Does God Approve of Slavery?

Does God Approve of Slavery?

This is a direct except taken from the Addressing the Frequently Avoided Issues Messianic’s Encounter in the Torah  of the Torah Helper as published by J.K. McKee. The Messianic Torah Helper can be purchased here.

The most significant event of the entire Torah is the Exodus of Ancient Israel from Egypt, and the deliverance of the Israelites from their servitude to Pharaoh. Moses admonished the people in Exodus 13:3, “Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the LORD brought you out from this place.”There is no doubting the fact that Ancient Israel was removed m’beit avadim  (מִבֵּ֣ית  עֲבָדִ֔ים) or “from the house of slavery.”

The Ten Commandments themselves open up with the declaration, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). If the main feature of the Exodus was liberation from bondage, and the utter humiliation of the Thirteenth Century B.C.E. superpower by the removal of its workforce, then why do we see legislation in the Pentateuch regulating the practice of slavery? What do we do with slavery as Biblical interpreters who live in the Twenty-First Century, where such a practice is viewed as utterly abhorrent?

Immediately after the Ten Commandments are delivered in Exodus 20, Exodus 21:1-6 lists a series of regulations regarding an eved Ivri (עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י),  or a “Hebrew slave,” which could be viewed as somewhat antithetical to the whole message of Israel being removed from Egyptian bondage.

This is a significant area of difficulty for Messianics, especially when various “Torah teachers” in our midst forcibly assert that “all” of the Torah can be followed today. Such people either make the mistake of having to allegorize or spiritualise commandments regulating slavery, forgetting their ancient context, or make the even worse mistake of acting like these things do not appear in the Biblical narrative. Any objective reader of the Torah cannot avoid the fact that slavery is a part of the Bible’s story, and that commandments regarding slavery were given to Ancient Israel. What are we to do with them today?

It must be observed that there is no specific differentiation in the Hebrew between what in English we could call a slave or a servant. The Hebrew word eved (עֶ֣בֶד) means both “slave ” and “servant ” (CHALOT) [1]. Likewise, the Greek term doulos (δοῦλος), often used to render eved  in the Septuagint and whose usage carries over into the Apostolic Scriptures, means “a born bondman or slave ” (LS) [2]. Some English translations like the NASU provide the rendering “bond-servant” for either eved or doulos in some locations, but the source vocabulary in either Hebrew or Greek does not provide a specific term that would substantiate something beyond “slave” or “servant.”

Any kind of slavery or servanthood regulated in the Tanach primarily concerns Ancient Israel functioning in an Ancient Near Eastern economic system. The Torah’s commandments regarding slavery can most often be divided into categories regarding debt-bondage and manumission (Exodus 21; Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15) [3], whereas a great deal of slavery in the surrounding cultures—primarily of Mesopotamia and Egypt—was focused around the people of those societies being the subjects of a deity-monarch.

The Ancient Mesopotamian creation story Atrahasis depicts humanity being created by the gods specifically so that they could serve as slaves [4], when set against the Biblical creation account where humanity is made to commune with God in a garden planted by Him (Genesis 3:8). While even a slavery for repayment of debt may have never been something desirable, the rules for such slavery as seen in the Torah do afford the slave considerable rights.

When one reviews the Torah instructions regarding slavery, one sees that male and female slaves within Israel were expected to participate in the Passover (Genesis 17:13; Exodus 12:44), to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), to live wherever they please (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), and severe penalties are placed upon masters who abuse their slaves (Exodus 21:20-27). G.H. Haas notes in the Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, “Israelites who must sell themselves into bondservice (because of personal impoverishment or inability to pay a debt or a fine) are not permitted to be treated like foreign slaves. They may not be sold as chattel slaves to other masters. Their time of service to fellow Israelites is limited to six years, and to resident aliens it is limited to the Jubilee Year.” [5]

This kind of “slavery” is what is witnessed in Exodus 21:1-6, specifically in what is often termed the law of the bondservant. A Hebrew slave was only allowed to sell himself into service for a maximum of up to six years (Exodus 21:2), and had to leave the master’s care with adequate provision (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). If he went into servitude with his wife, he and his wife were to leave together (Exodus 21:3). However, should the slave’s master provide him with a wife resulting in children, such a wife and children could not leave the master’s house with him (Exodus 21:4).

What this would do, in many cases, is create a permanent bond between the slave and his master’s household, as Exodus 21:5 records a slave saying “I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man.” The male slave could take a physical mark on his ear designating his permanent bond to his master’s house (Exodus 21:6). The reason for allowing a male slave to be permanently bonded to his master’s house is a clear, if obvious one when this regulation is set against its ANE context. Sarna indicates:

“In the ancient Near East it was common practice for a master to mate a slave with a foreign bondwoman for the purpose of siring ‘house born’ slaves. In such instances, no matrimonial or emotional bond was necessarily involved, and the woman and her offspring remained the property of the master.” [6]

Allowing a slave to willingly be bonded to his master’s house was a safeguard so that the master would never treat the wife he provided, and the children sired, as some kind of expendable property. If a slave showed love (Heb. verb ahev , אָהַב) toward his master, wanting to become a permanent member of his household, by necessity the master would have to show some respect and care for his family who would now be bonded to him. While this is difficult for many people in the Twenty-First Century to understand, we have to put ourselves back into ancient times. Selling oneself into bondage was the only way for some to exit financial straits. This is where the Pentateuch parallels contemporary law codes of its period, as the Code of Hammurabi from almost one-thousand years earlier had allowed for something similar:

“If a man incur[s] a debt and sell[s] his wife, son, or daughter for money, or bind[s] them out to forced labor, three years shall they work in the house of their taskmaster; in the fourth year they shall be set free” (117). [7]

Peter Enns reminds us, “the point of the law [in Exodus] is not to question the existence of this social condition, but to give clear guidelines for how people in such a condition must be treated” [8]. While in Hammurabi’s Code the period of servitude is shorter, the stipulation in the Torah is that when such a slave is let go, the master “shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 15:14). The significance of the Exodus 21 instruction being delivered right after the occurrence of the deliverance from Egypt was for the Ancient Israelites to never  treat such slaves, having to sell themselves to pay off debts, the way that they were treated harshly and unfairly by the Egyptians. Here, we see a direct example of the Torah instructing Ancient Israel in its ancient world, and it is safe to say that the Exodus 21:1-6 commandments classify as casuistic law applying to a specific situation and not for all times.

Some Christian and Messianic interpreters have tried to allegorize Exodus 21:1- 6 as Believers now relating to Yeshua the Messiah as His “bond-servants,” per varied references to the Apostles serving as douloi of the Lord [9]. This view runs into a problem because of the verses immediately following in Exodus 21:7-11, which begin with the instruction “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.” It is fairly difficult to spiritualize or allegorise these verses, absolutely requiring us to place them in their ancient context. The Apostles’ service as the douloi or avadim of the Lord is not a connection to Exodus 21:1-6, but rather their association to the previous avadim of the Lord who had preceded them such as Moses and the Prophets [10], indicating how serious their authority from God actually was.

Just like the man having to sell himself into slavery to pay debts, a father had the right to sell his daughter to a family (Exodus 21:7), presumably because the family was destitute and did not possess the resources to provide for the daughter’s well-being. As Kaiser is clear to point out, “This pericope pertains to a girl who is sold by her father, not for slavery, but for marriage” [11].  Such a female, if displeasing in the eyes of her master, had to be let go “redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her” (Exodus 21:8).

Such a female was to be treated as a fellow daughter should the master designate her as a wife for his son (Exodus 21:9), with the stipulation as Sarna indicates, “she would normally be protected from sexual abuse” [12]. And, should the master choose another woman instead of her as his wife, she was not to be denied life essentials (Exodus 21:10). If the master failed to uphold the terms of the female being sold to him—by refusing to marry her, refusing to give her to his son, or refusing her to be redeemed—then she could go away without having to pay him anything (Exodus 21:11).

Perhaps the closest parallel that we see in more modern times would be the practice of arranged marriages adhered to in many cultures, where marriages between families have more do to with the maintenance of property and/or strategic alliances than romantic love. This does not mean that love is a factor that is not there (think Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), but love may not be the immediate motivation. Some sectors of European royalty can easily come to mind, particularly in the close relationship of royals from the weak German states historically having a link with the British crown by providing (Protestant) royal spouses for princes and princesses. Likewise, consider the role of a nanny or a tutor being permanently connected to aristocratic and/or well-to-do families as part of the extended household. Exodus 21:7-11 is best thought of in this kind of context.

Today, however, due to the advances in economy in the Western world, Exodus 21:7-11 has few parallels due to the ease of getting a paying job and welfare programs offered by the state. People do not often have to be “married out” to ensure their well-being. Nevertheless, the Torah’s instructions seen in Exodus 21:1-11 about “slavery” did have some differences when compared to other law codes of the same period.

There is no indication in the Torah that its slavery was to be encouraged as a permanent practice for Ancient Israel; it is simply regulated as a practice that existed, having been available to those one step below utter poverty. So we should no by means be surprised, especially with the emphasis of equality for all that we see in the Apostolic Scriptures (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11), that for the first Believers in Yeshua slavery was a practice that was on the way out. In fact, speaking about a generation before Yeshua, the great Sage Rabbi Hillel said, “lots of slave girls, lots of lust; lots of slave boys, lots of robbery” (m.Avot  2:7) [13] —largely negative words on the practice. Such sentiments no doubt affected the Apostle Paul, having been a member of the School of Hillel (cf. Acts 22:3).

By the Apostolic era, the ancient economy and banking had improved so that it was much easier for people to acquire jobs in the more “cosmopolitan” sense of the word, even though some would be closely attached to various households as servants. While some Jews during the time of Yeshua owned slaves in the First Centuries B.C.E and C.E. [14], by no means did slaves ever become the kind of force like they were for the Ancient Egyptians, as they served much more menial functions.

The New Testament reflects a rather progressive view when it regards Believers in Yeshua owning slaves, and does not encourage Believers to own other Believers. Slaves who believed in Yeshua were to not be disobedient to their masters who did not believe, but they were to demonstrate proper character because of their faith (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1).

The Messianic Writings do envision the day when members of the community of Believers in Yeshua would never have to sell themselves into servitude. Instead, all are to be treated as fellow brothers and sisters, and the ekklēsia is to provide for the needs of the destitute. Acts 2:45 attests that the first Believers “sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” Paul’s instruction to Philemon regarding the runaway slave Onesimus is, “perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 15- 16) [15]. The New Testament undeniably sees the time when all human beings will be emancipated (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21), and any Messianic today who would argue that slavery is a practice still to be followed—seeking justification from the Torah to do so—is taking the Torah out of its ancient context and is forgetting the trajectory of the Scriptures back to the equal status of all human beings as seen in Eden.

The Pentateuchal laws of slavery can actually teach us some important things about how radical the Torah was for the Ancient Israelites to follow, when compared against the law codes of some of their neighbors. It can teach us important things about the character of God, as well as a steady plan to restore humanity back to its original condition. But, such Torah commandments regarding slavery are very clearly case laws that were given for a different time and a different economic environment, and they cannot be followed today [16].
Other than deriving principles on the great respect the Torah shows for others in low social straights, the Messianic movement must stand with the halachah of today’s Jewish Synagogue whereby these commandments cannot be followed in the economy of the modern world.


[1] William L. Holladay, ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden, the Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1988), 262.
[2] LS, 210.
[3] Cf. J. Albert Harrill, “Slave,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1232.
[4] Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp 14-15ff.
[5] G.H. Haas, “Slave, Slavery,” in T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 781.
[6] Nahum M. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 119.
[7] W.W. Davies, The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses (Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2006), 57.
[8] Peter Enns, The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 444.
[9] Luke 2:29; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1; Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Philippians 2:7; Colossians 1:7; 4:7; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:1; Revelation 1:1; 15:3.
[10] Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7; 2 Kings 18:12; Jeremiah 25:4; Ezekiel 38:7; Amos 3:7; Zechariah 1:6; Daniel 9:6; Psalm 60:26.
[11] Walter C. Kaiser, “Exodus,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed. et. al., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:430.
[12] Sarna, Exodus, 121.
[13] Jacob Neusner, trans., The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), 676.
[14] Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., A Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 590.
[15] Consult the entry for the Epistle to Philemon in A Survey of the Apostolic Scriptures for the Practical Messianic.
[16] Cf. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), pp 97-98.
J.K. McKee
J.K. McKee (B.A., University of Oklahoma; M.A., Asbury Theological Seminary) is the editor of TNN Online (www.tnnonline.net) and is a Messianic apologist. He is a 2009 recipient of the Zondervan Biblical Languages Award for Greek. He is author of numerous books, dealing with a wide range of topics that are important for today’s Messianic Believers. He has also written many articles on theological issues, and is presently focusing his attention on Messianic commentaries of various books of the Bible.
J.K. McKee
J.K. McKee

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