Slavery in the Bible
a word study by Bob Burridge ©2019
There are many jobs which require a group of laborers. In biblical times one of the main businesses was the production of crops for food. Fields had to be cleared, plowed, seeded, cared for, and harvested. Large fields were too much work for a single family so others were needed to get the job done on time. In the Old Testament, such a laborer was referred to using the Hebrew word ‘eved (עבד). This word is often translated as “slave”. That English word comes from the German word “sklave”, which was used to describe Slavic people who were forced into service.
In our country during the time before the end of our American Civil War some native Africans were taken by force and sold by other tribes as commodities. They were purchased by slave dealers who brought them back to the states to be sold into slavery. Most of them were kept alive only for the work they could do for their owners. Some of the black race were treated as sub-human creatures. Those in that type of slavery were often beaten or killed if they disobeyed. Slaves were often treated in the same cruel way in other historic cultures such as ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Imperical Rome, and other oppressive nations.
Today the word “slave” stirs up horrible images in our minds; images of inhumane cruelty, oppression, and racism. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament is ‘eved (עבד ). It had a broader meaning. It more generally means “laborer” or one who renders some kind of service. In Langenscheidts Hebrew lexicon it’s defined as, “laborer, servant, slave, or bondsman”. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew lexicon defines it to mean a servant, slave, one who is in subjection to someone in authority such as a king, or more generally of one who is hired to serve or to work for someone. It’s often used in the Bible to describe those in service to God such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Joshua and others who carried out God’s work.
In the New Testament the Greek word sometimes translated as “slave” is “doulos” (δοῦλος). It’s used when translating that Hebrew word ‘eved (עבד ) when quoting the Old Testament. The New Testament contexts inform us about how the word is being used in each case. Sometimes it’s speaking of forced laborers in the oppressive Greco-Roman culture. At other times it’s used in the way familiar to the Jewish culture informed by its more general meaning in the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul several times introduces himself as a “servant” of Jesus Christ using this same word, “doulos” (δοῦλος).
Before Adam sinned he was given the duty of tending to God’s creation. This was before sin entered the human race, so work and labor were not introduced as punishments for sin. In Genesis 1:28, right after the first humans were made, it says, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ ” Through that labor, God would provide humanity with all that was needed for their daily provisions. The very next verse,Genesis 1:29, adds, “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’ ”
Based upon what God said when he made the first person, the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:9 says, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work…” The Hebrew verb translated as “labor” there is ‘eved (עבד ), the same word often translated in noun form as “slave”. Our laboring in obedience to our Creator is not oppressive or de-humanizing. It’s an honorable duty we humbly and thankfully carry out.
Regarding working for others, God’s law clearly limits how workers should be treated. A worker is not a possession. When Scripture speaks of “possessing” a slave it has to do with owning his work contract, not that he is a commodity and there was no racial element. No human is ever to be treated as a mere possession, work animal, or a physical object. Luke 10:7 tells that “the laborer deserves his wages.” We should be sure we respectfully treat and fairly pay those who labor for us.
According to God’s law, a servant in Ancient Israel could only be contracted for work for 6 years. After that he had to be set free from the contract (Exodus 21). He was to be sent out with a liberal severance (Deuteronomy 15). If he voluntarily decided to stay on with the one he works for, he was marked out as that person’s contracted laborer for life. Captured enemies of the state, convicted criminals, and debtors unable to settle their debts could to be forced to work off their debts (Exodus 22).
Workers were protected by the moral law of God. They were never to be killed or beaten unjustly. They were to be housed and provided for fairly for their labors. There was no racial distinctions made of those who are under a binding work contract. In many cases they were treated as part of the family they worked for.
Those who have used the Bible to defend the kind of cruel slavery practiced in some places at various times have attached a very unbiblical meaning to the term. It might be helpful in our present culture to translate the terms as “worker” or “laboror” instead of as “slave” in those contexts where God’s obedient people were the ones overseeing their work.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)