by Don R. Camp
Slavery is big business both in America and around the world
today. According to reporter Annie Kelly writing for The
, “an estimated 21 million people are trapped in
some form of forced labour.”
The money involved is equally staggering: “according to the United
Nations, 'the profits from global forced labour to be at least
$44bn a year.'” 1
And almost every one of us in the
United Sates benefits. We benefit from lower prices on goods made
overseas by forced laborers. 2
from lower food costs for food such as prawns and other sea foods
produced by enslaved Burmese and Cambodian fishermen.3
And that does not even take into consideration the huge worldwide
slave sex trade, girls kidnapped or sold into prostitution
in America and overseas. Over 100,000 children are
trafficked in the United States every year and 20 million
worldwide, many of them in India where my daughter worked with a
non-government organization to rescue minor girls from
prostitution on GB Road in Delhi. Estimates are that as many
as 4000 are forced to work in the sex industry on GB Road alone 4
But even this is not the whole picture. Slavery takes many forms,
some of them less recognizable than others. One of those less
easily recognized forms of slavery, except in retrospect, has been
economic slavery. The irony in American history was that while the
North condemned the enslavement of African slaves in the South the
growing industrialization of the North was creating its own slave
class. These were people, largely immigrants, who survived only as
they and their children worked in the sweatshops of industrial
America for wages that provided barely enough for them to exist.
Kevin Bales argues in Disposable People
Where once there was "old" slavery, based around the
legal ownership of other human beings, there is now, according
to Kevin Bales, "new" slavery, where "the total control of one
person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation" is
the norm. This change is intimately related to the advent of a
truly global economy, in which producers and consumers exist at
even further remove from each other. Here, profit is the sole
driving force behind the enslavement of people who are now
victimised [sic]not because of their race, but because of their
vulnerability: they are enslaved simply because they can be,
their servitude no longer legitimated by reference to any
standard of civilisation [sic] but maintained by their poverty
and illiteracy, the corruption of public authorities, and the
ever-present threat of violence. In Bales's words, this new
slavery is "faceless, temporary, highly profitable, legally
concealed, and completely ruthless". 5
To say that slavery is big business doesn’t come close.
And who benefits? Me and almost certainly you. We benefit
when we buy a pair of Nike sneakers made by barely subsistence
level foreign labor. We benefit when we buy a burger at McDonalds
or Burger King where people who are making barely enough to live
on – if they were working full time - serve us. We benefit when we
click on the pornography site on the Internet. And those who are
enslaved in those industries pay the price. That is economic
Economic slavery and oppression that enslaves people to their hurt
is not new.
The song writer in Psalm 10 speaks of it:
2 In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor; . . .
3 For the wicked boasts of the desires of his
and the one greedy for gain curses and
renounces the Lord.
With the suffering and inhumanity we see in just these examples,
it is right that slavery should be universally condemned. Every
decent person should be distressed at the suffering we inflict on
other people for the sake of our comfort or greed or lust. And it
is no wonder that we search for a reason and a solution. Sometimes
we call out the criminals who enslave their victims and the
governments that turn a blind eye to the suffering or the police
who are on the take in places like Delhi. Sometimes we blame big
business and the CEOs who profit hugely as they take advantage of
the little guy.
But the truth is, we are the ones to blame, though we seldom
do go that far. No. That would mean we would have to confront the
flaw in our own inhumanity that willingly uses other people to
their hurt and our benefit. No. Instead we play the freedom card
and justify our inhumanity by saying as long as people freely
choose to work at a job that does not pay a living wage, why
should I be blamed. Or as long as I can buy this pair of jeans for
$20, why should I care if forced labor in Guatemala made that
possible. No. We seldom go that far.
So we blame God.
In fact, blaming God has become a pastime on some anti-theist
websites and in YouTube videos. But is God to blame? Has God
caused our inhumanity? Has God sanctioned our crimes by not
speaking out, by not giving us laws to prevent it? That is the
question that drove my search into the Bible and what it says
I began with some of the Bible passages that Dr. Hector Avalos
included in his book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of
It is Dr. Avalos’s thesis that the
Bible and God, though Avalos does not actually believe in a God,
and Christians who do believe in God are responsible for the
incredible suffering that slavery has caused through the centuries
and is causing today. Basically his complaint is that God didn’t
put his foot down on slavery and make it illegal and that
Christians have been historically less than firm, perhaps even
culpable, in regard to slavery in the years since the last page of
the Bible was written.
So here are the passages Dr. Avalos identifies as evidence in
support of his thesis and a few others that Avalos ignores:
Genesis 9:19-27 and Noah’s Curse
Ham the son of Noah disrespected his father and received his
father’s curse, which was focused on Ham's son Canaan the : “Cursed
be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers…”May
Canaan be the slave of Shem….and may Canaan be his [Japheth’s)
This passage is evidence, or so it is said, that according
to God one particular people group, the Canaanites, would be by
his decree slaves of all the rest of humanity. Sometimes that
group called the Canaanites has been identified as the black
races. But that is without warrant; the Canaanites in the Bible
were not black.
But were they doomed to be slaves?
This passage is the first mention in the Bible of slaves. The word
is עָ֫בֶד (ebed). Ebed is translated both as slave
(Gen. 47:19) and as servant (Gen. 42:11). The precise meaning is
to be found in the context.
The fact that one word in Hebrew can be either slave or servant
reveals a problem that is found in all of the ancient literature:
there is seldom a clear way to determine if slave or servant is
what is meant. Slave we usually understand to be a chattel slave,
one who is the property of his master. But servant can be either a
bond servant or a hired servant or a voluntary servant or as
simply one who serves.
Here in Genesis 9 the idea is best understood as a simple servant
because the people of Canaan were not generally the slaves of
either the ancestors of Shem (Israel was of Shem) or of
Japheth. In the unfolding history of Israel, the Canaanites
did become the servants of Israel in the sense that they served
and a in literal way as slaves at times, but the latter was rare.
Most of the time the Canaanites lived alongside the
Israelites as free men though servants to the king, as were
all Israelites. Some became trusted military men in David’s
The passage, of course, recognizes the fact of servants and slaves
in the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE). But it does
not endorse slavery. It is a statement of what would happen in the
And that is important. Slavery was a fact of life in the Ancient
Near East (ANE). There are records of slaves “ in The Code of
n Babylon in the 18th century BCE.”6
But the institution of slavery goes back far earlier. According to
the author of this Ancient Origins article it arose when
civilization came to be based on cities, and agriculture in the
surrounding areas supported the city populations. That would
have been about 10,000 years ago. But even that is not far enough
back. Hunter-gatherer societies practiced slavery before that
period, and up into the 1700s, at least in the Pacific Northwest
of America, hunter-gatherer Indian tribes would capture slaves
from their enemies and employ them in their villages. Captured
slaves were considered wealth and status. But they were not
generally mistreated. Some married into the tribe. 7
Slavery dates to the very beginning of civilization.
The book of Job, the oldest piece of literature included
in the Bible coming from Mesopotamia in about 2000
BCE, records that slavery was not only present but that
there was a recognition of equality between master and slave,
standards of care for slaves, and a responsibility to God for that
care (Job 31:13-15)
Job was arguing that he had lived a well ordered life as a servant
of God in caring for his slaves/servants.
Genesis 15:3, a slave/servant might even be the heir of
When Abraham had become old and had no son he turned to Eliezer of
Damascus, a man in his household, as his possible
heir. Was Eliezer a slave? A servant? A hired man? Abraham
calls him בֶן־ (ben). That word is often used for son. But Eliezer
was not a son. It was also unlikely he was a hired man. Hired men
were rare in that culture, and a hired man would not be considered
a son or one belonging to the household. It is likely that he was
a servant/slave toward whom Abraham felt great affection and
whom he considered his chief and trusted servant.
No one in the Bible is considered to be without fault. And Abraham
certainly was not. Yet Abraham illustrates even in his
imperfection what would be a well ordered life as a servant of
Yahweh God. In this relationship with Eliezer, Abraham is a
picture of a well ordered life relative to a servant.
Genesis 16 the taking of a servant/slave as a
Hagar is described as a שִׁפְחָה. That word means either
maidservant or slave girl. Within the culture of the ANE a
שִׁפְחָה may be considered a concubine, a wife but secondary
in status to the wife. However, it does not appear
that Hagar was considered a concubine until Sarai gave her
Abraham. The fact that Sarai could give her to Abraham implies
that Hagar was a slave rather than a servant and that Hagar’s
child would be considered Sarai’s.
It would not have been considered improper in the culture for
Sarai to give her servant to her husband as a concubine, and it
should not be inferred that Hagar was forced against her will into
that relationship since she was pleased to have born a son for
Abraham. It was not rape as Avalos implies. The son born to
Hagar and Abraham would have been considered as much a son as a
son born to Sarai and Abraham (Gen. 21”:11f). That is why
Sarai wanted Hagar and Ismael her son sent away. She did not want
Ismael to be considered the firstborn in position over Isaac.
But there is the part about Abraham sending her away. It was
permissible in the culture since Hagar was not a wife. A slave
could be dismissed. But it seems less than honorable of Abraham
and less than compassionate of Sarai.
It should be noted that God did not command that Ishmael and Hagar
be sent away. In fact, God in response to Hagar’s complaint
promised both protection and blessing to Ishmael. But he did not
command Abraham to countermand Sarai’s desire to send Hagar away.
Genesis 17:12 Circumcision of slaves.
All Israelites were to be circumcised. It was a sign of their
belonging to God by covenant (Gen. 17:1,2). When God made this
covenant with Abraham he had all his servants and slaves
circumcised (Gen. 17:27). Slaves who were foreigners were to
be circumcised. That brought them under the covenant God had made
with Abraham and to a degree made them equal in the society to an
Israelite. (Ex. 12:43-45) Though there was no command given
regarding the progeny of these slaves, we may assume that they
were assimilated into the nation of Israel as free men and women
just as the foreigners who left Egypt with the Israelites in the
Exodus were considered to be Israelites by circumcision and by
birth after several generations. The difference was that
they were slaves and did not have the right of emancipation after
7 years, as did a Israelite who had become a slave by debt
or by choice.
But there is no evidence of a slave class.
2 Chron. 8:8,9. Canaanite slaves.
When Solomon began to build the temple and the fortifications of
his kingdom he made Canaanites the laborers. This argues that
these Canaanites were not slaves to that point. They were not a
slave class. But with the big project of building under Solomon
everyone was required to play a part. Israelites were conscripted
as soldiers or taxed. The unassimilated Canaanites were required
to do the labor.
Ecclesiastes 2:7. Solomon as a slave owner.
If Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon he acknowledges that he was
a slave owner. It was a mark of power and wealth. It may have been
common among the wealthy class in Solomon’s time. It is unlikely
that the common Israelite had servants or slaves. The common
Israelite was a farmer who had a limited amount of land allotted
to him by God. He had no need of slaves. Israelites who had
acquired more land and needed laborers may have had servants or
hired men and women as is implied of Boaz in Ruth 2. But Boaz is
clearly a generous man living a well ordered life as a servant of
Yahweh God and did not mistreat his workers.
Isaiah 14:2. Israel will take captive as slaves/servants
the remnant of Babylon.
The prophet predicts that the Lord will turn upon Babylon for her
sins against the Jews, and like Jews were slaves/servants in the
land of Babylon so Babylon would be slaves/servants of the Jews
when they return to the land. And that became reality as the Jews
returned from Babylon (Ezra 2:64,65)
. But it is far
from certain that these menservants and maidservants (Ezra 2
indicates there were 7,337) were unwillingly held as slaves or
unwilling to follow the Jews back to Jerusalem. In any event, that
was not a disaster to those menservants and maidservants who
returned with the Jews to Jerusalem. In the end they were
assimilated into the nation Israel.
Jeremiah 34:9. Slavery was being perverted.
It is clear that slavery continued to be practiced in Israel up to
the time of the captivity in the 6th century BC. But it also seems
that it was recognized as an evil to be repented of. It may be
that these men mentioned here had violated Yahweh’s commands about
enslaving other Israelites.
Lamentations 5:8, Jeremiah’s lament.
With the Babylonian victory over Judah, Jeremiah laments that they
the Jews have now been enslaved because they once enslaved
others. It is God’s punishment on them for their neglect of God’s
law which might well have included unlawfully enslaving people.
Poetic justice is a common theme in the way God deals with
Exodus 21:16, Slave trade.
The kidnapping of someone to sell him or her as a slave was
forbidden and punishable by death. Slave traders have only
evil intentions. They sell people for their own profit with no
thought to the good of the people.
Exodus 1, Israel enslaved
Israel suffered a huge disaster when after they had been welcomed
as sojourners in Egypt they were made slaves. It was an experience
that would color the thinking and the life of the nation from that
moment on. It is the background of all the laws regarding
slaves given by Moses. The Israelites must not treat others as
they had been treated. Slavery was a reality, but the mistreatment
of slaves must not be.
Regulations governing slavery:
Exodus 21:2, Hebrew slaves.
Hebrews might become slaves, usually because of economic
necessity. But Hebrew slaves are to be set free after 7 years.
They were to be set free fully provisioned (Deut. 15:12-15)
But a slave wife, if she had been purchased separately by the
slave owner and she became the wife of a slave later was not set
free at the same time. She apparently still had the 7 years of
service due her master.
Was this regulation an advancement on the regulation for setting
free the slave on the Jubilee year (every 50th year)? Dr.
Avalos implies that it was. If Deuteronomy is regarded as written
in Moses’ lifetime, it is unlikely a revision. The Jubilee year
would be considered a special case if it fell in the middle of the
7 years ordinarily specified.
Exodus 21:7-11, women slaves.
When a woman was purchased as a slave she was to be considered the
wife of the slave owner. She had the rights of a wife, and that
included protection from being sold to someone else. She would not
be displaced by a later wife. If she was not treated as a wife,
she had the right to her freedom.
Exodus 21:20, killing a slave.
If a slave owner killed a slave, it was a crime to be punished.
Whether that was to be capital punishment or some other is not
certain in the verse. But because no other penalty is
required, we can infer the same punishment for a man who kills
another either by accident or intention (Ex. 21:12-14).
Exodus 21:21, 26-27, injury to a slave/servant.
If a slave owner injures his slave but the slave recovers from his
injuries, the loss to the slave owner of the time of recovery was
considered to be the penalty. But if the injury was serious enough
to maim the slave, that slave was to be freed as compensation for
Some have argued that Ex. 21:21 allows a slave owner to beat his
slave nearly to death and get away with it or that if the slave
dies after a few days the slave owner is not to be held
responsible for the death. That takes the passage out of context
with the other rules of just treatment and penalties. Because the
death of a slave due to beating is covered in verse 20 and the
significant and long term injury to a slave in verses 26-27, we
can infer that this case was different. It was an injury that
didn’t lead to death and it was an injury that was not permanent.
Leviticus 25:35-43, Hebrew slaves
Hebrews could become slaves by indenturing themselves to a master.
They were not the property of the master. They were to be treated
as hired workers. He and his family were to be set free from their
debt at the year of Jubilee. Or they could be redeemed (25:48)
The reason that Israelites were to be treated in a special way was
that they belonged as slaves./servants to the Lord (25:55)
They had already been redeemed by God so any slavery subsequent to
that was temporary and more indentured servanthood than slavery.
They were not to be treated as property. This was God's provision
of a safety-net, but it was not to become a trap.
Leviticus 25:42-46, a Foreigner could be a slave for life.
Foreigners were not protected from slavery. They were protected as
slaves by the same laws that applied to all slavery, but they did
not have the right of release after 7 years or at the year of
Jubilee. They would be slaves for life.
Yet, there is no evidence of an institution of slavery.
Apparently, the children of those slaves were not to be considered
slaves. Those children might even have been considered as
Israelites since they would be circumcised.
Deuteronomy 23:15, runaway slaves.
Slaves who had run away from masters outside of Israel were to be
given refuge and not returned to their owners. They were to be
The land of Israel was a land of refuge for both the Israelites
who were refugees from Egypt and for anyone else seeking refuge.
It was better to be in Israel than anywhere else.
That general principle might be the guiding principle regarding
slavery and foreigners. Being a slave in Israel for a foreigner
was better than being free outside of Israel. As noted before they
were accorded the same rights as Israelites, except for their
bondage. They had become, as it were, the people of God and
covered by the covenant.
That was a blessing that far outweighed their bondage. They had
the blessing of knowing of God and his mercy. They had the
blessing of knowing God personally, and many foreigners became
fully men and women of faith – as did Ruth and Rahab.
In our view today slavery is an evil to be universally condemned.
But not all slaves even in the United States considered it so.
Phillis Wheatly was brought to American in 1761 from Africa and
sold as a slave to John Wheatly of Boston. Later in life she wrote
this poem that is part of our American literary history, though
today considered politically incorrect.
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train. 8
I do not doubt that the many African slaves who became Christians
were somewhat of the same mind. Their music, what we call
"spirituals," certainly illustrate that they found here a
hope they had not known before. They lamented that they were
slaves, but they also celebrated their spiritual freedom.
Joel 2:28-29, God’s people as his servants/slaves.
As we come to the end of the Old Testament Joel predicts the time
when God’s slaves/servants will have the Holy Spirit poured out on
them. The significance to our research on slavery is that Joel
reiterates the basic principle of the Bible from the Exodus
forward: God redeems us to himself. We do not belong to ourselves.
We belong to God.
That would have been a principle easily understood by most in that
culture. Few were absolutely free. It was not an egalitarian
society. With few exceptions everyone was the subject (servant) of
Later in the New Testament Paul would say that we as believers in
Jesus Christ are to obey God because we are not our own; we have
been bought with a price (we are his servants), therefore, we are
to glorify in the lives we live. Of himself Paul says he is a “doulos
( a voluntary bonded slave) of Jesus Christ.
Tying it all together:
Slavery was a reality
everywhere. But it was not universally evil. In some cases it
served the critical needs of a slave for home and livelihood. In
some cases it resulted in the opportunity for improvement
for their families that would not have been possible otherwise. In
every case from beginning before the law to the end of the Old
Testament, slaves were to be treated generously and with a sense
of equality. Mistreatment of slaves was punished. A Torah
observant, faithful Jew, such as Boaz, lived a well ordered life
following the law as a servant of Yahweh God. He would not have
mistreated his servant/slaves.
Slavery in the New Testament
Slavery was an institution in the Roman world. At the
beginning of the first century A.D. and through the second century
the number of slaves might have been as many as 10 million people,
1/6 of the population. Many had been captured during wars
with Rome, but many were also the children born to those captured
and enslaved enemies. Since Rome had no provision like the Jews of
including the children of slaves in the nation as people with
rights under the covenant of God, slave children often remained
slaves. These slaves might have been laborers and have been
mistreated, but there were also well educated slaves who served in
households as servants and many times as what we would consider
professionals like teachers and doctors. 9
When Christian began to make converts among the Romans and Greeks
many of those Romans were slaves, and a few were even slave
To these Christian slaves and slave owners Paul wrote instructions
in several of his letters to churches and one letter to a
particular slave owner, his friend Philemon. Here’s what he said:
To slaves he urged obedience to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8
and 1 Timothy 6:1).
They were to render service to their
masters in the same spirit as they were to serve God. They were to
consider their service to their masters AS service to God. Paul
told them that in so doing they would bring honor to the Lord.
Their life witness to the Lord was more important than even
freedom, especially if that freedom would result in defrauding
their master. Paul even sent runaway slave Onesimus back to
his master Philemon because he did not want Onesimus to live with
the fact that he had not only wronged Philemon by running away but
had apparently stolen from Philemon when he left and had not
returned what he had stolen (Phil. 14)
. Paul asked
that Philemon charge what was owed him to Paul’s own account.
But Paul’s instructions were not to slaves alone. He also wrote to
the masters who were Christians. He wrote that they treat their
slaves with kindness, those who were believers as fellow believers
. It is the same thing he asked of
Philemon (Philemon 16)
. But he went beyond merely asking
Philemon to take Onesimus back; he asked Philemon to accept him
back as a redeemed freed man, redeemed by the debt Philemon owned
Paul (Philemon 19).
Paul believes that freedom is God’s design for human beings. He
says so in Galatians 3:28 and 4:7.
freedom of which he wrote was more than the freedom from slavery
to a human master; it is freedom to God. And he believes that
freedom to God is God’s design equally for men and women, Jew and
Gentile, slave or free (Galatians 3:28)
. That freedom to
God is our most urgent. Freedom from slavery to a human master is
desirable, and if it can be obtained lawfully a slave should seek
it, but if not they should consider slavery as the place where God
has placed you (1 Corinthians 7:21,22).
On the other
hand, if you are free, Paul says, do not choose slavery.
(The last may sound odd, but, in fact, a free man in Roman society
could sell himself into slavery.)
Tying it all together:
Slavery is not God’s
design for human beings. But it is a reality in our world and has
always been. God’s laws given to Israel controlled slavery and
made it humane. His commands for Israel also resulted in foreign
slaves having the rights, privilege and blessing of a natural born
Israelite. That was a blessing that could not be measured. It made
the serving worth the cost.
In the New Testament Christians were the agents of freedom.
They not only proclaimed the good news that God had set them free
from slavery to sin but by their transformed lives began the
process of changing the culture. And they did change the culture.
Historian David Brion Davis argues that "the Judeo-Christian
belief in a monotheistic God who rules over a homogenous group of
people generally prevented European Christians from enslaving one
another. As more western Europeans converted to Christianity, this
unified religious identity enabled the decline of slavery in
My favorite saint, Patrick, was as early as the 300s both a slave
himself and, as a Christian, the strongest voice for the end of
slavery in Ireland and England. In his Letter to Coroticus,
Patrick warned excommunication of the king if he did
not punish those who had kidnapped others into slavery. 11
Some have said that Patrick was the agent who abolished slavery in
It cannot be argued that Christians especially in later centuries
did not participate in the enslavement of many millions of people
in Africa and kept them as slaves in America. Some even
argued that the Bible gave justification for their actions. But
many other Christians like the Quakers who provided refuge to
runaway slaves and passage to freedom and Amy Carmichael, who
worked her entire life to rescue girls from temple prostitution in
India, heard God's heart for the oppressed and worked hard
to end slave trade and slavery. And today Christians work just as
hard to end slavery for those who now are sexual slaves and
economic slaves in India and around the world, and though slavery
is a growing industry around the world, many have been set free as
have the girls my daughter served in India.
But there remains the sad fact that hundreds of millions today are
in slavery. Had God made a law making slavery wrong, Avalos seems
to argue, it would all be different. But that makes as much sense
as saying if God make a law against stealing or lying (which he
did) there would be no stealing or lying. No. Our selfish human
natures pay no attention to God's laws. What is needed and what
God provided was an inner change of heart and mind that willingly
submits to God's design for a well ordered life, a heart that is
generous to the slave and servant and careful about his or her
good and sets the prisoners free.
In the end, those changed hearts result in men and women who abhor
slavery and who risk their lives to end it. As did Saint Patrick.
As did the Quakers during our Civil War. As did Amy Carmichael in
the early 1900s. As did my daughter in the 2000s in India.
7) Josphy, Alvin M. Jr. New Perce Country. Lincoln, Neb.:
University of Nebraska Press, 2007. Print. P. 16