Few attacks levelled against the Bible are as scathing as the claim that it supports slavery. Attackers, often armed with knowledge of the 16th-19th century Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TST), repeat the contemptuous chorus: how can you believe a book that teaches you to enslave another? Before considering whether the Bible condones slavery, we must ask ourselves two questions. How was life as a slave in biblical times? And are we correct to read the TST narrative back into the Ancient World’s context?
My intent in writing this short article is not to make an apologetic for slavery—ancient or otherwise. Neither do I suggest that the life of a slave in ancient times was easy. Life long ago was hardly easy for anyone. But the chorus argument of many against faith in Christ, that is, that the Bible supports slavery, needs addressing. To do so, I start by stating ways in which ancient slavery vastly differed from the modern understanding of the same.
Slavery in the Ancient world was elastic and vastly different from our modern conception. The state of the slave in the Ancient World hugely depended on the status of his master. Slaves occupied various positions in society, from the lowest to the highest offices, as the biblical story of Joseph reveals. Like current employment, the life of ancient slaves fluctuated from the harshest to the admired, depending on which master one served. There was not one story for slaves, as we will see.
Slavery in the Ancient World
John F. Defelice in the Dictionary of Daily Life (DDL) defines slavery as “one person’s owning another and having almost total control over his or her life.” Muhammad A. Dandamayev notes in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (ABD) how the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) society consisted principally of freemen, semi-free population (or serfs), and slaves. On a broader sense, all subjects, regardless of rank, were slaves to the king. Such was the case in Egypt, where Pharaoh owned all the land, and the Egyptians served him by cultivating it.
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel state in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (BEB) that “By Roman times Slavery was so extensive that in the early Christian period one out of every two people was a slave.” The idea of slavery was so pervasive that both slaves and free people could not imagine a society without it. As Defelice delicately puts it, “the border between what is traditionally called chattel slavery and other forms of dependent servitude can blur the distinction between who is a slave and who is free.” As such, in the entire ANE World, “the institution of slavery was taken for granted not only by the free persons but also by the slaves themselves, who never demanded its abolition” (AYBD).
Slaves aspired, not for the abolishment of the system, but that they too may afford to own slaves. It is akin to how today’s employees dream of ‘becoming boss’ someday without ever dreaming about the abolition of the employment system; however, harsh their working conditions are. Slaves did not bother about the removal of the system because, as we will see below, many voluntarily sold themselves into slavery as a way of survival. Let us consider this aspect below.
Sources of Slave Labor in the Ancient World
Slavery as a substitute for death: Ancient kingdoms like Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Persia placed a small fraction of their prisoners of war into servitude. The others became ‘palace and temple serfs.’ War was indeed the principal source of slaves in ancient times. Thus, the Egyptian Pharaohs Ahmose I and Tuthmose III boast of their prisoners of war. Rather than kill them, victors would enslave a small portion of their conquered while resettling the overwhelming majority as ‘semi-free’ people.
Debt slaves: In the ancient world, people who could not pay their debt would sell themselves into slavery to the creditor as a means of paying off the debt (2 Kgs 4:1; Neh 5:5–8). AYBD notes how this practice is widely attested to especially in Nuzi, an ancient Mesopotamian city, and in Assyria. Paragraph 117 of The Code of Hammurabi reads: “If anyone fails to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or give them away to forced labour: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.”
Slavery as the source of survival: In Nuzi, evidence exists of many who sold themselves into slavery to obtain food and clothing. Some parents who could not afford to feed their children would abandon them where they could be raised as slaves rather than starve. In the reign of Nabonidus, during a famine in Babylonia, a woman sold her two children as temple slaves after her husband died. “The text notes that the children were given to the temple so they would not die of starvation” (AYBD). Lev. 25:47 speaks of this sort of voluntary slavery.
Slavery as criminal punishment: evidence from “Law Codes and records of court cases from the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004)” indicated that those who violated the law (like thieves) without the ability to pay compensation could serve their sentence as slaves to the victim or their family (DDL).
Seven Ways Ancient Slavery Differed from Modern Slavery
Slaves served for a specific time: First, Laws existed in Mesopotamia, Israel, Rome, that required slaves to be released after a certain period. The Babylonian king Ammiṣaduqa in the 17th century “issued an edict, according to which all inhabitants of his kingdom who had been compelled by debt to become slaves should be released together with their families’ (AYBD). As we read above, the Code of Hammurabi limited debt slavery to three years. Deut. 15:18 commands masters to free their slaves after six years. Lev. 25:48 stipulates that a sold slave can be redeemed any time. In Israel, God forbade any Hebrew to be enslaved for life (Ex 21:2; Lv 25:10, 13; Dt 15:12–14).
‘Manumission’ is the term referring to the freeing of the slave by his/her master after serving a given time. Sometimes, the master adopted the manumitted slave as his daughter or son. This practice existed in Mesopotamia for over 2000 years. Adoption, like marriage or dedication/sale to the temple, was a possible route to manumission from chattel slavery (DDL). In Sumerian society, the price for a slave was less than that of a donkey. Thus, a slave could save up and buy back his freedom. In Rome, the master could free their slaves without payment.
Slaves could marry free people: some laws permitted marriages between a free person and a slave. Where such was not allowed, slaves could have ‘tent companions’ that looked everything like marriage. As discussed above, such a union could be a way out of slavery. The Code of Hammurabi “allowed a wife to present her husband with a female slave if she proved to be infertile” (DDL). As in Egypt, the children of such union would be free. One can see this practice in the biblical stories of Abraham and Jacob.
Slaves could own property: slaves would own personal property, including their own slaves. Enterprising slaves “actively participated in all spheres of economic activity, were engaged in trade, ran taverns and workshops, taught other persons various trades, pawned and mortgaged their property, and they themselves received the property of others as security for loans” (ABD). The life of Joseph in the Bible, sold as a slave to Egypt, gives us a picture of a slave in ancient times. Not easy, but far from the TST.
Slaves could occupy high offices: “Roman slaves carried the prestige of their owner” (DDL). As mentioned before, the state of the slave depended on the status of their master. Felix, who was governor of Judea (Acts 24) started his life as a slave of Emperor Claudius’s mother. Slaves of well-to-do households received proper and specialized training and became managers of businesses. Such slaves were the envy of free but poor populace.
Death to those who kidnapped and sold people as slaves: According to BEB, “Selling a kidnapped person into slavery, was a capital offence under the law code of Hammurabi (Section 14) and the Mosaic law (Dt 24:7).” There is a death penalty for forcing people into slavery, according to the Bible.
Slaves accessed court: Unlike the TST, “slaves had access to courts and sometimes successfully contested their status” (DDL). As such, slaves could not be killed without sound reason.
Slavery was not racially delimited: As we could imagine, slaves were not of a specific race or skin colour. Slavery was not a statement of the superiority of one race over another. Aristotle’s view of ‘barbarians’ (non-Greeks) being ‘slaves by nature’ was a minority view. As Moyer V. Hubbard (Christianity in the Greco-Roman World) notes, “A Roman household might have slaves who hailed from Bithynia, Syria, Numidia, and sometimes Rome itself.”
This article highlighted the complexity of the ancient system of slavery. It surveyed attitudes and laws regulating slaves in Mesopotamia, Egypt, among the Hittites, Greeks, and Romans. And what we see is that slavery then was not the same as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. But many Pan-Africanists who make a scathing attack on the Bible do not show understanding of this reality. And yet, as my next article will argue, the Bible and Christianity undermined the foundation of slavery, leading to its eventual abolishment through the efforts of none but Christians.