Various cultures around the world had slaves, including cultures in the ancient near east, like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria, etc. How slavery was practiced around the world varied with culture, most cultures have debt slavery where people sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts, and there were those who are made slaves by conquest. Some had chattel slavery where people were treated like animals and kidnapped, but when most people think of this kind of slavery they think of the transatlantic slave trade. The closest thing we see to ethnic-based enslavement in the bible is when the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. The Egyptians hated Hebrews (foreigners) long before Moses was even born according to Gen 43:32 and Gen 46:31-34, and they used their nationalism as justification for their mistreatment and enslavement of the Hebrews according to Exodus 1:8-10.
In Israel, they were mostly debt slaves, with some conquest slaves from among the Canaanites because God had judged them. For example, Jacob couldn’t afford a dowry for the woman he wanted to marry, so he agreed to be a slave to her father for seven years. Indentured servitude to pay off debts is very different from chattel slavery. The latter doesn’t give a person rights and involved kidnapping and human trafficking. Some slaves in ancient times were even educated and skilled because they were doing secretarial work like accounting and record keeping. This is very different from the chattel slaves in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. People can’t apply the Torah’s slave laws outside of Israel, which is mostly debt slavery and has specific rules for Hebrew owners of Hebrew slaves, Hebrew owners of Gentile slaves, and Gentile owners of Hebrew slaves. It does not mention Gentile-to-Gentile slavery, so the bible’s rules on slavery don’t apply to Gentile slaves and Gentile owners who live outside of the land of Israel.
Slaves in the Torah were for the most part people who became slaves to pay off debts. They were usually people that borrowed something they couldn’t afford and worked to pay off their debt, or were thieves. Thieves have to pay back double when caught, and when they couldn’t pay restitution they worked off their debts plus interest (Ex 22:2-4). It was like washing dishes at a restaurant after eating food you couldn’t pay for, in a modern context. However, according to Lev 25:35-38, people who were poor and desperate were to be distinguished as being in destitute circumstances much like widows or orphans, so they could not be enslaved. In addition, those who sold themselves into slavery out of desperation were to be treated like tenant farmers or hired workers, and they will work until the Jubilee year, which is when they will be restored (Lev 25:39-43). This is based on what the previous verses say about the restoration of the land allotment for those who sold it out of desperation (Lev 25:23-34). Therefore, if a Hebrew sold himself because of poverty he is to be treated like hired worker, his debts are canceled and his land is redeemed on Jubilee which is every 50 years. Furthermore, kidnapping people was illegal, so no one could be forced into slavery (Ex 21:16, Deut 24:7). Slaves that ran away were automatically free. It was illegal to return them to their master, so there was no fugitive slave law like what the gentile nations had. In fact, the Bible has a rule against returning runaway slaves (Deut 23:15-16).
The Israelites could only have Hebrew slaves they bought for 6 years and had to set them free in the 7th year (Ex 21:2). Male Hebrew slaves had the option of volunteering to be lifetime slaves if they preferred or wanted to keep their slave wives (Exodus 21:5-6, Deut 15:16-17). When the debt for slavery is fully paid, canceled, or the 6-year maximum was reached, Hebrew slaves were set free and given parting payments, so they could maintain themselves economically (Deut 15:12-18). This six-year maximum was based on the rules for automatic debt cancellation for general borrowers which calls for debt cancellation on the yearly sabbath (shmita) which happens every seven years (Deut 15:1-3). The law ensured they retained their original families, were able to marry (Ex 21:3-4; 9-11, Lev 25:41), and gave them legal protection from abuse and breach of contract (Ex 21:8; 20-21; 26-27). In addition, Hebrew slaves could not be sold from one person to another (Lev 25:42). They also had a mandatory day off which was the Sabbath (Ex 20:10). Having at least one day a week off for servants and animals, made Israel unique compared to the nations in the region. Some of the people from surrounding nations would come to Israel because it was better to be a slave in Israel than in their country. Gentile slaves in Israel had more rights and weekly days of rest like the sabbath and holidays.
There is a difference between men and women in liability and risk expressed in the work/slavery customs. Men were more expendable so they were the ones that fought in the war and dealt with more risky life choices (like theft) that could end up in debt slavery, or death. Meanwhile, women because they produce children they are less expendable, so they are given a certain amount of social protection. Women in Ancient Israel didn’t typically own land unless they inherited it while single because there was no male heir (Num 27:1- 11, Num 36:1-13). Nor did they work in major trade skills, that’s why they were typically framed as daughters if they were single, wives if married, or widowed/divorced if previously married. Widows were typically provided for in the 3-year tithe welfare system for orphans, widows, foreigners, and Levites (Deut 14:28-29). Wives could however have side hustles, like the Proverbs 31 woman, but this was usually a “work from home” sole proprietorship, rather than being an employer of larger apprenticeship trade like metallurgy, which is something men normally did.
Slave women had slightly different rules from men regarding the 6-year limit on Hebrew slaves. Ex 21:7 says that the female servants will not be released as the men are after six years. This seems to imply that only men are set free and given payment. However, Deut 15:12-18 mentions that male and female slaves are to be released after six years and given payment. In addition, Jeremiah 34:8-21 makes it clear that God told them to set all Hebrew slaves both male and female free after six years. Therefore, Hebrew slave women are freed at the end of six years by default just like the men. To understand how this works, notice that Exodus 21:1-11 focuses on marriage rules for slaves, which means it is talking about how slave women are treated differently in the case of marriage. That is why verses 3-6 talk about a male slave having to choose between freedom as a single person or staying married as a permanent slave.
As for the women, it says in Ex 21:8, that if the owner doesn’t like a slave woman he cannot sell her to a foreigner or anyone else, she can only be sold back to her father. Slave women were not likely to be enslaved for theft like men (Ex 22:3) but were usually sold by their fathers or sold themselves (with their father’s permission) to pay off debts, which is why she goes back to her father. This is based on the social protection rules mentioned earlier. Deuteronomy 15 and Jeremiah 34 are saying that if a slave wife is unmarried after six years then she would be free like the men. Meanwhile, Exodus 21 explains that if a slave woman marries the owner or his son, then she becomes a non-slave wife instantly. If she divorces a free husband, then she maintains her freedom even though she started as a slave (Ex 21:11). If a slave man leaves his slave wife, she stays with her master until the 6-year term of her contract is up and goes back to her father since that is the default for unmarried slaves. At this point, she is free to permanently remarry her ex-slave-husband with her father’s permission, if the man wants her.
The males on the other hand have to work full-term and don’t have an early release clause through marriage. When their term is up they can choose to move on or stay permanently to keep the slave wives that were given to them by the master (Ex 21:4-6). For men, selling themselves as slaves was a voluntary act and had a term limit, meanwhile, marriage was supposed to be a lifelong commitment (unless there was a contract breach). Since the 6-year term limit on each slave could have been different, the debt obligation came first. A man could meet a slave woman whose term is about to end and then she will be free first, then he can marry her and work until his contract ends and take her with him. The wife only has to be left behind if her contract is not ended. Of course, it is possible the debtor can let her go early which would remove the choice for the male. The 6-year term limit was a maximum, not a requirement since debts can be paid off or canceled early. If these rules weren’t in place men could trade their wives in for another every six years, and women could rack up a lot of debt and then skip out on it by simply marrying anyone with a short time left on his term.
Gentile slaves did not have a maximum of 6 years, nor a shmita (yearly sabbath) debt cancellation, so they had to work until their debt was paid or for life (Deut 15:3). If the debtor died, the Gentiles would continue working off the debt with the debtor’s descendants from “generation to generation” (Lev 25:45-46) until it was paid. In addition, some groups like the Gibeonites, gave themselves to Israel as permanent slaves to be spared from conquest (Joshua 9:1-27). Gentiles can intermarry into Israel, and the privileges that came with that would apply to them. However certain nations (Egypt, Moab Ammon, and Edom) had to wait a specified number of generations before they could intermarry (Deut ch. 23). All the other civil rights do apply to Gentiles both free and slaves because they were “foreigners living among you” (Ex 22:21; 23:9-12). The Israelites were allowed to buy Hebrew slaves but couldn’t sell them, only Gentile slaves could be sold (Lev 25:39-46). The Israelites could pay the debts of Hebrew relatives that were enslaved by Gentiles if the slaves couldn’t redeem themselves. The Israelite slaves of Gentiles were to be treated like hired workers on a yearly contract (Lev 25:47-55). The distinction between them is that Jews (except Levites) had permanent land allotments while Gentiles could only rent land in Israel until Jubilee. At Jubilee, lands were restored to ancestral owners, so Gentiles could never own land. Rich Gentiles would rent while poor ones were always indebted. Meanwhile, other Gentile nations had full human trafficking and the buying and selling of whomever. The Torah is much easier on slaves than the laws of Gentile nations, which included fugitive slave laws (like ancient Rome) and laws that allowed people to treat slaves like chattel.
The Europeans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade used gentile-based laws, so they had fugitive slave laws which they adopted from their predecessors like the Romans. In Rome, runways were such a big deal that they hire professional slave catchers. Does this sound familiar? This is the kind of thing we saw in Western nations (like the USA) in more recent history. Remember the bible has anti-fugitive slave rules, so runaways are supposed to be free and not returned to their master. The book of Philemon speaks to Christians who are slave owners and says that we are to be slaves of Christ and should not be enslaving others but rather sharing the gospel which frees people from being slaves to sin. In the letter to Philemon, Paul appeals to a slave owner named Philemon in Colossae. His former slave, Onesimus, ran away and under Roman fugitive slave law he could be killed but Paul urged Philemon to forgo the law, take him as a brother in Christ, and not treat him as a slave. Paul is looking at the Torah’s laws which allowed runaway slaves to go free (Deut 23:15-16). European conquerors of the 15th century and later ages specifically told missionary priests when they were and weren’t allowed to minister to a group of Africans or Native Americans. They threatened missionaries not to get too many people saved because in their eyes it was okay for a Christian to enslave a non-Christian and they needed non-Christians to stay unsaved so that they could enslave them without guilt. Does that sound biblical? That completely contradicts the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20. That kind of thinking in itself is not Christian thinking. Withholding the gospel in order to enslave people, does that sound like Jesus? Anyone, believer or non-believer, who is in any way familiar with Jesus’s teachings, would know Jesus wouldn’t be okay with that, because it is selfish and greedy, and promotes the will of man rather than the will of God according to the Gospel. The abolitionist in the US (like the Quakers) were following the bible properly because they connected what Paul says to Philemon with the great commission in Matt 28. In US history, the Quakers required all of their members to release their slaves because they saw it as a hindrance to following Christ properly.
The apostles never denounced slavery publicly because they didn’t want to associate Christianity with any slave revolts. The Romans would target all of them at once if they did so. Slaves grossly outnumbered non-slaves in Rome, and even after purchasing freedom a person still has fewer legal rights than someone who was born free, so this was heavily built into the social order. This is why the apostles give scriptural instruction for slavers to represent Christ as servants of the Lord while working, and for slave owners to treat them right and fairly (Ep 6:5-9, Col 3:22-25, Col 4:1, 1 Tim 6:1-2, Titus 2:9, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Paul taught that slaves and free people were equal in the kingdom, along with men and women, as well as Jew and Gentile (1 Cor 12:12-13, Ep 6:8, Gal 3:28, Col 3:11). The instructions on how to live for Christ, even as a slave, were to keep them from using Paul’s words to start a revolt and brute force social upheaval. Paul did encourage slaves to take their freedom when they had the chance so that they can be free to be a part of the ministry, but he was saying to purchase rather than revolt (1 Cor 7:21-24). If they did run away, like Onesimus, the former slave of Philemon, that wasn’t a sin according to Torah, but it was a big risk under Roman law so they had to be careful with that. Paul was able to reach out to a Christian master and tell him to look the other way, but he won’t have such sway over a non-believer. Likewise, Paul also references the Torah’s prohibition on kidnapping in regards to slavery in 1 Tim1:10, so the apostle clearly did not support the gentile slavery system. Paul’s teachings that people on polar opposite sides of the social order were equal in Christ were very controversial. This upended the social dynamics and caused cultural clashes within the body of Christ. This is why people tried to kill Paul so many times because his teaching on ultimate equality in the kingdom went against societal norms.
Europeans tried to apply commands for the conquest of the Canaanites (this is the only group the Israelites were told to conquer), to all non-European people groups they came in contact with. In the process, they contradicted the Bible, because they treated people like chattel and had fugitive slave laws. This was because they selectively read verses out of context from the Torah, and misused them to justify chattel slavery under the new covenant. Again the Torah slavery is a guide for the Israelites in their land, so many of its rules don’t get applied at all to people outside of Israel unless they are moral laws, because those rules pre-existed Moses and were only reiterated or tightened for Israel. Plus they added racism to the mix which is anti-biblical because according to Genesis, God made one first couple and all humans descend from them. Then he divided humanity by our language in Genesis 11, not genetic phenotype (biology). A child from one culture can be born in another culture and take on that language and culture without interference from their genes. It was the division of languages that led people to selectively breed within a group and become genetically isolated which then creates the unique phenotypes that we associate with ethnic/racial groups. None of these differences make one group superior to another, the word “race” implies competition, but in God’s eyes we are all descendants of Adam (Acts 17:24-26).
Some laws in the Torah were given specifically to the nation of Israel, these would be the priestly system, sacrificial practices, holidays, ritual purity laws, and land/animal/slave civil laws. Most of these laws only applied to Israel in the old covenant when the temple/tabernacle stood, but when Jesus came he fulfilled the meaning of the holidays and the sacrificial & ritual purity requirements. Plus Jesus became the new high priest in the order of Melchizedek rather than the order of the Levites like in the Torah. This is explained in the book of Hebrews chapters 5-10. When God gave the holy spirit, this initiated the new covenant, which put God’s presence inside of the believers making their bodies the new temple. This is why the old Temple was destroyed in 70 AD because God’s presence (the holy spirit) was no longer there. Once Israel was no longer a nation in 70 AD, the civil laws about land, slaves, animals, and property don’t apply because those were specific to the Israelites and their land before the messianic covenant. Gentiles like the European conquerors, can’t apply the slavery rules from the Torah, because they are built for the Israelites alone in the land of Israel and they even distinguished Hebrew and Gentile slaves. Therefore Gentiles enslaving Gentiles, in Gentile lands, has nothing to do with the bible AT ALL.
“Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for “slave” in all the region’s languages illustrates. “Slave” could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his “slaves,” even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the “slave” of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were “slaves” of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as “your slave.” There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge.’”
-Raymond Westbrook and Gary M Beckman, A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Volume 1, Handbook of Oriental studies. Section 1, Near and Middle East ; Handbuch der Orientalistik 72 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 40.
The Bible Project YT Video – The Book of Philemon
On biblical Slave laws:
Does the Bible Endorse Americanized Slavery?
Does the Bible Condone Slavery?
AIG – Doesn’t the Bible Support Slavery?
Ethics in the Law of Moses: slavery