Slavery in the Bible

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Slavery is the condition of bondage or ownership of persons. It is mentioned several times in the Bible.

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:


Old Testament

Slavery is implicitly condoned in the Old Testament in several instances.

  • Exodus 21:20-21 Bible-icon.png and Exodus 21:26-27 Bible-icon.png regulates the beating of slaves, and states that the owner may not be punished if the slave survives for at least two days after the beating.
  • Leviticus 19:20-22 Bible-icon.png gives instructions about the sacrifices that should be made if a slave owner has sex with or rapes an engaged female slave. The slave herself is punished with whipping, but no sacrifices or punishment are required if the slave is not engaged.
  • In Leviticus 25:44-46 Bible-icon.png, the Israelites were allowed to buy slaves from other nations, and then hand them down as an inheritance.
  • In Leviticus 25:39 Bible-icon.png, buying your brother as a slave is allowed.

New Testament

The second part of the Bible recognizes that the institution of slavery exists, but it doesn't make any attempt to criticize it.

  • In Luke 12:45-48 Bible-icon.png, the Parable of the Faithful Servant, Jesus discusses the punishment of slaves, and says that a slave may be punished for not doing something he wasn't instructed to do.
  • In Ephesians 6:5-9 Bible-icon.png, Paul instructs the slaves to be obedient.
  • Colossians 4:1 Bible-icon.png and 1 Timothy 6:1-3 Bible-icon.png also admonish slaves to obey their masters.
  • In his Epistle to Philemon, Paul is allegedly returning a runaway slave to his owner.
  • In Matthew 18:25 Bible-icon.png, people and their children are described as being sold into slavery.
  • Colossians 3:11 Bible-icon.png, 1 Corinthians 12:13 Bible-icon.png and Galatians 3:28 Bible-icon.png are sometimes used to defend NT, to show that it supports some form of egalitarianism.

Historical defense of American slavery

Many Christians were abolitionists and openly opposed slavery. However, other Christian supporters of slavery also justified their arguments with reference to Bible verses like those listed above.

For example, in 1856 Reverend Thomas Stringfellow, a Baptist minister from Culpepper County in Virginia, wrote an essay called "A Scriptural View of Slavery", which is full of passages that support his opinion, such as:

"Job himself was a great slave-holder, and, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, won no small portion of his claims to character with God and men from the manner in which he discharged his duty to his slaves."
"It is certain that God interposed to give Joseph the power in Egypt, which he used, to create a state, or condition, among the Egyptians, which substantially agrees with patriarchal and modern slavery."
"If, therefore, doing to others as we would they should do to us, means precisely what loving our neighbor as ourself means, then Jesus has added no new moral principle above those in the law of Moses, to prohibit slavery, for in his law is found this principle, and slavery also."

Apologetic rebuttals to the Bible condoning slavery

Redefining Slavery

Some arguments attempt to redefine the word "slavery" into something that Biblical scripture doesn't match, for instance:

  • Redefining slavery in the Bible to be less offensive, more like indentured servitude, and wasn't like slavery as defined in U.S. History.
  • Redefining slavery to be so extreme that the Bible's mentions don't qualify. E.g. that slavery is when people are worked 24/7, without and food, water or sleep.

In both cases, these are semantic games, trying to rationalize the Bible's position on slavery. The debate can be brought back into focus if the apologist is asked whether he/she thinks it is moral for one human being to own another, even for a short duration. Then, the Biblical scripture can be quoted to re-establish this concept, regardless of whether the word "slavery" is used or not.

Excusing Slavery

Apologists often argue that those enslaved either deserved it, those enslaved were from a particular tribe that God ordered an assault upon, or it was for the slave's own good.

Denying the Bible's stance on Slavery

Occasional Bible verses are used to argue that the Bible was actually against slavery, such as:

"And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."

Exodus 21:16 Bible-icon.png (NIV)

This, however, is ignoring significant context. Surrounding this verse is also written many rules that say one can own slaves. Exodus 21:16 Bible-icon.png

  • Exodus 21:2 Bible-icon.png - allows one to buy a Hebrew servant for 6 years
  • Exodus 21:4 Bible-icon.png - any wife given to the slave by the master, and and children born of the wife, remain as slaves when the above slave is freed
  • Exodus 21:5-6 Bible-icon.png - Allows the husband slave to keep his wife/children if he stays a slave of the master

Upon reading the surrounding context, by sampling King James Version, the Standard Version and New International Version, it's readily understandable that references to "a person" or "a man", is talking about an existing slave, and what the slave does, or what's done to the slave. In this reading, "stealing a man" is talking about stealing someone else's slave. The problem here is not slavery, but stealing.

If verses like this are brought up, consider asking the apologist why this specific verse matters, but the others don't, despite the supposed anti-slavery verse being outnumbered by the pro-slavery verses.

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