In the garden, there were no slaves, and everyone was equal, but sin ruined that. Humans gained power over each other, exploiting it by making people live in subjugation to themselves. Every time this is referenced it is supposed to make the reader think this is not right, and this person should be freed. God frees Israel from Egypt and puts laws in place to prevent them from exploiting others to the degree that they were exploited. They are reminded of this all throughout the scriptures. When Jesus comes on the scene, he brings it full circle. He shows them what this is supposed to illustrate: bondage to sin. The evil masters, like Egypt, represent sin. He has come to bring freedom and restore the Garden ideal.
In the New Creation, everyone will be free and equal. The whole world will be restored to God’s original plan, which for our purposes here means no slavery. The Bible’s narrative is compelling; God is anti-slavery and has been at work since the fall to free people from this unjust institution.
So What about Paul?
Before we land at the New Creation, Paul’s writings provide the last hurdle with this idea of slavery. In Romans, he echoes Jesus’ teaching concerning slavery, but that doesn’t concern us at the moment. There are passages like Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Titus 2:9-10 where Paul tells slaves to submit, so it seems like he approves of the status quo and desires to keep humans in bonds. This reading would be selective and ignore the larger body of his writings.
To address these passages in particular, they are directed at individuals who are incapable of changing their circumstances. Christian communities at this time were small, and wouldn’t stand a chance against the Romans if they incited some kind of slave revolt. Rome would quickly and forcefully deal with a rebellion that threatened their entire economy. Instead, Paul is encouraging these slaves to live out the gospel, demonstrating what the upside-down Kingdom was supposed to look like.
So, did Paul really support slavery? There are some reasons to think not.
1 Corinthians 7:21–23 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men (ESV)
Galatians 3:26–29 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (ESV)
What Paul teaches here is relatively straightforward. The good news of Jesus transcends ethnic and social boundaries, restoring the equality that was in the garden. But, in this life any slave who is able to be free should take that opportunity, and no one should enter into slavery. This doesn’t fit the bill if Paul wants slavery to continue.
The book of Philemon further reveals his view. Paul encourages a slave who had fallen out with his master to return to reconcile with him because he has now become a Christian. The master, Philemon, is in turn asked to receive him as more than a slave: a brother in fact. Paul wants the Gospel to unify these two men and show them how it eliminates social boundaries.
The gospel was always at the heart of Paul’s message. In everything that happened, whether in something that was said or done, he wanted people to be able to see Jesus in the lives of Christians. So, if someone couldn’t escape slavery, they were to live the gospel. Otherwise, Paul taught that they should seek freedom so they could have more influence and live out the reality of the kingdom.
The Bible Condemns Slavery, and Christians have Realized it.
When the story of the Bible is considered, its thoughts on slavery are clear. Slavery is oppressive and wrong. It is a perversion of humanity’s ability to rule which God will ultimately abolish, restoring the world to the ideal presented in the garden. Along the way, things are messy. That’s just the reality of the cultural context that the Bible is written in. But God is constantly driving his people toward the garden ideal.
I think this is evidenced in the lives of Christians who realized this while living in cultures where slavery was acceptable. They made this judgement based on what scripture taught on the subject; their ideas were not a result of a modern notion of individual liberty.
Rodney Stark makes a couple informative observations in his book, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery.
Antislavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently “lost” from history until recently.
The first shipload of black slaves [came to Portugal in the 1400’s], and as black slaves began to appear farther north in Europe, a debate erupted as to the morality and legality of slavery. A consensus quickly developed that slavery was both sinful and illegal… The principle of “free soil” spread: that slaves who entered a free country were automatically free. That principle was firmly in place in France, Holland, and Belgium by the end of the seventeenth century. Nearly a century later, in 1761, the Portuguese enacted a similar law, and an English judge applied the principle to Britain in 1772. Although exceptions involving a single slave servant or two, especially when accompanying a foreign traveler, were sometimes overlooked, “beyond a scattering of servants in Spain and Portugal, there were very few true slaves left in Western Europe by the end of the sixteenth century.”
Christians were certainly condemning slavery early on, but they were largely ignored, and no action was taken.
Early Americans also realized this and condemned slavery long before the Civil War. Several of the founding fathers rejected the institution entirely because of how they were informed by scripture.
Why keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil
The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself… In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation of their slaves. “Nothing is more certainly written,” said he, “in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free.” The Founding Fathers believed that blacks had the same God-given inalienable rights as any other peoples. James Otis of Massachusetts said in 1764 that “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.
-John Quincy Adams
The Bible is quite clear in its attitude concerning slavery, and a careful reader who is willing to invest the time to capture the complete scope of the narrative will capture that as many have before. While it has been abused and used to oppress people, it is in reality the properly understood Christian worldview that led to the abolition of slavery. God cares for the oppressed and social outcasts, and therefore hates slavery. Everyone, regardless of race, gender, wealth, or social standing is made in the image of God. Everyone is valuable and deserves equality. Institutionalized slavery, especially the American variety that was driven by racism, is a terrible injustice that has no place in God’s good world.