Slavery in the Bible:
Ambiguous biblical terms used to describe slavery:
In an apparent attempt to disguise the practice of slavery, some translations in the
Bible translate the word slave (doulos in Greek) as servant. Casual
readers of the Bible would assume that the passages refer to a hired servant
(diakonos in Greek) - i.e. a butler or a maid. The King James Version of the Bible
frequently referred to slaves by various ambiguous terms, such as: bondmen, servants,
maids, handmaid, manservant, maidservant, etc. For example, consider Exodus 21:2 which is
part of the Laws of Moses:
21st Century King James Version "If thou buy a Hebrew servant..."
King James Version "If thou buy a Hebrew servant..."
Living Bible: "If you buy a Hebrew slave..."
Modern Language "When you buy a Hebrew slave..."
New International Version: "If you buy a Hebrew servant..."
New Living Translation: "If you buy a Hebrew slave..."
Revised Standard Version "When you buy a Hebrew slave..."
The Hebrew Scriptures:
Slavery was sanctioned and carefully regulated by many passages in the Bible - mainly
in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures -
According to traditional Jewish and Christian belief, these books were dictated by God to Moses, letter by letter.
Some conservative Christians now believe that Moses
wrote the books in his own language, but was preserved from error by God while doing so.
Most religious liberals now believe that the Pentateuch
was compiled by many unknown authors and editors (within four groups, called J, E, P,
& D) over a period of centuries.
Until the advent of higher criticism of the Bible, many, if not most, Christians would have
agreed with Jefferson Davis' concept that slavery "was
established by decree of Almighty God." However, archaeological
evidence now shows that slavery was very widespread throughout the Middle East
in ancient times. The Israelites simply adopted the custom of their many
neighboring cultures when they enslaved people. Later, the Mosaic law included
regulations to control and limit the practice.
The first mention of slavery appears in Genesis, when Noah cursed his grandson Canaan
(and all of the descendants of Canaan) because Noah's son Ham had seen Noah naked:
Genesis 9:25-27: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will
he be to his brothers. He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be
the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japeth live in the tents
of Shem and may Canaan be his slave.' "
These verses appear to send a highly immoral message. Even if we assume that Ham's act
is worthy of some kind of punishment, the curse does not punish the person responsible. It
punishes the son of the perpetrator, and the son's descendants instead,
forever. This is one of many examples in the Bible in which
guilt for sin and the resultant punishment is
transferred from the guilty party to one or more innocent people.
In all probability, Canaan was nowhere in the vicinity of Noah's tent when the
event happened. Also it seems unreasonable to permanently enslave even a single descendent
of the perpetrator for such a minor transgression - let alone his descendants forever.
This passage was one of the favorite of theologians who wished to justify slavery on
Biblical grounds. The descendants of Ham were assumed to be Africans. According to this
verse, they were to be slaves forever. Thus the South Carolina slave owner was only
implementing God's wishes.
Passages from the Bible which may condemn slavery:
There are no passages in the Bible which plainly condemn or criticize the institution
of slavery. There are no verses which clearly denounce slave owners. However there are three passages which might be interpreted
as bearing on slavery. All three are rather obscure and ambiguous:
Luke 4:18 describes Jesus as quoting a passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 which
says that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to
preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach
deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them
that are bruised." The word captives is the most common
translation for the individuals who are to be delivered. It is used in many English
translations of the New Testament, including 21st Century KJV, Amplified Bible, Inclusive
Version, Jerusalem Bible, KJV, Lattimore, Living Bible, Moffatt, NAB, NRSV,
NSB, New World
Translation, Rheims, RSV, TEV, Tyndale, and Young's Literal translation. But the
Ronald Knox Translation, NIV, REV, and Schonfield's Authentic New Testament use the
word prisoners. And the NCV uses prisoners of sin.
Finally, the Scholar's Version uses the phrase: pardon to the prisoners.
Many slaves started out as captives. One might infer that Isaiah was referring to slaves
in his writing, not to actual captives or prisoners. But, as we say, it is a stretch.
1 Timothy 1:10 refers to groups of people that various translations
describe as "lawless, disobedient, unruly, unholy, profane, sinful,
lawbreakers, rebels, rebellious, unjust, or disobedient." One group are
usually translated as "kidnapers" or "men-stealers."
But the New International Version and the Revised Standard Version
translates this as "slave traders." In the original Greek, the
word is "andrapodistes", which combines the words for man and foot. It
apparently means to put someone under one's foot - to control a person completely. Most
English Bible translations interpret this verse as condemning kidnappers; the NIV and RSV
condemn slave traders. A case could be made for condemning persons who purchase a slave or
who own a slave. The passage is ambiguous.
Revelation 13:10 issues a curse: "He that leadeth into
captivity shall go into captivity..." It is unclear whether this
refers to armies capturing the enemy, or to individuals who capture
people as slaves.
Copyright © 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-JUL-11
Author: B.A. Robinson