Slavery and the Bible

Several years ago Paul Copan wrote a book entitled, Is God a Moral Monster? One of the topics he took up was the issue of slavery. There are three chapters dedicated to slavery in the book, but the below video is a lecture that offers a brief overview of the subject matter. Here are some summary statements and excerpts from the book.

One scholar writes that “Hebrew has no vocabulary of slavery, only of servanthood.”

An Israelite servant’s guaranteed release within seven years was a control or regulation to prevent the abuse and institutionalizing of such positions. The release year reminded the Israelites that poverty-induced servanthood wasn’t an ideal social arrangement. On the other hand, servanthood existed in Israel precisely because poverty existed: no poverty, no servants in Israel. And if servants lived in Israel, it was a voluntary (poverty-induced) arrangement and not forced. (pg. 126)

Israel’s servant laws were concerned about controlling or regulating—not idealizing—an inferior work arrangement. Israelite servitude was induced by poverty, was entered into voluntarily, and was far from optimal. The intent of these laws was to combat potential abuses, not to institutionalize servitude. (pg. 127)

Lest we think that a foreigner’s permanent servitude (which could well be understood as voluntary in Lev. 25) meant that his master could take advantage of him, we should recall the pervasive theme throughout the law of Moses of protection and concern for those in servitude. They weren’t to be taken advantage of. So if a foreign servant was being mistreated by his master so that he ran away, he could find his way into another Israelite home for shelter and protection: “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him” (Deut. 23:15-16). This provision wasn’t simply for a foreign slave running to Israel but also for a foreign servant within Israel who was being mistreated. (pg. 147)

In Leviticus 19:33-34, the Israelites were commanded to love the stranger in the land: “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” (pg. 141)

Reflecting on the wider context of Scripture passages reminds us not to focus on a single text but to see how each passage fits into the broader whole. Furthermore, any deviations from ideal moral standards of human equality and dignity set down at creation are the result of human hard-heartedness. Over and over, we’re reminded of Israel’s superior legislation in contrast to the rest of the ancient Near East. (pg. 149)

About Pastor Matt

Matt Baker is the Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church.
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