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Biblical Verses Condoning and Regulating Slavery

The fact that slavery exists in the Bible is no secret. There are laws regulating its practice; how to buy and sell slaves, what to do if they commit a crime, the degree to which they can be beat, and laws concerning sexual activity with female slaves. Some of these verses are included here. The point here is not to comment on the existence of slavery or the Bible's laws regarding it. My intention is more to increase awareness of its presence in Biblical text. A slave in the Bible (or in Greek, Roman, Islamic, or Egyptian history for that matter) is not the same as a slave in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. This new form of plantation slavery was unique in history in that it was based solely on race.

Regarding the emancipation of slaves, Jewish slaves were to be freed after six years, except those who were born by the female slave. Female slaves, sold into slavery by their fathers, would be slaves forever. And the cost of freeing a slave was calculated using the number of years to the next Jubilee Year, ranging between 1 and 50 years.

Exodus 21:1-4 "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself."
Deuteronomy 15:12-18 "And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him."
Exodus 21:7 "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do."

Regarding the beating and killing of slaves, the Book of Exodus contains laws regarding punishment for the one who kills the slave as well as injunctions to avoid injuring the eyes and teeth.

Exodus 21:20-21 "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money."
Exodus 21:26-27 "And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake. And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake."

The Book of Leviticus prohibited the harsh ruling over other Israelites, but that slaves could be taken from the Gentiles.

Leviticus 25:44-46 "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour."

Also, in Leviticus, a distinction is made between the hired servant and the slave.

Leviticus 25:48-53 "After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: Either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be able, he may redeem himself. And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he was sold to him unto the year of jubilee: and the price of his sale shall be according unto the number of years, according to the time of an hired servant shall it be with him."

Slaves were to undergo circumcision.

Genesis 17:13 "He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant."
Genesis 17:27 "And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him."

Female captives are considered spoils of war.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 "When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the Lord thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."
Deuteronomy 20:14 "But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself"

The punishment for sexual activity with a female slave who is engaged consisted of animal sacrifice in the Temple. There is no comment on sexual activity with one who is not married or engaged.

Leviticus 19:20-22 "And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the Lord for his sin which he hath done: and the sin which he hath done shall be forgiven him."

It is not permitted to return an escaped slave, nor was it permissable to "oppress" him.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him."

The Book of Numbers makes references to thousands of female captives who were to be given to the priests.

Numbers 31:28-47 "And levy a tribute unto the Lord of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves, and of the asses, and of the sheep: Take it of their half, and give it unto Eleazar the priest, for an heave offering of the Lord. And of the children of Israel's half, thou shalt take one portion of fifty, of the persons, of the beeves, of the asses, and of the flocks, of all manner of beasts, and give them unto the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the Lord."
Mark 14:66 "And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest."

There were restrictions on reselling slaves. Apparently a Hebrew slave could not be resold.

Exodus 21:8 "If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money."

If one were to purchase his own brother into slavery, laws in Leviticus prevent treating him as other slaves, but rather as a guest or servant. The Living Bible refers to "a fellow Israelite" rather than "brother."

Leviticus 25:39 "And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee: And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return."

The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy mention that the punishment for kidnapping an Israelite and selling them into slavery is punishable by death. And a debtor who could not pay back creditors could be sold into slavery or have his children sold.

Exodus 21:16 "And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death."
Deuteronomy 24:7 "If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you."
II Kings 4:1 "Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the Lord: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen."

Slaves could, themselves, own slaves. Saul's slave Ziba owned 20 slaves of his own: 2 Samuel 9:10: "...Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants."

The Sabbath applied to slaves as well.

Exodus 20:10 "But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates."

The New Testament did not forbid or alter the institution of slavery, nor did it improve their conditions.

1 Corinthians 12:13 "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit."
Galatians 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
Colossians 3:11 "Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all."

Sources

  • The Bible, 21st Century King James Version.
  • The Bible, King James Version.
  • The Bible, Modern Language Version.
  • The Bible, New International Version.
  • The Bible, New Living Translation.
  • The Bible, Revised Standard Version.
  • Ellerbe, Helen, The Dark Side of Christian History, Morning Star Books, 1995.
  • Wood, Forrest, The Arrogance of Faith, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

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