Did the Old Testament support slavery?

The kind most Americans think of? No. Instead, it birthed an abolitionist movement.

7 ways the slavery discussed in the Bible is different than the kind in North America

In this five-minute video by Minister Alan Parr he says:

  1. God did not create slavery. He created laws to eliminate mistreatment of the enslaved, as an initial step toward its elimination.

  2. Servitude was the social welfare system of its day.

  3. In Hebrew culture, people chose servitude if they couldn't find any other way to feed themselves or pay off debt. They would hire themselves out.

  4. Kidnapping was punishable by death in the Old Testament, which by default means you couldn’t have the kind of slavery practiced in North America.

  5. Servitude was limited to six years.

  6. They were to be treated with respect, like employees. A master was buying the services, not the person. Slaves had equal rights, could own property and could purchase their freedom.

  7. Slavery was never condoned based on race.

Christianity planted the seeds from which grew the movement to end slavery

This page includes a video briefly covering the same ground as the video above, but then links Christian ideas to people who began speaking out, arguing to end slavery.

  1. Servitude not slavery.

  2. The bible planted the seeds for ending slavery.

  3. The bible provided the perspective that all people are equal, the foundational principle that initially motivated Christians to go against the culture to end slavery.

Watch video or read transcript

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

Portions of the Bible are historical records that provide context or are warnings about the consequences of disobeying God. Other sections are instructions on how we ought to live in order to serve God and enjoy the most fulfilling lives possible. This distinction is critical when considering issues like slavery. This article highlighted multiple locations in the Bible where the concept of human rights was described and prescribed to people in the Bible.

Read article

Culture sucked Christians in

Christians who embraced slavery simply accepted the culture norms around them rather than fighting them. The same applies to Christians with racist attitudes who weren’t in favor of slavery.

"The erring Christians who supported and owned slaves indicate at least three important truths: (1) as sinful beings, they were either ignorant of Paul's words or knowingly ignored them; (2) they let the prevailing culture of pagan societies influence their behavior; and (3) they ignored Christ's words that said his followers were to be in the world but not of it," Alvin Schmidt wrote in How Christianity Changed the World.

The good news? God didn’t give up.

God nudges people toward ending slavery in Europe and North America

Sometimes seeing God move takes thousands of years. Let's fast-foward through the progression.

  1. The ideal began in Genesis 1:26-27, "...in which God's image-bearers lived and worked together harmoniously and fairly, graciously treated; they are viewed as full persons and equals; and genuine humanness is restored in Christ, the second Adam/the new man," Paul Copan wrote on page 63 of Is God a Moral Monster. If this ideal had been adhered to, slavery would have never existed.

  2. Rules prior to the Old Testament were brutal and demeaning for the enslaved or anyone who considered slavery wrong. In the Code of Hammurabi, those helping runaway slaves received the death penalty. Under the less-severe Lipit-Ishtar, Eshnunna and Hittite laws, if you as a slave did escape but were caught, you'd have your ears slit and be branded, Copan wrote on page 131 and 132.

  3. The Old Testament law — though still not ideal — limited punishments and Israel served as a sanctuary country for those who sold themselves into servitude due to dire circumstances.

  4. In the New Testament, slaves were fully incorporated into the Christian community without any distinction from masters, hearkening back to the vision in Genesis. Skeptics might counter that Paul said to honor your slaveholders, but that was related to guidance to slaves who during their lifetimes had to live in an age where slavery was enforced. So given the circumstances, Paul is instead advising slaves on how to live. For one example of this watch Pastor John Piper’s Look at the Book where he analyzes one of Paul’s verses on slavery.

  5. William Wilberforce, Elijah Lovejoy and a variety of Christians and former enslaved people like Sojourner Truth battled for hundreds of years on both sides of the Atlantic to end slavery in Europe and the United States. Check out my online timeline to see a larger list of Christ followers who spoke out against slavery in the United States back when they were in the minority. It's the same timeline I created to show how Christians started what we consider modern-day health care. Now you have an option to see either the impact of Christians on health care or the abolition of slavery.

    View timeline