No Slavery

Chattel slavery was not permitted by the Torah. Kidnapping free people and forcing them into slavery was the same as murder (Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7). People who have been forced into slavery must be set free. This ruled out the capture of slaves for sale into captivity.

If a slave that had been captured in some other nations, escaped to Israel for refuge, they must be set free. They must be allowed to live like other people in the place where they choose.

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them (Deut 23:15-16).

There should be no slaves among God's people. If a slave escaped from a different place and sought shelter in a community, they must not be returned to their owner. God provided protection for servants who had escaped from their situations.They are to be set free to live in the community. God's people are called to set people free, not to enslave and oppress them.

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 is a radical command. Some commentators say that it applied to slaves escaping from pagan masters, but there is no indication of that in the text. This command actually applies to all slaves/servants, and even servants who have bonded them in return for settlement of debt.

This is creates a significantly different outcome. It means that no servant can be held against their will. All service must be voluntary. This rules out all forms of slavery. If a servant chooses to flee his or her master, they must be allowed to go. This is the case even if the master has settled a debt for the servant. This is why Jesus said to lend expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35). He was repeating this principle from the law.

This ruling has been mostly ignored. It is important because it makes slavery impossible. All work relationships must be voluntary.

If a servant flees to a community, the people of that community must let the person live among them. They must not force them to return. They must not oppress them or take advantage of them.

Slave or Servant?

The Old Testament does not support the widespread practice of chattel slavery, where slaves are treated as the property of the slave owner. This practice is anathema to God, who created all people free.

A seriously misunderstood passage is Exodus 21:20-21. It is often cited as proof that the Bible supported chattel slavery. This is not true, but this idea has been encouraged by misinterpretation.

The first problem is with the word "slave". This is a serious mistranslation the Hebrew. The word translated as male slave is "ebed". The word translated female slave is "amah". The NIV translates these words in different ways in different parts of Exodus 21; as slave in verses 20 and 32, and as servant in verses 26 and 27. There is no reason for the difference, and servant is a better translation.

The boy Samuel called himself the Ebed of God. Gehazi was the Ebed of Elijah. The suffering servant of Isaiah was an "ebed". An Ebed might be bonded to his master for a time, because he has fallen into debt, but he would not be a slave in the modern sense of the word. The NIV is quite mischievous in the way it sometimes uses the word slave for this word. The NKJV is more consistent and always uses the word servant. The Israelites were not allowed to enslave their countrymen; they were to be treated as hired workers (Lev 25:39).

Exodus 21:20-21 refers to servants, not slaves.

Not Property

In the past, Christians who owned slaves often used Exodus 21:21 to claim that the Old Testament allowed them to treat slaves as their property. Some translations say,

He is his owner's property.
But this goes beyond the meaning of the Hebrew text. A literal translation of the Hebrew is,
He his silver (Ex 21:21b).
The Hebrew word used for silver is "keseph". It is sometimes used for coins, but can also refer to silver metal.

The misleading translation of this half-verse makes it seem like the law supports slavery, but that takes it out of context.

In Moses' time, there were no state-funded social welfare benefits or unemployment insurance. So, if a person got into financial difficulties, lost their land, or took on debts they could not repay, they had to rely on members of their wider family to rescue them.

If no one in their family could afford a rescue, the only alternative was to bond themselves to a wealthy person, who would pay their debts in return for their commitment to work for them for a number of years. The bondservant was paid in advance for work they would do in the future. The bondholder was required to provide them with free food and shelter until the agreed term was complete. The bondholder gained the income produced by the bondservant in excess of the cost of food, clothing and shelter needed by their family (the process is described more fully below)

The bondservant lost their freedom, but the practice was not always a good deal for the bondholder because most of what the bondservant produced would go to their food, closing and shelter. However, the law required wealthy people to undertake this role as part of being a good neighbour.

The law of Moses put tight restrictions on the practice. The poor person had to be released after seven years, no matter how much they owed. The bondholder was expected to send them out with sufficient goods to live on until they got back on their feet. If they were mistreated, the bondservant was free to leave immediately. This practice is the background to the text under consideration here.

Before dealing with violence against bondservants, Exodus 21 covers other forms of violence. Exodus 21:12-14 deals with situations where one person deliberately assaulted another. Exodus 21:18-21 covers situations where a person gets agitated during an argument and strikes the person that they were arguing with. In the case where an angry argument turns into a fight, the law says that if the person struck recovers quickly, the violent person is not guilty. The reason is that the person they struck is partly culpable because they helped stir up an angry argument. However, the person who was violent must compensate the other for any income lost while they were in bed. If the assault causes permanent damage, the law specifies that sufficient compensation must be paid to compensate for the harm.

The case of the person who has bound himself as a bondservant is different from both of these. If the wealthy person strikes the servant and does physical harm, they are to be set free, and their debt is to be cancelled (Exodus 21:26-27). If the servant dies from the assault, the wealthy person is guilty of murder (Exodus 21:20).

The situation is tricky if the assaulted servant recovers after two or three days. If they were a free person, they would be entitled to financial compensation for the income they lost while they were laid up, but this is not necessary in the case of the bondservant because the wealthy person has already paid them for their labour when they settled their debt (Exodus 21:21). They are already committed to providing food and shelter for the bondservant, so they have to continue providing it while their servant is unwell.

The wealthy person is the one who loses income while his bondservant is in bed recovering, because the servant produces nothing, but still needs to be fed. That is why Exodus 21:21 says that it is "his own silver (money)". It is not saying that the bondservant is his property, because God does not allow people to be bought and sold. Rather, if bondholder did provide financial compensation to the injured bondservant, it would come back to him because he was already entitled to what the bondservant produced. The person who harmed his bondservant is doing economic harm to himself.

Exodus 21:21 does not justify chattel slavery.

The law of Moses gives servants the same protection as other citizens. This is quite unique, as in most other jurisdictions, servants were not protected by the law. The point of Exodus 21:20-21 is that bondservants are not excluded from the benefits of the law.

Greater Protection

Subsequent verses give even greater protection to bonded servants.

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and damages it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth (Ex 21:26-27).
The previous verses had clarified any confusion about whether the requirements of the law applied to bonded servants. God's law actually imposes an even higher standard on people with bonded servants. If a citizen has a tooth knocked out, they must receive full restitution equivalent to the value of the tooth. The value of the tooth would not be that great. If a man assaults his servant and knocks out a tooth, he must let the bonded servant go free by writing off the total debt that was owed.

In most cases, the debt being cancelled would be worth far more than the tooth. This means that the punishment for assaulting a bonded servant was greater than for assaulting another citizen. Biblical law recognises the fact that bonded servants are in a vulnerable position, so it provides them with greater protection. If a man is violent and inflicts physical harm on a bonded servant, he must release him from his debt. This could be a very severe penalty.

Exodus 21 does not justify slavery, it is actually the opposite. It explains that the laws against assault apply equally to servants, as to citizens. The only exception is that bonded servants receive even greater protection, because they are in a defenceless situation. Exodus provides protection for the weak, it does not take away their rights.

Exodus 21 is a passage specifying punishments for crimes. Therefore it is the last place that you would expect a theology of slavery. Building a justification for chattel slavery on an obtuse translation of one verse is quite unwise.

Bonded Service

The bonded service option should only be used for relieving relieving serious poverty. Sometimes a person will have a financial problem that is too serious to be dealt with by an interest-free loan. If a person gets deep into debt, they might need to bond themselves to a prosperous person in return for them paying off all their debts. This need is most likely to occur when a person has to make restitution for a crime and has no credit record to justify a loan and no family member willing to act as guarantor to a to a lender.

The prosperous person must settle all the debts of the destitute person. In return for that, the poor person would agree to work for them for up to seven years. As well as getting out of debt, they would get the opportunity to learn from someone who has managed life better.

The poor person bonds themselves to an employer for up to seven years in return for a lump-sum advance of their future wages.

If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free (Deut 15:12).
God's people must not give up their freedom permanently, so the bond period must be limited to seven years, even if that does not fully cover the outstanding debts.

In exchange for this loan, the debtor would become a "bonded employee" of the lender. While under the bond, they would be provided with money to cover food and shelter, but the rest of their earnings would go towards repaying the loan (Ex 22:3). The bonded employee would be under travel restrictions and would not be able to travel far from their place of work.

The length of the loan will depend on the amount advanced and the productive capacity of the person receiving the loan. During the time that the person is bonded, they will not be able to change employers or move to a different place of residence.

The employer making the loan is running quite a risk, because they would not know in advance how useful their employee will be to them. They may end up advancing more wages than can be recouped within seven years, especially if they are generous. There is also a risk that the bonded employee might abscond.

Strict rules apply to the treatment of "bonded employees". If they are mistreated, they could go before a judge and claim their freedom as compensation (Ex 21:26,27; Deut 15:12-18).

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth (Ex 21:26-27).

The employer is also required to treat the bonded employee well. If the employer does physical harm to a bonded employee, he or she must be set free from their debt.

When the bonded employee has repaid the amount of the bond, they are to be set free. The employer must be generous to the departing servant.

Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you (Deut 15:13).

The employer's help will allow the departing employee to get started in their new life. The employer can be generous, because they will receive God's blessing for providing help in this way.

The bonded servant would have an incentive to work hard and increase their skills. By becoming more productive to their employer, they might be able to negotiate an earlier release from the bond.

Bonded employment is a new concept for many Christians, but it is very similar to modern social welfare systems. The state gives poor people sufficient money for food and shelter, but in return, it takes control over its beneficiaries and puts limits on their lives. It can make them go to work, and if they earn more than a certain amount, it can take it off them. This is a form of "state slavery".

Under the biblical system of justice, convicted thieves will face a similar lack of freedom, but they will be bonded to relatives or people from their local community who know them, rather than an impersonal government department.

Generous Freedom

In a household-based society, belonging to a good household was a huge benefit. Most bonded servants would choose to stay with their household for the benefits, provided they were treated well. However, if they felt they were being treated badly, they were free to leave.

If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them (Deut 23:15-16).
This is confirmed in Ex 21:26-27, which says that a servant who is injured must be set free from their financial bond to a household.

A bonded servant would usually stay with the household, because they were grateful for having their debts settled. However, the person paying the debt in return for the bond of service would have no guarantee that the servant would work the full seven years. Settling a debt under these conditions was very risky. That is what the law meant by loving your neighbour.

When a bonded employee is set free, the person who has paid the debts must be generous. They should send the person they helped away with some working capital so they can get started again.

Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because their service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do (Deut 15:18).

Incompetent People

A person who is a perpetual miss-manager might decide they would be better to remain as a bonded employee after the time when their release is due.

But if your servant says to you, "I do not want to leave you," because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant (Deut 15:16-17).

Some people who are hopelessly incompetent may need someone to manage for them. They could choose an employer who could take care of them and their family and bond themselves to them so they can continue to receive the benefits of being part of a strong household.

This permanent bonded employment is voluntary. It is for the benefit of the bonded employee, not for the person holding the bond. The servant freely decides to be a servant. Since they voluntarily became a servant for life, they are free to leave at any time.

Keeping Families Together

God wants to keep families together. Moses explained what would happen to the family of a bonded servant. This was not a slave, but a person who had bonded themselves to another household in return for the payment of a debt. The person was required to work for seven years, or until the amount owed was repaid.

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
But if the servant declares, "I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free," then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life (Ex 21:2-6).

If the man was married when he became a bond-servant the situation was simple. His wife and children should go free with him.

The situation was more difficult if the person he was serving had provided him with a wife. The man became a bond-servant because he did not have any money. A man who was getting married paid a dowry to the father of his bride, who held it in trust for her. This would provide for her support if her husband betrayed her. A man in debt would not be able to pay the dowry needed to obtain a wife.

If the bond-servant took a wife, the bond-holder must have paid the dowry on behalf of the servant, so he was committed to caring for the wife until the bond-servant could prove that he could support her. He could choose to work for the dowry, as Jacob did (seven years for Rachael). If he did not want to do this, he could decide to be permanently attached to the household where he had found his wife. This would keep his family together and give him a good life.

I am not sure what the hole in the ear meant. The man would not be a bond-servant because he would then have to be released after seven years. He was more like a family member, but without any right to an inheritance.

Female Bond-servants

When a family fell into poverty, a father might sell his daughter as a bond-servant to get release from his debts. God put strong protections in place for young women in this situation.

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money (Ex 21:7-11).

The buying a female bond-servant must treat her as a wife, or give her to a son as a wife. He must grant her the "rights of a daughter". If he does not do this, she is free to leave without making any payment. The young woman is free to leave and return to her father at any time. If she did leave, the debt to her father was cancelled. This gave the debtor and his daughter real power. If the solution fell over, they were both free of the debt. The person paying for the bond-servant would have to be really careful. If they treated, the young woman badly, they would lose out.

This is opposite to the way in most cultures. In the world, the power is always with the rich person, and the poor person suffers, usually by getting further into debt. God put strong protection in place for the poor, and if the relationship deteriorated, the rich person would be the loser.

No Military Rape

God repeatedly told the Israelites that they must not take wives from among the inhabitants of Canaan. However, God knew that this would sometimes happen, so he put in place rules to protect the women captured.

If you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her for money or treat her as property, since you have humbled her (Deut 21:10-14).

Taking a foreign wife was not God's will, but he knew it would happen, so he provided protection for the women.

This law prevents the rape of women captured in battle, as has been common throughout history. Captive women are to be treated with respect, even if they are enemies. This is another example of loving your enemy.

If the man changes his mind during the month and decides not to marry the woman, he must still treat her well. She must be allowed to go anywhere she pleases and join any household that will welcome her. She must not be sold for money. She must not be sold as a slave. She must be allowed to live freely amongst the people as a citizen.


By the time of Jeremiah, the instructions of the law were being ignored in Judah. Jeremiah challenged the people because they had retained bonded servants beyond the seventh year (Jer 34:13-14). King Zedekiah and the leaders of the people decided to free all bonded servants because they were under threat from Babylon and they needed God's help (Jer 34:8-10). This was a wonderful event, but they quickly changed their minds and put those who were freed back into bondage again.

But afterwards, they changed their minds and took back the servants they had freed and enslaved them again (Jer 34:11).

The word "enslaved" is a strong word (kabash). It means to "conquer, subjugate, or violate". These people had bonded themselves because they needed help to get out of debt. They had been set free (kophshim) but were now being enslaved by force, so their situation was made worse. Jeremiah brought the word of the Lord.

Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight and proclaimed freedom to your own people. But now you have turned around and have forced them to become your slaves. Therefore, this is what the LORD says: you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim 'freedom' for you—'freedom' to fall by the sword, plague and famine (Jer 38:15-17).

Jeremiah explained that failure to give people the freedom required by the Instructions for Economic Life would cause loss of freedom; in a nasty way, by the sword, plague and famine.