Slavery in the Bible: The Old Testament

Posted on January 25, 2022


By David Ettinger

Not the Same
To modern-day readers of the Bible, the Old and New Testament sections on slavery come across as archaic and barbaric. How, 21st-century readers wonder, can the Bible allow for the institution of slavery?

First, please note that the slavery of Israel was in no way similar to the forced subjugation and racially-related bondage of Europe and the United States in past centuries. That barbaric system was not even on the Bible’s radar.

Second, slavery had been a fact of life in most cultures and societies prior to the birth of Israel. By the time the Old Testament was written, because its ceasing as an institution was unfeasible, its regulation by God was absolutely necessary.

But again, the crucial point to remember is that slavery in Bible days and that in 18th and 19th centuries Europe and America are not the same.

What Is It, Then?
So then, when we speak of slavery in Old Testament Israel, what exactly are we talking about?

The Hebrew word for “slave” is ‘ebed, which carries with it the idea of servitude rather than slavery. Specifically, slavery in the OT speaks of “indentured servitude,” and very often was on a voluntary basis. We see this in Leviticus 25:39 where God commands the Israelites: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves.”

Israelite – as well as pagan – society allowed individuals who fell into financial hardship to offer themselves as “slaves” – actually indentured servants – to their debtors in order to pay off their debts. Also, this arrangement provided the slave/servant with the basics of life he or she might not otherwise be capable of attaining.

The Old Testament laws offered “slaves” protection from brutal masters, unlike pagan society where slaves were regarded as property and could be treated according to the whims of the owner. In Israel, however, God regarded slaves as human beings, and they were to be treated that way.

Other Types of Slaves
Besides those who could not pay their debts, there were other types of slaves in Old Testament society.

  • There were those who committed a crime and were required to serve a term of slavery as restitution (Exodus 22:3).
  • Fathers in debt could sell their children to those they owed (Exodus 21:7; Nehemiah 5:5).
  • Captives of war could be made slaves (Numbers 31:26; Deuteronomy 20:10).
  • Foreigners could be acquired as slaves (Leviticus 25:44-45). (Regarding captives and foreigners, these would fall under the category of “property,” but Israelite masters were still required to exercise compassion and humanity.)

As mentioned, pagans could pretty much do what they wished with their slaves without suffering consequences. Israelites, however, were given stipulations by God. Here are a few:

  • The most notable – unique to Israeli society – was that the length of servitude was limited to 6 years for Hebrews (Exodus 21:2). Once the 7th year hit, the slave was to go free.
  • Difficult slaves could be beaten, but if permanent injury resulted, the slave was to be set free (Exodus 21:26-27). This was also unheard of in pagan society.
  • Hebrew slaves could become “lifetime” servants, providing this was the slave’s desire (Exodus 21:5-6). That there was such a law means this scenario was common enough to warrant its own law. This is proof that the type of slavery practiced in Israel was humane, beneficial, and in some cases even desirable!

The Bottom Line
I have heard callers on Christian talk shows and read online those who have ranted and railed against the Bible’s seeming mandating of slavery, condemning not only the barbarism of the institution, but also that of the God who permitted it.

This is ignorance. As seen in the Old Testament, slavery – indentured servitude – was a necessary and beneficial part of society, and often proved more of a blessing to the servant than to the owner.

The OT laws regarding slavery are God’s way of acknowledging the benefits of this system IN THAT DAY, as if saying: “I understand the institution and its necessity, but can also see how it can get out of control. I will permit it, but as My people you must do it in a way which reflects My attributes. Those who own slaves must be kind, just, fair, and compassionate to them. Under these circumstances only, may you have slaves.”

May God give us wisdom and discernment to comprehend His glorious Word in the context in which it was written, and for the purpose in which it was intended.

The more we comprehend the Word of God, the more we will understand, love, and revere its Author!

Up next:  “Slavery in the Bible: The New Testament”