Not all Old Testament practices are for us today. An example is animal sacrifice. Another is often mistaken for slavery but was in reality bonded servitude, a variation of slavery. They were valid for Israel during the formative days when it was a new and developing nation under the old covenant with God. These were the days when it was ruled as a true, i.e. “God ordained” Theocracy. Theocracies have been tried since but they always have failed because they were not God authorized.
Some Background on Slavery
To begin, slavery was not invented by the god of the Holy Bible. It was around in the earliest civilizations. That kind of slavery had no use for God or anything of him. It was used by pagan societies who worshiped images carved of rocks and wood.
The history of slavery is really the history of the world. In fact the name “slave” is derived from the term “Slav” which recalls how when the Romans invaded parts of Eastern Europe they brought back huge numbers of indigenous warriors and citizens they captured.
Slavery was practiced by just about every ancient culture in history; not just here in the U.S. Indians in North & South America would make slaves of those they captured. The African tribal chiefs got rid of millions of people who were either systematically captured from rival tribes, or who were considered malcontents, or incorrigible by selling them primarily to Muslim slave traders. Many of them ended up primarily in South America and other parts of the world and even today Muslims still buy and sell slaves. After all its endorsed in the Koran! In fact American descendants of black slaves should know that it was members of Islam who bought and sold their ancestors into slavery but white Evangelicals, primarily Christians, eventually freed them!
Another form of slavery was known as indentured servant hood. It was practiced in colonial America. A poor European who couldn’t afford passage to the colonies would have his way paid for by someone who he would be required to work 2-3 years for when he arrived at the New World. That was a kind of temporary slavery. But what about Biblical slavery?
Slavery in the Bible
The Bible tells how Abraham had 318 slaves born in his household. Yes, God allowed the Hebrews to have slaves while in the unique situation- a God ordered, temporary theocracy. No other nation has ever since been a God ordained theocracy. That’s why they always end up in death, destruction and failure.
The God ordained kind of slavery, unlike man’s, had rules. Yes, you read right, there were rules for any Hebrew Master to follow: They are found in Exodus 21, Leviticus 25 & 27; Deuteronomy 15. Hear of any rules lately for other civilizations with slaves?
How Did One Become a Slave?
Some were born as slaves. Others became slaves when captured in war or caught after committing a crime. As part of their punishment (if they had no money) they had to pay restitution by being a slave. Still others who fell into debt could work it off as a debt slave or bonded servant to repay their creditors since there were no bankruptcy courts in those days.
God’s Rules Limiting Slavery
As stated before God’s rules for slavery were not the same as mans. For instance, one couldn’t remain a slave of a Hebrew Master for any longer than 7 years. That’s because on a jubilee or seventh year, all slaves, whether captured in war, or were indebted, etc., were to be set free. By comparison being a slave in Babylon, Persia, or even somewhere today where it is practiced could very well last for a lifetime or generations unless one is bought or freed.
About this Jubilee year thing: Under God’s laws every 50th year, after a cycle of 7, 7 year periods came and went, a Jubilee year was proclaimed and all debts were cancelled and all slaves no matter the circumstances were set free. Try to find any record of such a thing in the history of other slave holding civilizations!
Slaves Could be Inherited & Inherit a Master’s Estate
Slaves could be inherited; for instance if your father died but not on a 7th year, his slaves would pass to the inheriting son.
But a senior slave of a Hebrew stood to inherit the Masters estate if he died with no living heir in his family. The life of Abraham was an example when he cried out to god that if he died childless would his slave, Eliezer of Damascus, inherit his estate. (See Gen. 15:2).
He Didn’t Want His People Treating Their Slaves As They Were Done by the Hebrews
Slaves could be beaten but they could not be maimed (See Ex. 21:26, 27). If a master grievously harmed or maimed a slave that slave could be freed.
Slaves could not be murdered. (See Ex. 21:12 & 20).
Slaves could not be gotten by kidnapping. (See Ex. 21:16).
Slaves were required to participate in religious observances (See Gen. 17:13; Exodus 12:44; Lev. 22:11). In other words like their masters they didn’t have to work during a religious holiday (for example a Sabbath day, or during one of the various yearly feasts and festivals).
If the Hebrews disobeyed the laws of Moses regarding how they acquired slaves from within their family, as in Leviticus 25:39, God would be angry with them. (See Amos 8:6)
Slaves could purchase their own freedom. (See Ex. 21:2-6)
Sometimes as pointed out above people voluntarily sold themselves into slavery because of bad economic times but a Master couldn’t exploit the situation. For instance the Law of Moses stated that a master had to provide for any slave he took in. If he couldn’t adequate feed, house, and cloth a slave, and provide for a slave’s marital family needs the Master had to let them go. He was required to let them go after six years without penalty (See Ex. 21:1).
Slaves Could Assume a Certain Authority Status
Some slaves were given authority over the children of their Master: (See Proverbs 17:2).
The advice of some slaves was often heeded. (See the account of a young Saul and a family slave that sought the whereabouts of lost sheep in 1 Sam. 9:5-10).
Slaves Could be Given Protected Status
The Bible prohibited extradition of slaves and under certain conditions granted them asylum when it was obvious they were fleeing an abusive Master. (See Deut. 23:16-17).
Finally, because their treatment was so often in a human way some slaves didn’t want to go free. They liked the security of food, housing, etc., that came with being under a Hebrew/Jewish master. In fact many times a slave was considered a part of the Master’s household. (See Lev. 22:11). Yet, if a slave was freed the Hebrew Master was required to give him gifts/provisions to help sustain him till he was established financially in his new walk as a free man. (See Deut. 15:14).
Why Wasn’t an Armed Protest to End Slavery Started?
In the New Covenant era (from the Cross on) the laws about slavery are no longer applicable. Christ’s Gospel message was about perfect freedom BUT slavery of the vicious, cruel kind was and still is practiced.
In the 1st Century, in the time of Christ and the Apostles, there were an estimated 60 million slaves in the known world. That means there were were perhaps 2-3 times as many slaves as there were free men.
Christ and the apostles didn’t directly challenge the Jewish or Roman laws on slavery. That had been done once before in a revolt started by Spartacus but it ended in disaster.
So Christ and his apostles laid down the slow, Evangelical foundation of loving treatment towards slaves that would eventually bring about its end. His inspired word called for slaves who were in the faith to be content in their positions. This would raise the regard of a Master towards his slaves and encourage him to treat them more humanely. (See 1 Corinthians 7: 20-24). Eventually, the status of workers everywhere would be elevated in all corners of the world where this lesson was practiced.
For Example: In the book of Philemon (:8-16), Paul told the runaway slave Onesimus, to return to his master. With him he was to take to his master Philemon a letter Paul wrote asking Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.
Slavery, even under God’s rules for human treatment still led many to not understand why it existed. Yet, we should accept that one of the purposes of final judgment concerns something called “theodicy”. Its definition is: the justification/explanation of the things God commanded and commands, which can only come from God himself. Till then we cannot blame god when we don’t understand what he orders or why he orders it; but in the end we will do a collective “Oh, I get it!” Till then we must be content with waiting to learn why His eternal, cosmic plan included the temporary practice of slavery even how he prescribed it.