Slavery versus Indentured Service

06 Dec
Slavery in the Bible

from Google Images

It is commonly put forward by Biblical critics that God shows us through the Mosaic Law that he not only approves of slavery but actually promotes it for his people, Israel. Today, although human trafficking is still far too common a matter, most nations generally agree that it is wrong, even immoral, for one human being to own another as his property.[1] How, therefore, is it possible for a Christian to defend the Bible, if it advocates slavery? The fact is that the Bible promotes no such thing. Rather, the same phrases in Scripture used by its critics to support their arguments are the very sources the Bible use to prove God’s care for the poor and powerless in society.

It would be a mistake to define the life of a servant in ancient Israel in the light of the institution of American slavery earlier in our history. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote: “The legal power of the master amounts to an absolute despotism over body and soul… there is no protection for the slave’s life.”[2] Yet, there is no Hebrew word for slave in the Bible. The Scriptures treat the buying and selling and trading of servants differently than Americans did when they bought, sold or traded human beings as slaves.

Additionally, no adult in Israel was forced to become a servant. Rather, one voluntarily entered into that lifestyle to either pay off a debt, or keep from living under destitute conditions such as the homeless and impoverished refugees do in different parts of the world. Moreover, indentured servitude wasn’t a permanent arrangement, nor does Scripture consider it the ideal solution to the problem of the poor. Remember, laws are not created for the righteous man, but for the wicked, insubordinate, irreverent, unholy, profane and like such people (1Timothy 1:9-10). We need to keep in mind that many things discussed in the Law of Moses are not ideal situations, but rather, the Law of Moses was meant to govern the attitudes and activity of the strong over the weak and vulnerable who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances.

Under the Law of Moses a man could sell himself, his wife or one of his children to another man in order to pay off a debt that was owed. That is, the one sold would work off the debt and then be free. The fact is that every 7th year the debt was forgiven, even if it wasn’t completely paid off, and the Israelite servant was set free. Many people did similar things in colonial America. If one didn’t have funds to pay for a ticket to the New World, for example, a ticket was often provided by someone else in a contractual arrangement, whereby the poor man (woman or family) would work for the other for an agreed upon number of years. One half to two thirds of white immigrants to Britain’s colonies were indentured servants.[3]

One might object to this idea, saying that in the Bible servants were sometimes sold and traded like property. How can what was done in colonial America reflect what we find in the Bible? Yet, not only does colonial America reflect the Biblical idea of servants, but even in our modern era we have ‘owners’ of people and those who are owned are not considered slaves. Consider the sports industry. Players are owned, bought, sold and traded in free America, but who would try to tell us these people are the slaves of their owners. In fact, the services of the prospective players are arranged under voluntarily, contractual agreements, usually through agents, whom the players pay an agreed fee for services rendered.

Unhappy circumstances, which in some cases exist even today, are treated in a manner that fit into the ANE economy and culture. To judge their method by the social structures we have embedded in our cultural traditions today would be arrogant to say the least and nigh hopelessly biased to say the worst. Moreover, who is to say who meets the needs of the poor and destitute among our societies better—ancient Israel or America.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; presenting the Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, together with Corroborative Statements verifying the Truth of the Work (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853), I.10, 139.

[3] David W. Galenson, Indentured Servitude, in The Oxford Companion to American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 368-69.


Posted by on December 6, 2015 in apologetics


Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 responses to “Slavery versus Indentured Service

  1. Return of Benjamin

    December 6, 2015 at 08:39

    Sports players is a very good analogy, and one I hadn’t considered before. I’ll have to steal it.

    I would also add that when the indentured servant was set free, the former master was to give him liberal gifts of livestock, grain, and wine to help him re-establish himself as a free man (Deu. 15:12-14). That points to the whole system (if practiced as commanded; I’m not sure it ever was) being one designed to help the impoverished rather than exploit them.


    • Eddie

      December 6, 2015 at 12:31

      Rabbi Mike, greetings, and let me say it is always a pleasure to know you both read my blog and keep me honest in terms of quoting the Law and other parts of Scripture correctly. I realize now that I did miss that when studying for this posting, but I remember reading it and it made an impression on me when I did (otherwise, I probably wouldn’t recall it at all). Thank you for your comment and welcome addition to what I had to say above. I should have remembered that point, but I didn’t.

      Lord bless you.


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