The New York Times—which formerly only shilled for Stalin, but is now actually Stalinist—has launched something called the “1619 Project,” which tries to show that slavery is part and parcel of America’s founding, is interwoven throughout its institutions, and therefore de-legitimizes the founding, the constitution of 1787, and the American nation. Leftist utopians understand that it is necessary to discredit, trash, and sweep away the existing civilization before they can construct their utopia in its place, and the 1619 project is part of that sweeping away.
In much the same way that the New York Times is using slavery to de-legitimize the United States as currently constituted, biblioskeptics have often pointed to Scripture’s failure to condemn slavery as proof that the Bible is not inspired, that it is merely a human, culture-bound product of its times. They point to the fact that the Mosaic law regulates slavery (and thereby tacitly approves of it), and argue that a just and loving God would never countenance slavery in any form, much less issue a series of regulations for the operation of such an institution.
Are the skeptics justified? What does Scripture really say about slavery?
A. Scripture Strongly Condemns Enslaving People Against Their Will
Although there have been many forms of slavery throughout human history, most Americans and other Westerners are familiar with only one form of slavery, namely, the transport of Africans to the Americas for work on plantations. Trafficking in African slaves involved unspeakable brutality that, by some estimates, resulted in the death of at least 5 people for each slave who reached a plantation in the New World. The Bible affords no hint of approval of this type of slavery.
The “slavery” regulated in the Old Testament does not include kidnapping people for sale as slaves. In fact, the Bible specifies the death penalty for those who enslave people against their will. Exodus 21:16 states, “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.” Deuteronomy 24:7 states, “If a man is caught kidnapping one of his brother Israelites and treats him as a slave or sells him, the kidnapper must die.”
The New Testament also condemns those who steal people to sell them into slavery. 1 Timothy 1:10 includes “menstealers” (KJV) in a list of immoral and lawless persons that includes people who murder their own parents. The term menstealers is also translated as “kidnappers,” “slave traders,” “who sell slaves,” “who buy and sell slaves,” etc.
There is no question where the Bible stands regarding those who kidnap and enslave: they are condemned, and their fate should be death.
B. Israel’s System of Regulated Slavery or Indentured Servitude
So what type of institution did the Bible regulate for ancient Israel? The slavery prescribed for Israel was really more in the nature of indentured servitude.
Ancient Israel was an agrarian nation; the key to prosperity was ownership of land. It was not God's plan that there be a poor underclass in Israel. (Deut. 15:4) No family could permanently alienate (sell or give away) its ancestral lands. All ancestral land was to be repatriated on the Year of Jubilee, every 50 years (Lev. 25:8-24). By this demi-centennial return of ancestral land, Israel was to avoid the development of a rigid class system with an inescapable underclass. Had Israel adhered to the Mosaic law, no permanent class of poor, landless peasants could ever have developed in Israel.
In addition to repatriation of ancestral lands, the law of Moses provided several other protections for the poor, including a prohibition on charging them interest (Lev. 25:35-37); cancellation of debts every seventh year; leaving the edges of fields unharvested for the poor to glean; not harvesting the vine a second time (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15; 24:19); and leaving fields unplanted every seven years and allowing the poor to eat whatever grew on them naturally during that sabbath year (Ex. 23:10-11).
For the Israelites, the legally sanctioned system of “slavery” was to function as an additional protection for the poor. Slavery was a way that the truly destitute could avoid death by starvation. Under the Mosaic law, slavery was not to be a permanent condition. Rather, people sold themselves into slavery, could not to be resold, and had to be freed after 6 years of service, or at the Year of Jubilee, whichever came first (Lev. 25:39-43; Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). The slave was always entitled to buy his own freedom or have it bought for him by his kinsman-redeemer (Lev. 25:47-54). Only if the slave swore before a judge that he was happy with his situation, and wanted the arrangement to continue, could his station be made permanent with a symbolic ear-piercing (Ex. 21:5-6; Deut. 15:16-17).
Israelite slave-owners did not have absolute rights over their slaves even during the legally limited period of servitude. Any master who killed his slave was subject to the punishment of death (Ex. 21:12, 20), a master who disfigured a slave by knocking out an eye or a tooth was to free the slave immediately (Ex. 21:26-27), and runaway slaves were not to be returned to their masters (Deut. 23:15-16); it was assumed that a runaway had been abused and should not be forcibly returned. Of course, slaves were not to work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; 23:12; Deut. 5:14) and hence could be forced to work only six days a week.
These safeguards made the “slavery” practiced by Israel very different from that practiced in the other nations of the ancient Near East, and quite different from what the term slavery brings to our minds. Scripture was clear as to how Israelites were to treat their countrymen whose economic circumstances had forced them into slavery:
“Suppose some of your people become so poor that they have to sell themselves and become your slaves. Then you must treat them as servants, rather than as slaves. And in the Year of Celebration they are to be set free, so they and their children may return home to their families and property. I brought them out of Egypt to be my servants, not to be sold as slaves. So obey me, and don’t be cruel to the poor” (Lev. 23:39-43 CEV).
Clearly, the "slavery" that was authorized for the Israelites was really a form of indentured servitude that allowed the truly destitute to avoid death by starvation and have a measure of security until the Sabbath-year, when all the slaves were freed and debts canceled, or the Jubilee year when, in addition to debts being canceled and slaves freed, ancestral lands were to be re-patriated. The institution bore very little similarity to African slavery in the Americas (or in the Muslim countries).
It is easy for us---in the wealthiest society ever seen, where the middle class lives at a standard that kings in most times and places could never have imagined---to be appalled at forms of social organization adopted by poorer societies, which includes most people in most times and places in the history of our planet.
But until the late 18th Century many Western societies had imprisonment for debt, which was in some ways no better and often worse than the Old Testament system of 6 years of indentured servitude. Even today, in the wealthiest society known to history, most of us are wage slaves who must keep working at jobs where someone else tells us what to do in order to survive. Doing away with slavery has not done away with hierarchical organization of society, nor has it ushered in a utopia. We still have servants and masters, it is just that everyone now agrees with the biblical rule that when the servant runs away, the master cannot force him to come back.