Wed | Feb 19, 2020

Slavery in the Bible - Part I

Published:Sunday | January 19, 2020 | 12:37 AMCarl Murray - Contributor

Slavery is one of the most heinous crimes that one human being can commit against another human being. It deprives one of their freedom and their rights as a human being, and allows another to exercise that power to deprive them of those rights.

Definition of slave (Oxford)


A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them. A person who works very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation. A person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something. A device, or part of one, directly controlled by another.


Work excessively hard.

In this article, we will focus on the noun definition.

Types of Slavery

There are many types of slavery and we need to identify them before looking specifically at slavery in the Bible.

Chattel (personal property) slavery, where persons are ‘owned’ by a slave master and bought, sold, exchanged and otherwise treated like inanimate objects.

Indentured servants, where persons are ‘bonded’ to a particular agreement with others to provide labour with certain conditions stipulated.

Forced labour is a form of slavery, when an individual is forced to work against their own will, under threat of violence or other punishment, but is sometimes used to describe chattel slavery, as well as any other situation in which a person is obliged to work against their own will, or under the control of another person.

Debt bondage, where persons are kept as slaves to repay debts incurred by themselves, family members, or relatives.

There are many other types of slavery which can be broken down further, or incorporated in the types as listed above (e.g., human trafficking, which can involve adults and children).

Sources of Slaves

Slaves are usually drawn from several situations that exist, the main ones being:

• Enslavement as a result of being a prisoner of war

• Enslavement as a result of debt

• Enslavement as a result of criminal punishment

• Enslavement due to illegal activit(ies) by the perpetrator

The History of slavery

Slavery existed as long as mankind existed. It existed in one form or another from the earliest civilisations on this earth. It goes back to the Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and other ancient nations, and later on in Medieval Europe. Religion then was not a barrier to slave (trade) and Christians, Jews and Moslems all participated in this activity, especially in the form of prisoners of war.

For example, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for 430 years, during that time visiting up on them all kinds of inhumanity.

Also, the many wars that the Roman Empire engaged in produced enormous numbers of slaves from around the then known world. Slave owners displayed absolute power over their slaves and subjected them to all forms of cruelty from forced labour to other physical abuses.

Both the leading states of Greece – Sparta and Athens – depend entirely upon forced labour, a nice name for slavery.

Other inhumanity was displayed long before the slave trade was picked up by the ‘Europeans’, as noted by the following quotes:

“African societies practised human bondage long before the Atlantic slave trade began. Famine or fear of stronger enemies might force one tribe to ask another for help and give themselves in bondage in exchange for assistance. Similar to the European serf system, those seeking protection or relief from starvation would become the servants of those who provided relief. Debt might also be worked off through some form of servitude. Furthermore, prisoners of war between different African societies oftentimes became enslaved.”[African societies and the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade – Kahn Academy]

“It has been established that the demand for slaves during the transatlantic slave trade was fuelled by the availability of a supply chain which involved African rulers and tradesmen who made a fortune out of selling people.

“Between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to North America, the Caribbean and South America, according to the transatlantic slave trade database. Only about 10.7 million survived the dreadful journey under bondage in slave ships.

“The slave trade contributed to the expansion of the most powerful West African kingdoms such as Mali and Ghana, as the business became one of the main sources of foreign exchange for many years.” [Africans who played an active role in the transatlantic slave trade – Ismail Akwei]

Whenever slavery is discussed in modern days, however, it is usually in reference to the transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of African people between the 16th and 19th centuries. The above definition, discussion of source, history, and the other information that follows should make us more clear on the total issue of slavery.

So we now address the question – does the Bible condone slavery?

First, we have to remember that God does not reveal his will all at once, but progressively over a period, so one has to read and understand His Word to properly associate His revelations, rather than to pick out passages, out of context, in an attempt to assign meanings to biblical revelations.

Second, practices like slavery, polygamy, murder and divorce are commonly seen in the Bible. Biblical ‘instruction’ that allows for them in certain contexts isn’t necessarily biblical approval. We must interpret them in relation to everything else the Scriptures say.

Read part II next week.