Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?

[This post qualifies as a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to learn what that means!]

So far, we have introduced the topic of biblical slavery by reviewing the typical justifications for it. Now let’s get underway with a response to the first justification, namely that biblical slavery wasn’t all that bad.

The respected AIIA Institute assures us,

…slavery in Bible times significantly differed from slavery in modern times. It was not based on race. It was often less imperialistic. Some believe that in many cases it was actually more of an indentured servant type arrangement.”

That is true to an extent. Exodus 21:2-6 describes an arrangement by which a Hebrew could sell himself to one of his countrymen for six years, after which time he was to be set free.

However, this is not the form of slavery to which skeptics object. There are other forms of slavery in the Bible.

Infamously, the next four verses permit a man to sell his daughter as a “servant.” Let us pretend that wording about “pleasing her master” who has “selected her for himself” does not carry any overtones of sexual slavery and move on. What else is there?

Leviticus 25:44-46 states that the Israelites may buy foreign slaves. Unlike Hebrew slaves, foreign slaves were in bondage for life. Do you think it is moral to buy someone and all his descendants and treat them as property? That’s exactly what God gave his people permission to do.

Aside from the fact that these slaves had the Sabbath off and their masters were only allowed to beat and whip them severely, but not kill them, this is very close to the type of slavery we practiced in the American South. No wonder Southern slave-holders used the Bible to justify the practice! Already, we can see that it’s dishonest to claim that slavery in the Bible “significantly differed from slavery in modern times.”

But it gets worse.

Deuteronomy 20:10-15:

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

<Warning: Snarkage ahead.>

“Tum dee dum… Here I am, an Israelite. I’ve heard of a city, some distance away and minding its own business. What should I do about it? Hmm…. Let me consult my Holy Scrolls.

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I go and share the Good News about God’s love?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I invite a few of them to my house so they can learn from the example of a loving, Hebrew family?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

Should I start a Vacation Bible School and tell their kids that God will always take care of them?

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Should I run wholesome TV ads in their city that close with ‘My name is Jacob, and I’m a Hebrew’?

“What to do… What to do…

…scroll, scroll scroll…

“Ah! Here it is! God commands me (verse 15) to enslave their whole city. If the men put up a fight, I’m to kill all of them and take their wives and virgins as ‘plunder’ to be ‘used.’ I like the sound of that! And I wonder how long it will take the little girls to grow up! Yeah, baby! Where’s my sword?”


It will be my lifelong shame that I did not see the horror of this for 40 years. But it gets even worse, as we follow into the next chapter for further instruction on how to treat these cities (Deuteronomy 21:10-14):

10 When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

It’s amazing how Christian apologists will spin this passage as providing care for the poor, captive women. Why — they can become full members of Israeli society as wives! Maybe they’ll learn about God’s love after all!

It’s equally astonishing how people like me can read this passage for decades and not really stop to picture the scenario.

First, to address the apologists: If care of women had been uppermost in God’s mind, don’t you think there would be some mention of the women who were not beautiful enough to attract the eye of one of the soldiers (v.11)?  But there isn’t. “Not beautiful? Sorry, you’re still just plunder. I hope you enjoy it.” And wouldn’t it have been more humane if they had not been plundered in the first place?

Now to address people like my former self who don’t see this scenario for what it is: Put yourself in the shoes of even one of the beautiful women. Your home city has just been thoroughly plundered. Your father, husband and teenage sons have all just been slaughtered mercilessly in an unprovoked war. Now one of the very soldiers who destroyed everything and everyone you love is leering at you.

Lucky for you, his Holy Scrolls tell him to take it slow. Having taken away your husband, his next romantic step is to take away your beauty: your head must be shaved and your nails cut. With that humiliation out of the way, you get a whole month to get over all your darn womanly emotions about him and his buddies killing your father and husband. Pretty nice of him, right? OK, time’s up. Your family is gone, your beauty is gone and your dignity is gone, Now he will take all you have left: your body.

For the rest of your life, you will have two choices. First, if you “please him” (v.14) sufficiently, he may keep you as a wife.

Stop for a moment and think about what this means, O young captive bride. What could it mean to “please” a man who has married you under these circumstances? Certainly giving sexual pleasure is a major ingredient in the mix. Either your husband is the decent sort who doesn’t enjoy sex if his wife is crying during the act, in which case you’d better pretend to enjoy having sex with a member of the army that just killed all your male relatives, or he is the villainous sort who doesn’t care what you feel, in which case “pleasing him” could be quite horrible indeed. Either way, you’re literally screwed. Could anything be more humiliating?

The other choice is not to “please him.” In that case, he has permission from his God to toss you out on the street where you will have no choice but to survive as homeless, penniless women have always survived. After all, there’s no going back to your home city. It was plundered before you were. (“Let her go where she wishes” — what a joke!)

Even the Bible calls this treatment “dishonoring” (v. 14). I would call it dehumanizing. A tribunal at The Hague would call it a war-crime.

Bible-believing Christian, what would you say about these passages? Would you still say that biblical slavery was not all that bad?

Next time: Did God Command Slavery or Merely Tolerate It?

12 responses to “Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?

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  8. Thanks, for the information!

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  11. Hello, I just wanted to thank you for your articles on OT slavery! It was very nice to see them condensed and discussed all in one place. I think I agree that many Christian apologists gloss over the issues. I agree mostly with your analysis, however there is one thought I had:

    In regards to the women who were taken as captives, do you not think that the second passage you quote regarding an Israelite soldier being attracted to a woman captive and “marrying” her, implies that the other women captives (beautiful or not) were not supposed to be raped? It isn’t entirely clear nor does it mean the practice was humane, but I imagined when I read that passage that it meant the soldiers weren’t raping during their capture of the city. Because if you were attracted to a woman (wanted to have sex with her) you had to go through that month waiting and then marry her. You imply the opposite, but it seems to me the other way around. Clearly if you are raping a woman you are sexually attracted to her, implying the other women were to be slaves that were not raped. This to me seems like an example of a commandment separating them from how nations around them sacked cities in regards to how women were treated. This lines up with several other OT laws regarding men who sleep with women out of wedlock being required to marry them or pay a fine to their father. Both look like commandments making sure men couldn’t ruin the lives of women without taking care of them in some fashion, either as a wife in their household or by paying for their father to keep caring for them. I always assumed this was because women had little social security other then their families or being married and the Israelites were supposed to make sure women were not tossed out and left homeless. In the case of foreign captured women it was less friendly. There appear to be 2 options: take them as slaves (but you must take care of them and not rape them), if you sleep with them you must marry them (but this dishonors them), but if you aren’t willing to provide for the captured woman she can’t be a slave and must be set free (and can’t be sold to anyone else either).

    Again, I don’t think this is “great treatment” either, but it was a point I disagreed on and wanted to hear your thoughts on.

  12. hey, back again. Sorry I totally misremembered that law about rape. Raping a betrothed/married woman was punishable by death in both accounts. Raping an unbetrothed woman meant you pay a fine to the father, and marry, and can’t ever divorce her for the rest of your life (the fine probably being there to prevent dowry-dodging). It does line up with what I was thinking regarding making sure women are taken care of by someone and not thrown out by society, but I misremembered it. Again, I don’t think this is great treatment, and it doesn’t seem fair to the woman. I’m just trying to understand the logic of the system and what kind of abuses it was trying to check, which from the clear way it is written must have been commonplace for nations around them. I tend to think of OT laws as incremental, a reformative step checking some abuses, but in no way complete or compatible with our morals now.

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