To the objection, “How can Christians believe in a God who condones slavery?” I decided to write a Christian response. If you’re a Christian who shares your faith, you have probably heard this old accusation thrown at God. Inside your heart, you know it’s a canard. God did everything possible (including parting the Red Sea) to set three million Jewish slaves free… how can this same loving God be called pro-slavery? Something is wrong with that logic.
Undeniably there are references to slavery in both the Old and New Testaments. How are we to understand the Biblical position on slavery? As with most subjects, we should begin by defining the terms clearly to avoid conflation, then examine evidence, and finally offer a conclusion to this matter.
Modern people use the term “slavery” to refer to three related experiences: involuntary servitude, violent control and exploitative racism. The English word “slave” is originally an ethnic term. It comes from the Greek “sklabos” which refers to an ethnic group – the “Slavs”. Northern European Vikings used to seize Eastern European Slavs and sell them to Southern European Romans as “slaves”. The Romans used to call every type of servant by the Latin word “servus”. The term “slave” appeared relatively recently in 580AD (after the fall of Roman Empire). In other words, the modern term “slave” and its connotation was not in the Judeo-Christian Bible written between 1600 BC to 100AD.
The word “slave” in the English Bible was an unfortunate choice of word translated from the Greek doulon and the Hebrew abdow (masculine) and amatow (feminine), or ha’ebed (masculine) and ha’amah (feminine). Doulon, abdow and ha’ebd are translated as “slave,” “male servant,” and “official.” Amatow and ha’amah are translated as “slave,” “maid,” and “female servant.”
The first instance of the word “slave” in the Bible refers to Abraham’s senior servant Eliezer, a man who was second in charge of Abraham’s household, who was considered a possible heir to Abraham (Genesis 15:2), and whose last recorded duty was to choose a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24). Clearly the Bible is not talking about a slave in any modern sense of the word.
The first instance of a female “slave” is Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, the Matriarch of the Arab world, and the mother of Ishmael, the Patriarch of the Arabs. Ishamel was rejected as heir, yet was a rich and powerful figure in the Middle East.
The first instance of someone being “sold into slavery” is Joseph. He truly was subjected to deplorable treatment, being thrown down a well by his own ten brothers and sold to the Midianite-Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver (Gen 37:28), who in turn sold him to Potiphar for 400 pieces of silver (Book of Jasher 44:8). Yet for all that hardship, it should be noted that Joseph was put in charge of Potiphar’s business, a role that today would deserve the title of senior management, or director, if not CEO. Joseph as a slave was on a career path which most working people today would envy!
Objectively Joseph’s price tells us the value of slaves in the ancient world. His brothers got in exchange for Joseph the equivalent of $5,000, while the Ishamelite middlemen did far better, pocketing $100,000 converted into today’s currency. This tells us that the status of Biblical “slaves” cannot be compared to that of slaves in colonial or modern times. The Washington DC-based organization “Free the Slaves” estimates that “for most of human history slaves were expensive, the average cost being around $40,000 in today’s money. That price has now fallen to an all-time historical low. The average slave costs around $90 today.”1 Joseph was considered above average, but well within the going range. To understand the difference between Biblical and modern “slaves,” just think, would you treat a $90 car differently than $100,000 car? Sure you would. The ancients did, too. There is no indication in the Bible that Joseph was impoverished, malnourished or spent any time in chains as a “slave”. Even after he was falsely accused and put in prison, Joseph remained in good spirits and showed no sign of abuse (Genesis 38:20-23, 40:6-7).
We have not researched very far into the Bible (we are still in the first book of Genesis), but we can already see a difference between the Biblical and modern definitions of “slaves”. Don’t let non-Christians fool you. There is a big distinction.
The Bible uses the term “slavery” to refer to “employment,” from maids to managers, servants to CEOs. Modern people use the term “slavery” to refer to involuntary servitude, violent control and exploitative racism.
Concerning this kind of slavery, God is against. God does not like one human oppressing another, and many stories of the Bible concern an oppressed person or people praying to God for deliverance, and God answering them miraculously by setting them free. Over and over this is the story of God and His people. Indeed, Christians have been at the forefront of setting this type of slave free, even at the cost of their own lives, reputation and careers. The Christian President and emancipator of American slaves, Abraham Lincoln, said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce said, “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.” Who opposed Abraham Lincoln, mocked William Wilberforce and dubbed Bible-believing abolitionists “fanatics”? The secularists!
God does not want anyone to be a sex slave, child slave, child soldier or even a second class citizen based on race. “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9 NAS) Christian author Rick Joyner wrote, “Racism is one of the ultimate evils of the human heart. This is because racism is rooted in two of the worst evils: fear and pride. We become a racist when we start seeing ourselves as superior because of our race or other external, superficial reasons. We also become racists because we begin to fear those who are not like us. When you combine fear and pride, you have one of the most deadly concoctions that ever perverted the human soul. It is the single factor that has released more death and destruction on earth than any other in history through the wars and other conflicts they have caused.”2
Racism has historically been the greatest cause of slavery, not religion nor God. God hates fear, pride, racism, and the slavery they produce. He wants us to have nothing to do with them.
When we don’t study the Bible, we tend to believe the exact opposite of the truth. Freedom is the most important value to God. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…” (Galatians 5:1) “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…” (2 Corinthians 3:17) Yet people who don’t read the Bible accuse God of loving slavery.
No! God is for liberty. Satan is for slavery. They are total opposites! Anyone who follows God knows God hates slavery and loves freedom. Patrick Henry is often quoted only in part when he said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Every believer is by definition anti-slavery.
But what God calls slavery is more than temporal, political institutions. God goes to the heart and watches over our eternity. We may be slaves to sin, which makes us slaves to Satan himself. To become Christian, we must do more than merely join a church or change religion. We must put our trust uniquely in Christ because He alone is free from sin, and He gave His sinless life in exchange for our freedom. A master’s life for a slave’s life.
His pain becomes our pleasure. Now that we are free in Christ, what next? Go back to slavery?
No! The two major purposes of our life on earth is to use our freedom to worship God and to help others get set free from their own forms of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual slavery. We are called to stay free, free from the slavery of sin, the slavery of addiction, debt, deception, and lusts of the flesh. We are free to worship, free to go to church, free to serve. Many will not choose or will not use this precious freedom. As our Lord said, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)
God loves freedom. The world is in the mess we see largely because of the freedom people have been given. We as “free moral agents” demand our freedom. We want to be free from control, we don’t want to be told what to do, we prefer our own ways rather than God’s ways. So few go to church though they are free to. So few choose Jesus though they are given opportunity.
God cherishes freedom so much that He says to us, in effect: “Alright, you may have it your own way, to choose good or to choose evil. I will allow it for a time. After 6000 years of doing things your way, we’re going to meet and have a reckoning. I won’t let it go on forever because I know how much pain you will bring upon each other. But lest you accuse Me of robbing your freedom or making you involuntary slaves, I’ll let you be unless you choose Me. Those of you who voluntarily choose My way can enter the Kingdom of My Dear Son – the Messiah. Until then, you are free to choose whom you follow. Remember I also love justice. I will eventually judge you based on how you used or abused your freedom. Even when no one seems to be watching, I will be watching everyone without interfering. I will take note of you when you lie to anyone, cheat anyone, hurt anyone. If you are weary of man’s way, if you wish to repent at any time and choose My way, I have provided My Son Jesus to guide you. Follow Him! See you soon!” The answer to the perplexities of life can be summarized in one word: freedom.
In my next blog I will dig beyond Genesis to find evidence and illustrations of “slavery” in the Bible. I hope you will subscribe and stay tuned to my next update! Leave a kind comment – I’d love to hear how this helped you understand God and His Word.
UPDATE ON PM KEVIN RUDD
Since this article was first posted on 9 August 2013, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has incorrectly compared the Biblical view of “same sex union” with the Biblical view of slavery. For anyone who doubted the importance of a lucid, Christian answer to this hackneyed objection, those doubts vanished for the Australian Church on the night of 2nd September 2013. On ABC television, Mr. Rudd mocked the Bible and Pastor Matt Prater by saying, “Well, mate, if I was going to have that view [that marriage is between a man and woman], the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.”
Not only was it a cheap shot at the Holy Bible, it was a high profile display of religious vilification against Christianity. Would Mr. Rudd dare to repeat his exact same words against a far more anti-homosexual text – the Quran? His discrimination is truly grotesque. How do politicians get away with such anti-Christian bias? Their words are couched in the Newspeak of equality and tolerance. This was, as it so happened, exactly the subject of my two follow-up posts on slavery in the Bible:
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