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I’d like to respond to two posts about biblical slavery from Jim Wallace of the Cold Case Christianity blog. I’ve argued several times before against Wallace (here, here, and here).

Let me begin with a positive comment on his “Four Differences Between New Testament Servitude and New World Slavery.” Many Christian apologies for biblical slavery avoid the most unpleasant passages in the Bible, such as the part about slavery for life in Leviticus 25:44–6, but Wallace’s list of relevant Bible verses is fairly complete.

That’s a good start, but he argues toward an odd conclusion:

The New Testament Servitude of the Ancient Near East had little in common with the New World Slavery of our American ancestors.

Wallace tries unsuccessfully to distinguish slavery as it was practiced in the Old Testament from that practiced in the Thirteen Colonies and then the United States (I’ll call this “America”). Let’s take a look at his four claims.

“1. A Difference In the Motive Behind Slavery.”

Wallace tells us that slavery in America was for the economic gain of the masters, while in ancient Israel, “the primary motive for slavery was often the economic relief of the servant.”

First, let’s disentangle the different kinds of slavery. In America there were two kinds. An indentured servant was typically a European who came to America to work for another European. Masters paid for their servants’ passage, and they provided food, clothes, and training. In return, the servants were typically obliged to work for four to five years. Roughly half of the European immigrants to the Thirteen Colonies came as indentured servants.

The other kind, of course, was chattel slavery where the slave and any children were owned for their lives and were property that could be bought or sold. Here, Americans enslaved non-Europeans, typically from West Africa.

The Bible documents the very same practices: Hebrews owning Hebrew slaves for roughly six years (indentured servitude) and Hebrews owning non-Hebrews for life (chattel slavery).

Let’s return to Wallace’s characterization of Hebrew slavery. He’s right that slavery as an institution in America benefitted the masters. Obviously, the same was true in Old Testament Israel—why else would it have lasted? It wasn’t an obligation that Hebrew masters took on reluctantly, only as a service to the community. Wallace gives Old Testament (OT) slavery a pro-servant spin, but the verse he cites (Lev. 25:35–7) is not about slaves.

Wallace is also right that OT slavery addressed financial issues. Ditto American indentured servitude. He’s not off to a good start in making a distinction between American indentured servitude and OT slavery of fellow Hebrews.

“2. A Difference As to How People Entered Into Slavery.”

Wallace finds several different types of indentured servants in the OT and imagines that these illustrate important differences when compared with American indentured servants.

  • “Voluntary Temporary Indentured Hebrew Servants.” These were just like American indentured servants.
  • “Voluntary Permanent Hebrew Servants.” Suppose one indentured servant married another. What do you do if the man has completed his term, but his wife and children must remain with the master? If you’re thinking that the Bible recommends the master compassionately permit the wife and children to leave as well, you’re giving the Bible too much credit. No, the Bible says that the man could opt to remain, but only as a permanent slave. I know of no parallel with the American concept of indentured servitude (which is not a plus for the biblical position).
  • “Involuntary Hebrew and Gentile Criminals in Restitution.” Thieves must make restitution for their crimes. If they can’t, they will be sold as slaves. Perhaps there were cases like this in America.
  • “Permanent Pagan Servants.” These are slaves for life taken from surrounding tribes and from the non-Hebrews living in Israel. Wallace tries to dilute this by arguing that Israelites still couldn’t kidnap and sell people into slavery (Exodus 21:16), but the NET Bible says that this refers only to the kidnapping of fellow Israelites and selling them into slavery (like Joseph, sold by his brothers).

The trick here is to make sure that you understand what kind of slavery a particular Bible passage is referring to. In these categories, American and OT slavery are matched step for step.

“3. A Difference In How People Were Treated Once They Were Slaves.”

Wallace says, “Slaves were treated humanely and their treatment was regulated by Biblical law.”

  • The Bible dictates that slaves could rest on the Sabbath and celebrate religious holidays, and slaves could adopt their masters’ religion. Conditions in America were similar, and Christianity was an important tool in keeping slaves in line.
  • The Bible holds masters accountable for fair treatment of slaves. For example, beating is allowed but only up to a point. Conditions in American were similar. For example, the 1739 South Carolina code limited the number of hours that slaves could be made to work and fined anyone who killed a slave £700. The 1833 Alabama law code dictated, “Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person.”

“4. A Difference In How People Freed Themselves From Slavery.”

Wallace argues that there were more ways for OT slaves to free themselves than in America.

  • Someone could pay the debt of an indentured servant, or they could do it themselves.
  • The indentured servant could complete his term of service.
  • A slave could be freed if injured from a beating (it’s unclear which kind of slave this refers to).

How is this different from conditions in America? In addition, slaves in America sometimes bought their freedom, which the Bible doesn’t address.

Let me again give Jim Wallace credit for giving a fairly thorough list of Bible verses on the subject at hand. But Jim, tell me the truth. Are you a Poe? You let the Bible speak for itself, and it does: it documents a 2500-year-old version of American slavery. The two are almost identical, point by point.

That’s why it’s hard to understand Wallace’s conclusion:

While it is clear that the ancient Israelites did possess slaves, it is also clear the reason for their possession, the manner in which they were treated, and the manner in which they could be released was very different from the institution of slavery in more recent times in Europe and America. . . .  It is unfair to say that the God of the Bible supports the institution of slavery as we understand it in more modern times. That version of slavery had little in common with the version of servitude in Biblical times.

No, the God of the Bible supported a form of slavery basically indistinguishable from that practiced in America.

The United States didn’t get its founding principles from the Bible—principles such as democracy, secular government, separation of powers, and a limited executive; freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly; protection from self-incrimination and double jeopardy; speedy and public trial, trial by jury, and the right to confront witnesses; and no cruel and unusual punishment.

But one trait that it got almost identical to the biblical version was slavery.

To be concluded in part 2.

This government of God was tried in the U.S.
when slavery was regarded as a divine institution.
The pulpit of that day
defended the buying and selling of women and babies.
The mouths of the slave-traders
were filled with passages of Scripture,
defending and upholding traffic in human flesh.
Robert Green Ingersoll


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/25/14.)

Image via Cesar Rojas Iribarren, CC license


CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...