Editorial Note: if you have any issues with what I’ve written, please be sure to read my Caveats page.
You don’t see the word “slave” much in most English translations of the Bible. Instead, translators have usually changed it to other terms, such as “servant,” “bondman,” and “handmaiden,” perhaps to obscure the upsetting fact that the Bible depicts God allowing slavery and even engaging in slave ownership. For example, in the original Greek version of the New Testament, the Greek word for “slave” appears 130 times; but in the King James translation, it is translated into English as “slave” only once. It tends to get translated into English Bibles as “slave” mostly when discussing people’s relationships with things, such as being a “slave to sin” — but not when referring to God-condoned, coerced relationships between people, nor when talking about people’s relationship to God.
The ancient Greek word for “slave” is doulos, and this word is widely used throughout the Bible. There are many other Greek words for various kinds of “servant,” such as oikos (house servant), leitourgos (public servant), diakonos (steward, or non-menial servant), misthios (hired servant), huperetes (galley-rower, or an attendant who serves with his hands), and paidiske (handmaiden). However, (according to the most authoritative word on the topic, Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) doulos was not ever used by the ancient Greeks to refer to any kind of “servant;” it specifically and exclusively meant “slave.” Translating doulos as “servant” would be like me saying, “Harriet Tubman was a servant before she came to the forefront of the cause for abolishing service.”
Doulos refers to one who is owned as property, and owned exclusively; one who must be always and utterly available and obedient to her / his owner; one who is entirely subject to the will of the owner as to what s/he may do and what s/he may not do, with no autonomy; one who must rely completely upon her / his owner for food, water, clothes, shelter, medical care, family, sex, and everything else; one who gets any and all recompense or punishment from the owner. Which is slavery, not mere service. Slaves had to submit to physical abuse if their owners chose to assault them. Servants were under no obligation to put up with such treatment. Slaves were forced to discharge the work put upon them, with no choice not to, regardless of preferences — and were likely to be branded, beaten, and even crucified for attempting to escape their subjection. Servants were hired, and could quit. Slaves owned nothing, and everything in their possession ultimately belonged to their owners. Servants owned their material possessions and owned what they earned. Slaves had no citizenship because they were considered property; they could not own land, had no rights, had no legal recourse available to them for injustices, could not testify in court, and couldn’t hold public office. Servants were citizens, with the benefits that confers.
Throughout this article, I’ve quoted and used links that accurately translate “slave,” whenever possible. If you look up these passages in your Bible at home, and find that “slave” has been expunged from the translation you have, then keep what I said above in mind, and also keep in mind the context. For example, if a passage suggests that a “servant” is property that can be passed on to your children after you die, it should be obvious that this fits in better with the paradigm of slavery than voluntary service.
The God of the Bible is pro-slavery. He consistently permits it. At times, He commands it. He even practices it.
Let’s take a look at what the Bible says on the topic.
“About your men and women slaves: You may get men and women slaves from the other nations around you. Also, you may get children as slaves if they come from the families of the foreigners living in your land. These child slaves will belong to you. You may even pass these foreign slaves on to your children after you die so that they will belong to them. They will be your slaves forever. You may make slaves of these foreigners. But you must not be a cruel master over your own brothers, the Israelites.” — Leviticus 25:44-46
From this passage, we can see the following:
• The God of the Bible is permitting buying and selling people;
• Slaves are inheritable property;
• These are slaves for life, unlike indentured servants;
• Masters have complete ownership over these slaves, unlike indentured servants;
• Child slavery is explicitly endorsed.
The last sentence of the above passage also tells us some notable things about how varying groups were treated differently.
• Full and permanent slavery of foreigners was allowed, but full and permanent slavery of Israelites was not allowed. We’ll get back to this, soon;
• We see an example here, as in many other places in the Bible, that the God of the Bible is supremacist, discriminating in favor of the Israelites, His “Chosen People,” and discriminating against everyone else;
• The word “brothers” is intentionally sex-specific, because full and permanent slavery of Israelite women was allowed, but full and permanent slavery of Israelite men was not allowed. We’ll get back to this, shortly;
• We see an example here, as in many other places in the Bible, that the God of the Bible is sexist and misogynistic, discriminating in favor of men, and against women;
• God’s explicit exception to the allowance of cruel mastery in the case of slavery over Israelites makes clear that cruel mastery is permitted for slavery over foreigners. We’ll get back to this, shortly;
• By disallowing cruel mastery over His Chosen People, we see that God recognizes full-blown slavery is a harmful way to treat people, even though He allows such treatment over non-Israelites.
Elsewhere in the Bible we find more about the separate system of slavery that applied only to Israelites, with stricter rules for how masters were allowed to treat them. For examples:
“If you buy a Hebrew [i.e., Israelite] slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.” — Exodus 21:2
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you…” — Leviticus 25:39-40
Although, even within the separate system for these Israelite indentured servants, there’s an exception to the rules commanding for them to be treated better than foreign slaves: God mentions a way for a master of a Hebrew indentured servant to bait a trap, so to speak, to trick the servant into full and permanent slavery — by giving him a wife, then holding the wife and children hostage and ransoming them against his release from slavery:
“If a master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and the children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.” — Exodus 21:4-6
Apologists often falsely claim that the “slavery” God condones in the Bible was not what we think of as slavery today, not a brutal and unjust system like American black slavery. These apologists point to passages like Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-40, above, to say that it was not kidnapping people and forcing them to work as slaves. Rather, the apologists purport, it was a mutually beneficial relationship, more of an ’employee / employer’ situation than ‘slave / owner’ situation. Apologists like to say that it was really what we now call “indentured servitude,” where people voluntarily sold themselves temporarily to pay off debts or take care of their families. These apologists would like you to believe that slaves in the Bible were actually just hired servants. However, this ignores that Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-40 are special exemptions that applied only to male Israelite slaves, while there was a very different system — full slavery with all of the horrors we associate with it — in place for all others.
As mentioned above, male Israelite slaves were indentured for six years, but female Israelites were slaves forever:
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free.” — Exodus 21:7
We see that it gets even worse for these unfortunate female slaves, when we read the rest of the passage:
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free. If she doesn’t please her master who chose her for himself, then her master must let her be bought back by her family.” — Exodus 21:7-8
That’s right. In above passage, God is condoning selling one’s daughter as a sex slave. (With the small consolation that if her master is dissatisfied with her sexual prowess, he has to offer her family a buy-back opportunity, before putting her for sale on the open market.) Indeed, the Bible always takes for granted that masters were entitled to sex with female slaves.
In case the term “please her master who chose her for himself” in Exodus 21:7-8 is not clear enough for doubters, here’s a clearer example that owners had sexual rights and reproductive rights over their slaves:
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
“Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.”
“When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.“ — Genesis 16:1-4
Could the Bible get even worse on the topic of slavery than God condoning selling your daughter as a sex slave for life, or suggesting holding families hostage to coerce indentured servants to become permanent slaves? Perhaps. Let’s look at one of the cases where God doesn’t merely permit slavery, he commands it. In the following passage, God gives the Israelites orders for how they must deal with all of the cities in the territories surrounding the Promised Land:
“When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here.” — Deuteronomy 20:10-15
In case the above passage isn’t sufficiently clear about what kind of slaves those women taken as “plunder” are going to be, there are plenty of similar passages in the Bible that give the necessary context, such as this one where Moses conveys God’s commands for how to handle the Midianites:
“So now kill every boy and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse, but keep alive for yourselves all the girls and all the women who are virgins.” — Numbers 32:17-18
From these passages above, note the following:
• God is not “merely” permitting the trading of slaves, He is commanding the taking of slaves through marauding, and using His omnipotent powers to make it happen;
• This includes sex slavery, i.e., perpetual, repeated acts of rape, as part of the exercise of ownership over another person;
• This also includes child slavery, and seems to perhaps be condoning pedophilia with these child slaves;
• This slavery is accomplished through kidnapping, i.e., seizing and detaining someone by force;
• This also includes genocide;
• This also includes theft;
• Since this slavery is by threat of death and by physical force, there is no semblance of any voluntary, mutually beneficial, indentured servitude-type employer / employee situation, here.
Having established that this is not just indentured servitude, what sort of cruelty does God warrant owners inflict upon their slaves?
“If a man beats his slave to death — whether the slave is male or female — that man shall surely be punished. However, if the slave does not die for a couple of days, then the man shall not be punished — for the slave is his property.” — Exodus 21:20-21
In the passage above, we can see that God grants slave owners the right to viciously beat slaves if they choose, without punishment, since the slaves are considered property. At the very least, this includes beating them right up to the brink of death. One could make a reasonable argument that it goes even further than that….
While the Old Testament permits masters to exercise cruelty over their slaves, the New Testament commands slaves to put up with it.
“You who are slaves must submit to your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you — not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel.” — 1 Peter 2:18
“Slaves, you must obey your earthly masters. Show them great respect and be as loyal to them as you are to Christ. Try to please them at all times, and not just when you think they are watching. You are slaves of Christ, so with your whole heart you must do what God wants you to do.” — Ephesians 6:5-6
Why? To protect God’s reputation, which comes before the quality of life and the safety of slaves.
“Christian slaves should work hard for their owners and respect them; never let it be said that Christ’s people are poor workers. Don’t let the name of God or his teaching be laughed at because of this.” — 1 Timothy 6:1
Jesus perhaps takes God’s permission for cruelty toward slaves somewhat further than God’s rules in the Old Testament, in the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants:
“But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying to come’, and he begins to strike the male-servants and the female-servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk — the master of that slave will come on a day which he does not expect, and at an hour which he does not know. And he will cut him in two, and assign him his part with the unbelievers. But that slave having known the will of his master, and not having prepared or acted in accordance with his will, will be beaten many blows. But the one not having known, and having done things worthy of blows, will be beaten a few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” — Luke 12:45-48
From this passage, note the following:
• Jesus appears here to think it’s a matter of course that a misbehaving slave would be put to death, and seems to have no problem with it;
• Jesus appears to think that a slave who did something not in accordance with his master’s will because s/he didn’t know better should still be beaten, albeit less severely;
• This is a parable for how God and Jesus treat people;
• Jesus considers people slaves of God and Jesus.
Regarding the last point, there are well over a hundred passages in the Bible which mention people being slaves of God. Here’s an Old Testament example:
“Israelites cannot be permanent slaves, because the people of Israel are the Lord‘s slaves. He brought them out of Egypt; he is the Lord their God. “ — Leviticus 25:55
Here’s a New Testament example:
“But now you are free from sin. You have become slaves of God, and the result is that you live only for God.” — Romans 6:22
Even in Heaven, people will be there to work for God as slaves, according to the Bible’s descriptions of Heaven:
“And there will no longer be any accursed thing. And the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it. And His slaves will serve Him….” — Revelation 22:3
The Bible’s view is that God bought you and owns you:
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” — 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Likewise, Jesus owns you, too:
“And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” — 1 Corinthians 3:23
You are theirs exclusively, and you must even repudiate your family and your own life in your complete and exclusive servitude to Jesus and God:
“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” — Matthew 10:35-37
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” — Luke 14:26
You can only have what they deign to let you have:
“You are my Lord; all the good things I have come from you.” — Psalms 16:2
“Who do you think you are? Everything you have was given to you. So, if everything you have was given to you, why do you act as if you got it all by your own power?” — 1 Corinthians 4:7
God commands you, and you must obey:
“You must love the Lord your God and always obey his requirements, decrees, regulations, and commands.” — Deuteronomy 11:1
Otherwise, you’ll be punished most severely. Here’s a greatly abbreviated version of one part of the many-pages-long list of ways God threatens He will punish you for disobedience:
“If you don’t obey the Lord … by carefully doing all his commandments and his regulations … all these curses will come upon you… Your own fertility, your soil’s produce, your cattle’s young, and your flock’s offspring will be cursed… The Lord will send calamity, confusion, and frustration on you no matter what work you are doing until you are wiped out and until you disappear—it’ll be quick! … The Lord will make a plague stick to you… The Lord will strike you with consumption, fever… with scorching heat and drought; with destruction and disease for your crops. These things will chase you until you are dead and gone. … The Lord will turn the rain on your land into dust… until you are completely wiped out. The Lord will hand you over defeated to your enemies… The Lord will afflict you with … hemorrhoids, rash, and itch. You will be untreatable. The Lord will make you go crazy, make you blind, make your mind confused… You might get engaged to a woman, but another man will have sex with her. You might build a house, but you won’t get to live in it… Your ox will be slaughtered while you watch, but you won’t get to eat any of it. Your donkey will be stolen right out from under you… Your flocks will be given to your enemies. No one will save you… You will be nothing but oppressed and mistreated constantly. The sights your eyes see will drive you insane. The Lord will strike you with horrible inflammation … from the sole of your foot to the top of your head. You will be untreatable. You will become a horror, fit only for use in proverbs and in insults by all the nations where the Lord drives you. You might scatter a lot of seed on the field, but … the locusts will eat it all. You might plant lots of vineyards and work hard in them, but … worms will devour them… your olive trees will fail. You might have sons and daughters, but they won’t be yours for long because they will be taken away as prisoners. Crickets will take over all your trees and your soil’s produce… That’s how all these curses will come over you, pursuing you, reaching you until you are completely wiped out, because you didn’t obey the Lord … by keeping his commandments and his regulations that he gave you… Because you didn’t serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly above all else, you will serve your enemies—the ones the Lord will send against you—during famine, drought, nakedness, and total depravation. God will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has wiped you out. You will eat the offspring of your own womb—the flesh of your own sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God gave you—because of the desperate and dire circumstances…” Deuteronomy 28:15-68
When you think about it, everything discussed in the introduction as specific characteristics of slavery, which demarcate slavery from mere service, also apply to what the Bible says about your relationship to God and Jesus. So it should be no surprise that the Bible uses the term “slave” — not “servant” — more than a hundred times to refer to people’s relationships to God and Christ. And it should be clear that “slave” is not meant to be just a metaphor for your relationship with God.
At this point, believers are likely to start to protest. These protestations take a few forms. Let’s go through them.
1) “That’s a lie!”
Many believers never read the Bible. They simply don’t know what the Bible says, and don’t believe it could possibly say such pro-slavery things. But it does. If you don’t believe God endorses all of these horrors of slavery, then simply put, you don’t believe in Yahweh, the God of the Bible. I’ve given chapter and verse to show it. Please don’t just take my word for it; see for yourselves.
2) “You’re being too literal. It’s supposed to be taken figuratively. You’re missing the deeper meaning.”
OK, I’d like to hear anyone who says this explain the deeper allegorical meaning of, “So now kill every boy and kill every woman who has had sexual intercourse, but keep alive for yourselves all the girls and all the women who are virgins.”
3) “It was a different time. You have to look at it within its cultural context.” / “Everybody was doing it.” / “Slavery was a major institution in all the nations of the region, and banning slavery would’ve caused too much social unrest.”
When we’re talking about things like kidnapping people, owning another human being, permanently taking away a person’s rights and autonomy, stealing a person’s entire lifetime of labor, and beating and raping someone on a regular basis — to name a few everyday aspects of slavery — an “everyone was doing it” argument just doesn’t cut it. If God is moral and just, as is claimed, then cultural context shouldn’t matter to Him when people are committing such atrocities.
So what if slavery was a major social institution, and banning it would’ve caused significant social unrest? When in the Bible has that ever mattered to God? When God banned worshipping other gods (Exodus 34:14, etc.), commanded the destruction of altars, images, temples, and idols to other Gods (Deuteronomy 7:5, etc.), and commanded killing those who worshipped other gods (Exodus 22:20, etc.), did those not upset major social institutions and cause significant social unrest? Disrupting major institutions and causing social upheaval have been God’s stock-in-trade throughout the Bible.
By its nature, slavery is unjust and causes misery and harm, and there is no excuse for a perfectly good, all-powerful being to sanction slavery.
4) “That was Old Testament. Jesus did away with all that. I only follow Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament.”
As with protest #1, this line of thinking only seems sensible to those who are ignorant of what the Bible says. For starters, the Bible tells us that Jesus was with God at the beginning. Then it tells us that Jesus can only do what God does, and whatever God does, Jesus also does. Then it tells us that Jesus and God are one. From such passages, it follows that Jesus must’ve been right there beside God, in perfect unison and agreement with God, while God was commanding taking slaves through kidnapping and murder, and using His almighty powers to ensure that enslavement occurred.
Additionally, the Old Testament also tells us in a number of places that God never changes, and never changes His mind. Likewise, the New Testament tells us Jesus never changes. Along with God and Jesus never changing, Jesus makes crystal clear in the New Testament that God’s law is also unchanging and Jesus is not altering any of it. From these, we know that Jesus has not changed his mind, and that everything the Old Testament says about slavery remains in effect. Anyone who takes seriously what the Bible says about Jesus must take it that Jesus’s position on slavery in the New Testament is identical to God’s position on slavery in the Old Testament.
Jesus never explicitly condoned nor condemned people’s slavery of one another in the New Testament, but what he did say was nonetheless telling. He obviously knew that slavery was rampant and savage. His parables included slaves receiving brutal treatment — not as criticism of the practice, but to show examples of people receiving the consequences they justly deserved, and to make analogies for how Jesus and God shall treat you as His slave. This alone serves as tacit endorsement of slavery. Furthermore, in context of Jesus’s firebrand actions and vocal muckraking about other causes, his silence regarding the possible topic of denouncing slavery was deafening. For him to talk about slavery while never saying a word against it — while being quick to decry immorality and overthrow corruption in other areas — shows that he simply did not consider people enslaving one another to be a moral issue. Meanwhile, the rest of the New Testament further compounds the Old Testament’s reprehensible endorsement of slavery, as I’ve shown.
5) “Enslavement was often a preferred wartime alternative, chosen by enemy populations, rather than being massacred.”
Yes. The Bible does back this up, but how is this an adequate moral justification for slavery? “We gave them a choice when we invaded and conquered them, between being murdered and being enslaved. They begged to be enslaved rather than slaughtered — so it was really voluntary and fair.” Is this seriously an argument that people want to make?
Slavery is an example of the divergence between secular morality and religious morality. From a humanist point of view, with morality based upon human welfare, forcing others to your will and treating other people as your property to exploit as you please, without regard for their personhood, is practically the definition of evil. And slavery is the epitome of such behavior. In contrast, from a divine command theory point of view, wherein what is good is good because God declares it so and thereby makes it so, and likewise with what is evil, treating people as chattel is considered moral and righteous when God supports it. As He does in the case of slavery, throughout the Bible.
The first slave ship to North America, which started the slave trade in 1562, was The Good Ship Jesus. It was captained by Sir John Hawkins, a devout Christian. He saw no contradiction between his Christian faith and his actions as the founder of the slave trade, because there is no such contradiction.
The proponents of the slave trade routinely used the Bible to defend slavery. For example, in the words of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy during the United States civil war:
“Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God — let him go to the Bible … I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation … Slavery existed in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist until the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments — in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized — sanctioned everywhere.”
As I’ve shown throughout this post, Davis was correct on this point. From Abraham, the founder of Judaism, fathering children through exercising sexual and reproductive rights over the slave Hagar, to the Apostle Paul sending the runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner, an early Christian church leader named Philemon — slavery is approved throughout the Bible on the deepest foundational levels.
Even when translators have replaced the word “slave” with words like “servant,” it takes some cognitive dissonance to read commandments about buying and selling people as inheritable property, whom you have rights to force to work for you without compensation, whom you have sexual rights to and also rights to viciously beat, without realizing this is obviously talking about full-blown slavery. Likewise, it takes willful cognitive dissonance to read the many passages throughout the Bible which support such a system, while insisting that the deity who would make these rules is benevolent, just, wise, loving, and morally sound.
Does ransacking foreign cities, looting all the valuables, killing all the males and deflowered women, and taking all of the virgins as plunder to enjoy, offend your moral sensibilities? How about selling daughters into sex slavery? And ransoming someone’s wife and children to coerce him into a lifetime of slavery? If any of these strike you as morally reprehensible, then your morals are unbiblical. Not merely non-biblical, but directly contrary to those of the God of the Bible.
God’s pro-slavery stance throughout the Bible puts those who worship Him in an awkward position, between pretending the Bible doesn’t mean what it says, and worshipping a God with grotesque and depraved morals. They can deny that Yahweh is pro-slavery, but deep down they’ll realize they are being dishonest, and they won’t fool anyone who actually knows the Bible. They can embrace the righteousness of slavery because it is divinely sanctioned, but doing so is sociopathic, and comes at the cost of one’s conscience and humanity. They can disregard the slavery stuff while accepting the stuff they like, but this implicitly admits that there are areas where God is wrong and should be rejected.
Or they can recognize that these could not be the proclamations of any god worthy of worship, and stop venerating Him. And then perhaps even see that God’s pro-slavery stance throughout the Bible signifies that God was created by man in man’s image, not the other way around.