Slavery was well established throughout the ancient world long before Israel formally became a nation (Gen 15:2-3; 16:1-2; 17:12; 30:1-3). Israelite law recognized the evils of slavery, but it also recognized that slavery had for so long been part of society that it could not be removed quickly or easily. The law given to Israel at Sinai was not a program for the ideal society, but a legal system designed to maintain order and administer justice among a people whose way of life was already well established. Nevertheless, it introduced values of human dignity that undermined the foundations on which slavery was built, and so started the process that led eventually to its removal.

Old Testament regulations

Unlike slaves in other countries, Israelite slaves had rights. They were given one full day’s rest each week (Exod 20:10) and were protected against unjust treatment. If they suffered brutal punishment, they received compensation by being set free (Exod 21:26-27). Israelite slaves could be held captive no more than six years (Exod 21:1-2; Deut 15:12). When they went out free, the master had to give them sufficient goods to enable them to begin a new life satisfactorily (Deut 15:13-14). If a male slave had obtained a wife from among his fellow slaves, she was not automatically released with him. However, he could, if he wished, continue to work for the master and so keep his family together (Exod 21:3-6). A female slave who had become a wife or concubine of the master (or his son) was not freed after six years; but neither could her master sell her to a foreigner if he no longer wanted her. If her family did not buy her back, her husband-master had to continue to look after her in accordance with her rights as his wife. If he failed to do this, he had to set her free (Exod 21:7-11). Israelites were not to take fellow Israelites as slaves in payment for debts, and were to buy back any of their relatives who had sold themselves to foreigners in payment for debts (Lev 25:39-41; 25:47-49).

Kidnapping for slavery was an offence that carried the death penalty (Deut 24:7), and the practice of returning runaway slaves to their masters was prohibited (Deut 23:15-16). International slave trading was condemned (Ezek 27:13; Joel 3:4-8; Amos 1:6,9; cf. Rev 18:13). Most slaves in Israel were either descendants of the former inhabitants of the land or people taken captive in war (Lev 25:44-45; Num 31:9; Josh 9:21; 2 Sam 12:31; 1 Kings 9:20-21). Yet these slaves also had rights (Deut 21:10-14). They could even join in the full religious life of Israel, provided they had formally become part of the covenant people through the rite of circumcision (Exod 12:44; Deut 16:14). All these restrictions helped to decrease the practice of slavery in Israel. But the process was much slower than it should have been, mainly because people of power and influence ignored the law. This was particularly so among corrupt officials and ruthless money-lenders (2 Kings 4:1; Neh 5:5; Amos 2:6; see LENDING).

Some New Testament examples

In the Roman Empire of New Testament times slavery was widespread. Even Jews had slaves among their people, though their treatment of slaves was usually better than that of non-Jewish peoples (Matt 13:27; 24:45; 25:14; 26:51; see also STEWARD). As a result of the missionary expansion of the church, many slaves became Christians. In churches as well as households there were Christian slaves and Christian masters. Though Christian slaves were equal with their Christian masters in their standing before God (Acts 2:18; Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 7:22), they were not equal in their standing in society. Christian slaves and their Christian masters were not to take advantage of each other, but cooperate for their common good (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22; 1 Tim 6:1-2; see MASTER). By encouraging Christian slaves to work with responsibility and dignity, Christianity helped to raise the status of slaves. They were not to think of themselves merely as tools of their masters (Col 3:22; Titus 2:9). They could use their positions as slaves to serve God, but if they got the opportunity to go free, they were advised to take it (1 Cor 7:20-21). Paul hoped that Christian masters would give Christian slaves their freedom, but he did not use his apostolic authority to force them to do so (Philem 8-10,14,21).

Relation to God

God’s people of the Old Testament era sometimes likened their relation to God to that of a slave to his master. This applied to individuals (Exod 4:10; Num 12:7; Ps 19:13; Jer 7:25) and to the nation as a whole (Judg 2:7; Isa 41:8). Although such a relationship indicated the submissive place of God’s people (Deut 6:13-14; 10:12- 13), it did not indicate shame or humiliation in their status. The word translated ‘slave’ often had the more general meaning of ‘servant’. When referring to God’s specially chosen ones, it indicated a position of honour (Ps 89:3; Isa 44:21). The same ideas are present in the New Testament, which speaks of Christians as God’s slaves or servants (Matt 6:24; 10:24; Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10). (For further discussion concerning God’s people as servants see SERVANT.) Those who are true slaves of Jesus Christ will also be true slaves of one another (Matt 20:26-27; John 13:4-15; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 4:5). This is because of the new life they have through Jesus Christ (Gal 5:13; Phil 2:5-7). Formerly they were slaves to sin (John 8:34; Gal 4:8; Titus 3:3), but Christ has set them free from that bondage and now they are slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:16-19; Gal 5:1; see REDEMPTION). (Concerning freedom from bondage to the law see FREEDOM; LAW.)

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