Slavery In The Bible: Exodus 21:1-11

The “Doulos”

Very often I hear from a critic of the Bible, how God endorses and approves of slavery. When this happens the persons making this assertion are often seeking to demonstrate that the reason they cannot believe the Bible or trust in the God it describes, is because He approves of people placing other people into slavery.

There are 118 references to slaves in the New Testament. The Koine-Greek word used in all of these citations, is “doulos,” δοῦλος. Most often this a reference to “one who gives himself up to another’s will to the disregard of their own interests, a servant or attendant.” There were 60 million slaves in the Roman empire at the time the New Testament was being written.

Doulos, a slave, is the same word used to describe Jesus in Philippians chapter 2, where He came to earth as God dwelling in the body of a man, giving himself to the will of the Father, disregarding his own interests. Paul write that those who believe in Jesus and are seeking to live for Him, should follow His example:

“You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his rights as God; he took the humble position of a slave (doulos) and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” ~Philippians 2:5-8

The idea that the God of the Bible approves of enslaving people against their will, is a lie. God is perfect in every way, and throughout the Bible it is clear that God hates slavery. This is demonstrated in the texts of the Old Testament where Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people for 400 years. God destroyed Egypt and Pharaoh’s kingdom because he enslaved these people. God hates slavery.

The entire body of texts in the New Testament describes Jesus coming to earth to free us all from our slavery to sin, and to destroy satan who seeks to enslave people “to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26).

God Never Approved Of Slavery, But People Have Hard Hearts

All of the laws that God gave Moses regarding the slavery that existed during that time, were due to people doing what they wanted, rather than what God desired. People are resistant to do the will of God, though it is always in our best interest. As a result of the obstinance of people, God must often bear with us and our stubborn attitudes and practices. This does not mean that God approves of slavery, or our persistence in doing what we want. Only that God is patient with us, kind even when we are doing wrong, and always seeking to bring us into a closer relationship with Him so that we can see and understand that what He says is better than what we choose for ourselves.

Some Of The Things We See People Doing In The Bible That God Did Not Approve:

  • Men took slaves (Leviticus 25:35-55, Ephesians 6:6-9).
  • Men were unfair in their business practices (Leviticus 19:36, Romans 13:10).
  • Men were mistreating their wives (Leviticus 18, Ephesians 5:25).
  • Men were divorcing their wives (Deuteronomy 24:1,Matthew 19:3-8).
  • Men were mistreating parents (Exodus 20:12, Mark 7:11-13).

While men are mistreating others, we see God seeking to correct these improper behaviors by concessions, commanding men to be fair and humane in the treatment of people. This is what we observe when God tells Moses to instruct the people. These are not instances where God is forcing his perfect will upon men; these are occasions where men are doing what they want and God is bearing with hard-hearted people and seeking fair treatment in the midst of their moral failures. Jesus described this in Matthew 19:3-8, as He corrected the teaching of the Pharisees, saying: “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.”

Slavery Amongst Fellow Jews

In the text of Exodus 21:1-6, we see the guidelines given by Moses to the people of Israel regarding the fair treatment of Hebrew slaves. God is not commanding or approving of slavery; He is recognizing that these men are going to do what they want, regardless what God says. The Jews knew that God hates slavery because He destroyed the Egyptians for enslaving them. In spite of this knowledge, they still chose to enslave each other.

“These are the regulations you must present to Israel. “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him.

“If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave and they had sons or daughters, then only the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I don’t want to go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door or doorpost and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will serve his master for life“.  ~Exodus 21:1-6

We learn that people were sold into slavery, by men, not God; the reasons varied, but most of these cases were due to poverty, debt, or in order for a family to survive during famine, or other difficulties. According to the instructions determined by the Lord and given to Moses, the term of the service was limited to six years. On the seventh year, the person had to be released from service and the entire debt they were serving to pay, was considered paid in full and the debt was cancelled.

The exception to this rule was concerning women who had become the wife of the man she was originally indentured to; she was required to remain with her husband and not leave him. We will see that even under servitude, God commanded men to treat women with kindness, respect and to love them.

During this period of history if a parent or family suffered a health crisis or other catastrophic event, their children would have to borrow money from a wealthy person or offer their own service, in an effort to keep their mother or father or other family member, out of debtors prison. An example of this is seen in the texts taught by Jesus in Matthew 18:23-34, a little further in this essay,

Today many people fall into debt as a result of failing health, loss of job, divorce, or other tragic events. We do not put people into prison today when they can’t pay their debts. During this period of history a man or woman who could not pay their debts, were put into prison, or sold into the service of others until the debt was paid. This is what we see in Exodus chapter 21. God would rather that debts be forgiven in cases where people have suffered tragic events, but often people do not have forgiving and tender hearts.

The Servitude (slavery) Was Voluntary

In many of the cases that describe the servitude seen in Exodus 21:1-6, above, we learn that this kind of slavery was voluntary, because after the six years had concluded, the persons who placed themselves into slavery to repay debt, could at their option, decide to remain with their master forever.

There is a long history of persons who placed themselves into this voluntary servitude—growing to love their masters and feeling more like a member of the family they were serving, than a slave. These persons had the option of telling their master they did not want to be released, but voluntarily decided to stay with their master for the rest of their life (Exodus 21:6).

In the Koine-Greek language this is a voluntary action by a servant who has been treated so well by the family he serves, that he wants to be a servant (doulos) for life. This is seen in the text of Matthew 18:27: “Then the master of that servant (doulos) was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.”

This is what is referred to in the text of Exodus 21: But the slave may declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I don’t want to go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door or doorpost and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will serve his master for life“.  ~Exodus 21:1-6

See Also The Slavery Described In Leviticus 25

Application Of “Doulos” To Christians

When we arrive at the New Testament and see Jesus in all of the love and kindness that He lavished upon those who followed Him—people who willingly made themselves His servants—did so because of His love and kindness towards them. When many of the disciples of Jesus were leaving Him because the things He taught were difficult to understand, Jesus asked the men who were the closest to Him if they would also leave. Peter said, “Lord where are we going to go? Only you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

The people who knew Jesus the best, and remained with Him since the beginning, never wanted to leave Him. It was to these faithful servants that the Greek term, doulos,” was most appropriately applied. Even early in the writing of the Bible, God has commanded His people that if they were going to take people into service (against His will), they must treat these servants so well that when the six year term of the service has ended, they would not want to leave. This is what is being stated in Exodus 21.

The very idea that the God who created the entire universe, wants people to make other people their slaves, and God commanded this in the Old Testament, is preposterous. Only a person with an evil and hateful mind would accuse God of such a thing. There is no evidence anywhere in the Bible that slavery was God’s command or will. This is most vividly proven by the inclusion instructions from God, through Moses, for a six year term limitation, and so many who wanted afterwards, to remain with their masters after the six years had concluded.

If God had not instituted this six year term limitation, and a requirement that servants be treated with love and kindness, men would have enslaved people for their entire life, under tyranny and suffering. It is man that enslaves; it is God who frees us and gives those who love Him, eternal liberty.

This is why the term doulos was used over 120 times in the New Testament, most often to denote someone who gives himself and his life in the service of another. In the case of early Christians, they were known as servants or slaves of Christ, but not in the negative connotation associated with this term today.

Slavery Can Be A Really Good Thing

In review of antiquity, we see that during certain periods of history, if a person could not pay their debts, they were sold into slavery or put into prison. We see this illustrated by Jesus in His Parable of The Unforgiving Debtor:

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.” ~Matthew 18:23-34

The man who owed the large debt couldn’t pay, so it was ordered that he and his family be sold to pay the debt. The entire family was sold into slavery because they couldn’t pay the debt they owed.

In the second example given to us at the end of the Parable, the man who couldn’t pay his debt was put into prison until he paid his debt.

Sadly, this happened too many times in antiquity, and the only solution to save the family or enable a family member who was placed into prison for debts, was for one of the children to place themselves into the service of a wealthy man to earn money to payoff the families debts.

People being less than good, many times a person who took the daughter of a family into service in their house, would keep them in service much longer than was right. Moses is telling the people that God will only permit this situation to last for six years, and on the seventh year, the person must be freed, and all the former debt be considered paid.

Not God’s Will

There are many things that people do that God does not want them to do. People very often are going to live in the way they choose, and they care very little about what God or other people think. We see an example of this is the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees:

“Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?” “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’  Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”

“Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.” ~Matthew 19:3-8

Moses’ Instructions From God Are Not Permission, But Concessions

God did not ever permit divorce, but because the people had hard hearts towards God’s laws, and they were going to do what they wanted, regardless of what God desired for their lives, He allowed Moses to make “a concession.”

We see the same situation in the texts of Exodus 21, where people were placing others into slavery. God did not want people to enslave other people. As a concession to their hard hearts, He permitted slavery under certain circumstances, but with restrictions so that slaves were treated fairly and not taken advantage of or harmed.

The early Hebrews were taking slaves from foreign enemies they had conquered when they came into the land that God gave them. Rather than kill all their enemies, some were allowed to live, but only as prisoners of war, remaining with the early Jews as their slaves. Even under these conditions, these persons were treated fairly and God would not permit any to be abused.

God, Slavery, And Leviticus 25

We can see how much God hates slavery in the texts of Exodus 1:11, where Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people and God destroys Pharoah and his kingdom for his refusal to let His people Go. There is never a time or place when God wanted anyone to enslave another. He also knows how hard-hearted people were in ancient days, as they are also, today. The New Testament is filled with examples where God is seeking to free us all from our slavery to sin, this world, and satan’s captivity of our soul (Roman 6:17, 2 Timothy 2:26).

People in our generation are just as hard-hearted towards God and His will for our lives as they have always been, and they continue to resist many of the things He desires for our lives. God has not changed, and what He said from the beginning has also not changed. It is difficult and obstinate people that God is constantly having to bear with, that results in many of the permissive instances of God needing to regulate bad behavior, rather than institute His perfect will.

Thinking Of Evil Rather Than Good

Many atheists and critics of the Bible search the texts of the Old and New Testaments to find references like these above from Exodus 21, for the express purpose of maligning God and the people who love Him.

I have read the comments of atheists regarding these texts, thousands of times as an Apologist for the past 47 years. They are easily explained, and persons who have a reasonable and fair mind, will usually accept the explanations described in this essay and the matter is closed.

The scoffer and mocker of God has no interest in being taught, learning, or accepting the teaching that explains these texts from Exodus 21. Regardless of how many times, and how many different ways I explain these facts to those who criticize the Bible, they never accept what is presented to them.

This Demonstrates The True Motives Of The Scoffer

Very often after have explained these texts to atheists and critics, they do not understand me, and continue to mock and scoff at what I have tried to teach them. Jesus said that when people have evil motives and refuse to listen or try to understand what God has said, He hides any further revelation of these facts and principles from them.

Have you ever tried to explain something to a person and they continually resist what you say and doubt your words? When this happens we just stop trying. This is exactly what God does.

When people are resistant to God, His laws, and to do what is just and right, He has to withhold the blessing of revealing the knowledge He really wants to give people, and any further revelation of Himself to people who do not listen or beleive what He says.

We see an example of this in Jesus’ conversation with His disciples, in the text of Matthew chapter 13. After Jesus finished teaching the Parable of the Four Soils, His disciples asked Him why He only teaches by Parables to the crowds of people, but to them He speaks clearly:

“His disciples came and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?”Jesus replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” ~Matthew 13:10-12

An Important Principle Of God: If You Are Not Listening, God Will Not Speak

In describing people of the first century and their resistance to God, Jesus cites the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah, and the prophecies they recorded regarding hard-hearted and obstinate people who refuse to believe God:

“That is why I use these parables, (then Jesus cites Jeremiah 5:21:) ‘For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand.’

Jesus continues:This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 6:8-10, that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’  “But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear.” ~Matthew 13:10-17

People who harden their hearts towards God, are not permitted to understand anything further. This is the case concerning modern atheists and critics of God, as it was during the time of Moses when he wrote Exodus 21, and also when Jesus experienced the hard-hearts of people in the first century.

The following is a list of additional resources at the site that are written to help you understand the issues of slavery in the Bible.

Categories: Alleged Contradictions, Atheists, Controversy, Disregard for the Bible, does god harden hearts?, Doing good for enemies, Human Afflictions, Israel in the Last Days, Religion vs. Relationship, Resolving Conflicts, Robert Clifton Robinson, Salvation is a free gift, Slavery in the Bible, The Condition of the Heart, The Historical Jesus, To die for the world's sins, We must repent, We must see our need

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2 replies

  1. As you note elsewhere, Lev. 25:44-46 shows God regulating slavery for life.

    Don’t read your modern sensibilities back into the Bible. God doesn’t like slavery if it’s used on the Chosen People. Otherwise, no problem.


    • Thank you for your comments, Bob.

      It is not a “modern sensibility,” when God destroyed the Egyptians due to their enslavement of the early Hebrew people. God has always hated slavery. When we evaluate a particular pretense for God, we should always examine the entire body of texts of the Bible, not just a few verses.

      In the entire body of texts of the Bible we find that God hates slavery, but He also recognizes that men are going to do what they want. Jesus illustrated this when the Pharisees asked Him what His views were regarding Moses’ permission for men to divorce their wives:

      Matthew 19:3-8 “Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?” 4 “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” 5 And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ 6 Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” 7 “Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” they asked. 8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.

      As with divorce, a command from God, through Moses, that men should not divorce their wives; so also, is the will of God that all humans be free and never be placed under the slavery of another. Unfortunately, as with the case of divorce, men do what they want, so God must try to work within our stubborn and hard hearts.

      The regulations God gave to Moses for the Hebrew people, were for them, at that period of history, and intended to try and preserve life that men were destroying by their greed in slavery.

      In the New Testament we find this same attempt by God, working through what Paul and others wrote in their letters, acknowledging that there were over 6 million slaves in the Roman Empire at that time, that proper treatment of these slaves must be conducted.

      There is no possibility that the God who created the universe for us, and gave such incredible gifts to us, wants us to be held under slavery. This premise is inconsistent with all the texts of the Bible. It is, however, perfectly consistent with the fallen nature of man, who needs redemption by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah.



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