What is slavery?

by Matt Slick
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Slavery is the practice of having ownership rights of an individual or the ownership rights to the work of an individual, often against the person's will, but sometimes with the person's consent.  In some forms of slavery the rights of the person were greatly diminished or even non-existent (chattel) where in others, they were not (indentured). In chattel slavery, the ownership of the person is for the sole benefit of the owner and is non-contractural.  In indentured slavery, the person is not owned, but he works until such time that a debt or contract is fulfilled. There are slightly different definitions of slavery found from different sources, but generally speaking, slavery is understood to be an voluntary and involuntary servitude. Here are two definitions.

"Slavery is the institution whereby one person can hold ownership rights over another. In the biblical world, this institution took on forms quite unlike the New World slavery practiced in the West particularly in the 18th and 19th century." Freedman, David Noel, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins, and Astrid B. Beck, eds. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992, underline added.

"Person owned as property by another, and the relationship that bound the owner and the slave. Slavery was widespread in the ancient Near East, although the economy was not dependent upon it. By Roman times Slavery was so extensive that in the early Christian period one out of every two people was a slave."Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988, underline added.

United States Slavery

The chattel slavery of the United States in the 1700's and 1800s is not the same form of slavery that was found in the Bible. In the Bible, slaves had rights, could own property, etc. In the slavery of the United States, slaves did not have rights and could not own property.

In the slavery of the United States a slave could be bought, sold, and traded.  If the slave was married there was no guarantee the family would stay together. Often, families were broken apart, children sold out from underneath parents, wives sold and husbands sold and transported to other areas.

The abolition of slavery has an early basis in United States but did not take full fruition until the Civil War.


Slavery in the Bible

The chattel slavery of the United States is different than the slavery mentioned in the Bible. However, there is no biblical word for chattel slavery and different words were used to convey the idea of servitude whether be forced or voluntary. Nevertheless, following is a list of some information concerning how slaves were treated in the Old Testament time.

  1. When a slave was freed, he was to receive gifts that enabled him to survive economically (Deut. 15:14). 
  2. ​The slave was required to participate in religious observances (Gen. 17:13; Exodus 12:44; Lev. 22:11).
  3. A master who punished his slave who then died, was to be punished himself (Exodus 21:20).
  4. ​The slave was a member of the master's household (Lev. 22:11).
  5. ​The slave was required to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; Deut. 5:14).
  6. A person could sell himself into slavery (Lev. 25:39)
  7. An escaped slave was not to be returned as was property (Deut. 23:15–16)
  8. A slave could become free after six years of service (Exodus 21:2; Deut. 15:12), in the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25), the marriage of the master's son or if refused marriage would then set free (Exodus 21:7-11), due to injury (Exodus 21:26-27), and by purchasing his own freedom (Lev. 25:47).





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.