The Bible & Slavery
By Nigel Robinson
Many have taken up the uncomfortable task of addressing slavery based upon what is found in the pages of God’s love letter to His human creation and found that the difficulty comes more so in what humanity has experienced instead of what God Himself has expressed. This short piece will not address every fact or fiction regarding slavery, but the hope is that it does address a few from both in the hope of giving readers the proper foundation from which to start conversations they engage in on the subject.
Fact: The Bible is clear on God Himself being against one human being enslaved to another.
When God created the world in Genesis 1-2, humanity was ruled by no one but Himself (Genesis 2:15-17). If God desired for humanity to experience slavery, He would have established it between Adam and Eve in creation rather than create Adam first, Eve from the man Adam, and then have both Adam and Eve coexist in Eden in an equal setting. Though we may be a very long way from Eden’s perfection, God’s plan for humanity by way of His world [pre-Fall] cannot be ignored when we seek to draw conclusions about God. Humans, not God, are responsible for the broken and fallen world we find ourselves in as we seek answers, so we must not allow our perspective of Him to be distorted in light of “our world” [post-Fall] that He did not create.
Fact: Slavery exists because of the insecurity sin produces in humanity.
After the fall in Genesis 3, humanity fell into an unending cycle of what we saw Adam and Eve deal with after eating the fruit – namely, looking at each other to find answers or a scapegoat for problems they did not want to take ownership of themselves. From Cain murdering his brother Abel in refusing to deal with his own deficiencies (Genesis 4:3-16), God thwarting the Tower of Babel project highlighting humanity’s misplaced worship of self instead of God (Genesis 11:1-9), and so on, humanity excels at incorrectly acting on insecurity. Human insecurity births slavery by causing someone to (1) voluntarily enslave themselves due to the belief that another person or group’s abundance can provide for their scarcity, (2) agree to enslave themselves to a person or group toward working off a debt or responsibility they cannot eliminate from their present resources, or (3) be involuntarily forced into slavery by a person or group’s military, manipulative, or maniacal conquest.
Fiction: All slavery is created equal.
Though all types and kinds of slavery in the human experience can be traced back to one of the three forms discussed above (voluntary, mutually agreeable, involuntary), it would be grossly offensive to declare all forms the same. For example, Jacob volunteered himself for a seven-year enslavement toward securing Rachel for his wife, and upon receiving Leah first and then Rachel, agreed to complete another seven-year enslavement period (Genesis 29:16-30). Joseph’s involuntary slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:27, Genesis 39:1-41:57) is not equal to what his Hebrew descendants experienced during their involuntary Egyptian enslavement (Exodus 1) as Joseph was able to work and gain stature of all kinds for himself, while the Hebrew people “were worked ruthlessly” (Exodus1:13), encountered “harsh labor” (Exodus 1:14), and were the recipients of genocidal attack (Exodus 1:15, 16, 22) during their enslavement. The Bible even speaks of specific individuals commended for their faith in Hebrews 11 who are said to have held slaves elsewhere within its pages (such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, etc.) while not mentioning others who held slaves, so even from God’s own accounts we see differences for slavery in practice.
The spectrum of slavery can be seen in modern times as well. Slavery common to the Roman Empire would be characterized as chattel slavery due to being involuntary, yet this specific type of slavery was widely variable as white collar, blue collar, and undesirable positions could be held by slaves as they were able to gain financial and social standing alongside purchasing their freedom. Slavery common to feudal Europe would typically be characterized as an indentured servitude where individuals worked for an agreed upon period of time as they paid off debts and also held rights regarding their treatment. Slavery common to the United States would be characterized as chattel slavery as individuals were forced into the life, treated brutally, and possessed no upward mobility as they were typically enslaved for a lifetime.
Fiction: The Bible defends slavery.
Like other practices or institutions in place because of humanity’s desires as opposed to those from God (i.e. polygamy, divorce, etc.), the Bible addresses the reality of slavery by God’s direct and indirect messaging toward it and the human experience from the context of the biblical author inspired by the Holy Spirit to include it in their writing. God’s direct and indirect messaging helps uncover the heart of the issue God desires to reveal regarding slavery. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21) and the Golden Rule of the New Testament (Matthew 7:12) cover and convict the institution of slavery. After assessing these foundational laws that show the wrongness of slavery, one can move to passages that address specifics for those involved in slavery due to it being a societal occurrence. Old Testament law (Exodus 21-22:15; Leviticus 19:20-21, 25:39-55, Deuteronomy 15:12-18, 23:15-16) provide a framework for Jewish and Gentile/non-Jewish individuals engaged in Hebrew slavery within the ancient Near East context toward providing accountability for both slaves and masters. New Testament instruction (Romans 6:15-23; 1 Corinthians 7:21-24; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Book of Philemon) provides a framework for all individuals engaged in Roman slavery within the first century world toward reconciling the freedom inherent when an individual follows Christ and the freedom(s) both sides should give up toward showing the secular world around them the transformative power of the Christian faith.
Moreover, what we tend to forget in addressing slavery and the Bible is that the subject must encompass the totality of the Bible and not simply the sections a reader can cherry pick regarding slavery in either testament. The reality is it would be difficult for a follower of Jesus Christ to profess allegiance to His summary of God’s commands for humanity in “loving God with your entire being” and “loving your neighbor like yourself” (Mark 12:29-31, paraphrase) and then engage in actions within slavery completely contrary to that same summary on whatever level they find themselves engaged in slavery. God gave us the Bible toward helping us understand His heart so we do not confuse the fact of His immutability with the realities of our own inconsistent natures and injured world.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common