Let My People Go

When it comes to the Bible, one of the most puzzling questions people have is about slavery. In the famous Exodus story, God uses the prophet Moses to help set the children of Israel free from slavery in Egypt. After severely punishing their oppressors - the Egyptians and Pharaoh - God leads Israel on a journey back to their promised land, where they will attempt to establish themselves as a nation.

Here's the weird part though - even though God had just set Israel free from slavery, some of the people within Israelite society were still practicing slavery within their own nation. This seems strange and contradictory. Didn't God just go to great lengths to end slavery? How is it still going on?

Many people rightly find this unsettling. The Bible does talk about slavery, and in more recent history people have used the Bible's teachings about slavery to justify horrible, dehumanizing practices that let to generations of oppression for countless people. If the Bible - and moreover, the God of the Bible - were to encourage this kind of behavior, wouldn't it be worth leaving this book and this God behind?

I would say yes. But the fact is that the Bible does not endorse or condone the kind of slavery that were practiced in America, or the kinds of slavery that are most common in the world today. The Bible is emphatically for liberation of enslaved people and for the ethical treatment of human beings in this area. Many people have only seen a handful of quotes out of context. We would like to present to you the raw material from the Bible and let you read it for yourself. The truth should be fairly clear.

Here's the issue - we do have sections of the Bible that say things like this:

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10 NIV)

On the surface, this might seem like a pro-slavery quote. However, there are three crucial elements

  1. Historical Context
    Social institutions have changed drastically through human history. Slavery is no exception. What historical practice is actually being discussed in this passage? What was life like at this time? Is it different or the same as current situations?

  2. Literary Context
    What role does a particular quote play within the larger work it is a part of? For example, in Exodus, the story overall is about slaves being set free - so any instructions about slavery should be seen in light of the fact that God acts dramatically to set slaves free.

  3. Biblical context
    Where does this stand in reference to the rest of the Bible? Are we falsely treating the Old Testament and New Testament contexts exactly the same way? Are we bringing all the relevant information to the table? Are we focusing too much on a particular verse or situation without taking into account the overall message of the whole story?

Biblical context is especially important. Just because something is in the Bible, does not mean that it is eternally relevant or always to be applied in the same way. As an example, Christians clearly believe that the Old Testament animal sacrifices are no longer necessary after the death of Jesus.

Likewise, the Torah laws about slavery were specifically designed for ancient Israelite society and do not apply to people living during the New Testament era. This is why we find a different set of instructions about slavery in the New Testament - since laws that were meant to govern Israelite society could not be used universally for all nations, and because the New Testament does not lay the foundation for a government system like the Old Testament does. The New Testament does not expect its readers to establish a nation on the basis of its teachings, and many people in the original audience of the New Testament were themselves oppressed under the Roman Empire.

Given all of this information, I would invite you to read the following quotes from the Bible. Different translations have been used to be as clear as possible, and to use the word "slave" clearly as often as possible. We want this to be about what it is about. Read through the Old Testament passages, and then compare them to the New Testament passages. What is the overall picture that emerges? Then answer the study questions at the bottom.

Old Testament

Deuteronomy 5:12-16 ESV "‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."

Exodus 21:20-21 NIV “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

Exodus 21:2 NIV “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything."

Exodus 21:26-27 ESV "When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth."

Exodus 21:16 NLT “Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves."

New Testament

1 Corinthians 7:21 NIV "Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so."

Philemon 1:15-16 NLT "It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord."

Questions:

  • Does the existence of slavery in the Bible justify modern forms of slavery? Why not?

  • Are the forms of slavery presented in the Old Testament and the New Testament the same thing?

  • Are the forms of slavery that appear in the Bible based on racism?

  • Read Ephesians 6:5-9 (NIV). This passage gives instructions to Christians who are slaves, and also to Christian slave owners. What standards are expected of them? How much of the passage applies to the slave owners? (Note the line we have bolded:)

    • "5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. 9 And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
  • Given all that you have read above, what do you think of Christians who try to use the Bible to justify slavery in more recent times in history? What do you think of people who claim to be Christians but also believe it is okay to do the following things: - enslave someone by kidnapping, beat those slaves mercilessly, sometimes to the point of death or serious injury, threaten the slaves and abuse them verbally, never let them go free without receiving significant payment, never give them adequate rest or time off, and think of them as an inferior form of life. Can such a person be considered a follower of the Bible?

  • Watch the following videos from The Bible Project for more relevant information on this topic:

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