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What the Bible Really Says about Slavery

It is almost universally accepted that the Bible stops short of outright condemnation of slavery and can even be considered to be somewhat accepting of it, even though Christians today almost universally accept that slavery is an intolerable evil.
For example, Christian slaveholders in the United States pointed out that Paul instructed slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5) and that the Bible spoke to the proper treatment of slaves but stopped short of calling for their outright release.

Contemporary responses acknowledge that the Bible reflects the cultural norms of its times while looking forward to a time when those norms are transformed into the ideal situation (see 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11).

While true, the biblical case against slavery is actually much stronger than that.

Think first of the institution of the Sabbath. It was common throughout the ancient Near East for the seventh day to be a holy day, it being tied to the phases of the moon and the worship of lunar deities.

The Israelites also considered the seventh day to be holy, but they tied it to God resting on the seventh day of creation in Genesis, disassociating it with the moon and any pagan worship connected with it.

But the Bible takes an additional step. In the Ten Commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment to observe the Sabbath day is specifically tied to the deliverance of the Hebrews from the slavery in Egypt.

They were required to let everything they had, including their livestock, rest on the seventh day “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:14). When they were slaves in Egypt, no one worked on the seventh day but them, and this was not to be repeated in their midst.

While this may seem like it still stops short of an outright condemnation of slavery, in the Bible, the paradigm for salvation is deliverance from slavery.

At the end of Genesis, there is no nation of Israel, just Jacob and his family. Even as slaves in Egypt, they are just a large ethnic group within the nation.

The nation of Israel is formed through their deliverance by the Lord from the slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

The exodus is not just one event out of many events in Israel’s history; it is the central event that defines the nation and their understanding of Yahweh, their deliverer and protector.

While it is true that Israel goes on to practice slavery, it does so precisely because the people forget who they are and who God is.

For example, when Solomon instituted corvee labor (requiring men to work for the king for a month) for his massive building projects, the northern tribes viewed it as being re-enslaved by a new pharaoh, and it led to the division of the nation after Solomon’s death.

One of the reasons given for the Babylonian exile is the refusal of Israel to observe the Jubilee.

We tend to view the Jubilee as a financial issue providing for the forgiving of debt, but at its core it is a provision to make sure that people weren’t turned into slaves because of their poverty and subsequent indebtedness.

At its essence, the Jubilee is an anti-slavery law for which Israel was condemned and exiled for not observing.

The gospels use the Exodus paradigm throughout their description of the incarnation.

The birth narratives of Jesus echo the Exodus, from Herod ordering the killing of infant boys around Bethlehem paralleling Pharaoh’s command to kill newborn Hebrew males to Joseph fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Jesus and their subsequent return.

The miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 echo the miraculous provision of manna and quail in the desert.

Most obvious, the crucifixion and resurrection all take place during the feast of Passover, with John specifically presenting Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose sacrifice and blood-protection directly led to Israel’s freedom from Egypt.

To say that the Bible condones and accepts slavery and does not condemn it ignores the dominant story of salvation in both the Old Testament and New.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus read from Isaiah and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

At the center of Jesus’ understanding of the gospel is the release of captives and letting the oppressed go free. That is Exodus language and a clear repudiation of slavery.

Both the Old and New Testaments advocate radical approaches toward slavery that were both a large step forward and a signpost pointing the way forward to a new humanity.

Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.