The issue of slavery in the ancient world is a complex one. The practices and regulations regarding this long-standing institution must be viewed in light of the rather unrefined ages in which the relationship of slavery prevailed.
It may be stated with absolute confidence that it was never the ideal will of God that one man should own another as a piece of property. The fact that each human being is in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6) argues that slavery is not a divinely designed relationship.
Slavery Prevailed in the Ancient World
The antique world was full of slavery. In Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Rome, etc., the practice of owning slaves was common.
Aristotle taught that it was in the natural order of things that some men should own others so that the higher classes could flourish. Does that not have an “evolutionary” flavor to it?
In most of those cultures, the practice was barbarous. Slaves were not “people.” They were chattel, mere things, pieces of property to be used, abused, or even disposed of at the whim of the master. Slaves could be tortured or murdered at the owner’s bidding. Such cruelty obviously was not consistent with the will of God.
The Law of God and Slavery
The Mosaic regime was born into a world in which slavery was a thriving enterprise already. Within the Hebrew culture a level of servitude was both acknowledged and regulated.
Slaves might be obtained in a variety of ways. Generally they were acquired as prisoners of war, as a result of the various conquests that Israel was authorized to wage (cf. Num. 31:7-9). In an Israelite home, servitude could be an advantage over death, because servants were to be viewed as household members.
Sometimes servants were obtained as gifts (Gen. 29:24) or through purchase (Lev. 25:44). The offspring of slaves automatically belonged to the same owner (Ex. 21:4). A robber might be enslaved if he could not repay the value of the “loot” he had stolen (Ex. 22:2-3).
Too, one could sell his self into an indentured relationship (Ex. 21:6) — either temporarily (there were time limitations protecting him; Ex. 21:2ff), or for life, if he loved his master and chose life-long security. Such was not uncommon in the harsh world of the ancients.
Hebrew Law Versus Other Ancient Societies
But Hebrew law was far superior to the codes of the pagan nations with reference to slaves.
For example, there are some glaring contrasts between the law of Moses and the code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian ruler) with reference to slaves. Under the Babylonian regime, harboring a runaway slave incurred the death penalty. Under the Hebrew system, a runaway slave seeking refuge could not be returned to his master (Dt. 23:15).
A Hebrew-owned slave could choose to bind himself to his master for life. The agreement would be ratified by the piercing of his ear (Ex. 21:6; Dt. 15:17). In Babylon, a slave who said to his master, “You don’t own me!” could have his ear cut off!
Under the Mosaic system, robbery required restitution — either in actual payment or service (Ex. 22:3). Babylonian law made robbery a capital offense.
The Roman writer Pliny tells of a case where a slave accidentally dropped and broke a crystal goblet. His owner immediately threw him into a courtyard fishpond where he was torn apart by savage lampreys.
Under the law of Moses, to kill a slave was a crime that carried punishment (Ex. 21:20). While the law allowed the physical punishment of one’s slave, the Jew was not permitted to kill his servant. This protection was unprecedented in the ancient world.
One scholar has noted that the Jews’ treatment of Gentile slaves was “a great deal more humane than elsewhere in the ancient world” (Jeremias 1969, 348).
Christian Influence and Slavery
Slavery is not consistent with the most exalted level of Christian doctrine. The teaching of Christ contained the moral seeds that eventually would abolish the institution in the hearts of those influenced by the true Master (cf. Mt. 7:12; Col. 4:1).
Hebrew law was not designed to violently disrupt the master-servant relationship of the ancient world in the abbreviated period of time that it was in force. However, the Mosaic regime did embrace certain restraining measures that gradually would bring the institution into disrepute — especially with the coming of Christianity.
As William Barclay once observed, “There are some things which cannot be suddenly achieved, and for which the world must wait, until the leaven works.”
In this connection, the New Testament book of Philemon ought to be carefully studied. It concerns the case of a runaway slave named Onesimus.
Onesimus had fled from his master, Philemon, who lived in the city of Colossae. The refugee had made his way to Rome where he came in contact with the apostle Paul.
Paul led him to the truth of the gospel of Christ. Onesimus became an asset to the apostle, who was a prisoner in chains, awaiting the disposition of his fate before Caesar. Paul had been falsely charged by the Jews in Palestine, and so appealed his case to Rome.
In view of the social and political circumstances of the day, Paul determined that the proper thing for Onesimus to do would be to return to his master. Onesimus obviously conceded to the plan and, in the company of Tychicus (cf. Col. 4:9), the two embarked upon the journey back to Asia.
They took with them a short letter written by Paul (Philemon — the briefest of all the apostle’s writings), which was a commendation of Onesimus, the slave. But it was also an appeal to Philemon to receive the fugitive back, viewing him “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave.”
The petition suggested that it would be ideal if Philemon would embrace him as a “beloved brother, especially to me, but now much more to you” (Phile. 16). Paul does not command, “free him,” but that implied action saturates the disposition of his request.
There probably has been no single document in the history of humanity that has done more to pave the way for the abolition of human enslavement that Paul’s letter to Philemon. D. Edmond Hiebert has summarized the matter beautifully.
“This epistle has exerted a profound impact upon the movement of the amelioration of social conditions. Dealing with a problem arising out of the institution of slavery, it has figured prominently in the controversy about slavery. The manner in which Paul treats the problem of Onesimus indicates the way in which Christianity grappled with the evils of human society. To have directly antagonized the institution of human slavery, inwrought as it was in the very warp and woof of the Roman Empire, would have stigmatized Christianity as being anti-social, and would have turned all the powers of the Empire against it in an effort to crush such teachings. In stead of making a frontal attack upon the institution of slavery, Christianity inculcated a spirit of love and consideration which ultimately meant the death-knell of that institution” (1977, pp. 248-249).
No one, who considers all the evidence, and puts the matter into a proper historical perspective, can legitimately fault the biblical record with reference to the issue of human bondage.