“I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?” The question shocked me, as I awakened to the fact that I was not reading an eighteenth century inquiry, but an open letter to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a radio talk show hostess who tries to give practical advice about life, based on Old Testament principles. The sarcastic nuance embedded in the question betrayed the author´s true intention. However, this question reflects a very modern concern: How should we read Old Testament texts, and apply them to our daily life?
As Adventists, we have always tried to present the Bible to modern society in an interesting and relevant fashion. Some texts, however, really do pose a challenge! At first glance, they may even appear to portray a jealous, petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak, racist, genocidal, sadomasochist and malevolent God, to quote a few of Richard Dawkins’ choice words. Take, for example, Leviticus 25:44-47 (NKJV):
And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover, you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you […] and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves.
From what you have just read, it seems clear that the Creator of the universe clearly expects us to keep slaves! Right? Are we then expected to have slaves in our house?
This question not only raises concerns about the Bible´s relevance to today´s postmodern world, but reaches all the way to the character of God. How are we supposed to obey a God who approves of slavery, when He should know better? When we read other Old Testament texts, slaves seem to be treated as property or objects. As Sam Harris argued in his Letter to a Christian Nation: “The entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an abomination. What moral instruction do we get from the God of Abraham on this subject?” How are we to understand these texts when we teach and preach about a loving, caring and forgiving God, who treats all human beings as equals? What morality are we upholding when we tell people to follow the Bible? How are we supposed to love Him, when He apparently sanctioned a system that diminished and dehumanized people?
Not Transatlantic African Slavery
When trying to understand texts from the Old Testament which reference slavery, we must first remember that we are not talking about the same type of slavery that took place from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Atheists love to use Biblical texts to distort the image we have of God. From a quick glance, it is true that God does appear unjust and malevolent. When we take a closer look, however, it becomes clear that the slavery permitted by God was quite different from what we might envision. Slavery in Israel was quite different from that experienced by black slaves, and portrayed by Hollywood in such movies as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). As Christopher J. H. Wright rightly advises, “We must put out of our mind pictures such as the Roman galley slaves of Ben Hur, or the neck-irons, slave-ships and sugar plantations of modern black slavery when we read the word ‘slave’ in the Old Testament.”
One of the first differences was the way people became slaves. In the Old Testament, an Israelite could be sold into slavery for only one reason: financial debt (Leviticus 25:39, 47). A thief, for example, when captured, was expected to repay double of what he stole (Exodus 22:1-4). Since most thieves didn’t have enough to start with, it would be very difficult for them to repay double of what they stole. So God allowed them to acquit their debt through manual labor.
In some cases, people who owed someone money could also “sell themselves” (Leviticus 25:39, 47) as slaves, and pay their debt through work (2 Kings 4:1). A good example may be found in the story of Joseph and the famine in Egypt. When the Egyptians had spent all their money and possessions to purchase food from Pharaoh, they decided to sell themselves as slaves. In exchange for their slave labor, Pharaoh agreed to feed them until the famine was over (Genesis 47:19). Moreover, the servitude of a Hebrew slave did not bring about any change in his social and personal status; after completing his term, he was free to go to his own house.
Therefore, slavery was intended to be a voluntary act—that is, no one should be forced into slavery. According to Israelite law, if someone was kidnapped and sold into slavery, the one who did the kidnapping should be put to death (Exodus 21:16). This is a vastly different situation to that recorded of Africans fleeing from slave traders, for fear of being captured and sold into slavery.
Another misconception has to do with the status of slaves when compared to common servants. In the Bible, the terms used to refer to a slave and a servant are the same. The Hebrew word ‘ebed’ or the Greek ‘doulos’ can both be translated into “slave”, “servant”, or “bondman.” Paul, for example, when referring to himself as a “bondservant of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1) uses the same Greek word to refer to Onesimus, the returning slave (Philemon 16). As the Old Testament Ethics for the People of God points out, considering the background picture we currently hold of slavery, the translation of slave “is not even the most helpful translation” of the original Hebrew ‘ebed,’ “which basically meant a bonded worker,” being sometimes used to refer of “high office when applied to royal servants.” While it is commonly thought that slaves were owned property, treated and used with no rights whatsoever, Old Testament slaves did have personal rights, and could, in many cases, rise to important positions in the nation, as was the case of Joseph (Genesis 41:39-45). Old Testament slaves were “largely residential, domestic workers […] They complemented, but were not a substitute for the labor of free members of the household […] Such slavery could be said to be little different experientially from many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy.”
Once an Israelite was sold as a slave, he or she would serve for only a period of six years (Exodus 21:2). No matter how much someone was indebted, the maximum time sanctioned for a slave to work was six years. On the seventh year, the slave was free to go home. When that happened, the master was instructed not simply to release the slave empty-handed, but to “supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord has blessed you with, you shall give to him” (Deuteronomy 15:14 NKJV).
If, for some reason, a slave escaped and ran away, the Israelites were directed to shelter the slave and to protect him. There was no returning of slaves in Israel. They were free to choose where they wanted to live, and what they wanted to do (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). There was to be no oppression or violence done to runaway slaves; they were to be embraced and cared for. This was an astonishingly unique regulation, particularly when compared with what happened to African runaway slaves in the Americas, where penalties were not only inflicted on the slaves themselves, but also on those who gave them refuge.
This aspect of violence is a key difference when comparing Old Testament slavery with African slavery in the Americas. While slave holders in America were expected to inflict pain on their slaves, Old Testament laws prohibited slave holders from any form of violent treatment. If a slave was treated violently, he was expected to be freed (Exodus 21:26), while his master, instead, would be the one punished (vs. 20). The very violence brought upon slaves served as their ticket to freedom. Therefore, slave holders had to be very careful on this issue, otherwise they could end up losing their workers. As can be observed, Old Testament laws were truly concerned with the personal humanity and physical integrity of the slave.
Hence, although “slavery” was condoned by God in the Old Testament, it was a markedly different kind of slavery. Old Testament slavery laws depict a slave which was much more like a servant than the chattel slavery we have read or heard of in America. This form of slavery, that God allowed the Israelites to practice, was even markedly different from that of Israel´s neighboring nations, such as the Assyrians, the Hittites, and the Babylonians. Take, for instance, Hammurabi’s laws. If a slave suffered some sort of violence or injury (lost an eye or a tooth), the one who received compensation for that injury was his master, not the slave. Another example we could give comes from early Roman times. Once, a Roman senator was murdered by a slave. The slave paid for that crime with his death, and that of 400 members of his household.
While the slavery laws of surrounding nations were much more aggressive towards slaves, Israel´s laws served as a protection against violence, aggression and injustice. Israel, in this sense, was an attractive society for foreign slaves looking for asylum, and a life of dignity. In fact, slaves enjoyed greater explicit legal and economic security than the technically free, but landless, hired laborers and craftsmen. The Anchor Bible Dictionary reminds us that “we have in the Bible the first appeals in the world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters.”
Thus, rather than treating slaves as objects, property, or dehumanized beings, Old Testament slave regulations elevated slaves to a level of dignity previously unknown. Walther Eichrodt, a German Old Testament scholar, highlights Israel´s uniqueness: “In the evaluation of offences against property, in the treatment of slaves, in the fixing of punishment for indirect offences, and in the rejection of punishment by mutilation, the value of human life is recognized as incomparably greater than all material values […] Ultimately this is possible only because of the profundity of insight hitherto undreamt of into the nobility of Man, which is now recognized as a binding consideration for moral conduct.”
The abolition of slavery
When dealing with the topic of slavery in the Bible, the question often surfaces, “Why didn’t God abolish slavery altogether?” If the Israelites suffered so much under slavery in Egypt, why did God allow it to continue once they were free?
We are wrong to assume that, because God did not abolish slavery, He didn’t speak against it. Quite to the contrary, all of the Old Testament texts on slavery are a protest from God against the degrading slavery systems perpetrated by Israel’s neighboring nations. It is exactly because Israel had been enslaved that it should be the one nation to know best how to treat slaves.
We must remember that in Israel’s case, slavery was a desperate measure for people with no financial safety net. Jesus himself reminded us that there would always be poor individuals within a society (Matthew 26:11). Since Israel was to be a theocracy, God condoned a system that, in times of hunger and financial crisis, would allow for people to survive through respectable work, rather than criminal action.
Just as landowners were to allow the hungry to gather grains during harvesting time (Leviticus 23:22), so they were encouraged to treat slaves as fellow, respectable, human beings. Even Jesus, while teaching his disciples, laid down principles which, if applied, would result in the abolition of social evils through the regeneration of the individuals composing society. Simply observing the golden rule would prevent the enslavement of human beings.
As we have shown, Old Testament slavery laws do not depict a tyrannical, merciless God. Quite to the contrary, they presents to us a merciful and loving God, who knows the reality of poverty, hunger and misery, thus allowing a system which would sustain the needy through difficult times. Old Testament slavery laws were intended to protect the vulnerable from undergoing humiliating and degrading treatment. If slave traders and owners from the 17th through the 19th centuries had followed Old Testament slavery regulations, quite a different story would have been written in our history textbooks. This only confirms the fact that the Bible is still a relevant book dealing with relevant issues. Through the Bible, we understand that human beings are created in the image of God, standing in equal value to each other, and worthy of our care, respect, and value.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 31.
 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY: Alfred Knopf, 2006), p. 14
 Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), p. 333.
 A. Negev, “Slavery and Work”, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).
 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011) p. 127.
 Wright, p. 333.
 Wright, p. 335
 Don F. Neufeld, “Slave”, Seventh-Day Adventist Bible Dictionary (Hargerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1979), p. 1046.
 Copan, p. 139.
 Wright, p. 333.
 Muhammad A. Dandamayev, “Slavery (Old Testament),” in David N. Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6 (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992).
 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (London: SCM Press, 1967), p. 321.
 Neufeld, p. 1047.