Does God condone slavery?

Chained (a)A common indictment against God (or the Bible) is that He condones slavery. There have been a number of responses to this sort of accusation. Most of the responses that I have heard or read about are typically quite similar. For most who level this challenge against God, the rebuttal is found lacking.

Most commonly, the rebuttal is that the slavery indicated in the Bible is not the sort of slavery that we currently think of in a post-19th Century Colonial America. While this line of argumentation seems to be true, as far as it goes, I don't believe it gets us very far in the conversation.

Many of those whom I have heard raise this objection, upon hearing such a comparison will point out a key passage in Exodus 21. Let's take a look at this passage which often gets quoted as a challenge to the kind of slavery the Bible refers to:

 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property."
- Exodus 21:20-21

According to the common rebuttal, biblical slavery was not violent and did not involve mistreatment of slaves. It was generally more of an indentured servitude and was often a temporary situation which allowed a person to pay a debt that they otherwise would not be able to pay. Once the debt was paid, or the year of Jubilee arrived, the slave was then set free.

This kind of slavery was, in fact, quite prevalent in Hebrew society during the time of Exodus. However, from the above passage, we can see that this was not always the case. The challenge from many non-believers is that the Bible seems to clearly state that it is permissible to beat ones slaves provided that they were still alive a couple days later.

So, what is going on, here? This does not seem to be the type of thing one would expect from a God who is as loving and compassionate as most Christians claim Him to be. First, let us prepare a bit of a foundation for where we will be going today.

C. S. Lewis coined a term to describe the manner in which many people today (or at his time) would often view people in modern society to be far more intelligent than people in the distant past. The term he used was "chronological snobbery." He pointed out that just because we have more knowledge and information and technology today, that does not mean that people who lived thousands of years ago were mindless buffoons. They were quite capable of thinking critically, every bit as much as we can today. The only difference is that we have more information to incorporate into our thinking.

Another important concept that I once heard was that the best commentary for scripture is scripture. When the church fathers were convening, all those centuries ago, to determine which writings should be included in the scripture so as to be considered the infallible Word of God, one of the criterion that they used was that any text to be included had to fit with the rest of the text. This is where the idea of chronological snobbery comes in. It would be foolish to simply assume that because these people lived over 1500 years ago, that they were any less capable of determining whether or not certain texts agreed or disagreed with one another. Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that these men, who lived closer in time to the events in the Bible, probably went through quite an effort to ensure that the texts to be included were, in fact, consistent.

That being the case, we have the entire collection of 66 books to refer to as a way to better understand any given passage from the whole. For our purposes at the moment, let's just start small and keep to the same chapter of the same book in order to get some context for the troublesome passage above.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him."
- Exodus 21:2-3

Here, we see a rule about Hebrew slaves, specifically. This points to the common claim that biblical slavery was not the same as colonial slavery. The slaves had rights, such as taking with them what they brought (a wife, in this case) and they would be free after no more than six years. So far so good.

"If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free."
- Exodus 21:4

This often gets some hackles raised. I will get more into this later, but for now, please try to keep in mind the society at the time. God, here, is putting some guidelines around what was a very common practice in order to make things better for those who were in slavery, while at the same time, trying not to so radically redefine societal norms as to cause people to rebel. Think of this from the perspective of the slave owner...If you had a male and a female slave who married and the male was set free, just because these two people married, why should the owner have to pay the price for that by losing additional slaves? (Please understand, I'm not saying it's justified. I'm merely trying to describe the perspective of the culture at that time.)

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.  If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money."
- Exodus 21:7-11

Again, let's remember what the culture was like. Women did not have equal standing with men. However, I do find it interesting that if a master is not pleased with a daughter sold to him, he cannot just sell her to someone else. He has to basically give her back to her parents. Also, notice something very interesting about the end of verse 8, "...because he has broken faith with her." (Emphasis, mine). It wasn't her breaking the deal, it was the master.

Next, we look at what happens if she marries one of his sons....she is no longer to be a slave to is to be treated as his own daughter, with all the rights that come along with that. This is far, far better a situation than the way slavery was practiced in surrounding nations. Slaves had no rights at all. Period. Lastly, if she marries the son and he doesn't fulfill his marital duties to her, she is free!

After this, we have some rules about harming people. I won't spend much time on it, as it is not specific to slaves. I will point out, however, that it refers to harming "people." Given that we have already seen that slaves are to be given certain rights, then it seems to me that slaves were not outside the category of "people" and therefore, the rules specified in Exodus 21:12-19 would apply equally to them as well as those who are free.

Now, we come to verses 20-21 that we mentioned earlier. But now, we see a bit more context. Slaves are people, they have rights. Even female slaves have rights. From here, it still looks as though giving them a good beating is acceptable, though. Maybe we should read on to get the context more fully.

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
- Exodus 21:22-25

This doesn't seem to have anything specific to do with slavery (apart from the aforementioned inclusion of slaves as "people"). But, we can learn something rather important for further understanding, here. It seems quite clear that there is a limitation here with respect to how one "gets even" with someone who wronged them. The response can not be more severe than the original affront. It was not uncommon in that time that if someone rendered a man blind, in a fight for example, the family of the man harmed might retaliate by killing the man who harmed their family member. God clearly is putting a stop to that by limiting the degree to which you can "get back" at someone by keeping it to no more than the harm that might have been done to you.

“An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth."
- Exodus 21:26-27

This passage seems pretty interesting. If you keep in mind the previous passage about keeping things "fair" with respect to retaliation, I find it interesting that such a relatively small thing as knocking out a tooth is sufficient to win someone their freedom. In light of vv. 22-25, this is, apparently, just and fair. It sheds some light on the tenuous nature of slave ownership.

There are two things that I want to digress on at this point. The first is what I foresee as a likely response, right out of the gate, here. That response might be, "Ok. Then if the owner beats the slave about the back, legs, chest, etc., as long as he doesn't hurt the eye or knock out a tooth, he can beat the snot out of them." To that, I would respond with the following passage to give us some further context:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates."
- Deuteronomy 6:5-9

While this was taken quite literally by some, to the extent that they actually created devices, called phylacteries, which were inscribed with these scriptures and worn hanging from the forehead, it seems to me that it was not meant to be quite so literal. I think it is somewhat clear that what God is saying here is more along the lines of, "Keep me at the forefront of your mind all day, every day. Wherever you go, whatever you do, I should be in the most prominent place in your thoughts."

I point that out in order to illustrate how I would deal with Exodus 21:26-27. If you understand that, in that culture, things such as slapping someone across the face (usually, fairly hard) was a pretty common thing. I would imagine that knocking out a tooth was a common occurrence as a result. If we understand the spirit of what is being said, you might be able to paraphrase this as something like today's saying about, "not harming a hair on their head."

Next, we go to my second digression.

Given the character painted in the New Testament of a loving, compassionate, forgiving God who is full of grace, we must again remember that the church fathers would have had to have dealt with this and considered there to be no inconsistency. Remember, just because they were not as technologically advances as we are today, that doesn't mean that they were stupid.

Let us think about an important question with respect to God and His laws. That is, is it at all possible that God could decree a law that was not, in fact, up to His own ideal? Is it possible that God could decree a law that fell short of what His ultimate desire would have been? For the answer to this question, let's take a look at Matthew 19:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
- Matthew 19:3-8

Notice here that God allowed divorce because He condescending to a level that He could actually reach the people of Israel. He didn't want divorce, but He met the people where they were. It was not God's ideal, but it was done this way "because your hearts were hard." God condescended to allow less than His own ideal in order that He could reach His people.

Now, with this in mind, let's think again about the Exodus 21 passages. What we see in these passages is that, while other nations could do what they wanted with their slaves (up to and including outright killing them with no justification required), God is putting some parameters around how slaves can be treated. Israel wasn't allowed to kill them. They were basically told that they couldn't even really harm them (vv 26-27). It was not the situation He wanted, ultimately, but it was a way for Him to get them to move away from the kind of slavery common in the culture at the time, toward (but not all the way to) His ideal.

Much like the marriage passage we saw from Matthew, Jesus pointed out that it was a certain way in the beginning as He pointed out the passage from Genesis. Likewise, we can go back to Genesis to see how people were to be valued from the beginning:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
- Genesis 1:27

Human beings were created in God's own image. It is for that reason that Man has equal, intrinsic value. Then, later in the New Testament:

"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
- Galatians 3:26-28

Paul tells us that we are all the same in Christ. Just like we had equal value in the beginning, so we have equal value now. God recognized that, in a post-Genesis 3 world, people were messed up and they did not recognize these truths. So, He met them were they were, moved them closer to where He wanted them to be and then later, after Jesus came to earth, He showed them where that trajectory ended up...right were it started in the beginning.

For further reading on this topic, see the following resources:

Does God condone slavery in the Bible -
Does the Bible approve of slavery - Come Reason Ministries
Is God a Moral Monster - Dr. Paul Copan


  1. It's nice to see someone put so much research and thought into such a controversial subject. Great job. As in all things, we must strive to be as close as possible to God's ideal, while also giving others grace in knowing we all fall short. It goes hand in hand with the verse saying that all things may be permissible, but not all things are good. We need the discernment and wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the example of Christ to guide our decisions on "tricky" subjects.

  2. Thank you, Linda. Very kind if you to say. There certainly are quite a number of controversial topics both inside and outside the Church. I'm hoping to post a number of these types of things but I want to be careful how I present them in order to maintain what I hope will be well-thought-out and well researched viewpoints and ensure that I have the appropriate level of respect for opposing views.