Slavery and the Bible

Exodus contains laws which regulated slavery and violence in Israel. These God-given laws were beneficial and practical for the nation. The Israelites would read and study these laws and find them very practical for their setting. These specific laws do not apply to us as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, they are still practical because they teach us about God Himself.

The people of Israel were redeemed slaves themselves. God bought them back and brought them out of bondage in Egypt. When you read Exodus 21, you will not find the condemnation or condoning of slavery. However, you do find that an assumption is made: slavery will continue. God will permit it to run its course. Therefore, God gives laws to govern slavery. If these laws are followed closely by Israel, abuse would not take place. Eventually, slavery as a social institution would disappear altogether.

The horrific slavery and abuse of black people in our country that continued to the high-water mark during the 1960s Civil Rights era influences the way we think about slavery in the Bible. However, there are three differences between slavery in Israel around 1500 BC and slavery in America leading up to the 1860s.

  1. Slaves in Israel volunteered for servitude. The poor looked at slavery as a way to meet needs and pay off debts. Involuntary slavery was forbidden (Exodus 21.16).
  2. Slavery in Israel must be temporary (Exodus 21.2; Deuteronomy 15.12-15). A slave did not serve perpetually.
  3. Slavery was mutually beneficial (Exodus 21.3-6). It benefited the servant and the master. American slavery was abusive for the most part, and it benefited the master only. A slave in Israel was provided opportunity to gain responsibility, pay off debt, and become self-sufficient, a productive member of society.

The closest relationship in our society mirroring what we see in the ancient slavery regulated in the book of Exodus is the relationship between employers and employees. It is not a comparison with the masters and slaves of Civil War era America! So, the principles governing slavery in Israel might prove very useful in the workplace today.

  • Employers should not abuse or use employees, but rather they should build up, support, and make successful the employees working for them.
  • Employees should learn how to manage money and other resources (even people) so that they might gain tools to become employers themselves. They shouldn’t live lives of entitlement but of perseverance and character.

See Philip Graham Ryken and R. Kent Hughes, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), Chapter 61, Bound for Freedom.

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