Does God Condone Slavery in the Old Testament? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 2 of this series, we reviewed 5 characteristics of New World slavery.  Starting in part 3, we will compare the 5 characteristics of New World slavery with Hebrew slavery in the Law (first five books of the Old Testament).

Before we get started, a couple of general comments need to be made.  Since the great majority of passages in the Law are regarding instructions about Hebrew slaves serving other Hebrews, that is the situation we will analyze.  The few passages in the Law concerning foreign slaves will not be addressed (maybe another time).

First, New World “slavery was motivated by the economic advantage of the elite.”  What about in the case of Old Testament (OT) slavery?  According to the Christian Thinktank, “The ‘slavery’ of the OT was essentially designed to serve the poor!”  Yes, you read that correctly.  This is a fundamental and profound difference between New World and Hebrew slavery.

Consider this important text from Leviticus 25:35-43 on Hebrew slavery:

‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you.  You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit.  I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave.  He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee.  Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers.  Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.  Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.’

The Thinktank explains, “Notice that the sole motive–in the primary text before us– for allowing ‘slavery’ is so the poor can continue in the land, and that it is NEVER ‘forever’ (indeed, other passages indicate that it was 6 years at the most!). This is radically different than an elitest-motive.”

Second, New World entry into “slavery was overwhelmingly involuntary. Humans were captured by force and sold via slave-traders.”  What about OT slavery?  “In the OT, this relationship was overwhelmingly voluntary, and forced, non-negotiated . . . enslavement was a capital offense.”

Four specific points need to be made here:

  1. “Forced enslavement of Hebrews was punishable by death” – see Ex. 21:16 and Deut. 24:7.
  2. “The vast majority of cases would have been voluntary, with the person himself initiating the transaction” – see Lev. 25:39; Lev. 25:47; Deut. 15:12.
  3. “Although most of these arrangements were limited to six years in length (e.g., Deut. 15:12 above), continuation of this relationship was possible, but ONLY AS a strictly voluntary act of the ‘slave'” – see Ex. 21:5-6; Deut. 15:16-17
  4. “The only clear case of involuntary servitude was in the case of a thief that was too poor to make restitution for good stolen, and here is was strictly an economic measure” – see Ex. 22:3

The next three characteristics of New World slavery will be compared to OT slavery in future posts, but I hope you can already understand that Hebrew “slavery” is radically different from the slavery of the southern United States.