Did God Command Slavery, or Merely Tolerate It?

[Warning: This post is a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to learn what that means!]

In the previous post of this series, I outlined several forms of slavery that are at least tolerated in the Bible:

  • Indentured servitude for a set period of time (Exodus 21:2-6).
  • Selling one’s daughter as a “servant” to a man who could “select her” for himself or one of his sons (Exodus 21:7-11). We might call this arrangement servant-with-benefits.
  • Buying foreign slaves for life (Leviticus 25:44-46) and regarding them as property and therefore subject to extremely harsh punishment (Exodus 21:20-21).
  • Capturing and enslaving foreign women and children, after killing their menfolk. The luckiest women would be forced into sham “marriages” that the Hebrew men could terminate anytime they wished. The unlucky ones remained “plunder” (Deuteronomy 20:10-15Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Numbers 31 is another passage that features taking women as “spoils” — but without any mention of marriage.

Some of those practices are worse than others. The question for this post is very simple: which practices, if any, did the God of the Bible explicitly command?

The first two practices, indentured servitude and servant-with-benefits, are the most benign. In the passages cited, God does not command them but merely says, “If you do such-and-such this is how you are to do it.” He tolerates, but does not command.

The third practice, buying foreign slaves for life and treating them as property, is worse. In this case, surprisingly, God gives specific permission: “You may purchase male and female slaves from the nations around you.”

The last practice, enslaving an entire city and taking the women and children as “plunder” is surely the worst. And this is the practice that the God of the Bible specifically commands. Deuteronomy 20:15 says,”This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you”. In Numbers 31:25-35, we learn that “Moses…did as the Lord commanded” when he distributed 32,000 virgins as “spoils” of war, including half to his soldiers and a certain percentage to the priests.

Did you notice the trend? The more evil the practice, the more actively God encouraged it! Christian, does that bother you just a little?

I realize that our discussion is not over. You may be holding onto some rationalizations; I shall discuss the many I’ve heard in future posts.

In the meantime, I hope I’ve convinced you that the God of the Bible does command slavery; he does not merely tolerate it. Christian writers who tell you otherwise are lying to you.

Next time: Were some biblical slaves merely prisoners of war?

23 responses to “Did God Command Slavery, or Merely Tolerate It?

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  9. TheConvictedMama

    Of all your posts, the slavery ones knocked the wind out of me the most. I spent close to a week mulling over them. It’s like a gut punch thinking about slavery, which is one of the worst atrocities man does to man in our modern-day western way of thinking. Although mankind certainly cooks up a lot of atrocities.

    In the Bible, the recording of historical acts is not necessarily an endorsement of it by God. The Bible is filled with stories of people who mess up. And the Old Testament is filled with stories about a nation, specially chosen by God, who repeatedly messes up. This is our hope. That God sticks by us even though we are hopelessly abysmal at following His guidelines for living.

    The first thing that I noticed when researching slavery is that it has existed almost over the entire history of mankind. Much of slavery was only abolished since 1948 and the UN Declaration of Human Rights which banned global slavery. Since 2007 it is now illegal in all countries, but still occurs in practice (as per Wikipedia anyways). It seems that slavery of one form or another (like abuses and the domination of women) is common to mankind in almost all eras.

    While God could have banned slavery, it seems that He works within mankind’s fallen systems and societies and puts limits and guidelines in place. He makes allowances for the freedom and failures of mankind within our fallen systems. He allowed slavery, an invention of fallen man, to exist. As he allows war. As he allows fighting between people. As he allows free will. It doesn’t mean He condones all our choices and inventions and societal structures.

    1. Ex 21:2-6 As you mentioned, the Hebrew slave, would serve 6 years and then go free. They could also choose to stay, as a bondservant (lifelong). Remember that there was no welfare, no bankruptcy protection – sometimes being a slave saved your life. If they were indebted to each other (within the nation of Israel) they could work off their debt in the form of this “slavery”. There were no banks/loans. This is a “when” situation, that God allows, but doesn’t make up Himself.

    2. Ex 21:7-11 This seems to also be dealing within the nation of Israel. It reads atrociously, “when a man sells his daughter as a slave…”. My ESV Bible comments that this is perhaps an allowance for poor families who could not afford a wedding, to “sell” the daughter to the husband. “As wives from poor families they could face expolitation. These rules help prevent that.” It definitely calls for him to treat her as a wife, with wifely benefits and care. If he does not meet his end of the bargain (the husband), she may go for free without having to pay out money to relieve herself of “slavery” – remember this is her nation so I would assume she would go back to family. Note that the wording is “WHEN” you do this. Not condoning it, but acknowledging that is how the society worked, and giving guidelines of provision for the wife.

    3. Lev 25:44-46 “You may buy slaves”… Again, you “MAY”, as in permitting a practice that was integral to society 3500 years ago.

    4. Ex 21:20 This is the one about When a man strikes his slave and the slave surviving, he is not to be avenged as he is his money/property. The verses before this is about When men quarrel and hit each other with a stone or fist. If the man is injured, the perpetrator must have him healed and pay for loss of time, but if he recovers he is otherwise cleared. Basically, the “When”s of fighting have the same rules slave vs freeman. I am sure it would be better not to fight or hit someone in the first place. Note that if the freeman OR slave dies, then the death is to be avenged. What does that mean? A little further Ex 21:23, Life for life. The slave’s life is as precious as the owner’s. (and unique to Israel as a nation in Ex 21:21-25 is that the fetus is awarded full human rights as well). Note too that in Ex 21:26 that When a man causes an eye or tooth of a slave to be lost, the slave can go free. All these are When statements, acknowledging that it would occur, but not condoning it.

    5. Deut 20:10-15, Deut 21:10-14, Numbers 31. The Plunder. While ancient civilizations (and even not-so-ancient-civilizations) regularly warred and plundered each other, this is not generally condoned by God. There is one exception, and this is regarding the one tiny piece of land on this planet that God has staked for Himself, for His chosen people. The land that He promised to Abraham and his descendants (quite possibly the location of the original garden of Eden). Why should there be war over that (comparatively) tiny patch of land from the beginning of human civilization even until today? Because as the only patch of land God wants, it’s the one patch of land that Satan wants most. To thwart God’s plans, God’s prophecies. And it’s the one patch of land God will fight over. And Satan voraciously covets it, so there will be wars in that area over control between God’s chosen people (Israel) and everyone else, until the end of this world. So, yes, God commands war over this patch of land. And He will do so again at the end of this age.

    As far as the actual war process, plundering, or servitude in exchange for peace, I am guessing that is pretty par for the course thousands of years ago. God does command complete annihilation of the peoples in the land God promised as Abraham’s inheritance, “so that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods” (child sacrifice was a common practice). Note that at least 4/6 of these nations are from Ham/Canaan’s rebellious line that was cursed by Noah. Why so severe? God’s plan to save humanity rested on the purity of a bloodline to the Savior. There were many hundreds of years to go. The nation of Israel had to be kept pure, or God’s prophecies would not be able to be fulfilled. And no one would ever stand a chance of being saved. We cannot underestimate the tireless commitment that Satan has to try to thwart God’s plans throughout humanity. The battle is certainly in the supernatural realm, and even though unseen, it spills out onto our world and in our history.

    While it seems pretty awful that a beautiful woman captive from war could be taken as a wife (after taking away her former way of life and giving 1 month for mourning), I wonder if other nations were not so generous? She is afterall, made into a wife, allowed a short grieving period, and taken care of. Not ideal, but what in war is ideal??? Note that this isn’t commanded by God, but is assumed that it might happen, so they are given guidelines.

    And what happens to the other “plunder”?

    A few verses later, Ex 22:22 “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword.” This is the one direct command from God, the SHALL NOT. The “plunder” will be cared for.

    In Lev 19:18, God commands “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. (same as in the New Testament). A command, you SHALL. I would think this applies to slaves and free, and represents how God has always wanted us to treat each other.

    • Convicted Mama, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

      You offer a number of rationales for biblical slavery. I’ve dealt with most of them in my posts, but I’d like to say a few words about your paragraph numbered 5, because it’s there that you reveal your true goodness and humanity. I really mean that.

      In Paragraph 5, you offer a reason why God would command Moses to treat human beings like ‘plunder’. A historically informed reading of Deuteronomy 20 & 21 and Numbers 31 must conclude that the ‘plunder’ of human beings at that time meant not only slavery, but rape. However, I notice that you — as a good person — cannot quite bring yourself to say those words. Instead, you say that ‘God commands *war*’ and ‘will do so again at the end of this age.’ War is somehow less vile than slavery and rape. Heck, there are even wars that I as a patriotic American have supported. But neither you nor I would ever condone or even facilitate slavery and rape. We know that there is no excuse for enslaving people or raping them. Not then and not now. Especially if you are a God who is free to issue any commands he wants. I think you know this, and that is why you only defended ‘war’ but not slavery and rape.

      I finally came to a point where apologists’ lame and twisted excuses for the inexcusable became less convincing than the simple hypothesis that the Bible had gotten it wrong — that some things in the Bible reflect (as you acknowledged) the mentality of the time rather than (I would add) God’s Unchanging Word.

      If I may be so bold, I think you are a better person than your rationales allow you to be.

      The necessity of maintaining a ‘pure bloodline’ to the Savior doesn’t convince me, either. After all, wasn’t Rahab the harlot part of that bloodline? Also Ruth, who was from Moab? In any case, let’s remember that God (if he exists) is God. He does not have to resort to impure means to obtain a pure end. I leave it to your imagination: How many ways can you think of for God to maintain the desired bloodline that do NOT involve distributing 32,000 virgins to the testosterone-crazed troops that just killed the virgins’ fathers? Oh, and some for the priests?

      The charitable verses that close your comment are examples of the pearls that are to be found in the Bible. The fact that they reside side-by-side with the verses we now find so problematic (but which nobody thought twice about in that age, as you pointed out) just shows how blind we all can be to the evil that is mixed with the good in our own traditions.

  10. TheConvictedMama

    I just love the way you write. Just the way you talk you are so convincing.

    I will think some more on this. But my first impression, is that you are thinking in terms of today’s sex-crazed (or testosterone fueled as you put it) society. With the Israelites, they had to go through a purification process after every emission of semen (I believe it was 7 days). As God has a special thing against sexual sins, their laws reflected that. And these are people who had very severe penalties for breaking of laws. I am not sure what the punishment for not following purification processes were offhand. Anyways, rape would obviously include emission of semen. And, living in tents in a giant community, it’s not like you could hide stuff like that very easily, especially on a large scale. And certainly not from God. He certainly would have punished them for a grand rapefest after a war (see your other post about God’s treatment of them after they mixed with the other religion and had sex with the women – was it the Moabites? Sorry I am going on memory.). I just don’t see it happening based on the type of society they had and laws they had. Yes, perhaps when they fell away (as they did repeatedly), but in this instance I believe they were living in obedience to God, which is why He was talking to them and supporting them. We are certainly more sexually focused these days I would think, in our society anyways.

    Yes, Rahab and Ruth. They were “gentiles”, but like the church, were “grafted in”. God is concerned about a spiritual bloodline as well as a physical one. I will think more on this as well. Rahab saved God’s people and was spared (and I assume joined the nation of Israel?), and Ruth of course claimed God to be her own God and his people to be her people. They were “spiritually” Israel, as we are of Abraham’s spiritual bloodline (those of us who believe).

    But again, I will have to put more thought into this one.

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  12. I love looking through a post thaat can make people think.
    Also, thank you forr allowing for me to comment!

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  20. i am seeing both sides here. ultimately i agree with convicted mama’s stance, because the ideas of today- love and voluntary service, mercy and gratitude- were not nearly as prevalent back in the day, and people from that time could not even fathom feeling the way we do about how others should be treated. it seems to me that god took them on baby steps, which led to what jesus had to say later on. even over 2000 years later now, we as a society greatly reject even JESUS’S words about how things should be. so imagine the people who weren’t nearly as smart (less evolved than us), trying to even fathom loving our enemies. it would have been too much at once for their minds, given the way society had built itself. its like dealing with your grandma, for whom you tolerate her outdated, flawed customs because you are understanding of where she is, where she has been, what has molded her thought process, and you do your best to meet her halfway, offering her new ways to see or do things, still respecting her feelings and habits, without sacrificing your own thoughts completely. because you love her. its hard enough to get people on board with jesus’s ways today- its as if we were given the message before we could even fully understand it. i know every day that i am not to fret over my physical appearance, but still i keep up with making sure my eyebrows are neat and trimmed, etc. i know its wrong to idolize beauty, but still i do it, out of fear of what the world will think, instead of completely caring about god’s word regarding it, and its wrong of me, and hurts me to be vain!! even though it seems small. i hear the word, but dont always obey it. so i think god is trying to meet us where we are- as all christians should do for those who think differently than themselves. baby steps. and thankfully, in today’s age, the average person detests war and other crimes. so we are in a better position to embrace the new testament, even though we often either fail at that, or straight up reject some of the things it says.

  21. oh yeah, lastly- thank you for this post. i was reading exodus and finding great trouble with the fact that god said to kill people, etc. and started searching the internet for help. your post got me thinking hard, and presented the flaws i see, but convictedmama reminded me of some important points. beagle, thank you for opening the door to higher understanding.

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