Biblical Slavery vs. Modern Slavery
Have you ever asked the question “Why is slavery in the Bible?” or “Why do the Jews have laws that allow them to have slaves?” I know I have. I mean even when Jesus walked the earth why did He not say, “Let there be no more slavery.” I know He said that He came to set the captives free but still there were slaves and there is that big confusing thing called the Law of Moses that gave rules on proper slavery. So what’s the deal? How do we make sense out of all of this?
Well first start by defining slavery. The Dictionary states it as: The state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household. So they are roughly personal property that they can do whatever they want to with. So they are the same as a shoe or trashcan and just like one’s shoe or trashcan you can do whatever you want to with them. We see this kind of slavery when whites used to have Africans as their slaves. But is this the same kind of slavery we see in the Bible? Modern slaves have no rights, no freedoms, many cannot get married, and they are treated however the mast may wish.
We shall start our observations with Abraham. Now Abraham himself had slaves/servants in his household. But who was his household if all there was, was Sarah, Lot, Lot’s wife and daughters. Yet he is said to have a household? Who else made up a household? Well it’s simple it was the slaves/servants. They were a part of his household for they were under his authority or rather his possessions. The scriptures gives us the name of one who was under his household named Eliezer, this man had been made heir of all of Abraham’s house. A slave was made heir, now this is quite peculiar (Gen 15:2-3). Who ever heard of a slave receiving an inheritance let alone everything? Though as the story goes on Abraham eventually has a son in old age who becomes the new heir but that does not change the point that a slave had been made an heir at one point. When Abraham was growing near to his death, he asked the oldest of his house, who was also a slave, to go and find his son Isaac a wife. Now this slave had been put in charge over his entire house. This was no mere slave, this man had authority. Many tend to think Eliezer was the one placed in charge since at one time he was the heir, no matter who it was it still shows that Abraham’s slaves were not like modern slaves. Now on our final point concerning Abraham when he went to war before Isaac was born he had his slaves go to war with him, but if he was just single man with no children why would they fight for him? Would they not just rebel since they have the obvious number advantage? And how could he afford to weaponize them even with his wealth? Perhaps they possessed their own weapons and if that is the case why not use those weapons to free themselves from slavery? Surely they were not like modern slaves. Maybe something is different about this form of slavery, as these slaves have authority, possessions, and freedoms as well as are considered to be part of the family in many ways.
Now in the Law of Moses it gives many laws concerning how to treat their slaves. If man were to possess a fellow Israeli as their slave they were to be set free on the year of jubilee, but the Gentile was kept for a permanent possession. These Gentile slaves were not what we define modern slavery. Remember modern day slaves have no rights, they are considered to be nothing more than animals with no value than that which one could get out of them. The slaves in the Bible under the Law of Moses had rights, they could marry, they celebrated with the family (not as the cooks in the back but celebrated with them), they had the Sabbath off and so on (Ex 20:10, Deut 5:14, Deut 12:12, Deut 16:10-14.).
The Law of Moses (Post Abraham) states multiple times to be careful of how they treat slaves and to obey God’s laws concerning slavery, for they themselves were once slaves and know what that felt like to have no rights. The Code of Hammurabi which dated back to 1777 BC was one of several sets of laws in the ancient Near East.  The code of laws was arranged in orderly groups, so that everyone who read the laws would know what was required of them.The Code of Hammurabi gave neither penalty for the murder of a slave, nor a penalty for injuring a slave, and it considered the life of a slave to be of a lesser value than that of a free born man. However, the Law of Moses gave the death penalty for the murder of any man (Exodus 21:12), a slave was to be set free if his master inflicted a permanent injury (Exodus 21:26-27), and both slave and free man were considered equal (Exodus 21:12, 19). For the Law of Moses these rules were for both Jewish slaves and Gentile slaves. So wait slaves under the Law of Moses had civil rights that the master was mandated to uphold? Even in the U.S. after the slaves were set free it was nearly a century later that they finally started receive civil rights from the government, yet in the Bible the slaves started off with it. How peculiar…
In Lev 22:10-11 only the Levitical priests could eat the food that was considered holy, where as the rest of the children of Israel could not. But wait what is this? The slaves of the priest can? That is quite peculiar.
“No layman, however, is to eat the holy gift; a sojourner with the priest or a hired man shall not eat of the holy gift. 11But if a priest buys a slave as his property with his money, that one may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food.” Lev. 22:10-11
Now if you are one to think that the Bible promotes racism and that God disliked or valued Gentiles as less than then simply read: Num 15:15-16, Ex. 23:9, Lev. 19:33-34, Lev 24:22.
Now let us move on to the New Testament and Jesus and the Pauline letters. It is true that Jesus never said slavery is bad, nor did Paul, however; they never said it was good. They never promoted it nor denounced it. Jesus did however claim the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1 and how He had come to bring freedom to the slaves; this may be found in Luke 4:18. We also know at the second coming of Christ He will fulfill that passage completely and all slaves will be set free. In Matthew 8:9 it speaks of the servant of the Roman centurion who was gravely sick, so the centurion asked Jesus to heal him. Now the word used for servant is “doulos” which just happens to be the same word used in Matthew 20:27 when Jesus calls His disciples to become like servants to one another. Jesus calls us them to be a slaves if they are to become the greatest in the age to come. Jesus in the Gospels called the Jews to keep the Law (Torah) which means even the laws concerning how they treated slaves. Most of these slaves/servants would have comprised mostly of people in debt to them. He also called them to be merciful and to love.
Present day slavery of taking someone from their home and making them your slave because of their race or making them your sex-slave was not a current big issue with Jesus’ audience. If it was then He would have addressed it and since we only have a fragment of what He said and did we cannot say He never addressed it. But if you take His messages on love, mercy and forgiveness it could easily apply to the present form of slavery. Forcing someone into prostitution is not love. In reality they were the one being oppressed and He called them to love and not attack back. This is in some ways similar to the MLK method during the Civil Rights movement, though Jesus called the people to go even the extra mile out of love (Matthew 5-7).
The Pauline letters are addressing the same thing if you are a slave/servant then obey your master, love them, honor them (i.e. don’t fight them). Paul goes on to address the masters and call them to love and honor the slaves/servants (i.e. remember the Law of Moses and the Greater Law of Loving your neighbor which is both Jew and Gentile). Also in the book of Philemon Paul actually addresses a man on his slave/servant for his freedom to the point he offered to pay for his freedom.
In conclusion, that I am aware of the Bible never says “Thou shalt not have slaves” just as it does not say “Hey go buy yourself some slaves” it merely addresses how you treat them if you have one. They are not inferior but to be considered as part of your family. This is why many slaves when set free were prone to becoming lifelong bond slaves to their former master. They at some point fell in love with their master because their master because of how great they had been treated. If the master had obeyed the Law of Moses or later the Law of Love given by Christ then they would have treated their slave as one of their children. The slave would have viewed their master as less of a task master but more of a father figure. The slave would have been a part of the house and thus upon release many would long to stay as part of the family, hence becoming a bond slave. For many of the slaves they probably would have found a place of dependence on their master like a son towards his father. This is a reflection of God with us. Upon being set free we realize our dependence and love towards Him and how good He has always been towards us and we subject ourselves to Him out of love and thanksgiving. So Modern slavery is wicked but it would seem though I could be wrong that the Biblical form not only was completely different that it’s modern form but also to point us to God.