God And Slavery In The Old Testament
Why does God treat non-Israelite slaves differently than he treats Israelite slaves (Lev. 25:39-46)? —Stephen
Here’s how I approach this challenging question.
- God owns all persons by virtue of creation (Exod. 19:5; Psa. 24:1).
- God owns all believers by virtue of redemption (1 Cor. 6:20).
The ownership of human persons, therefore, is not inherently immoral.
- God gives life to all persons (Acts 17:25).
- God has delegated the right to execute human criminals via capital punishment (Exod. 21:12; Rom. 13:4).
If God can delegate the right to take life, then by analogy, God can delegate the right to own persons. The ownership of human persons by other human persons, therefore, is not inherently immoral.
According to Exodus 22:3, if a thief could not make restitution for his theft because he owned nothing, he was to be sold into slavery by the judges to pay his 200% restitution. Since this was a direct command of God, it demonstrates that sale of a person into slavery is not inherently immoral.
Further, God permitted Israelites to choose to be lifelong slaves out of love for their master (Exod. 21:5-6). This indicates that God does not think that lifelong slavery is necessarily a worse condition than freedom. Given the educational status and economic opportunities of the time, permanent servitude to a benevolent master may have provided a much higher quality of life than being free and having to provide for oneself.
On the other hand, God prohibited kidnapping people for the purpose of enslavement (Deut. 24:7). This teaches us that there are immoral ways in which people may be enslaved. (My understanding is that most British and American slave trade was initiated immorally and was thus contrary to God’s will.)
God also provided guidance regarding how slaves were to be treated, including a provision for slaves to run away (Deut. 23:15), as well as ways for slaves to gain their freedom if they were mistreated physically.
For example, if a master knocked out a tooth or an eye of a slave, he had to let the slave go free (Exod. 21:27). Further, God commanded His people to treat others the way they would want to be treated, including foreigners (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 10:18-19; 27:17; 27:19).
In Leviticus 25:39-46, God distinguishes between the length of time an Israelite may remain in debt-slavery (until the Jubilee) and the length of time a non-Israelite may remain in slavery (permanently). The distinction between God’s people and foreigners is not limited to slavery. It spans many categories.
In Deuteronomy 15, Israelites are released from their debts every 7 years; foreigners are not released from their debts every 7 years. In Deuteronomy 23, Israelites are not to be charged interest; foreigners may be charged interest.
The point seems to be that God was giving Israel special favors—grace—that he did not give to other people (cf. Deut. 4:7-8). This has its analogy in the modern world. Not all men receive the same access to information about God and His word. People born in America normally receive more opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel than people born in Pakistan.
God’s giving of favors does not indicate that he does not love those who receive less. Rather, his love ensures that He treats all men justly, but his generosity means some men receive more than justice requires.
The parable of the workers illustrates this point (Matt. 20:1-16). Those who started at 6 a.m. got the same payment as those who started at 5p.m. The owner did not love the 6a.m. workers less nor treat them unjustly.
However, he was generous to the 5 p.m. workers. Jesus argues that this illustrates God is not unjust to be generous (Matt. 20:13-15). So, why was God generous to the Israelites? He was incentivizing people from other nations to join His covenant people because of the wisdom of their laws and the abundance of their blessings (Deut. 4:6; Isa. 14:1).
If foreigners converted, they received the same favor that Hebrews received. He was also demonstrating the greatness and goodness of their God: “He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor” (Deut. 26:19).