Slaves in Bible times were not slaves for the same reasons many have been enslaved in modern times. Nor were they treated in the same manner.
Just after the Ten Commandments were spoken from Mount Sinai, God gave further instructions in many points of civil law, including laws governing servanthood.
- 21:2 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
- 21:3 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
- 21:4 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he
shall go out by himself.
- 21:5 And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
- 21:6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall
bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.
One cleaning product on the market has an image of a man with one ring in his ear to indicate that the product will do one's slave work. See the images of this by looking online for "Mr. Clean." That earring is the mark of his permanent servanthood, biblically, and this symbol still holds its original meaning among some today.
And that passage continues:
- 21:26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.
- 21:27 And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake.
Servants were not to be mistreated. Unless they had committed themselves to their master for life, such as by marrying his daughter and consenting to have their ear pierced to show permanent servanthood (basically becoming part of the family), they were to be released in due time or when their financial obligations (debt) had been met and cleared.
Allowing the Bible, however, to interpret itself, we see a range of usages for the word "servant." Sometimes it becomes "bondservant." Consider the contrast between these two in the following passage, and note how servants were to be treated.
25:39 And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant:
25:40 But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee:
25:41 And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the
possession of his fathers shall he return.
25:42 For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen.
25:43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God.
25:44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy
bondmen and bondmaids.
25:45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with
you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.
25:46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your
bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye
shall not rule one over another with rigour.
25:47 And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother that dwelleth by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the
stranger or sojourner by thee, or to the stock of the stranger's
25:48 After that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him:
25:49 Either his uncle, or his uncle's son, may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or if he be
able, he may redeem himself.
25:50 And he shall reckon with him that bought him from the year that he was sold to him unto the year of jubilee: and the price of his
sale shall be according unto the number of years, according to the
time of an hired servant shall it be with him.
25:51 If there be yet many years behind, according unto them he shall give again the price of his redemption out of the money that he
was bought for.
25:52 And if there remain but few years unto the year of jubilee, then he shall count with him, and according unto his years shall he
give him again the price of his redemption.
25:53 And as a yearly hired servant shall he be with him: and the other shall not rule with rigour over him in thy sight.
25:54 And if he be not redeemed in these years, then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, both he, and his children with him.
25:55 For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD
Servants, and even bondservants, were to be treated with dignity and respect. They could be redeemed if their debts were paid by a relative to release them. And, in any case, the Israelite servants must be released in the year of jubilee, regardless of whether the debts had been paid. Essentially, the jubilee provided an economic reset to the whole nation of Israel, and people who had, during the past jubilee cycle, lost properties or even their freedom due to poverty would be restored their properties and their liberty to start the new cycle.
The entire perspective of slavery in the Bible revolved around two basic tenets: 1) economic (indebtedness); and 2) military subjugation. In the latter case, of course, one might far prefer to become a servant than to be put to the sword. Yet, even here, the slavery in Bible times was very unlike what we think of today by the word "slave."
Daniel and his friends, taken captive to Babylon, were servants.
And them that had escaped from the sword carried he [Nebuchadnezzar] away to Babylon;
where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the
kingdom of Persia: (2 Chronicles 36:20)
But how were they treated in Babylon? Quite well. Some of them received royal treatment.
- 1:1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it.
- 1:2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the vessels of the house of God: which he carried into the
land of Shinar to the house of his god; and he brought the vessels
into the treasure house of his god.
- 1:3 And the king spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his eunuchs, that he should bring certain of the children of Israel, and of the king's
seed, and of the princes;
- 1:4 Children in whom was no blemish, but well favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science,
and such as had ability in them to stand in the king's palace, and
whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans.
- 1:5 And the king appointed them a daily provision of the king's meat, and of the wine which he drank: so nourishing them three years,
that at the end thereof they might stand before the king.
While these were "servants" of the king, the king did not treat them as we would expect for "slaves" today. In Hebrew the same word translated as "servants" in 2 Chronicles 36:20--which included Daniel and his three friends, is the word translated as "servants" in Exodus 5:16, addressing the slaves in Egypt:
There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make
brick: and, behold, thy servants are beaten; but the fault is in thine
own people. (Exodus 5:16)
Today, we might translate this as "slaves" in this latter text. But the translators have faithfully preserved the same Hebrew word by consistently translating it as "servant," helping readers to see that it is, indeed, the same concept as used in other passages. The Bible can then be used to explain itself.
In the New Testament, as one professor of Biblical languages has aptly stated, the Bible writers wrote in Greek, but followed the Hebrew thought. They were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and with the Hebrew culture and tradition. When Onesimus comes to Paul, you remember, Paul instructs him to return to his master--and sends a letter with him asking his master to deal graciously with him. (See Philemon 1:10-18.)
If slavery in the Bible times had been what we know today, it is certain that Paul would never have sent the slave back to his master. Acts 5:29 and 1 Corinthians 10:29 help us to see that our conscience is never to be placed in subjection to the will of another human being. Servanthood and slavery are distinctly different concepts, and even as "slaves" to sin, we should be encouraged by the concept of "servants" to think that we do have a choice, and are not obligated to serve sin or to submit ourselves to it. We have a Redeemer, and can be freed from our old, evil master.