Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Part 1]

By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.

“Whoever kidnaps a person must be put to death, whether he sells him or the person is found in his possession”   -Exodus 21:16

In Part 1 of this discussion, I figure that it would be best to settle some preliminary grievances.  Rather than just repeat the same quoted mantra that I included in the introduction to this series, I would rather just include verses post-by-post from the Torah itself pertaining to the slavery given by God to Ancient Israel.  The Bible is very much an open book, as much as God behind it is open, and I want to iterate that as we move forward.

You should know by now that the hyperlinks that I flood in each post are for you, the reader and humble listener, so that you are also able to reason in this, our little corner.  This tradition will not change– even in the case for the subject of slavery, where I have not only outed myself as a firm believer and lover of the God revealed in the Bible (the Author of these slavery laws) but I also have outed myself several times as a descendant from slaves…though some of my ancestors were slaves in the more gruesome and inhumane sense of the term.  I had a lot at stake personally for putting God on trial…and in all reality, so do you.

So with open hearts and steel eyes, let us go forward:

God leaves no room for error when it comes to persons kidnapping others for the express purpose of selling people into slavery…or kidnapping for any express purpose.  Such a law would be considered extreme in the modern-day Western world– to try and execute anyone caught kidnapping another person.  Amber alerts sound off in our nations all of the time…but very, very rarely have we stopped to consider that in Ancient Israel reporting a person considered to be the cause for our community’s outrage would be equivalent to sentencing them to death.

Historian’s Note:

But this all comes together plainly when we consider what occurred to Joseph even before the sons of Israel (and Israel’s slaves by extension) found themselves in Egypt.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  Jacob/Israel owned slaves, and those slaves were considered a part of his family.  In fact, several of Jacob’s sons were actually the children that he had with his wives’ slaves.  Notice, this is far from an endorsement of polygamy– how this entire situation came about can be seen as how polygamy is not the way to go solely from a situational point of view.  But God, in His mercy and compassion to Jacob/Israel, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, allowed all 4 women to bear children, which was one of the most honorable things for any woman to do.  All women were exploited, undoubtedly, but all received a lasting and eternal inheritance in spite of their exploitation.  Also strikingly, you can see how this polygamous arrangement gave Jacob/Israel heartaches just as it had his grandfather Abraham (Jacob/Israel the con-man should have learned by the example of his father Isaac the value of monogamy…but I guess that his trickier uncle Laban had other plans…).  Unfortunately, the polygamous arrangement of Jacob/Israel led directly to what happened to Joseph.  Right away, we can see how God taught Israel through their ancestors the reason why this Mosaic punishment was given long before it was actually given.  Anyone found kidnapping another human being was to be tried and executed.  No ifs, and’s, or but’s.

A common objection given is that, though this iteration of the law in Exodus seems to be broadly applied, its reiteration in Deuteronomy seems to limit this law to only the Hebrew Israelite person– therefore allowing for the kidnapping and selling of the Gentile peoples.

There are real legal problems with this interpretation.  For one, Exodus 21:16 comes in the midst of other laws found in the same book.  For two, Exodus 20 contains the famous Decalogue (Ten Commandments) which were well-known to apply to all people living in Israel, native or foreign.  In fact, those laws (with the exception of the 4th Commandment) were extended to apply to all nations.  Even more, to kidnap and sell foreigners would directly contradict the Torah in Exodus 22:21-27, wherein foreigners were to be treated with equal dignity as Israelites.  The reason given?  Israel had experienced what it felt to be oppressed in Egypt, and God had not liberated them from the most powerful empire in their region (without them having to fight a single battle or lose a single person) just for Israel to turn around and commit the same inhumanity to others.  Notice God’s express warning to Israel in Exodus 22:27.   This factors in greatly whenever we discuss the Biblical prophets, and especially Jesus’ teachings.

Another legal problem is that it directly breaks Torah due to the statements of how the Mosaic law was supposed to work in relation to the foreign and native-born Israelite.  In Israel there existed the national religious community of Israel, the Gentile-inhabiting Israelite community, and those who simply resided in Israel to do business or to flee oppression elsewhere.  Indeed all three communities were present from the very beginning with the mixed multitude that left with Israel out of Egypt.

Hands down, foreigners and native-born Israelites were to be treated on-par with one another socially.  And even still, this equal measure of the Torah also applied to religious laws…foreigners must worship Yahweh alone or leave Israel, or suffer the punishment for idolatry.  Now, the way Gentiles and Israelites worshiped God possibly differed (though Gentiles could become full-fledged religious Israelites…as Caleb the son of Jephunneh did).

For example, though other nations apart from Israel could also worship Yahweh freely (and they did, see sources 1 and 2), both Hebrew and Gentile Israelites had to abide by the national dietary restrictions for Ancient Israel alone in order to be distinguishable as a national community from other Gentile nations that the people came from.  Both also were to be circumcised in order to be nationally Israel and to celebrate Passover.  But both groups were Israelites, such that you probably didn’t even know that Caleb was one of the Gentiles who went up with Israel out of Egypt.  Well, so was at least one of Pharaoh’s daughters…but I’m straying a tad.

Already the system was in place for the native and foreign Israelite to be treated equally under the Torah.  From Leviticus 25, we see that foreigners and foreign residents of Israel could be owned for life…just like native Israelites could, as told in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15. And both could not be sold while enslaved to others in order to perpetuate their slavery (per Leviticus 25:42). Both groups were to be treated fairly and by the same law, as that all too familiar Jesus-saying says about loving your neighbor (it actually comes from Leviticus 19). Believe it or not, this form of equity was not very common in the ancient world, nor was it common until the most recent decades of today.

This leads to the other direct, and complete, contradiction to the Torah allowing the kidnapping foreigners and selling them as slaves (if this law was ethnocentric to Hebrew blood-related people alone, as some claim to be true): Slaves who escaped from foreign lands into Israel were to be defended by the Israelites and never returned to their masters.

By fleeing to Ancient Israel, any foreign slave effectively secured his or her own freedom for life.

Series Layout

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Introduction]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Part 2]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Part 3]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Part 4]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Part 5]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Part 6]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [Il Verdetto]

Isn’t Slavery in the Bible? [The Verdict]

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