Troubling Bible Passages 1: Slavery

Many are familiar with an infamous scene from the television show The West Wing in which President Josiah Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) shares some opinions on the Bible which are, to put it charitably, unorthodox.

Sadly, this clip is still widely shared as if it were an accurate representation of what the Bible actually says. Even more sad is how many people blindly accept this characterization without actually researching these passages for themselves.

I have done a detailed response to the scene which can be read here. Nonetheless, over time I felt a need to address some of these topics further. For this reason, I will be both revisiting and expanding on some of the the topics in the West Wing article as well as covering some new territory. This series will deal with three troubling, yet commonly misunderstood Biblical themes:

  • Slavery
  • Genocide (alleged)
  • Seemingly arbitrary death sentences.

These are certainly sensitive topics that anyone serious about the Bible must grapple with. It is my hope that these observations will help to contribute to better understand God’s revelation in Scripture as well as His heart and intent.

Slavery was, unfortunately, a fact of life in the ancient world and tragically continues in some societies even today. It is also noteworthy that slavery has never been confined to any one race or demographic. Practically all races, including blacks, whites, Jews and Asians have both kept and been kept as slaves at various points in history. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Bible does acknowledge the reality of the institution. However, those who use slavery in an attempt to discredit the Bible overlook a number of important facts:

  • One of the pivotal events in the Bible is God delivering His people from a horrible time of forced slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:33-14:31).
  • Jesus’ mission statement began by saying that He came to bring “liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18).
  • God views both slaves and non-slaves on equal terms (Galatians 3:28). This would have been a truly radical idea for the time.

So is the Bible being inconsistent? Or could it be that the slavery described in the Scriptures is different than our western mindset may perceive? This question is crucial, as misunderstanding in this area (as well as other factors, such as the horrible “curse of Ham” heresy) has all too often been used to justify racism in the Christian world.

Key to understanding slavery in its biblical context is the Hebrew word ‘ebad. This word is used over 800 times in the Old Testament and yes, sometimes it does indeed refer to slavery. However, it is also used in reference to other forms of servitude. For example, we are in voluntary servitude to our employers.

This is an important distinction, given our own county’s shameful history. Yet the sort of slavery as was practiced in the antebellum south would also never have been tolerated under Biblical law. In fact, to take a person captive and enslave them would have been a death penalty crime in ancient Israel:.

  • Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves (Exodus 21:16 NLT).
  • 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 (Deuteronomy 24:7 ESV).

As previously stated, we will be discussing capital punishment in a later post, but the point is that the servitude advocated in the Old Testament was a much more benign system of voluntary indentured servitude.

Ancient Israel had no bankruptcy laws or governmental welfare system. Yet there were a number of avenues set up to help the needy. For example, there was the law of gleaning. When a farmer harvested his crops, he was not to go back and gather the food he missed. Rather, it was left for the poor to come and pick up (glean) for their families (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Another form of aid was interest-free loans (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). And yes, in extreme cases, to offer oneself for a time of indentured servitude was permitted. In fact, in times of severe economic hardship, having this option could literally save people from starving to death (it is also noteworthy that many early immigrants to the United States financed their voyages through similar indentures).

Unlike the slavery practiced in America, this system was voluntary, temporary and was not at all based on race. In this arrangement, the person was basically a live-in employee. We see these regulations in Leviticus 25.39-40:

  • If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee
  • Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him (Exodus 21:1‭-‬4 ESV).

In other words, the indenture could last no longer than seven years. after which the servant was released, and all debts were discharged (Leviticus 25:35–43). In modern society it could be compared to military service, professional athletics or any form of contracted labor.

In fact, Old Testament law contained a number of provisions in this area which were very advanced for the ancient world. For example, if a person injured their servant, they had to unconditionally grant that servant his or her freedom (Exodus 21:26,27). Furthermore, Israelites were required to give asylum to runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15,16), which would even put them ahead of the United States in light of the horrible Dred Scott case.

Circumstances were admittedly different regarding non-Hebrew servants, who were typically in one of two categories:

  • Prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 20): It was standard practice in that day for citizens of a conquered nation to become subservient to the victors. In his insightful book Scripture and Slavery James Patrick Holding writes:

The unfortunate reality is that ancient nations enslaved enemies of war because it was an effective way of keeping that enemy from rising up against you again. In an age of solely hand to hand combat, there was no way to deter an enemy with superior firepower. Nonetheless, it is important to note that these people still owned their own property and lived in their own homes, so again, this was very different than what we call slavery today. ¹

  • Foreign exiles (Leviticus 25:42-46): When people were, for whatever reason, expelled from their homelands options for survival were very limited. Unlike the native Israelites, people in this situation had no home to return to. James Patrick Holding further writes:

The defining context here is a person who has been referred to by some scholars as a “temporary resident”…For a person to be “living among” those in another nation implied that they were exiled—that they had been shamed or disgraced in their home nation, and expelled. So, we have here a person with no place to go, and no recourse for returning home. In that light, the provision that one “can hold them for life” isn’t so much an instruction as it is a permission. ²

Generally speaking, in these cases servitude was indeed for life. However, there were ways that they too could receive their freedom.

One option was simply to flee. As we discussed earlier, the Israelites were commanded by God to provide sanctuary for runaway slaves. Furthermore, they could also turn away from their pagan gods and embrace the God of Israel. This is outlined in Exodus 12:43‭-‬46‭, ‬48:

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.

In other words, the servant could enter into a covenant relationship with God and with His people. Next, they would be circumcised and partake of the Passover meal. They would then no longer be pagans but would be considered Hebrew proselytes. This would entitle them to all of the privileges that went along with that status, including the right to be released after seven years.

These provisions show that in both cases, servitude was, for all intents and purposes, optional. For those who did choose to remain, the provisions also provided incentive for the slaveholders to treat them well. ³

Moving into the New Testament, it is important to remember that the events described took place under Roman, rather than Jewish law which radically changed the circumstances. The political structure did not allow for outsiders to attempt to directly work for change. The people could not vote, email their senators or otherwise work for reform. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the genius of the Gospel message set the stage for centuries of reform in the area.

Again, given the lack of political options, the change had to come from within. Encouraging a slave revolt would have done much more harm than good. For this reason, Christian slaves were instructed to be faithful and work diligently for their masters (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:22-2, Christian employees are also expected to do this today). This sort of conduct let people tangibly see the transformative power of the Gospel which again, would transform societies in such a way as to make abolition possible. This Christian influence would later motivate Emperor Constantine to abolish slavery in the Roman Empire in 313 AD.

Nonetheless, even in New Testament times, slaves who were able to obtain their freedom were encouraged to do so (1 Corinthians 7: 21-24). In the tiny Book of Philemon, the Apostle Paul encounters and leads to Christ a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had worked for Paul’s friend Philemon. When sending him back, Paul instructs Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ, no more as a slave. Further Paul agrees to personally cover all expenses Onesimus might owe him.

As previously stated, Jesus showed His heart in this matter when He declared that His mission was to “to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1). Again, God loves the slave just as much as He loves the free person (Galatians 3:28).

Finally, we see in 1 Timothy 1:9,10. slave traders are described as “… lawless, unholy, ungodly, profane” and are placed in the same category as liars, adulterers, thieves and murderers. In the end, God will harshly judge those nations that continue to practice slavery (Revelation 18:11–13).

Ultimately, the answer to slavery and all other social ills can be found in the Great Commandment:
(Jesus said) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:35‭, ‬37‭-‬40 ESV
The desire for freedom is one of the deepest instincts in the human experience. If we truly love God, we will honor those created in His image. If we truly love our neighbors as ourselves, we will treat them as we want to be treated which will obviously mean that we won’t enslave them. As Abraham Lincoln famously stated, “I would not be a slave, therefore I will not be a master.” ⁴

Keep It Real,



1. Holding, James Patrick. Scripture and Slavery (Kindle Edition). 2014, Tekton Apologetics Ministries Editing: Paul M. League. Location 473.

2. Ibid. Location 497.

3. Fortenberry, Bill. Using the Law Lawfully (Kindle Edition). 2023. Published by Bill Fortenberry. Locations 147-152.

4. Lincoln, President Abraham. Fragment on Democracy, August 1, 1858.







#jameshboyd #keepitreal #yourfriendjames

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