The Law of God on Slavery

New Wine, Old Wineskins (Part 3)

Frances Williams

hy did the Law of Moses permit such morally offensive conduct as slavery, polygamy, and a low view of women? Does God have a higher moral law for the world today than He did for Old Testament Israel? Or does God have an unchanging moral law whereby He judges all humankind?

Some people have found Old Testament law to be morally and spiritually inferior to the high calling of the new covenant. (Morality refers to relationships, whether it be with God or with one another.) However, the central organizing theme of Old Testament law is holiness. The moral principles, judicial law, and ceremonial ordinances are based explicitly on the moral character and nature of God: "I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; Therefore, be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:45). Let us never forget that it is God (and thus, Jesus) who is the author of Old Testament law.

Furthermore, the rightness or wrongness of an action was not contingent on its results. The rightness or wrongness of an action was based solely on the specific command, nature and moral character of God: "I am the Lord your God, consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:44).

Some people have interpreted the Law's written code in a legalistic, rigid, or formalistic manner. This is always the danger of a written code. However, such a misuse does not invalidate the deep spiritual and moral principles taught by the Law of Moses.

Old Testament Salvation

Paul called the Law of Moses "holy", "spiritual", and "good" (Rom. 6:12, 14). He said, "I would not have known what sin was except through the Law" (Rom. 7:7). So perfect was the Law of Moses in its moral demands, that "if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the Law" (Gal. 3:21). However, righteousness for the believer can never come by law any law. Law always demands punishment for much: While a physical kingdom must be established and maintained by violence, God's spiritual kingdom calls us to beat our swords into plowshares (Micah 4:3). To prevent retaliation and further wars, the foreign prisoner could not be allowed to go free. Israel chose permanent slavery (Lev. 25:46) rather than death as a way of punishing these captives.

Even so, the Law recognized the inherent value of a slave's life. This was in sharp contrast to virtually all the laws of the ancient Near East which treated a slave as mere chattel. The Law restricted the master's power over his slaves. It hit the master first of all in the wallet. If a slave was permanently injured in any way, such as by the loss of an eye or tooth, he/she had to be immediately set free (Ex.21:20). Since the labor of Hebrew slaves was bought for a period of time, and since the foreign slave's labor was of monetary value to the master, this was a strong deterrent to physical abuse. This law also taught that in God's eyes the inherent value of a person's life far outweighs any monetary investment his owner has made.

The master could be tried for murder if a beating resulted in death (Ex. 21:20)..The only thing necessary was proof of the master's intent. If the slave lived for two days after the beating, the benefit of doubt was given to the master. However, this law concerned only the use of a rod for punishment. The use of a lethal weapon would be immediate proof of the master's murderous intent, and the law concerning murder would be applied (Ex. 21:12).

A female prisoner of war, married to her captor, could not be sold as a slave. If her husband no longer wanted her, he had to allow her to go free (Deut. 21:14). Marriage between slaves was recognized as sacred (Lev. 19:20-22). The Law insisted that both the slave and the bondservant have one day of rest a week (Ex. 20:10). Masters were urged not to respond with anger when they overheard their slaves cursing them (Eccl. 7:22).

However, despite all the Law's regulations for slavery, there was a deep underlying moral repugnance for the evils associated with this institution. God's final word on slavery is this: "If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him (Deut. 23:15-16). Job, with a deep moral insight asks: "If I have denied justice to my menservants and maidservants when they had a grievance against me, what will I say when God confronts me?... Did not He who made me in the womb make them?" (Job 31:13-15)

New Testament View of Slavery

Some in reading the letter to Philemon have mistakenly concluded that Paul was in favor of sending runaway slaves back to their masters against their will. However, as Albert Barnes points out, "It is not necessary to suppose that <Onesimus> was a slave, for all that is implied of necessity in the word which is employed to designate his condition in verse 16, and all that is stated of him in the epistle, would be met by the supposition that he was bound to Philemon, either by his parents or guardians, or that he had bound himself to render voluntary service". Furthermore, as Barnes says, "There is nothing in <verse 12> which forbids us to suppose that Onesimus was himself disposed to return to Philemon, and that Paul 'sent' him at his own request",

God does not change His moral law from one time to the next. A Christian must serve God where he is called, whether it be as a slave or freeman (1 Cor. 7:21). On the other hand, as Christians we are also called upon to show mercy to the abused and persecuted, just as the Law of Moses commanded Israel to do (Deut. 23:15-16).


God's moral law never changes, it applies to all people and all times. The radical difference between the old and new covenants is the manner in which God compels obedience to His unchanging moral law. The Law of Moses could only enforce an outward obedience, and even these demands had to be modified because of the hardness of heart. The new covenant is forgiveness, which compels the believer to an inward (as well as an outward) obedience to God.

In Part 4 we will consider the related question: What place or purpose did the ceremonial laws have in the Old Testament revelation of God's unchanging moral law? .