The Bible on Slavery (Part 2)

This is the concluding part of my post on Slavery.  I will cover in this post, the general condoning of slavery within the bible with a view on specific aspects such as sexual and conjugal slavery, and debt slavery which play a large part in the same Biblical laws which right-wing fundamentalists are claiming that western morality is founded upon and widely.  I will also cover some of the manumission of slavery.

I have also found a biblical reference to the word ‘Ebed’ that I was having difficulty with on my last entry.  Ebed, in the Bible was a person, rather than a descriptive noun, as we are led to believe by Wikipedia.  The story in which Ebed is briefly referred to in is as the father of Gaal who became involved in a slave uprising that was put down by Abimelech; a mass-murdering ego-maniac who appointed himself king (Judges 9:1 – 45).

“Ask the leading citizens of Shechem whether they want to be ruled by all seventy of Gideon’s sons or by one man. And remember that I am your own flesh and blood!” – Abimelech (Judges 9:2)

“But today you have revolted against my father and his descendants, killing his seventy sons on one stone. And you have chosen his slave woman’s son, Abimelech, to be your king just because he is your relative.”– (Judges 9:18) New Living Translation (©2007)


In the Mediterranean and Middle East, even before the concept of Christianity, it was customary to take war captives as slaves.  What the writers of the bible did was ‘legitimise’ this practice by setting down rules as to whom could and could not be enslaved, the treatment of  slaves and the position of slaves as inheritance.  In this way, they endorsed slavery but most of the Deuteronomic code is plagiarised, almost word for word, from the much older Mesopotamian, Hammurabi code.  Deuteronomy proscribed death for any man caught abducting an Israelite for the purpose of enslaving them.  Whether this was as a means of protection, it is unclear but what is clear that this law was exclusive in that it was only protection to one demographic of that society.  More worryingly it seems it was more exclusively directed at male Israelites.

“If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” English Standard Version (©2001) Deuteronomy 24:7

The Holiness Laws of Leviticus are also explicit in their stance on slavery.  It allows the trade of slaves on the condition that the slaves they trade are not Israelites.  Non-Israelite residents who had been sold into slavery were considered property and could therefore be inherited and sold on.  The children of slaves remained slaves for life and were also the property of their parents’ masters.  Foreign slaves had no right to marry but enslaved Israelites were sometimes given wives by their masters.  Those slaves were freed after six years but their wives were only released with them if they were married prior to their enslavement.  Women and children remained the property of their masters regardless of their race.  As Leviticus only refers to Hebrew slaves so considering the exclusivity of the rest of the Bible, it leads us to the conclusion that once foreigners were enslaved they were never freed.

The separation of slaves into categories was in order to determine the level of protection from the law they were entitled to; foreign & native, debt & chattel.  Foreign chattel slaves had the lowest status.

Debt Slavery.

Debt slavery was the most protected form of slavery.  These were citizens who had fallen on hard times and had sold themselves in order to pay their debts.  Their bondage was limited to no more than six years if they were male.  Poverty and famine were common economic problems and this meant that some were compelled to enter debt-bondage. Women and children were viewed as merchantable property and could also be sold by their families for financial reasons.  Debtors were allowed to sell family members for three years and this has been supported by the Hammurabi code which allows residents to sell their children to pay their debts.  The bible has narrowed this to only allow them to be sold to Israelites without a time limitation (The Holiness Code).  The Covenant Code declares that thieves, caught after sunrise, that cannot make restitution for their theft were to be sold into slavery.  Finally, the Book of Kings instructs that children of a deceased debtor be sold to clear the outstanding debt.

Conjugal and Sexual Slavery.

This involved being sold to be a wife and was a common practice in that part of the world and the time the scriptures were written.  No sanction was made in the Old Testament for sexual intercourse outside of marriage, but the taking of a second wife as a concubine was allowed for.  There is also allowance for fathers to sell their unmarried daughters with the provision that either the master or the master’s son eventually marries her.  Both Jewish and Christian commentators have agreed that this law applies to girls under the age of 12 years.

“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female servant, she shall not go out as the male servant do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.” (Exodus 21:7-11)

The code allows that a woman be ‘redeemed’ if the groom break his betrothal to her.  If female slaves were betrothed to the master’s son then she was to be treated as a daughter (paradoxically, daughters could be sold). If the female slave was married to her master then she was still dependant on them for food, shelter and clothing, but also conjugal rights.  Failure to comply with this was the only way a female slave would gain their freedom.  If an Israelite engaged in sexual activity with an unredeemed female slave who was betrothed, they were ‘scourged’ in Jewish tradition. Deuteronomy (15:12) instructed that they both be stoned as free persons.  The betrothal of a slave was taken as an exception to the law of release.  Women who were captured in battle were forced into marriages with their captors after having their heads shaved and undergoing a period of mourning.

“10When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonoured her.” Deuteronomy 21:10-14

As you see men, were allowed to change their minds once they had ‘sampled the goods’ as it were, and then just let her go with no regard for her well-being.  Would ‘Christians’ allow that behaviour in their own neighbourhoods or within their own families?  How many would condemn the behaviour without realising that by subscribing to their religion and their scripture, they are not only condoning it but supporting it?


I have already disclosed the Covenant code allows male Israelite slaves to be released after six years.  This does not include foreign slaves or Israelite daughters that have been sold to be wives by their fathers.  Israelite daughters were deemed  the property of their fathers and could be sold as such.  The master would then marry them themselves or marry her to one of their sons.  Only if the contract was not fulfilled by their master, was there any hope of reprieve for the girl but and children she’d had remained the property of her master.  Deuteronomic code contradicts the covenant in that it extends the seven-year release to both genders.  However, some see this as a general decree and that marriage takes the place of manumission.

The Bible extends certain rights to freed slaves and allows them an amount of produce to take with them and a command to their master ‘not to regret’ the gift considering a slave costs half the amount of a hired servant.  Despite the various commands and rules about release, many were kept longer than the permitted time.  Some believe that this is why the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed (as punishment from Yahweh for disobedience). The Holiness code does not mention any time limit on captivity , only an instruction that debt-slaves and Israelite slaves with foreign owners be released on a Jubilee year (every fifty years).  Many see this code as a supplement for the previous seven-year requirement. There was an allowance that those slaves be allowed to buy their freedom for the amount it would cost to hire a servant for the remainder of the period until the next Jubilee year.

Permanent enslavement was the fate of foreign and female slaves, as decreed in the Holiness code.  Not even the death of their master was enough to release them as they were deemed as inheritable property.  Israelites were permitted to renounce their seven-year manumission and opt for permanent enslavement at a religious sanctuary or in the presence of the ‘household gods’. The English translation of this from both the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, substitute ‘household gods’ with ‘judges’.  Having done this, their master would drive and awl through their ear into a door post.  It is thought that pierced earlobes were a sign of servitude.


In short the Bible is filled with instructions for slavery and rules pertaining to the acquiring of slaves.  Those who both believe and claim the Bible is the infallible word of God, must also bear in mind that where they claim all the goodness from human experience and give credit to their deity, they should also be wary; without acknowledging the contradictions of their arguments, and the outright incompatibility between western morality and basic human rights, and their scripture, they are proving the hypocrisy of their own beliefs.  I would urge them all to READ the books they have set their lives and beliefs on.  Would they really feel so comfortable or public in their ideas, knowing what they are so blindly associating themselves with?



4 thoughts on “The Bible on Slavery (Part 2)

  1. spiritualtramp says:

    “I understand that I am to unconditionally (as best as I am able) every human being regardless of their beliefs.”

    should be

    “I understand that I am to love unconditionally (as best as I am able) every human being regardless of their beliefs.”


  2. spiritualtramp says:

    Hi Anna. This was a very interesting read. It’s obvious to me that you’ve done a lot of research and thinking on this topic. I do take issues with a few things that you say, most of which isn’t about the Bible itself, but rather about some assumptions you appear to be making.

    First, let me say up front that I am a “liberal” Christian. Most of my beliefs fall squarely in orthodoxy. I am a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. My liberalness is largely political, but I’d likely be considered by many on the right to be fairly liberal theologically too. It’s really a matter of where you’re standing. Anyway, enough about me. On to my comments.

    You say that the Bible “condones” and “endorses” slavery. There’s another way of looking at it though. As you say, it was broadly customary for cultures in this time to take slaves as a result of war. What the Bible seems to be doing here is making provisions for that and telling the Israelites how they are to go about treating their slaves. It could be argued that given the cultural situation they were in that not only was the taking of slaves necessary for the continuation of their people, but that these laws you laid out were more humane than the laws of the other cultures in this regard.

    It seems to me that you’re looking at this Bronze Age culture through the lens of your 21st century mind/culture and finding it wanting. That’s easy enough to do. It also seems that in doing that, you’re condemning the people and their practices out of hand. For instance you say “As you see men, were allowed to change their minds once they had ‘sampled the goods’ as it were, and then just let her go with no regard for her well-being.” If you can’t see the cultural bias in that statement, then re-read it again.

    Nowhere I can find does the Bible say that the practice of owning slaves is something that we should all do or that its a broadly beneficial practice. I can think of at least one case in the New Testament where Paul urges a slave owner to take back the slave as a brother in Christ. While this does nothing to break the back of the practice of slavery, it is certainly a challenge to it. Could Jesus have condemned the practice outright? Certainly. That would make sense to me only if Jesus were around to set up a new world government. He could have spent his entire ministry condemning all manner of human wrongs. Instead he spent it reaching out to the people that were suffering because of these human wrongs and loving them.

    In closing (at least closing this portion of the comment) I would say that the Bible is far from being “filled with instructions for slavery and rules pertaining to the acquiring of slaves”. It’s a part of it and one that I seek to understand, but it’s not even close to being the lions share if it. You could just as easily say that it is filled with instructions for building temples, sacrificing animals, or keeping your crops. Those things are in there and in startling detail, but they aren’t meant for us in the 21st century.

    Now, I want to agree with you on a point or two. You and I agree that western morality isn’t founded on Biblical laws. Are there laws that the Bible and the western world share? Absolutely. Not the same thing though and as a country America shouldn’t appeal to the Old Testament for more rules that we as citizens should follow.

    You and I also agree that Christians should “READ the books they have set their lives and beliefs on”. This is of paramount importance. You seem to think though that we don’t (to be fair, many don’t). You also seem to be implying though that if only they did that they would see that you are correct and that they would then acknowledge “the contradictions of their arguments, and the outright incompatibility between western morality and basic human rights, and their scripture”.

    I really feel comfortable acknowledging that there are parts of the Bible that are very UN-comfortable. There are things that make me cringe and things that I just don’t understand. There are a few things i do understand though and those are things that the Bible teaches very clearly (and that are also uncomforable). I understand that you and I and every human being is imperfect in action, understanding, and belief. I understand that I am to unconditionally (as best as I am able) every human being regardless of their beliefs. I understand that I am to love God, even though I don’t understand everything about him, what he’s done, or why.

    Well this is getting rather long, so I’ll end it there. Thanks again for your thought provoking post.


    • Thank you for your input. Have you read the first part of this post? It’s about 3 posts back and was taking on a life of its own and I do understand that blog readers have limited time and do not have time to sit down to read great, huge lumps.

      When it comes to deciding whether you you live your life by either religion or other moral mindset, I rather think that we should all think critically about what this implies and whether it be religious or political and NOT just allow ourselves to be led by those who are deemed an authority on the subject by merit of having been indoctrinated themselves. If any religious morality is not considered compatible with either current and local morality or the physical and mental well being of all who will be affected by it’s precepts and rules, then surely we should also think about what, if anything, we have left to learn from it that cannot possibly be learned elsewhere. Slavery is only a brief part of my issues with religion, just as it is only a brief part of the content of the Bible. I by no means meant to imply that it is all it contains.

      I was in not implying that those who read their scriptures would instantly change their ideals and convert to atheism. It was not my intention to offend. What was my intention was to encourage people to think carefully and critically about what they clam to believe rather than jump on what I call the Believers’-Bandwagon with those who will say they believe and identify with a group even though they have not really considered or understood what they are associating themselves with. I have said time and time again that having Christian parents does not make one a Christian. My upbringing was not religious, but political. That does not mean because my parents had certain (and at many times opposing views) that it should colour my own thinking and push me into a certain mindset. Why should the choice of personal belief be any different from the way one would decide which political party they support? For the record I consider myself a secular humanist {with a side order of liberal socialism}. The point is that I came to my views and ideas by thinking and reading and deciding for myself what was right and wrong. It would be incorrect to say my parents didn’t influence me but what they influenced me to do was to think for myself.

      I would also comment that many who spend so much time convincing others of their faith, rather than living their own lives, are really only trying to convince themselves.

      Thanks again for the comment and feel free to have a good look around my site.


      • spiritualtramp says:

        I did read your previous post. Again, quite good and thought provoking. Thanks for the welcome and I’ll be reading your blog on a regular basis.

        I’m not offended by what you said. I like reading things that challenge me to brood over what I believe. At least what you said (in both the blog post and the comment) makes me feel like we can have a conversation.

        I concur with what you said here “If any religious morality is not considered compatible…” We need to think thoroughly about the implications of what we say we believe and with whom we associate ourselves. That’s why I’m constantly examining the core of my beliefs along with the practices and beliefs of my fellow believers.

        I don’t believe that what Christianity teaches can be found elsewhere and that ultimately it is more than just helpful, it is true. Truth is rarely easily contained/understood and often we compartmentalize the truth, seperating it into what we can easily agree with and what challenges us and makes us uncomfortable. We embrace the former and stuff the latter into a closet.

        I hope never to do that, but I’m sure that I do.


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