Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?

Examining Difficult Texts (Part 2)

by Paul Copan

In “Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? An Overview” (Enrichment journal, Spring 2011), I discussed the general nature of Old Testament servitude. In this essay, I examine three of the most challenging Old Testament servitude texts. For a more in-depth treatment, see my book, Is God a Moral Monster?

Beating Slaves to Death?

“If a man strikes his male servant or his female servant with a staff so that he or she dies as a result of the blow, he will surely be punished [naqam]. However, if the injured servant survives one or two days, the owner will not be punished [naqam], for he has suffered the loss” (Exodus 21:20,21, NET1).

Is the servant here merely property? The Old Testament affirms each person’s full dignity (e.g., Genesis 1:26,27; Deuteronomy 15:1–18; Job 31:13–15). Exodus 21:20,21 proves no exception. If the servant died after “one or two days,” the Law gave the master the benefit of the doubt that he had no murderous intent. But if the master’s striking his servant caused immediate death, the courts would charge the master with capital punishment: “He shall be avenged” (ESV2). The verb naqam always involves the death penalty.3

This theme reinforces the “life for life” theme (21:23,24), which follows this servant-beating passage. The master was to not treat his servant as property, but as a dignified human being.

Leaving Wife and Children Behind?

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he will go out free without paying anything. If he came in by himself he will go out by himself; if he had a wife when he came in, then his wife will go out with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she bore sons or daughters, the wife and the children will belong to her master, and he will go out by himself. But if the servant should declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master must bring him to the judges, and he will bring him to the door or the doorposts, and his master will pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever” (Exodus 21:2–6, NET).

In my spring 2011 article, I noted that, out of desperation, a man might hire out temporarily (“sell”) his wife, children, or even himself to help get the family out of debt — a voluntary servitude, quite unlike antebellum slavery. The man, wife, and children would have a roof over their heads with food and clothing supplied by the employer (“master”). As for this particular law in Exodus 21:2–6, some critics complain that a woman and children are disadvantaged — even trapped. To them, since the man gets to go free, this reflects an antiwoman, antichild bias — or it traps the man into staying with the master if he marries a fellow servant woman.

Three responses are in order:

First, we have good reason to think this passage is not gender specific.This is an example of case law (“if such-and-such a scenario arises, then this is how to proceed”). Case law was typically gender-neutral. Furthermore, Israelite judges were quite capable of applying laws to male and female alike. An impoverished woman, whose father did not give her as a prospective wife to a (widowed or divorced) man or his son (Exodus 21:7–11), could perform standard household tasks,4 and she could go free by this same law.5

Various scholars suggest this legitimate, alternate reading: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, she is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, she will go out free. … If her master gives her a husband, and they have sons or daughters, the husband and the children will belong to her master, and she will go out by herself.” This reading makes perfect sense, and does not violate the law’s spirit.

Second, this scenario is not as harsh as it first appears.Let us stick with a male servant scenario. In this case, the employer arranges for a marriage between this unmarried male servant and a female servant. (In debt servitude, the employer’s family could engage in marriage negotiations.) By taking the male servant into his home to work off a debt, the boss has made an investment. He would stand to suffer loss if the servant walked out on the contract. In military service, even if a soldier marries, he cannot simply walk away because he still owes the military his time. So it would not make sense to let the man go with his family without paying off the debt.

Third, the released man has three options: (a) He could wait for his wife and kids to finish their term of service while he worked elsewhere. His wife and kids were not “stuck” in the employer’s home the rest of their lives. They could be released when the wife worked off her debt. Yet, if the newly freed man worked elsewhere, he would have been separated from his family, and his boss would no longer supply him with food, clothing, and shelter. On the other hand, if he lived with his family after release, he would still need to pay room and board. So this scenario created its own set of financial challenges.

(b) He could get a decent job elsewhere and save his shekels to pay his boss to release his wife and kids from contractual obligations. The problem is that it would have been very difficult for the man to support himself and to earn enough money for his family’s debt-release.

(c) He could commit himself to working permanently for his employer — a lifetime contract (verses 5,6). He could stay with his family and remain in fairly stable economic circumstances, formalizing his intent in a legal ceremony before the judges (“God”) by having his ear pierced with an awl.

Westerners should not impose modern solutions on difficult ancient problems; rather, we need to better grasp the nature of Israelite servitude and the social and economic circumstances surrounding it. We are talking about voluntary servitude in unfortunate circumstances during bleak economic times. Israel’s laws provided safety nets for protection, not oppression.

Owning Foreign Slaves?

“[Israelites] are not to be sold in a slave sale. … As for your male and female slaves whom you may have — you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves” (Leviticus 25:42–46, NASB6).

This text troubles many, but consider the following points. First, according to Leviticus 19:33,34, Israel was to love the stranger in the land.Also, Exodus’ laws (Exodus 21:20,21,26,27) protect all persons in service to others — not just Jews —from abuse.7

Second, the verb acquire [qanah] in Leviticus 25:39–51 need not involve selling or purchasing foreign servants as property. This verb appears in Genesis 4:1 (Eve’s having “gotten a manchild,” KJV); and 14:19 (God as “possessor of heaven and earth,” KJV);8 and Boaz “acquired” Ruth as a wife (Ruth 4:10) — clearly a full partner and not inferior.

Third, the “aliens” in servitude (Leviticus 25:45) are the same ones capable of sufficient “means” to purchase their own freedom (verse 47). They were not inevitably stuck in lifelong servitude. The text continues: “if the means of a stranger or of a sojourner with you becomes sufficient” (verse 47). The terms stranger (ger)and sojourner (toshab) are connected to the terms used in verse 45. That is, these “acquired” foreign servants could potentially better themselves to the point of hiring servants themselves. (Of course, an alien’s hiring an Israelite servant was prohibited.) In principle, allpersons in servitude within Israel could be released, unless they had committed a crime.9

Fourth, in some cases, foreign servants could become elevated and apparently fully equal to Israelite citizens.For instance, Caleb’s descendant — Sheshan’s daugher — ended up marrying an Egyptian servant: “Now Sheshan had no sons, only daughters. And Sheshan had an Egyptian servant whose name was Jarha. Sheshan gave his daughter to Jarha his servant in marriage, and she bore him Atta” (1 Chronicles 2:34,35, NASB). Here we have marriage between a foreign servant and an established freeperson with quite a pedigree. The key implication is that inheritance rights would fall to the servant’s offspring, Atta.

Fifth, God required Israel to give foreign runaway slaves protection within Israel’s borders and not let them be returned to their harsh masters (Deuteronomy 23:15,16); kidnapping slaves was also prohibited (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7).Thus, we need to understand Leviticus 25 with these general humanizing protections in mind.

Sixth, since non-Israelites were not to acquire land in Israel, homeless and landless foreigners would not have much choice but to attach themselves to Israelite households as servants, which might have been the only alternative possible — and not necessarily a bad alternative.John Goldingay writes: “Perhaps many people would be reasonably happy to settle for being long-term or lifelong servants. Servants do count as part of the family.” He adds: “One can even imagine people who started off as debt servants volunteering to become permanent servants because they love their master and his household” (cp. Deuteronomy 15:16,17).10

Seventh, various scholars see the “Hebrew” servant of Exodus 21:2 as a foreigner without political allegiances who has come to Israel.Note thathe was not locked in to lifelong servitude (unless he chose this); he had to be released in the seventh year — presumably to go back to his country of origin.

These, then, are some of the sticky Old Testament servitude passages, and reasoned explanations for them. In the next issue of Enrichment, I will look at slavery in the New Testament.


  1. Scripture quotations marked NET are taken from New English Translation [computer file]: NET Bible. — electronic edition. — Dallas, Texas: Biblical Studies Press, 1998. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Gregory C. Chirichigno, “Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” JSOT Supplement Series 141 (Sheffield: University of Sheffield Press, 1993), 155–63.
  4. This passage incorrectly implies polygamy or concubinage. The daughter was to be married either to the master (who was divorced or widowed) or to the master’s marriageable son — not as a backup wife to provide offspring. We are already told in verse 8 that the man does not choose to take the servant woman as his wife. In that case, we should understand verse 10 to mean that he marries another instead of the servant woman. Also, verse 11 is sometimes misleadingly translated “conjugal rights”; it more likely means “oil” or “shelter/protection.” On this, see chapter 11 in Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?
  5. Chirichigno, Chapter 6.
  6. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (
  7. Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 441–2.
  8. Goldingay,Israel’s Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2009), 464 and note.
  9. Walter C. Kaiser, “A Principlizing Model,” in Four Views of Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and Gary T. Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 40.
  10. Ibid., 465–6.