Isn't the Old Testament God Pro-Slavery?

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Our past discussion on a seemingly racist God naturally flows into the topic of slavery. Much like violence in the Old Testament, we, as Christians, cannot ignore God’s apparent allowance of slavery. American history causes us to read passages like Deuteronomy 15 and Ephesians 6 with a unique lens.

As someone who grew up in the Southern U.S., slavery in the Old Testament comes with images of the transatlantic slave trade and cotton plantations. How can the church justify a God who seems to endorse slavery by providing laws for the relationship between slave and slave owner? The cultural, historical, and theological context of God’s Word paints a picture of a caring God with a desire for all to become servants of Christ.

Imago Dei

The foundational doctrine of the imago dei (Genesis 1:26) bears repeating. God’s creation of all of mankind equally in His likeness applies not only to ethnic distinctions but also Old Testament law. God makes a stand for human rights. We see a God who commands Israel not to oppress the sojourner (Exodus 23:9) and to treat them as one of their own (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The Gibeonites are an example of a conquered people who submitted themselves as servants to Israel and entered into a covenant relationship with them (Joshua 9). Facing incoming attack, the Israelites rescued their Gibeonite servants.

We see in the New Testament a unique relationship between bondservant and master characterized by a mutual regard for one another. While bondservants were to serve their masters with a sincere heart as they would Christ (Ephesians 6:5-6), masters, in return, were to treat their bondservants justly and fairly (Colossians 4:1). This already begins to turn our contemporary understanding of slavery on its head.

Cultural Differences

The Bible is clear in denouncing the kind of slavery we, in the United States, are most familiar with. Paul includes slave traders in his running list of actions that go against the gospel (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

But what do we do with texts that clearly describe how Israelites were to treat slaves? A common defense centers around the Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) use of words we at times translate as “slave”. Deeper word study reveals a word closer to “servant” rather than a forced enslavement as was experienced in the Southern U.S. Despite this distinction, the translation difference still might not resolve our anxiety.

What caused someone to become a slave, or as explained above, a servant, during biblical times must also be considered. Israelites who were faced with stark poverty and punishment for theft were given the option of becoming another’s servant to either survive poverty or pay for their crime.

For non-Israelites, being captured in war was a common cause of becoming a slave to Israel. Israel would first offer peace through which a city could turn themselves over to them (as in the Gibeonite example above), but this looked more like serfdom rather than 20th century slavery.

Additionally, slavery in the Old Testament allowed for the servants’ participation in Israelite religious rites, most importantly the Passover. This was a monumental statement of value and worth to be included in God’s Kingdom despite being a servant in Israel.

Slaves of Christ

Jesus was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. This is the exact amount paid for the death of a slave (Exodus 21:32) in Jewish law. What kind of statement is God making? Jesus was a servant Himself to God, who willingly served and, “redeemed us from slavery by being counted a slave Himself” (http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/2014/01/slavery-and-the-old-testament-law/).

The imagery of us as slaves of Christ becomes that much more captivating when considering how Jesus identified Himself as a servant. This should continue to shape our understanding of God’s purpose in allowing slavery, though a much different form than our nation’s historical version.

From God’s allowance of Old Testament slaves to participate in what connected the Israelites to Himself in covenanted fellowship, to Paul sending back Onesimus to Philemon as an honored brother (Philemon 1:12), we can be sure we do not serve a God who condones slavery practices that demean or minimize another human being. Rather, we serve a God who seeks for people to experience flourishing in how they treat one another, regardless of their station.

As we study difficult topics like this, it is paramount to keep in focus what we do know about God so we can rightly wrestle with them in light of His perfect goodness and righteousness. Continue to explore the cultural, historical, and theological dimensions within these discussions and grow in confidence in understanding God’s intent for his creation as we dive in.