Sun | Dec 10, 2023

Michael Abrahams | Slavery in the Bible

Published:Monday | August 28, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Slavery is one of the most inhumane and unjust human practices. The reprehensible act of owning another human being, having them work under unsatisfactory conditions, without remuneration, and subjecting them to physical, psychological and, in some cases, sexual abuse is unacceptable and considered an abhorrence by decent human beings.

As a descendant of slaves, the issue of slavery is one that is of great significance to me. It is part of my history. I recall, as a child, recoiling in horror while watching part of KuntaKinte’s foot being chopped off in a scene from the television miniseries Roots. More recently, during a tour of the Rose Hall Great House in St James, the guide passed around a bucket, which would be rather heavy when full, which was given to slave children to fill with water and carry for long distances to the mansion. We were told that if the children spilled any of the water, they would be beaten, and I thought that these people must have been living in hell. To this day, seeing drawings of slaves in slave ships, packed like sardines, makes me cringe.

Slavery is indeed the epitome of cruelty. So, if the Holy Bible was written by “men inspired by God”, and God is “love” and is “merciful”, why is it that the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the prophets and those who wrote the books of the Bible never decried the practice?

It is true that there are verses condemning kidnapping, which falls under the category of human trafficking and overlaps with slavery. Both Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7 prescribe death for kidnappers. However, the actual practice of slavery was not denounced. Guidelines were even given to instruct people how to deal with their slaves.

For example, in Leviticus 25: 44-46, permission was given to the people of Israel to purchase male and female slaves from foreignerswho were resided among them. It was also permissible for them to purchase children of the foreigners, and to treat them as property, passing them on to their own children as a permanent inheritance.

Instructions were also given in Exodus 21: 2-6 regarding how long slaves were to be kept for, stating that male slaves should be set free after six years, but that if their masters gave them wives, and they had children with them, the wives and children still belonged to the master. The slave, however, also had the option to choose to stay with the master forever, rather than leave his family behind. 

Some Christians dilute the horror of slavery documented in the Bible by stating that the captivity referred to was not like that which Africans endured during the transatlantic slave trade, and that the slaves were really “servants”. Indeed, there were persons who were poor and would sell themselves to wealthier people, and instructions were given to treat them as servants, as written in Leviticus 25:39-42. But if you peruse the pages of the Bible concerning slavery, you will learn that cruelty was clearly tolerated.

In Exodus 21:20-21, punishment was prescribed for anyone who beat their male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave died “under his hand”. However, if the slave survived for a day or two, there should be no sanction. Exodus 21:26-27 stated that it was permissible to knock out a slave’s eye or teeth without punishment. All the slave owner had to do was release the slave.

Permission was also given for a man to sell his daughter as a sex slave as written in Exodus 21: 7-11, which statedthat, unlike male slaves, she was not to be set free after six years, but could be bought back if she did not “please” the man who bought her.

Bear in mind that, the Ten Commandments, a list of rules revered by Christians, is in the preceding chapter, Exodus 20. Apparently, the God of the Bible had issues with “graven images” but not with people maiming fellow human beings, or selling girls to strangers to be repeatedly sexually violated.

Many Christians will be quick to point out that the abovementioned examples were in the days of the Old Testament, and that Jesus came and changed things, doing away with all the unpleasant and wicked old stuff. Regarding slavery, he did not seem to care though, and the practice continued.

In Colossians 4:1, Paul urged masters to treat their slaves fairly, but also instructed slaves in Ephesians 6:5 to obey their masters with “deep respect and fear”, and to serve them as sincerely as they would serve Christ. In 1 Timothy 6:1-2 he even addressed Christians who owned slaves.Jesus Christ himself also spoke, not disapprovingly either, of servants being beaten for doing wrong even when they were unaware of it in Luke 12:47.

The Holy Bible has been touted by Christians as the ultimate guide for morality. But how can anyone claim to possess a moral compass and trust and revere a book, or collection of books, in which the repugnant act of slavery is tolerated?


- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.