Returning to Torah — Part 6 — Does Torah Endorse Slavery?

An ambitious young Christian heads off to university ready to change the world. As he settles in to his first freshman sociology class, he is confronted with a seasoned professor who makes it clear from day one that he not only is antagonistic toward the Bible but also finds great satisfaction in dismantling and destroying the Christian faith.

After his opening rant about the absurdity of religion and the imbecilic nature of anyone who would believe such nonsense, the professor pulls out a Bible from his desk to prove his point. He turns to Exodus 21:20 and reads aloud with disdain for the text.

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

The professor looks up and then drives home the proverbial nail in the coffin.

“So for all you Bible believing Christians out there who claim that this is somehow the Word of God … tell me, how can you explain the indisputable fact that your “God” endorses the buying and selling and the beating of human slaves as property? Anyone? Anybody want to defend your God and your Bible now,” asks the professor as he tosses the Bible in the trash can. “I didn’t think so. I utterly reject your God and your Bible and any forward-thinking, intelligent person who wants to pass this class would be wise to do the same.”

The young Christian feels himself shrinking and sinking down into his seat, fighting back a flood of emotions welling up within him — confusion, anger, fear, and discouragement. The seed of doubt now firmly planted in his heart, the young student begins to question everything he has ever known and finding no adequate answers, he eventually abandons his faith altogether.

Unfortunately, such a scenario is all too common today, and I believe it is mostly due to the “church” neglecting the Scriptures for centuries and becoming ignorant of the foundational truths contained within the Torah.

Only by returning to God’s good instructions and eternal value system can we recover the true faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints.

So does God and the Bible condone slavery? Let’s return to Torah to find out.

Context is Key

Before I answer this most important question, I must make a distinction and address a common misunderstanding surrounding the word “endorse.” When skeptics and opponents of the faith attack the Scriptures, they often will intentionally use language, such as, “the Bible endorses or promotes or condones or justifies slavery.”

But nothing could be further from the truth.

This why context is key. We cannot understand anything without proper context. One of the skeptic’s favorite tricks is to lift obscure verses right out of their original context and violate the meaning of the text. For example …

Any cursory reading of the Bible reveals that there is a significant difference in what the Bible generally describes and what God specifically prescribes or commands. There are plenty of social constructs and personal examples of gross misconduct mentioned in the Scripture that clearly do not qualify as condoned behavior. This is precisely why God revealed His law to begin with — as the standard of love and righteousness.

God never endorsed, justified, or promoted slavery, but knowing that social cast systems inevitably would be a part of human civilization, God provided good laws and righteous instructions to protect slaves, promote justice, and preserve basic human rights. These laws both are radically unique and morally superior in comparison to the other Ancient Near Eastern cultures and the pagan world at large.

The heart of Torah is to love God and love our neighbors, and all the laws pertaining to slavery in the Torah are put in place by God Himself to promote His values and His standards. Slavery was conceived out of the sinful desires for men to lord their power over others, yet God reveals the remedy by showing us how to redeem all human relationships — including between servants and their masters. Torah is rooted in loving and serving one another — not oppressing them — and bringing life to a broken system with equal protection and basic provision for both the slave and free man.

Furthermore, the very meaning of the Hebrew word used for “slave” — ebed — is more accurately translated “servant” within it’s original context. Our modern ears naturally recoil at the word slave and automatically associate it with the horrors of the North American and African slave trade. Biblical slavery did not even closely resemble this extreme example of chattel or plantation slavery, but rather is more accurately defined as voluntary indentured servitude.

Basically, when the Torah speaks of a “slave,” it is almost always referring to a debtor who cannot pay off his debt and therefore willingly and contractually sells himself as an indentured servant to work it off, much like working off a loan. There was no alternative recourse in the ancient world to pay off debt, so God made the very best of an imperfect situation and provided the very best option both for the individuals and the community at large. The boss/lender could still be financially compensated while the debtor/servant maintained his human dignity– being afforded the opportunity to regain his freedom and be elevated in society.

Once again, the Biblical context of slavery in no way resembled the egregious chattel or plantation slave trade that characterized colonial America for generations. As you will see, God’s word strictly forbid all forms of kidnapping, murder, rape, abuse, and mistreatment of anyone in His Kingdom, whether slave or free.

Quite the contrary. The Torah provides the only recourse in the ancient world that offers protection and human rights for the most vulnerable in society — such as the widows, the orphans, the divorced, the poor, the sick, the sojourner and the servant (aka slave).

Does Torah Endorse Slavery?

One may be surprised to discover that the Torah not only holds masters accountable to a higher standard, but also offers servants equal protection under the law. As I have already emphasized, the overwhelming majority of servants in the ancient Biblical context were voluntary indentured servants who entered into a legal contract to work off a debt and were given the same basic rights and privileges as free men. [*NOTE — On the rare occasion that God’s people took prisoners of war from nations outside the land, Israel was permitted to take the male captives as indentured servants or “vassal” subjects to subdue or thwart any threat of revolt or rebellion (see Deuteronomy 20), but even these servants were still treated with dignity and respect under the Torah.]

Just consider the following provisions and protections under Torah.

Equal Rest under the Sabbath

The Law of Moses commanded that servants, of whatever origin (Gentile or Hebrew), were to be treated as human beings who were part of the family household and covenant community. Unlike any other ANE society, the Law of Moses commanded that servants enjoy at least one day a week free from every kind of labour, participating in the Sabbath day of rest together with the same status as the free members of the community.

It was unheard of in the ancient world to give a slave a paid vacation day of rest, every week no less.

But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates.

Exodus 20:10

But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On that day you must not do any work, you, your son, your daughter, your male slave, your female slave, your ox, your donkey, any other animal, or the foreigner who lives with you, so that your male and female slaves, like yourself, may have rest.

Deuteronomy 5:14

Equal Protection under the Law

The Torah is unique in offering servants the same rights as the rest of society.

  • Same law for applies to everyone.

One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.” [Leviticus 15:16]

“You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.” [Leviticus 24:22]

  • Kidnapping and human trafficking (slave trading) are forbidden and punishable by death in the Torah.

Exodus 21:16 — “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 24:7 — “If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.

  • Murdering (killing) a slave incurred the death penalty.

Exodus 21:12 — “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” 

Exodus 21:20-21 — “Anyone who beats their male or female servant with a rod must be avenged if the slave dies as a direct result …” [the word avenged explicitly refers to the death penalty]

  • Servants automatically were released if they suffered physical abuse leading to permanent damage or harm.

Exodus 21:26-27 — “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.

  • In the case of abuse, servants who escaped and fled from their master could not be forced to return and were considered free citizens to given protection and provided refuge in the community.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 — “You must not return an escaped slave to his master when he has run away to you. 16 Indeed, he may live among you in any place he chooses, in whichever of your villages he prefers; you must not oppress him.

Once again, the Torah made no provision for any involuntary slave trade. It was permissible to purchase men and women who voluntarily sold themselves into indentured service, but not to sell them (Exodus 21:2, Leviticus 25:39, 42, 45, Deuteronomy 15:12). Taking men and women and enslaving them against their will, or selling them into slavery, was expressly forbidden on pain of death (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7).

Indentured servants could own property, get married, start a family, move and trade freely in the community, observe Sabbath, celebrate the Feasts [Exodus 12:46-50], participate in society, and ultimately regain their freedom.

If a fellow countryman, native citizen, or sojourner voluntarily sold himself into servitude, he would become a valued member of the master’s household, as it was to the master’s overall blessing and benefit to treat his servants well with dignity and respect. After 6 years of service, a servant would be given the option to stay with his master and basically be permanently grafted into the family or leave a free man much better off than he started.

“If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. 16But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever. And to your female servant you shall do the same. 18It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.

Deuteronomy 15:12-18

Clearly God and His Torah in no way endorses, promotes, or condones human trafficking and slave trading — but on the contrary provides the very principles and laws that offer equal protection to servants and regard all people worthy of love and human rights as bearing the image of God.

By returning to Torah, we don’t see an archaic, oppressive legal system that permits slavery, but rather a progressive, radically unique value system that elevates slaves to equal citizens and provides them the opportunity to regain their freedom and elevate their social status in the broader community.

A Few Last Words

It is worth noting that Jesus and the Apostles fully agree with Torah that slave trading, kidnapping and human trafficking of any kind is forbidden, just in case their was any question.

“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly9We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.”

[1 Timothy 1:8-10]

“Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so22For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed man; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.

[1 Corinthians 7:21-23]

Now let’s take one last look at our opening passage from Exodus 20:20-21.

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

Now that we understand the Biblical context of this verse, we can easily answer the hostile professor.

All that Exodus 21:21 is saying is that if a servant is beaten close to death (which is not God’s desire but only a potential description of what could happen), the master cannot receive the death penalty, but he risks incurring significant financial loss and criminal charges. The Torah puts the following provisions in place.

  1. Any slave trader that kidnapped and trafficked another human being was to be put to death.
  2. Any servant that was physically abused and permanently harmed was to be released as a free man.
  3. Any cruel master who beat or abused his slave was a considered a wicked man and guilty of violating the law.
  4. A good master loved and treated his servants with dignity and was obligated to eventually release the servant with an abundance of provisions and personal property.
  5. Any master who murdered his servant was to be put to death. Equal life for life.
  6. Any slave that escaped his master’s house was to be provided protection, provision and refuge und the Torah and could not be forced to return.

As you can see. Torah redeems the broken systems of this sinful world and breathes life into the oppressive structures of society until the Day that Christ returns and eradicates all sin, suffering, slavery, and sickness in the Kingdom to come!

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