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the weird slavery laws

Scripture contains some difficult laws to interpret. It’s not hard to imagine that one day, someone will try to ban the Bible because of them. Let’s talk about the weird laws. For example, take the laws concerning slavery.

The Israelites had come to Egypt as refugees during a famine. They were an ethnic minority in a large imperial state. When a new pharaoh changed Egypt’s immigration policy, the Israelites were forced into slavery simply because they were Hebrews (Ex 13:14). The ten plagues that were poured out on Egypt demonstrate how God feels about racial slavery.

Immediately after the Ten Commandments, the very first law God gave to Israel concerned the treatment of slaves. In it, God was essentially saying, “If you have slaves, do not treat them like you were treated in Egypt. You must protect and dignify them.”

Why doesn’t God prohibit slavery? Well actually, he does. God bans the type of slavery that kidnaps human beings and sells them for the purpose of human trafficking. “Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves” (Ex 21:16). According to Scripture, the kidnapping of any person for the purpose of enslaving them is a capital crime. The Bible unequivocally condemns human trafficking.

In the Old Testament, the word, “slavery,” is usually addressing “debt slavery.” Debt slavery was the only option for people who could not pay their debts or who found themselves in abject poverty. When the poor could not provide for their families, there was no welfare system. God’s law offered provisions to help them work off debt. Debt slavery was voluntary. People could willingly offer their labor in exchange for outstanding debts; in return, masters would provide all their needs. Such servitude, however, was limited to a six-year contract. After that, slaves were free to move on or keep working. Their debts were forgiven (Ex 21:2-6; Lev 25:35-55; Deut 15:12-15).

In the New Testament, Roman slavery was vastly different. Most slaves were prisoners of war—which means that they were merchants, doctors, lawyers, and even politicians (e.g., Eph 6:5-9; Col 4:1). But they lived under a formidable authoritarian state. If Jesus or Paul or any of the early Christians were to call for their immediate emancipation, it would have led to a mass execution. Yet notice how Paul encourages slaves who had a chance to be free: “avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor 7:21). He also lists human traffickers among those who are “ungodly and profane” and puts them in the same category as murderers, the sexually immoral, and perjurers (1 Tim 1:8-10; cf. Rev 18:13).

Apparently, the Bible’s weird laws about slavery aren’t so weird after all. 

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