There are a few things to be mindful of when, as Christian, we approach what the Bible says about slavery – and in particular, laws about slavery in the Old Testament.

First, while the story of the Old Testament is part of our story, as Christians, but must remember that we are not Jewish, so these laws are not there for us to draw ethical principles from, directly, today. The Laws of the Old Testament served to mark Israel out as God’s chosen people, helping them to live out God’s story. Yet they served another function that is most relevant to us – they were written about Jesus, and fulfilled in him (Matthew 5:17, Luke 24, Romans 10:4). This means we read and understand the Laws through the lens of the life and death of Jesus. God’s story about his nation, Israel, which in a sense begins with liberating his people from slavery in Egypt, continues through to Jesus, who liberates us from something greater than slavery in Egypt, he liberates us from slavery to sin. When approaching the Old Testament laws are slavery, they must be framed by the bigger picture of God’s story of rescue. There are tricky parts to this story which must be understood and wrestled with as we respond to modern day slavery and human trafficking.

Second, as we work through these texts to see how the Bible views slavery we need to remember that the image the word “slavery” conjures in our minds is not the same as slavery in the ancient near east. In modern times we have witnessed the horrors of slavery, which is a different picture from slavery in the Old Testament or Roman Empire. This doesn’t mean that slavery was pleasant for those who were slaves in these times For example, one of the first slaves we meet in the Bible is Eliezer, Abraham’s slave, who stands to inherit Abraham’s wealth if Abraham dies without a biological heir (Genesis 15). Slaves were, in some instances, members of the household, or family, they belonged to. This relationship warped over time, and throughout the Old Testament narrative, where sinful people treat slaves in sinful ways, just characters in the Old Testament who have power often use it to abuse those they have power over. In Abraham’s frustration about his lack of an heir, his wife, Sarah, turns to Hagar, a slave in his household, to solve this problem (Genesis 16). Again, this treatment is not the ideal, Sarah’s behaviour is described, but not affirmed – in fact, it’s condemned, because Sarah’s attempt to help fulfil God’s promises to Abraham, through Hagar, is not where God’s promises are to be fulfilled, even as Ishmael, Hagar’s son, is blessed by God (Genesis 17:15-27). The fact that it’s hard to imagine a modern sex slave or sweatshop labourer being considered part of the slaver’s family who stands to inherit, or the slaver wanting the child of a slave to share in their inheritance with their own children, should alert us to some differences as we approach slavery in the Bible.

Third, we need to remember that the Old Testament Law isn’t given to Israel as a bunch of rules about how to hate people, but how to love people. So, when we read laws about slavery, despite our experiences of slavery (and our experiences of how these laws have been used to justify hateful treatment of people), we should read them charitably and imagine how a person might turn to them as a last resort in order to love and provide for those around them, rather than a way to dodge obligations, to deal with an inconvenience, or punish an unruly family member. We should think the best of fathers who make arrangements for their daughters to marry a master or his son (ala Exodus 21:7-11), realising that there are many other laws that are designed to ensure situations like this do not need to arise (Deuteronomy 15:1-17, 24:10-23). Any situation where an Israelite is in poverty through the actions of other Israelites represents a failure, from people within Israel, to love with generosity. There are plenty of examples of such failure throughout the Bible – examples like Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery against his will – and these examples are condemned (Genesis 50:20).

There is a sense in which the slavery in view in the Old Testament law is either:

a)        Entered into voluntarily, always with an end in sight through the jubilee laws, and for the purpose of alleviating one’s debt (Exodus 22:1-3). While there are laws about slavery, there are other laws that are specifically designed to stop Israelites getting into debt to each other to the point that they become enslaved (Deuteronomy 15:1-17, 24:10-22). Any Jewish slave is potentially an indicator that these laws are not being kept. Slaves who lose the capacity to continue working off their debt through injury were to be released immediately (Exodus 21:26-27), slaves who ran away from their masters were to be given refuge (Deuteronomy 23:15).  Slaves could redeem themselves, or be freed if the debt they owed was paid by another, a “redeemer” (Leviticus 25:47-55).

This sort of treatment is consistent with Israel’s liberation from slavery by the God who gave them refuge, and is another reminder that slavery in the Old Testament is not what we see in modern slavery.

b)       Slavery for the purpose of marriage, where the father of the daughter makes an arrangement with family, either for the household owner or his son. While we find this morally reprehensible in the modern, western, world, this relationship is more like an arranged marriage to improve a daughter’s social standing than sex slavery. This sort of arrangement would be entered into between an impoverished father and a wealthy neighbour. We need to be careful not to draw modern parallels here – and while this law was doubtless abused even in its time – the father would be one who considered it necessary to take such an action to ensure his daughter would be loved and provided for when he himself was unable to provide. We get this sense from the law itself as it secures rights for the for the woman – she is to be treated as either a wife, or a daughter, in the household, and the woman in question is free to leave if the relationship is not as promised, such a breakdown in relationship is a case of the man “breaking faith” with the woman in question (Exodus 21:7-11).

While there were laws about how to treat slaves that seem to allow slavery, the Old Testament unequivocally condemns slavers – those who traffic others. Any person who kidnapped someone and sold them into slavery against their will – was to be put to death (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7).