Does The Old Testament Condone Involuntary Chattel Slavery?

I previously posted on this subject back in 2015, just showing some of the many passages in the Bible that were used to justify the slave trade but I did not go as far as to address the specifics of slavery in the Bible or the various types of slavery. I intend to address all forms of slavery in the Hebrew Bible today and I will specifically address the question of whether or not forced slavery was condoned. I will not, however, address the issue from a New Testament perspective because it really is not such a controversial issue. The NT treats the issue with kid gloves but clearly would prefer the institution to not exist.

Debt Slavery in the Bible

There is no doubt that the vast majority of passages in the laws of Moses referring to slavery is speaking of debt bondage. It is often referred to as indentured servitude or debt slavery. The fact of the matter is that among the Israelites, slavery was not the desired state by Hebrews or by the Lord. Exodus 21 contains the oldest known laws in the Old Testament pertaining to debt slavery.

“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. 3 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. 4 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.
(Exodus 21:2-4)

The Exodus slave laws are paralleled in Leviticus 25 with great detail.

‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit. 38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
(Leviticus 25:35-43)

Like most ancient near eastern cultures, un-payable debts were handled by allowing the debtor to work off the debt as well as offering up a property as debt collateral. These “slaves” were freed after the debt was payed or they were freed via a Sabbath year or 7 years of service. The laws provided in the Old Testament regarding the treatment of Hebrew slaves dictate that they are to be treated differently than foreign slaves. Runaway Hebrew slaves were even given protections from being returned to their cruel masters (Deuteronomy 23:15). It is for this reason that many apologists claim there is no true slavery in the Old Testament. But this claim ignores the treatment of foreign slaves mentioned in the Old Testament. Since such slaves were less common it is of no surprise that they are mentioned only sparingly.

Chattel Slavery In The Old Testament

It is very clear that the Old Testament condones some form of forced slavery. While some debate the limits of such slavery, it is clear that it not only condones chattel slavery but allows for the perpetual enslavement of that slave and his/her offspring. To be clear, forced slavery was permitted for the Israelites as long as the salves were not from their own kin or from the cursed Canaanites groups (because certain Canaanites were designated for annihilation, not captivity [Deuteronomy 20:10-14]). In other words, they could enslave distant foreigners but not their Hebrew brothers and sisters. Fellow Hebrews were always given their freedom back at the end of their years of service (7 years max).

There are two passages in the Old Testament that speak of such types of slavery. Every other mention of slavery in the Old Testament is referring to debt bondage. The most often cited passage referring to slavery comes from Leviticus 25. This chapter specifically deals with what happens on the year of Jubilee. It also has a number of slave laws. For the most part, everyone who fell into debt bondage was to go free and anyone who lost property was to have it returned. There are, however, a few exceptions to the Jubilee rules.

  1.  If a property was part of a walled city, it was not to be returned in the Jubilee. Furthermore, the property only had 1 year open for redemption. (Lev 25:13, 28-30)
  2.  The second exception is an exception to the first which states that Levites always have the right to redeem property, even in a walled city. Said property is to be returned in the Jubilee. (Lev 25:32-34)
  3. A 3rd exception is required to deal with the matter of foreign-purchased slaves. Such slaves are not to go free but are to remain property of the owner. Any children had by the slaves became property and all the slaved owned could be passed down as an inheritance from generation to generation. (Lev 25:44-46)

This 3rd exception is the difficult one. This is why so many people rightly state that some form of forced slavery was approved by the Old Testament. For a better look, the passage is listed below.

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

From the text in Leviticus, it seems clear that the Israelites were given clearance to buy or acquire slaves from the resident aliens (usually Egyptians, Phoenicians, Moabites, Assyrians etc.) as well as those foreigners that were born in the land. Thus, just about any non-Hebrew could be made a slave. It’s also clear that this slavery was perpetual and it included the person’s entire lineage. Once a slave, always a slave. The fact that these people could be made slaves for life is bad enough but the author of Leviticus 25 makes is clear that there is a manner in which such slaves are treated and that the treatment was quite harsh. This is evident from the last sentence in verse 46: “These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.” There is a distinction between the treatment of Hebrew and non-Hebrew slaves. Hebrew slaves are not allowed to be treated harshly. Non-Hebrew slaves, however, are allowed to be treated with severity.

Some have argued that this phrase in 46 doesn’t mean foreign slaves were allowed to be treated harshly, just that Hebrew slaves were not to be treated harshly. However, this would completely erase the part that states “These you may treat as slaves” clearly giving a statement about how to treat foreign slaves. Moreover, if slave treatment were not harsh, there would be no need to mention (multiple times) that Hebrews are not to be treated as slaves (Lev 25:46, 46, 53), followed by statements that Hebrew debt servants are not to be treated with severity.

The second passage in the Old Testament that addresses involuntary slavery comes from Deuteronomy 20:10-14. This passage instructs the Israelites on what to do with captives of war. It is important to note that the passage describes Israel as the aggressors in such battles. furthermore, the passage appears to imply that some of the cities being sieged by Israel will not be cities that were given to then as part of the promised land inheritance (Deuteronomy 20:15). Also note that the slaves are a result of the city accepting a peace deal, not for a city that rejects peace and decide to fight. If the city fights, the men are to be completely wiped out. The women, children, and livestock are to be to be taken as plunder….because women and children were considered property.

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.
(Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

The passage from Deuteronomy is a gloss of the Hebrew translation. A more literal translation of the forced labor passage reads:

 וְהָיָה אִם-שָׁלוֹם תַּעַנְךָ, וּפָתְחָה לָךְ:  וְהָיָה כָּל-הָעָם הַנִּמְצָא-בָהּ, יִהְיוּ לְךָ לָמַס–וַעֲבָ

And it shall be that if they accept your offer of peace, and open to you, then all the people who are found in it shall be placed under tribute to you, and serve you. (Deuteronomy 20:11 NKJV)

One might ask, what would cause the Israelites to go to war against a people group that was not part of the inheritance? This is a fair question that requires an answer. The best answer I know of is that sometimes a city must be passed through to get to another which is described in Deuteronomy 2:26-33, Numbers 20:18-21, and Judges 11:14-20. All three passages tell a version of the same story and are listed below.

From the Desert of Kedemoth I (Moses) sent messengers to Sihon king of Heshbon offering peace and saying, 27 “Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. 28 Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot— 29 as the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, and the Moabites, who live in Ar, did for us—until we cross the Jordan into the land the Lord our God is giving us.” 30 But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the Lord your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done.

31 The Lord said to me, “See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his country over to you. Now begin to conquer and possess his land.”

32 When Sihon and all his army came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz, 33 the Lord our God delivered him over to us and we struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army.
(Deuteronomy 2:26-33)


Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, saying:

“This is what your brother Israel says: You know about all the hardships that have come on us. 15 Our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians mistreated us and our ancestors, 16 but when we cried out to the Lord, he heard our cry and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt.

“Now we are here at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.”

18 But Edom answered:
“You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword.”

19 The Israelites replied:
“We will go along the main road, and if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to pass through on foot—nothing else.”

20 Again they answered:
“You may not pass through.”

Then Edom came out against them with a large and powerful army. 21 Since Edom refused to let them go through their territory, Israel turned away from them.
(Numbers 20:14-21)


Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, 15 saying:

“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. 16 But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. 17 Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.

18 “Next they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.

19 “Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ 20 Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
(Judges 11:14-20)

The problem, however, is that while Moabites were not listed as a cursed dependent of Canaan (Genesis 10:15-18), they are placed in a location that is listed to be given to Israel. So, a peace deal with them according to Deuteronomy 20 seems out of place. Perhaps the exception is made for them because Moab was a son of Lot and of the same blood as Israel. Nevertheless, it seems as though Deuteronomy 20:10-14 is describing the siege of a city that is outside of the promised land. Who might dwell in this land is unknown and what might provoke a battle is also not mentioned.

Another issue with Deuteronomy 20:10-14 is that it appears to be contradicted by the earlier text in Numbers 33 which commands ALL inhabitants of the land to be driven out, no exceptions from non-Canaanites.

drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places.
(Numbers 33:52)

Some have theorized that the statement from Deuteronomy is a later pronouncement designed to deal with the fact that so many foreigners remained in the land after “conquest” period. However, this is not a topic we need to discuss in this article. It just needs to be mentioned that the Old Testament is not entirely clear on what to do with the people in the land.

What is the biblical justification for the foreign-slave allowance?

Usually, the justification in the scriptures for maltreatment of a particular race or people group goes back to ancestral curse such as the one placed on Canaan. The form of thinking in the Ancient Near East was that a person is either blessed or cursed by their deity(s). A curse can be handed down from generation to generation. One famous example comes from an ancient Hittite text usually referred to as the Plague Prayers of Mursilis II. During the 13/14th century BCE the land of the Hittites experienced a biblical style plague that simply would not go away. King Mursilis ascertains through an oracle that it’s related to how his father killed a man to take the throne. His thinking was that the “land” or the people needed to be purged of the sin of the king, not just the king himself. The land itself was defiled and cursed.

[… Because] my father [killed] this Tudḫhaliya, my father therefore later [performed] a ritual of (expiation of) bloodshed. But Ḫattuša did not [perform] anything. I came along, and I performed [a ritual of bloodshed], but the population did [not] perform anything. [No one] did anything [on behalf of] the land.

(A rev. 13´-20´) Now because Ḫatti has been very much beaten down by the plague, and Ḫatti continues to experience many deaths, the affair of Tudḫaliya has begun to trouble the land. It was ascertained for me (through an oracle) by [a god], and I made (further) oracular inquiries [about it]. They will perform before you, [the gods], my lords, the ritual of (transgressing of) the oath which was ascertained for you, [the gods], my lords, and for your temples in regard to the plague. They will purify [… before you]. And I will make restitution to you, the gods, my lords, with reparation and propitiatory gift on behalf of the land.
(1st Prayer of Mursilis II, COS 1.60).

Similar reasoning is often found in the Old Testament regarding the expulsion and annihilation of the Canaanites.

“‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

29 “‘Everyone who does any of these detestable things—such persons must be cut off from their people. 30 Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the Lord your God.’”
(Leviticus 18:24-30)

The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Numbers 14:18)

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me. (Exodus 20:5)

This type of reasoning was also common in the New Testament era. When Jesus and his disciples approached a blind man in John 9, the disciples asked who’s sin caused the blindness.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)

So, we can see that generational curses and defilement curses are a long running feature in the Bible cultures. But what does that have to do with slavery? There are a few instances where a person and his offspring are cursed by God by having them be a “servant” to the people of God’s choosing. One specific group that this happens to early on in the Bible is the Canaanites.

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. (Genesis 9:24-27)

A similar curse can be seen in the curse of Esau who was tricked out of his blessing.

(Isaac addressing Jacob)
May nations serve you

and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed.”
(Genesis 27:29)

(Isaac addressing Esau)
“Your dwelling will be
away from the earth’s richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
40 You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck.
(Genesis 27:39-40)

Esau’s curse seems to also be justified in chapter 28 when he is described as taking Canaanite wives against his parent’s wishes.

Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had. (Genesis 28:8-9)

Esau’s offspring will eventually be a  people group known as the Edomites, a neighboring group on the east border of the Jordan river. They are setup as an enemy of Israel in the scriptures. An enemy that is plotting evil against God’s children.

With one mind they plot together;
they form an alliance against you—
the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
(Psalm 82:5-6)

One of the more famous Edomite kings, Amalek, was cursed by God and all his offspring. It should not be surprising that an offspring of Esau was characterized in such a way.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.”
15 Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner. 16 He said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the Lord, the Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”
(Exodus 17:14-16)

There is more that can be said about biblical curses and how they were used to justify brutality against certain people groups but I think the point is fairly made at this point. The brutality of slavery is more or less justified by the sins of the people being either conquered or enslaved. Some would call this a case of war slavery. Slaves of war were essentially, allowed to live in return for their service as slaves. The question of whether or not slavery is justified is a debatable topic but not within the scope of this article.

When studying this topic many years ago I was disappointed in the many Bible commentaries that simply chose to ignore Leviticus 25:44-46. Of the commentaries I’ve reviewed, here are some of the statements made regarding the allowance of slavery as it pertains to Leviticus 25:44-46.

44–46 Israelites are permitted to own slaves, both male and female. Such slaves are to be purchased from the surrounding nations, from resident aliens in Israel, and even from aliens that have been born in Israel. These slaves become perpetual servants. Since slaves are classified אחזה, “property” or “a possession,” they are passed from father to son as part of the family’s inheritance. Nevertheless, the law requires that an Israelite treat his slaves kindly. Given this permission to possess slaves, it is reiterated that a master may not rule over an Israelite slave ruthlessly (cf. v 43). Whereas this legislation frees the citizens of Israel from any fear of indigenous slavery, it also shows that the path to travel before the institution of slavery is universally condemned will be very long.
(John Hartley, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 4: Leviticus)


25:39–55 This section explains how a poor Israelite could be sold to another individual and remain a hired workman until the Year of Jubilee (25:39–41).339 Presumably one who had already surrendered his land for repayment of a debt now had to sell himself, for his ability to work becomes his only remaining asset.340 These hired workmen were not to be treated as slaves as the Israelites were treated when they were in Egypt (25:42–43). The only people who were candidates for slavery in Israel were those who were foreigners or temporary residents.
(Mark F. Rooker, New American Commentary)


46. you may keep them us a possession for your children after you Hebrew ve-hitnaḥaltem means “to receive as a possession, to be assigned as a possession” and most frequently applies to land.39 Here, a form of the verb naḥal, “to receive as a possession,” combines with the term ʾaḥuzzah and with the verb la-reshet, “to appropriate as a possession.” These three terms have independent histories but are here used synonymously.40 The rights Israelites were granted over their non-Israelite slaves, like those they had over the land, were permanent.

such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen A contrast is drawn between Israelites and non-Israelites. Israelites are bound together by kinship and cannot be held as slaves by one another. That is the force of the term ʾaḥ, “brother,” which occurs twice in verse 46.
(Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus)


The jubilee release does not apply to foreign slaves (vv. 44-46). A
theological reason underlies this discrimination: God redeemed his people from
Egyptian slavery, to become his slaves (vv. 42, 55). It is unfitting, therefore, that
an Israelite should be resold into slavery, especially to a foreigner (cf. Rom.
6:15-22; Gal. 4:8-9; 5:1). The jubilee law is thus a guarantee that no Israelite will
be reduced to that status again, and it is a celebration of the great redemption
when God brought Israel out of Egypt, so that he might be their God and they
should be his people (vv. 38, 42, 55; cf. Exod. 19:4-6).
(Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus)

The only commentary I had in my resources that dealt with the matter honestly was done by Jacob Milgrom as the last of a 3-part work within the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series. Most scholars agree that Milgrom’s work on Leviticus remains unsurpassed. I have yet to find another commentary that interacts with the difficult parts of Leviticus as this commentary. As such, I have included some rather lengthy quotations from the section on Leviticus 25:44-46.

from them you may buy (slaves). mehem tiqnu, literally “from them you may buy.”

The direct object, “male and female slaves,” is inferred from v. 44b. The empha-
sis connoted by mehem ‘from them’, as in v. 44b, implies-but not from Israelites.

The assumption here is that the alien is a chattel-slave, not a debt-slave. This
is confirmed by the verb qana ‘purchase’. A non-Israelite chattel-slave is defined
as a miqneh kesep ‘purchased’ (Gen 17:12-13, 23, 27; Exod 12:44) or simply as
kaspo ‘his property’ (Exod 21:21). It is hardly an accident that miqneh also de-
notes “livestock”, and that in sedeh miqnat, the former designates bought land
and the latter, inherited land (Kochman 1987). For the (tangential) reference
to an alien debt-slave, see the NOTE on “a resident alien,” v. 3 5. or from their kin groups.
umimmispabtam, umizzarayatehOn (Tg. Onk. ) ‘off- spring’.
Does this imply offspring of mixed marriages? If so, then H is ethnocen-
tric, just as D, with the exception that it does not impose a ban on the Canaan-
ites. There is no explicit ban on intermarriage in the priestly texts (contrast Exod
34:1 5-16; Deut 7:2-4). However, signs of disapproval are visible throughout: in-
termarriage leads to incest (Lev 1 8, 20), blasphemy (Lev 24: 10-12), and idolatry
(Num 25:10-1 8), and Canaanites who are not expelled will be “thorns in your
side” (Num 3 3:5 5), probably through intermarriage and their cult (Milgrom l 990a:
500-501). This verse seems to imply that in H’s time there were still Canaanite
enclaves and that the pedigree of offspring of mixed marriages was well known.
property. la ‘abuzza. This is the one place where this term is applied to persons.

Canaanite slaves, like Israel’s land, are permanent possessions. This law merely in-
dicates that the jubilee does not apply to non-Israelite slaves: “it does not imply that
the slave is a piece of property at the mercy of his master” (Mendelsohn 1962: 388).
This practice prevailed throughout the ancient Near East. Those born in slav-
ery (Akk. wilid bitim; Heb. yelfd bayit, Gen 17: 1 3, 23) remained slaves.

46. you may keep them as a possession. wehitnabaltem. Some take the Hitpa ‘el
as transitive: wetabsenun ‘You will bequeath them’ (Tgs. ), exemplified by
wehit’awwftem ‘you shall draw a line’ (Num 34: 1 0; Ibo Ezra); titbatta ‘u ‘you
shall purify’ (Num 3 1 :20). However, hitnabel occurs elsewhere as a reflexive
(Num 32: 1 8; 33:54; Isa 14:2). Therefore, Rashi is probably correct in rendering
“Take (them) for yourselves (for the benefit of your children) .” Indeed, the verse
wehitnabalum bet-yi8ra ‘el ‘al ‘admat YHWH la abadfm welisepabQt ‘And the
house of Israel will take them upon the land of YHWH as male and female
slaves’ (Isa 14:2) may have been influenced by this passage.
as property for all time. ‘abuzza le «5lam. In v. 45, the slaves are ‘abuzza, since
the subject is limited to one, the acquiring, generation. Here the subject is the
succeeding, inheriting generations; hence, le ‘olam. This phrase is not equiva-
lent to ‘abuzzat olam regarding the prohibition to sell the Levites’ pastureland
(v. 34). This land, as explained, is the common property of the Levites and may
never be alienated. Here slaves belong to individual Israelites and, hence, may
be sold. The status of a non-Israelite slave, as pointed out by Japhet ( 1992: 79-8 1 ),
is exemplified in the plan conceived by Shesha ( 1 Chr 2: 34-41 ), which could
only be executed by a non-Israelite slave. If he were an Israelite, his children
would be manumitted, at the latest, in the jubilee, and they would belong to
him (vv. 46, 49-50), not to the master, Shesha.

The expression ‘al;uzza le ‘olam ‘property for all time’ as well as the wording
of the supply source for permanent slaves in the contiguous verses-“children”
(v. 45), “from their kin groups” (v. 45), “a branch” (v. 47)-clearly demonstrates
that the ger was not admitted into the peoplehood of Israel for generations. Here
the law is completely in accord with reality. The ger might become rich (e.g.,
Ziba, the slave of Saul, 2 Sam 9: 1 Ob; 16:4) and achieve high social status (e.g.,
Doeg the Edomite, 1 Sam 2 1 :8; Zelek the Ammonite, 2 Sam 23:37; Uriah the
Hittite, 2 Sam 11:3, all high officers in the royal court or army). Although he
may have totally assimilated into Israelite society, even to the point of being a
zealous worshiper of Israel’s God (a matter emphasized in the Doeg and Uriah
accounts), he retained his ethnic label and was not reckoned an Israelite.
The parade example is Ruth the Moabite. When she entered Israel’s land with
her mother-in-law, Naomi, she declared herself a nokriyya ‘foreigner’ (Ruth
2:10). Eventually, she became a resident alien, a ger, but not an Israelite. Even
after her marriage to Boaz, an Israelite “of substance” (Ruth 2: 1 ), she probably
retained her alien status (Ruth 4: 10). In the long run, marriage was the only way
for the ger to become an Israelite: not the ger himself or herself, but only his or
her progeny-the fourth generation of limited ethnic stock, according to the
rigid scruples of Deuteronomy (2 3:2-9). Ironically, it is Deuteronomy that de-
liberately denies that privilege to the descendants of Ruth the Moabite (Deut
23:4-7), presumably in order to invalidate the legitimacy of the Davidic line
(details in Milgrom 1982b; 1989b).

As noted by Gerstenberger ( 1996: 390), the distinction between natives and res-
ident aliens-rather, the outright discrimination against the latter-flies in the
face of 19:3 3-34. In effect, the institutions of redemption and jubilee are un-
available to the resident alien. Indeed, it is ironic that the absolute equality (in
civil matters) between native and alien is unambiguously proclaimed in the pre-
vious chapter (24:22). Surely, the H redactor must have been fully aware of this
blatant contradiction. It must, therefore, be presumed that the axiom that YHWH’ s
bestowal of inheritable land exclusively on the Israelites-to the exclusion of the
resident alien (see NOTE on v. 23)-takes priority, in H’s theological system, over
the egalitarian ideal of the alien’s equality before the law. The purpose of the ju-
bilee and its attendant redemption is to restore the land to its original owner.

Since the alien has no land to lose to a creditor, these remedies are of no mean-
ing. Thus the discrimination against the alien rests not on the absence of jubilee,
but on his inaccessibility to land. Even Ezekiel, who rectifies the discrimination
against the alien in regard to possessing and bequeathing land (Ezek 47:2 1-23),
remains silent about the remedies of redemption and jubilee for the alien.
These. bahem. But not Israelites! Each of the verses in the pericope dealing with
non-Israelite slaves contains this emphasis, see mehem (vv. 44, 45) and bahem (v.
46), indicating a clear polemic with the other slave laws (Exod 2 1 :2-1 1; Deut
1 5:12-1 8), which permit the enslavement oflsraelites (Paran 1983: 20). This word
clearly begins v. 46b, requiring that the “Atnal; be moved back to le ‘olam.
over the other. Is be ‘abfw. For this expression, see Gen 9:5; 13:1 1; Exod 32:29;
Zech 7: 1 0; etc.

no one shall rule … with harshness. lo ‘-tirdeh beparek. The verb switches
from the plural to the singular because the sentence is an exact quotation of v.
43a (S. Chavel). Not only may an Israelite not be enslaved, but he may not be
treated harshly. This injunction was ostensibly observed by Solomon: “But he
did not reduce any Israelites to slavery” ( 1 Kgs 9:22a, cited in Wessely 1 846), a
statement that, however, is flatly contradicted by 1 Kgs 5:27-30; 9:23; 1 1 :28;
12:4 (note the use of harOdfm, 5 :30; 9:23). The former claim is nothing but
deuteronomistic propaganda. It was influenced by Deut 1 5: 1 2-1 5, which refers
to the indentured Israelite as ‘abzka ha ‘ibrf ‘Your Hebrew brother’ (v. 1 2) and
assiduously avoids the use of ‘ebed (except for voluntary life-long slavery, v. 1 7).
Implied is that the alien slave may be treated harshly, but according to Job 31: 1 3,
1 5, such treatment is not acceptable to YHWH (cf. van der Ploeg 1972: 82).
(Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, The Anchor Bible)

Milgrom’s observations have gone largely unchallenged in the academic study of Leviticus. Unless variant readings for this passage become extant, it is unlikely that apologists will be able to defend it as anything other than condoning chattel slavery.

The OT also includes statements by God that seem to treat slavery by Abraham as normal. In Genesis 17 Abraham is instructed to make sure his purchased people are circumcized.

For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought(מִקְנָה) with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised.
(Genesis 17:12-13)


And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
(Genesis 17:27)


There is another slave class but is rarely considered. This class of slave is less about traditional chattel slavery and more about the role of women in the ancient near eastern cultures. Because women could not obtain standing in the public or own property, they were relegated to home-life. Women also were also subject to a male head, whether it’s a father, brother, husband, or household master. Depending on who the woman is subject to she will be expected to perform different duties. As a daughter, subject to a father, she would have probably been tasked with helping her mother in managing the household and possibly even with some form of industry, such as spinning yarn or weaving. In the event that the father is deceased or away on business, the eldest son would assume the role of head-of-household and would likely have the same expectations of his sister as the father would. Things change a bit when a woman becomes a wife. While she is no longer subject to her father, she is expected to be subject to her husband. Her role as a wife would be quite similar as her role as a daughter except she would be expected to perform her marital duties. She would have very little autonomy over her sexuality or reproduction. If she is one of multiple wives, she might share household duties. The last category, that of a slave wife, she would be relieved of some of her slave duties and elevated to new status. The term “slave-wife” goes by the word “concubine” in many English translations. It is this role that should be considered a form of slavery.

While concubines are elevated to quasi-wife status, they do not have the legal rights to reject such a union. A concubine that was previously a slave could be given as a wife to a master’s son or taken as a wife for the head of the house. This can be done without her consent. If a Hebrew daughter has been sold into bondage and provides children while in service, she is not to be sent away after 6 years like the males. In fact, even if she marries another slave and that slave goes free, the woman still remains in the possession of the slave master. She is not permitted to leave with her husband.

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. 3 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. 4 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.
(Exodus 21:2-4)

The fact that the female slave cannot move her headship from her master to her new husband means that her status as property was greater than that of a wife. On its face this law looks to be ensuring that the owner is able to obtain an heir without the threat of that heir moving on with the mother. One the other hand, if the female slave produces no children, it is unclear what happens after her 6 years of serve. The only other passage which speaks of female debt slaves is in Deuteronomy 15 and it appears as though she is permitted to leave after her time of service.

If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

16 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, 17 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.

18 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.
(Deuteronomy 15:12-18)

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. 8 If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. 9 And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. 10 If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her shelter. 11 If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.
(Exodus 21:7-11)

The old testament is quite littered with concubines and even among the Levites. But this is in keeping with customs of the ancient Near East. In an old Assyrian marriage contract we see a provision for what to do in the case of a barren wife. The regulation is to buy a concubine in order to procure an heir for the man.

Laqipum has married Hatala, daughter of Enishru. In the country (i.e., Central Anatolia) Laqipum (5) may not marry another (woman)—(but) in the City (i.e., Ashur) he may marry a hierodule(prostitute or enslaved person who is in the service of a temple).[1],temple%20(as%20in%20ancient%20Greece) If within two years she (i.e., Hatala) does not provide him with off- spring, (10) she herself will purchase a slavewoman, and later on, after she2 will have produced a child by him, (15) he may then dispose of her by sale wheresoever he pleases.8 Should Laqipum choose to divorce her (text: “him”), he must pay (her) five minas of silver; (20) and should Hatala choose to divorce him, she must pay (him) five minas of silver. Witnesses: Masa, Ashurishti- kal, (25) Talia, Shupianika.[2]Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 543
(Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 543)

How do apologists deal with the topic of chattel slavery?

For many Bible readers, there is a vested interest in making all of the Old Testament regulations concerning slavery to be a reference about the debt bondage system. To be sure, 95% of the mentions about slavery are really about the debt bondage system. Only a small portion of the OT deals with forced slavery. However, there is a case to be made that women were effectively slaves. A number of articles have already been written on the daughters “sold” into bondage or how women could be given by consent of the father alone. However, the role of the woman (while still being subject to their husbands or fathers) was not the same as that of the slave.[3]Caroline M. Breyfogle, The Social Status of Women in the Old Testament [4]Laura Sauder, Sexual Property and the Personhood of Women in the Old Testament, New Testament and the Mishnah Nevertheless, setting aside the discussion about a woman’s status, the apologist has 4 or more options. Option 1 is to exegete the difficult passages in a way that makes it appear that text is referring to deb slavery. The second option is to admit that slavery was condoned but that it was justified in some way. The 3rd option is to take a position that God permitted a number of sins because of their “hardness of hearts” but that the long-term desire was to end such permissions. The 4th is to blame the enslaved culture for their own enslavement by casting them in an evil light.

Argument 1 – Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 20 are actually speaking about debt slavery

There are a number of sub-methods related to argument 1. The fist is that other passaged in the Old Testament contradict the slave allowance and therefore it cannot mean what it appears to mean. The second method states that since foreigners were commanded to be treated ethically the laws in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 20 are rendered  useless as they would be cancelled by the passages demanding kindness to foreigners.

1. The reinterpretation method. 

The reinterpretation method is similar to the cancelation method except the users seek to reinterpret the difficult passages in light of the passages commanding kindness. It is reasoned that since God commands to love the foreigners, verses about enslaving some of them must surely mean something other than what we see at face value.

Some have pointed out that Hebrew debt slaves and foreign-purchased slaves are both referred to as property so there is not distinction. However, this claim is based on generic English translation.

Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
(Exodus 21:21)

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life,
(Leviticus 25:44-46)

If all we had to go by was the English version above (NIV) then it would appear that foreign and Hebrew slaves were property. However, the underlying Hebrew text differs. In Exodus 21:21 it literally states that the slave is the owners “money” (Keseph/כַסְפּ֖וֹ). In Leviticus 45 is says that the slaves are a possession (Ahuzzah/אֲחֻזָּ֔ה). Because the foreign-purchased slave was property, they were allowed to be bequeathed to the children of the master and will never be freed.

2. The cancelation method.

The cancellation theory seeks to reconcile the passages about foreign-born slaves with passages that describe how foreigners are to be treated with kindness. In other words, foreigners cannot be subject to slavery while at the same time God commands charity and kindness towards them. The problem with this logic is that it’s playing a game of cancelling out the bad verses with good ones that contradict each other. It’s not a math equation. The good laws of the Torah do not cancel out the bad ones.

Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.
(Exodus 21:16)

The general argument states that chattel slavery of the foreigner could not be possible because forced slavery is the same as kidnapping. However, property cannot be kidnapped. In other words, such slaves lack the human rights afforded to free men. Furthermore, the passage in Leviticus states that such slaves are purchased not stolen. At the time of acquiring the slave, they were already rendered as property and therefore, they cannot be kidnapped. If taken they would be considered stolen from their master rather than a kidnapped person.

3. The temporary allowance method.

The basis for this argument comes from Jesus in Matthew 19:8.

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
(Matthew 19:8)

The argument here is that some allowances were not a result of what God wanted but of God using a form of progressive revelation. However, one needs to ask, what would have prevented God from just outright stating that no human can own another human? It’s not like it would be a problem for the Israelites to accept a teaching that was counter to current cultural norms. In fact, many defenders of the OT law take pride in idea that the Jewish law was different and superior to the laws used in other contemporary cultures. Additionally, it’s not a very complicated command either. If the Israelites could understand the the rationale behind not enslaving their own Hebrew kinfolk, then they can understand why they shouldn’t enslave those that are non-kin.

4. The evil canaanites excuse

When I was in school I heard a lot of people trying to justify the treatment of the Canaanites based on the idea that they were sacrificing babied to false gods and a myriad of other evils. However, this is not supported by the archaeological data nor even by the Hebrew scriptures. The OT authors justified the conquest of the land based the inhabitants having defiled the land with their foreign gods and practices. But by the same logic, would they not also be entitled to take Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia? Why stop with just the Canaanites? The specific reason the Canaanites were singled out was because of the curse of Ham. Essentially, the fate of an entire people group was sealed because one of their ancestors commit some kind of indecent act against Noah. This is a flimsy reasoning in today’s logic because we know that generational curses (and curses in general) do not exist.

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”
26 He also said,

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s[a] territory;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”
(Genesis 9:25-27)



This is a messy topic. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I started this website over 10 years ago while I was in seminary. I was tired of boiler-plate answers to difficult questions and hearing a lot of justifications for these kinds of passages. There are few passages in the OT that leave me speechless and without a good way to position them within a larger context that makes sense. However, the passages discussed here are unjustifiable. At this moment in history I have no foundation for being able to justify the slavery allowances in the OT and it is clear that most OT scholars would prefer it is these passages did not exist, because they are largely ignored in most biblical commentaries.

If someone reading this has a perspective to share on the matter, I believe we are all listening, even the author of this entry.


2 Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 543
3 Caroline M. Breyfogle, The Social Status of Women in the Old Testament
4 Laura Sauder, Sexual Property and the Personhood of Women in the Old Testament, New Testament and the Mishnah

2 thoughts on “Does The Old Testament Condone Involuntary Chattel Slavery?”

  1. Great article my brother. This too is a topic that’s very difficult to talk about or have a response to in terms of apologetics. Out of the two methods, I would say that as right now or what I have heard, argument 3 is probably the best option. With 2 the only issue is it works both ways: If you argue how it condones chattel slavery and the harsh treatment of foreigners, you can’t ignore the good passages and vice versa you can’t ignore the bad passages. In terms of the counter argument to argument 3, the issue with the Israelites being able to follow simple commands is that they struggled with that as well. They struggled to keep up with the simplest one to ‘not worship other gods’. Like you said , 90-95% of the time the Word talks about slavery, it is referring to debt bondage. And in the NT, specifically in Ephesians, the author instructs masters to treat their slaves fairly but doesn’t reemphasize anything about the treatment of foreign slaves. I could be misremembering the verse but another challenge is how the NT tells slaves to be obedient to their masters regardless of how they treat them unless the masters attempt to cause them to sin. While I agree that argument 4 is a pretty weak one, I slightly disagree with the argument that generational curses/curses in general don’t exist but that more has to do with personal anecdotes (I had estranged family members that dealt with the occult unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another day).

    I do pray that in the future more of our brothers and sisters came come up with greater arguments.

    • Thanks so much for reading. You are right, it’s a very difficult topic. If there was a way to explain it away I would have.

      Your critiques are well taken.


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