Tom Gilson

Slavery in the Old Testament: A Biblical Overview via Logos 6

Very soon I’ll be opening up a group study of Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?. Be sure to get a copy if you want to join with us. The idea to study Copan’s book was kicked off, courtesy of Keith, during conversations on slavery in the Bible. I’ve never done a thorough analysis here on what the Old Testament says about slavery, so with this week’s release of Logos 6, I thought I’d take the opportunity to find out how the software could facilitate that study.

In a word, it was more than helpful. A simple “search everything” brought up every reference to slavery in a couple dozen Bible translations, a host of commentaries, and the rather large collection of ebooks that come with my Logos “Scholar’s Library.” (Logos has changed its nomenclature, so that library is no longer offered as far as I can tell.) I read through all the Old Testament-related references and copied most of them over into a word processing document, which resulted in 32 pages of raw information.

Expositors Bible Commentary
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

Most helpful were the references from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a large 12-volume set available as a stand-alone item in Logos, and the Lexham Bible Dictionary, which Logos is advertising today for free with downloads of the Faithlife Study Bible–also free! Logos 6 also includes helpful guides, for example this topical overview (of which an extended version fills seven of the previously-mentioned 32 pages).

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says this about Lev. 25:39-46:

… In this instance a man has no credit to obtain a loan. His case is hopeless, and he takes the initiative. But he has his rights; he is not a slave. “A hired worker or a temporary resident” (v.40) is translated by Speiser as “resident laborer” (p. 134), i.e., not a resident alien (cf. comment on v.36).
The notice “until the Year of Jubilee” (v.40) would apply equally well to case 1 of v.35, if that man’s debt were not worked off before the Year of Jubilee. The mention of “resident laborers” brings up the contrasting positions of “slaves” (v.44). Hebrews could not be enslaved by their compatriots. Slaves of the nations were permitted, and these were not released in the Jubilee. The most that could be exacted of a brother Israelite was indentured servitude. Of course, slaves, too, had their rights. Indeed, a runaway slave was not to be returned to his master (Deut 23:15). This would tend greatly to affect a master’s attitude toward his slaves.

And it says this concerning Ex. 21:26-32:

Any slave who suffered a permanent injury from his owner won his freedom immediately (cf. vv.20–21, however, for authorized discipline by the master). Thus a slave was not to be treated with caprice as if he were mere chattel. The economic sanctions against the owner were designed so that the owner would be given plenty of reason to resist any abusive tactics for the sake of his financial investment even if he totally disregarded the slave’s dignity and worth as a human being….
A fifth example of bodily injury involved goring oxen. Men were responsible for the injuries their oxen caused to other people. These laws are closely paralleled by the Code of Hammurabi (250–52) and the Eshnunna Law Code (54–55). The biblical version of these laws, which obviously sprang from the same culture, times, and background, was very different from Hammurabi’s or Eshnunna’s versions in that the Bible’s concern was not economic but moral and religious. The ox, in the case of v.28, and the ox and his owner, in the case of vv.29–30, were guilty of taking another person’s life. Notice that Genesis 9:5–6 requires that the life of a beast that killed a man as well as that of a manslayer be taken, because man is made in the image of God. It made no difference what the age, social status, or gender of the person was (vv.31–32); boys and girls, men and women, male and female slaves are all created in the image of God.

The parallel information concerning other ancient practices is helpful in pointing out the moral background of biblical codes on slavery (though see below). See further the following on Exodus 21:20-21:

The second case involved a master striking his slave, male or female. Since the slave did not die immediately as a result of this act of using the rod (not a lethal weapon, however) but tarried for “a day or two” (v.21), the master was given the benefit of the doubt; he was judged to have struck the slave with disciplinary and not homicidal intentions. This law is unprecedented in the ancient world where a master could treat his slave as he pleased. When this law is considered alongside the law in vv.26–27, which acted to control brutality against slaves at the point where it hurt the master, viz., his pocketbook (see Notes), a whole new statement of the value and worth of the personhood of the slave is introduced. Thus if the master struck a slave severely enough only to injure one of his members, he lost his total investment immediately in that the slave won total freedom; or if he struck severely enough to kill the slave immediately, he was tried for capital punishment (vv.18–19). The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the master’s mercy but to restrict the master’s power over him (cf. similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi 196–97, 200).

I’ve excerpted only a small portion of the commentary, but it’s clear that this is nothing at all like slavery as we think of it. For Hebrews it’s temporary, it’s for the purpose of relieving poverty, it ends with all goods being restored. For all servants and slaves, Hebrew and foreign, there were strict restrictions on cruelty by masters, there was no kidnapping allowed, and runaway slaves were granted automatic amnesty. As the EBC says above, possibly even understating it, “This would tend greatly to affect a master’s attitude toward his slaves.”

The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, also in Logos 6, says,

Old Testament Slavery laws appear in Exod. 21:1–11; Lev. 25:39–55; and Deut. 15:12–18. Most of these concern humane treatment and manumission. A Hebrew sold to another Hebrew or a resident alien because of insolvency was to be released after six years of service and given provisions to start over. If he had come with a wife, she and any children were also released. If the master had given him a wife, she and the children were to remain. If, however, the slave wanted to stay with his wife and children rather than be free, he could enroll himself as a slave for life. A Hebrew who sold himself to another Hebrew or resident alien was to be released during the Jubilee Year. A slave could be redeemed at any time by a relative. A Hebrew girl sold by her father to another Hebrew to become his wife was to be released if that man or his son did not marry her. A slave permanently maimed by his or her master was to be freed (Exod. 21:26–27). A fugitive slave—presumably one who had escaped from a foreign owner—was not to be extradited (Deut. 23:15–16). Foreigners could be enslaved permanently, but they had the right to circumcision (Exod. 12:44–48), Sabbath rest (Exod. 20:10), and holidays (Deut. 16:11, 14). One was to be punished for beating a slave to death (Exod 21:20–21). See Year of Jubilee.


As stated above, the biblical approach to regulating slavery was moral more than economically-based, in contrast to other Ancient Near East codes, and in fact it was morally advanced with respect to its time. I’ve been asked the question here, though, “Why didn’t God just say, ‘no slaves!’?” Hebrews living under servitude among Hebrews actually weren’t slaves at all as we think of slavery, for reasons already stated. The Hebrews were allowed, however, to purchase and to own foreign slaves. This remains a fact to be faced. I’ll come back to it, as will Paul Copan in the book some of us will be reading through together.

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8 thoughts on “Slavery in the Old Testament: A Biblical Overview via Logos 6

  1. While I definitely appreciate what you’re doing here, Tom, after the last round of discussion, it really became apparent to me that this is not an exegetical issue for atheists. To be sure, there are plenty of cases where some want OT/Jewish slavery to be identical in every way to American slavery, and will push for that to be so.

    This, really, is a matter of concepts of power, and how “we” would exercise it in a moral problem-solving sense. As far as I’m concerned, these discussions have to be preceded by lengthy examinations of the dynamics and implications of covenant theology, with covenants being the primary mode of interaction that God has chosen to work with mankind in order to arrive at a certain goal. As long as God is understood as some distant-yet-irascible Great Oz, pulling levers and issuing nuclear fiats without having any “skin” in the game, no choice of His to exercise (or in this case, to NOT exercise) power, will make any sense.

    I could be right or wrong about ANY of my concepts of what slavery as described in the Bible was actually like. But even if I was correct on 100% of my points, which I think is likely impossible, it wouldn’t matter if I can’t articulate the basic framework of God’s general behavior at that stage in history.

  2. Good point. I’m thinking of striking off in a new direction more informed by the character of God and his ways of dealing with people, even as we also look at Copan’s book.

  3. Tom,

    Thank you for those quotes. The whole “The OT thing is the Southern Plantation thing” landscape is falling to pieces – literally – here and elsewhere.

    That argument by atheists – future-ward – as today’s teens morph to tomorrow’s adults – will simply no longer exist as this sort of work takes root (over time). Don’t get fatigued.

    What is left are all those contours and affairs of Immutable Love’s (God’s) Faithful Covenant inside of that fateful Protoevangelium from Genesis forward into the lap of that Work which just is Redemption. Those lines of Man in his Privation, of necessary insufficiency there in that work short of contingency’s (man’s) amalgamation with all-sufficiency (God), of Good, of Evil, and of God’s Faithfulness amid His Own unending Self-Sacrifice then come racing to the surface as all those erroneous fictions of the Critics fade into nonentity.

  4. Foreign workers find no difference of definition amid Murder and Person and treatment by case law dealing with harm to indentured workers – where harm ipso facto grants freedom.

    To augment the historicity in the quotes found in the opening piece are a few ideas from another thread’s exchange and then further “dissection” of what is in play here. Any presupposition which forces the OT theme to contradict God’s clear lines amid Murder and Person will need more than “a little nuance” to make such a large demand on Scripture cohere. In other words, if the foreign worker is to mystically “miss out” on the entire “murder / person” lines of case law then nuance alone just won’t be enough to make that case. Where A is clear, a less obvious B cannot ipso facto – without rigorous justification – be granted permission to untie such lines.

    On all indentured workers, both Israelite and Foreign:

    Critic: Where does the Bible say killing a slave is a capital crime? Christian: In the verses quoted. The punishment for killing a person is death.

    Critic: Where does the Bible mention any permanent damage? Christian: In the verse I cited – if you even knock out his tooth you lose the slave.

    Critic: Do you believe verse 20 applies to foreign slaves? Christian: Yes.

    Critic: I see that the slave goes free if he loses a tooth. I see that the slave goes free if he loses an eye. But how do you get from that to “the slave goes free if he receives any permanent damage”? Christian: By thinking and researching. This is case law, not a complete list of all legal possibilities. And the interpreters of the law have always held that this represented a principle by which the permanently damaged slave is freed.

    Critic: “But the slave is his property”. Christian: “It was clarified that the slave is not his property to do with anything he liked. There was legal recourse, there were rules in place, the slave could take him to the court, he could be freed, he could be assigned a new master. It is not like he was a tool that the master could break or discard at will.”

    “Why not a No-Slaves Law?”

    As for “why not any slaves”, that is forgetting what indentured servitude “meant”. Historicity anyone? Let’s take a look: Though there are no prisons in the world we speak of, and though there are no banks in the world we speak of, there are still real debts. Debts ensue – both of body and of property. The method of Justice – short of capital punishment for murder, is to pay back the damage you’ve done to another human being. The arena of “Service and Redemption” therefore comes to the surface in what is meant by indentured servitude. Thus, “Why not command no indentured workers” is just like asking, “Why didn’t God make it a law that the person I harmed, that I am indebted to, cannot demand of me what I justly owe him?” Or, it is just like asking, “Why didn’t God make it a law that if another bank buys my bank, then all my debt just gets erased so that the new bank can’t collect what is justly owed it”? That sounds, well, either ignorant or “worse” if we, today, ask such of God. We don’t ask that of God.

    The Foreigner is a different case:

    The only step-off here is (the worst case here) that if the worker purchased from another country was not Israel’s form of justly indentured worker for debt/harm repayment but was instead a slave (in our southern plantation concept of such) in an unjust system. In that case – and in that case alone – the recently purchased former-slave – now an indentured servant in a new country – finds himself in payment of an un-owed debt.

    That is, he is now working for a new boss who he has never wronged or hurt – just like in the old country.

    Before going further in any dissection:

    We find that it just is the case that it is a justified claim that we are to put a hard stop right “there”. That location is where we are now as we begin to dissect further moving forward. Everything else is justifiably “not this” but is instead – purely – payment of wrongs and damages in a world without banks and without prisons. It would be difficult to take seriously anyone who questions the dissection up to this point.

    So now we arrive here – He (the indentured worker) is now working for a new boss who he has never wronged or hurt – just like in the old country.

    So let’s dissect that, since all the rest is turning out to be (as historicity does its work over time) merely the unjustifiably nuanced fiction of skeptics.

    In the land of Bizarre where I am my master’s Bastard a Freak from a peculiar nation named Israel offers me all the protections of his weird nation’s unusual Laws. And the price paid on the Freak’s end is some X amount of barter paid by him while the debt on my end is that I cannot change bosses but by the rule of his (weird) nation’s freakishly liberal laws. “You can only work for me. If I knock out a tooth – you’re free. If you run away, I cannot return you to Bizarre.” A Bastard in Bizarre becomes – he has no choice – a Servant of a freakishly liberal citizen of Israel.

    Let us see if we can – here at this juncture – get the following to cohere:

    It seems there is an incredibly real category of debt which the former southern plantation sort of Bastard from Bizarre suddenly finds paid on his behalf by this freakish citizen of this weird nation called Israel and that is “that which” amounts to now granting to that (former) Bastard (formally) of Bizarre the following: one’s utter safety from harm – for life. And the debt he now owes – and it seems we can (can we?) say he does owe the Freak from Israel an incredibly real category of debt – is that he was bought – with a price paid – and thereby he was brought out of non-personhood – out of the whole “southern plantation thing” – out of the Land of Bizarre wherein he was his master’s Bastard – and he was brought into personhood – into that location on the moral map where the Courts are his defense if he so much as loses a tooth. This former bastard has been purchased – at a price – and finds himself in Oz where the full force of those curious Laws of YHWH’s peculiar people are – forever – on his side. He is safe – for life.

    We’ll stop there. We need not tolerate an X being called a Z. False identity claims mandate a bit of historicity.

    The ideal is for Israel to go around to all the countries making war with them and setting all the slaves free. But of course going to war with them on the grounds that they sacrifice living children to fire is all the Skeptic’s rage – it really is worth pointing out that (bizarre) fact about skeptics. The force of War will never be the – final – solution to the Fall – to Man’s painful fragmentation inside of his Privation. Just take a look around. God knew, and knows, exactly where Man’s fundamental sickness – disease – is located and what the full and final cure actually “is”. Of course, such Redemption, such Ideal Means and Ends of His Love is what the whole of Scripture is all about. That pesky meta-narrative of Scripture’s A to Z which the skeptic ever cherry-picks in order to avoid just is the meta-narrative of God’s Faithfulness amid His Own unending Self-Sacrifice housed within that which is love’s ceaseless reciprocity – which we call Trinity – forever delivering Man’s final good in God’s Faithful Covenant with Himself in that fateful Protoevangelium moving from Genesis forward into the lap of that Work which just is Redemption.

  5. “it’s clear that this is nothing at all like slavery as we think of it.”

    You’ve lost me. Your own commentary of Lev. 25:44-46 notes, “Hebrews could not be enslaved by their compatriots. Slaves of the nations were permitted, and these were not released in the Jubilee.”

    Sounds like indentured servitude for our own people + slavery for life (for not our own people), just like we had in the good ol’ U. S. of A.

  6. Jubilee did not come around to the foreigner.

    As discussed already. The rest is (for the foreigner) literally – case law is case law – a trade of unending physical danger for unending physical safety, as already described by the case law touched on. Comment #4 Etc. Jubilee is the only difference. The rest is “knock out his tooth – he goes free”.

    And so on.

    It seems Jubilee is the only remaining non-egalitarian line left intact once historicity removes all of the Skeptic’s fiction. Force of Law did not mandate Jubilee in 50 years.

  7. Hi, Bob. Thanks for pointing out that I have more work to do on this. You could also have quoted the last two sentences of the OP and saved yourself some effort.

  8. Bob, RE: #5

    I see that again you return to Thinking Christian to comment about biblical slavery (servitude), despite the fact that you ban Christian contributors such as I during and from discussions of slavery on your own atheist website. But that reality aside, I observe that you engage in the same fallacious arguments on the topic as before. Allow me to point out two of your most obvious fallacies:

    First, you claim to compare the laws from the Book of Leviticus regarding servitude with the laws regarding slavery of the ante-bellum United States and find them to be, in your words “… just like we had in the good ol’ U. S. of A.” You conjecture that one reason this is true is because the OT/Torah Hebrews were not allowed by law to enslave each other but they were allowed to hold slaves who were “foreigners.” So, let us first examine the slave laws of the Colony (later state) of Virginia between 1640-1705. You can go to this website to see what these laws were:

    I point out that, unlike the laws of the Book of Leviticus, the slave laws of Virginia had both a very different intent and a different effect on those “foreigner” slaves. The laws of Virginia were intended to (and accomplished) making black Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the colonies for the sole purpose of enslaving them, have a permanent and unending status as slaves, themselves and all of their descendents, by virtue of their race alone, not just because they were “foreign” or “not our own people.” The slave laws of Virginia were for the purpose of removing any criminal penalties for all sorts of torture and killing of slaves at their owners’ will. They were also intended to punish anyone who aided escaped slaves or did not return them to their masters.

    Anyone who claims that these outcomes were the purpose and intention of the laws of OT has either not understood the OT or is deliberately misrepresenting the intent and purpose of the laws of servitude of the ancient Hebrews, including the legal and moral purpose of the Jubilee year: liberty. Please reread Leviticus 8:10 “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

    Which brings me to your major fallacy #2: your misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity. If your complaint is that OT slavery is that the Hebrews made laws regarding servitude where they could only enslave “them” but not “us”, then you will understand how revolutionary Christianity is and how Jesus Christ’s teachings are the fulfillment of the purpose of the OT laws: Freedom from slavery for all. This is because Christ made it clear that there is no “us” versus “them” under God. Therefore, there can be no “foreigners” who “we” can enslave because they are not “us.” Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Nowhere does he teach us that “foreigners” are not our neighbors. We are all equally children of the One God, our Father Almighty. See Galatians 3: 28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    So, you must admit (even though you may hold out and hold forth to the contrary) that the laws of the OT regarding slavery are not “just like” the laws of the United States that allowed and regulated slavery before the Civil War. Christian abolitionists who argued that slavery is/was contrary to God’s Law as it comes to are/were correct. So why do atheists keep insisting otherwise? And, incidentally, why was I and am I banned from your website for making these arguments?

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