Q: #20. Did God condone slavery?
A: Slavery was a part of the culture in Bible times, and apparently God accepted its reality just as He accepted polygamy, divorce, etc… However, God laid down very strict guidelines on how slaves were to be treated by their masters, and gave slaves many rights.
They were not to work on the Sabbath (Ex 20:10)(Deut 5:14).
They were to share in religious feasts (Deut 12:12,18)(Deut 16:11,14).
If a slave was killed, the one who killed him was to be put to death (Ex 21:12).
If a slave was seriously injured, he was to be set free (Ex 21:26-27).
Male slaves were to be circumcised so they could become members of God’s covenant (Gen 17:10-14).
If a master had a complaint against a slave, God ordered that there be fairness given (Job 31:13-15).
Hebrew slaves were to work only 6 years (Ex 21:2)(Deut 15:12), were allowed to buy their freedom (Lev 25:47-49), were to be released in the Year Of Jubilee no matter how long they had been slaves (Lev 25:37-43), and were to be given a liberal supply of food and drink when released (Deut 15:12-14).
If a slave escaped from his owner, he was not to be returned to the owner, but left alone and not oppressed wherever he chose to go (Deut 23:15-16).
If a slave was gored by an ox, restitution was to be given and the ox was to be killed (Ex 21:32).
This treatment of slaves certainly differs from the treatment slaves have received in more recent times. When we hear the term “slavery” today, we automatically tend to associate it with the examples of slavery we have seen in the last century or two, with its racial overtones, physical abuse and torture, slaves having no rights and being considered little more than dirt, etc… However, this is NOT a picture of the slavery that is connected with the Bible.
Slavery was not racially motivated. Slaves had rights. God condemned slave trading (the buying and selling of slaves for profit) (Ex 21:16)(Deut 24:7)(1 Tim 1:10)(Rev 18:13).
Many people voluntarily made themselves slaves, to pay off a debt they owed to someone (Lev 25:39-41,47)(Ex 21:2-6)(Neh 5:1-5), or to make restitution for something they had stolen and couldn’t repay (Ex 22:2-3). If they didn’t do so, they would have ended up in debtor’s prison.
In addition, some people were made slaves in order to spare their lives after a military victory (Num 31:15-17)(Gen 14:21). Some feared they would die in war, and chose to be slaves instead (Josh 9). In some cases, the slaves loved their masters and became like a part of the master’s family (Ex 21:5-6)(Deut 15:16-17)(1 Chr 2:34-35). Abram was so close to his servant Elisar, that he was going to make Elisar his heir (Gen 15:1-3), before God finally gave him his sons Ishmael and Isaac to be heirs.
Historically, many Christians were sold into slavery in the years following Jesus death. They often brought a higher price than the people of heathen nations, because Christians were told not to rebel, but rather, to obey their masters and serve in a way that would bring glory to God (Col 3:22)(Eph 6:5-8)(1 Tim 6:1-2)(1 Pet 2:18-20)(Titus 2:9-10). Their hard work and dedication became a testimony of the Lord working in their lives, and as a result, many of their owners and co- workers became Christians themselves.
In a spiritual sense, all Christians are called slaves to Christ (Eph 6:6). We are slaves by choice, and we should serve Jesus and others in a way that would be seen as a light in the world and bring non-believers to Christ through our servanthood.