by Don R. Camp

Slavery is big business both in America and around the world today. According to reporter Annie Kelly writing for The Guardian, “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   We benefit from lower food costs for food such as prawns and other sea foods produced by enslaved Burmese and Cambodian fishermen.

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.

And today?

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 slavery.

Economic slavery and oppression that enslaves people to their hurt is not new.

The song writer in Psalm 10 speaks of it:

In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor; . . .
3 For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
    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 about slavery.

I began with some of the Bible passages that Dr. Hector Avalos included in his book Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. 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) slave."

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 service.

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 future.

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 Hammurabi in 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 his master.
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 concubine/second wife.
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 peoples.

 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 his injuries.

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 free. 

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 a king.

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 owners.

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 (Ephesians 6:9).  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. But that 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 Europe." 10 

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 Ireland.  

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