Talking to Kids About Slavery in the Bible

February 01, 2024

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In this Foundation Worldview Podcast, Elizabeth Urbanowicz addresses the pressing question: "How can we prepare our kids to counter the claim that the Bible's view of slavery undermines its credibility?" Uncover the historical context of slavery, explore biblical protections, and differentiate it from the transatlantic slave trade. Tune in for key insights on instilling a nuanced biblical worldview in children.


Note: The following is an auto-transcript of the podcast recording.

Hello friends, and welcome to another episode of the Foundation Worldview Podcast where we seek to answer your questions so that you can equip the children that God has placed in your care to carefully evaluate every idea they encounter and understand the truth of the biblical Worldview. I'm your host, Elizabeth Urbanowicz, and I'm thrilled that you've joined me for another episode today. Today's question says, "I find that our culture often views slavery as the most grievous of all sins. I have even heard some use this as an argument against the Bible saying that because the Bible condoned slavery, we should not take it seriously. How can we help prepare our kids to face such a claim?" This is a really important question for us to think through, so I'm really excited to dive down deep into this today.

But before we do that, if you have a question that you would like for me to answer on a future Foundation Worldview podcast, you can submit that by going to Also ask that if you found the content of this podcast beneficial, please be sure to like and subscribe so that you don't miss any future episodes. And please also be sure to share this content with those within your sphere of influence so that we can equip as many Christian adults as possible to get their kids thinking critically and biblically.

Now, as we think of the concept of slavery and the Bible and claims against the Bible and helping our kids understand this, the first thing that I just think we should all take a moment to celebrate is just praise God that we live in a society that views slavery as morally wrong, that there have not been many societies throughout human history that have viewed slavery as wrong, and praise God, our culture gets a lot, a lot of things wrong, but viewing slavery as wrong is something that it gets right, and we should thank God for that.

But now we want to think through, okay, what does the Bible actually have to say about slavery? Is slavery the most grievous of all sins? How do we help our kids think through this? So the first thing I would say as we're thinking through this question, it's important for us to have these conversations with our kids before they encounter them in the culture at large. So I would just start off with asking my kids, okay, so is slavery wrong? Is owning another human being wrong? And then ask them, why is slavery wrong? What we can do in this conversation is to point out how even though most people praise God in our society, view slavery as wrong, most people have no grounding for this claim because think about it like this, why is it? Why is it that owning another human being is wrong? If humans have accidentally evolved by blind unguided evolution as is taught in our public schools, as many people in our society believe, then there is no inherent purpose to human life and there's no inherent value to human life.

So if this is the case, if we just got here accidentally by a blind unguided evolution, we can agree that our culture right now, our society at large believes that slavery is wrong. However, if humans don't have inherent purpose, if they don't have inherent value, they have to determine that for themselves, then there is no reason to say that slavery is always wrong, just that our culture views it as wrong. And then if popular opinion shifts and most people want slavery, then according to this line of reasoning, there would be nothing objectively wrong with slavery. We want to ask our kids, okay, why is it that slavery is wrong and it is only the doctrine of the image of God in all humans that leads to the belief that humans are created equal and with inherent value, dignity and worth. Now, I know that many are now thinking, well, Christians haven't lived this out many times in the past and sometimes even in our current world, and have Christians got this wrong?

Absolutely. There are many times that Christians have got this wrong. I mean, think of the heinous crimes against other humans, that people sometimes even in the name of Christ committed in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that there were people who called themselves Christians that were involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There were people who called themselves Christians that were involved in antebellum slavery in the southern half of the United States. Did those people get that wrong? Absolutely. But does those people getting that wrong, does that mean that there's something wrong with God and his word? No. It means that there's something wrong with us as humans, and the Bible even speaks to this, that there is something wrong with us. Why do we not instinctively treat all human beings as created in the image of God because we're fallen, because we're sinful? So as we think through talking through this concept with our kids, I think there's two really important things for us to think through and to understand.

And the first is slavery throughout human history. And the second is slavery in the Bible. So we can specifically address this claim that the Bible can condone slavery. Therefore, we can't take the Bible seriously. So first, thinking through slavery throughout history, this is something that sometimes we just don't understand because we just don't have a thorough understanding of history. But all societies in the past have instituted some form of slavery that for the first time in human history, we are living in a society that does not condone or move forward advance human slavery. Now, the argument could be made that certain things like pornography is actually sex trafficking, and that is a form of slavery. And so our culture does engage in that. But when our culture talks about slavery at large, our culture is very much against it. And so we just need to understand that this is very unique to our time and culture, that every previous culture has always instituted some form of slavery.

Now, when we think of slavery, usually our minds immediately go to antebellum slavery in the South that was based solely on skin color, solely on the amount of melanin that someone had in their skin. Now, that's what we tend to think, okay, therefore slavery is all ethnic based, where that has not been true throughout human history, that most slavery was based on a nation being conquered by another nation, and frequently it was people who looked very much like one another because they lived in similar regions of the earth. Some people are shocked when they find out that St. Patrick was actually a slave. He was from what we now call the United Kingdom, and he was brought over to the island of Ireland, and he was a slave that yes, white people, enslaved white people, and then we had Middle Eastern slaves where brown people, enslaved brown people, and then we had African slaves or black people enslaved black people, that it wasn't based on melanin in skin culture.

Most of the time it was based on a nation conquering another nation, or it was based on situations of poverty where someone had sunk so low into poverty and had no way of getting themselves out. So they would sell themselves as a slave so that they could be taken care of so that they would have food and clothing and shelter and protection. We have to recognize that we live in the first civilization throughout human history that has outlawed slavery. Now is slavery in the different countries in the West? Is this a blemish on our past? Was it a sin? Yes, it is. We need to recognize that to grieve that, and we also need to recognize that it is a gift from God, that it has been outlawed because in no other civilization in human history has slavery been outlawed. And sometimes we don't understand how much the moral fabric of our culture has been shaped by Christianity.

Just as I was talking about before, even the grounding for why is it that slavery is wrong? It's because of the doctrine of the image of God. And when we even look at the champions who were really the forerunners of getting rid of antebellum slavery or getting rid of the transatlantic slave trade, it was people who were rooted in the doctrine of the image of God in England. It was William Wilberforce who worked for most of his adult life to first get the slave trade abolished, to make it illegal to go to Africa to get slaves, and to bring them either to Europe or to the Americas. And then he worked to outlaw slavery in the British Empire. So not only on the aisle of Great Britain, but throughout the entire world where the British Empire owned land, and then in the United States at the forefront of the abolition movement were many Quakers and Methodists who were grounded in this doctrine of the image of God.

And so we just want to make sure that as we and our kids are thinking through this question, that we have an understanding of slavery throughout human history, then we need to turn to okay slavery in the Bible. And I can tell you, I used to work as an educational consultant for different Christian schools, and one thing that I saw so many history teachers do in middle school and high school that used to drive me nuts, they would get up in front of their class and they'd be like, well, does the Bible just condone slavery? Did the Bible just say that slavery as we had it in the south and the United States was okay? And then they just kind of open it up for their students who have had no training in logic or critical thinking to just talk through this and just, oh my goodness, all of the gobbledygook that I had to listen to in classes.

And I was just like, okay, this is just a mess. And so we actually have to look at, okay, biblically, what does the Bible have to say about slaves? We have to look at the passages in their proper historical context to understand them. And then if we're looking at the slavery that we tend to think of antebellum slavery in the south and the transatlantic slave trade, we have to look at, okay, does the Bible condone that? So first, we do have to understand that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there was slavery, okay? In both the ancient or eastern cultures in Egypt, in the Israelite nation, in the nations around them, there was slavery. And then when we look at the New Testament in the Roman Empire, there was slavery in the Roman Empire. So specifically looking at the Old Testament and the nation of Israel, and that there was slavery in the nation of Israel, God's law, the Mosaic law, the covenant that God made with his people on Mount Sinai, it does include instructions about slavery.

Now, we have to understand at this time, okay, completely abolishing slavery would have been virtually impossible at the time because of how deeply embedded it was in that culture, but also because it would've put many people in society in danger. As I explained before, that one of the main forms of how people became a slave was because of poverty, that they were in extreme poverty and there was no welfare to help them out. That yes, God's people were given laws about how to help the poor, but there was also the possibility of selling yourself to someone else and working for them, and they would provide you with food and clothing and shelter and physical protection. And so completely abolishing slavery would've put a lot of people actually in danger. And when we read the passages in the Mosaic law that are about slavery to our 21st century years that have been so heavily influenced by Christianity, we just kind of bristle.

However, we need to understand that the provision that God provided in his law for how slaves were to be treated is completely different than any other culture around it. When you read the Code of Hammurabi or other ancient near Eastern codes, there were no provisions for slaves such as those that were given in Scripture. So I'm going to read a few of them for us. So first, in Deuteronomy chapter 15 verses 12-14, God is talking about when someone becomes a slave because of poverty, and he writes, I'm sorry, Moses writes, "if your brother a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year, you shall let him go free. And when you let him go free, you shall not let him go empty handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock and out of your threshing floor and out of your wine press as the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him."

Okay, so what are some things that we hear in that passage? And this is a passage we can read with our kids and we can say, okay, what do we hear in this passage that's different or similar to slavery as we think about it in the early history of the United States? Well, this is a person selling themselves as a slave. They weren't captured and then sold as a slave. This is a person willingly choosing to sell themselves as a slave because of a situation of poverty. How long are they a slave? Are they a slave for life and then their children and their grandchildren and their great grandchildren are slaves? No, he's to serve you for six years. In the seventh year, you let him go free. So six years, that was the limit for slavery. And when you let him go free, what are you supposed to do?

Okay, are you supposed to hate him? Treat him like he's not human? No. You're supposed to give him out of your flock, out of your threshing floor and out of your wine press. So you're supposed to give him flock so that he can start his own herd. You're supposed to give him food grain from the threshing floor and drink wine from your wine press that as the Lord has blessed you, so you are to then bless this person. This is vastly different than slavery throughout the rest of the ancient near East, and we want our kids to see that.

Another passage we can read with our kids is in Leviticus chapter 21, verses 7-11, it says, "when a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing without payment of money."

Now again, our 21st century Western ears kind of bristle at this concept because our Worldview, the moral fabric of our culture has been so influenced by Christianity. But this is saying that when a family is in a place of poverty, when a father can't provide for his children anymore, and he sells his daughter as a slave, she's not to be treated as a male slave. She can't be sent out and sold other places because in that culture, she was just inherently more vulnerable.

I mean, still our culture's kind of crazy today, but women are in a more vulnerable position. I mean, those of you who have experienced who are and have experienced being in a women's bathroom or locker room when there's a biological male present, it's a scary thing because you just know that this person, with the way that they are biologically, they could overpower you very easily. And so it was just in a more vulnerable position to be a female in the ancient near East. And so God is providing protection that this girl just can't be sold to anyone who's going to do, who knows what with her. In fact, if she is to be known sexually, what is she to become a wife? She's not to be a concubine. She's not to be a sex slave. If this man or his son wants to have a relationship with her, she has to be become a wife, and she has to be treated as a wife.

And if he doesn't find favor with her or he takes somebody else as a wife, her food can't be diminished. Her clothing can't be diminished, or her marital rights having sex with him, which is something that was so foreign to ancient near Eastern culture. And then if he doesn't do these three things, she goes off scot free that she does not have to be redeemed. She can just walk away if he does not fulfill these things for her. Then another passage we can read through with our children, Deuteronomy chapter 21 verses 10-14, and this is about the first two forms of slavery that we've read about in these passages were the slavery from poverty. When someone in the land became so poor that in order to get food, clothing, protection, they needed to sell themselves as a slave. This is talking about slavery from capturing another nation.

Deuteronomy 21, verses 10-14, "when you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord, your God gives them into your hands and you take them captive and you see among the captives of beautiful woman and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her to your home, she shall shave her head and pair her nails, and she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and mother a full month. After that, you may go into her and be her husband and she shall be your wife, but if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants, but you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave since you have humiliated her." Again, 21st century Western ears were like, oh my goodness.

But in this time and in this culture, this was an amazing thing that God was having them do that in that time in warfare, women were not taken as wives, they were taken as concubines. They were taken as sex slaves. Nothing is mentioned here about a concubine that if a woman is beautiful and the man wanted to take her, he had to marry her, which means that he was making a lifelong commitment to protect her. Not only that, she couldn't in the state of mourning where she had just lost everything, she lost her home, she lost her family, she lost her culture, she lost her freedom. She lost everything. She couldn't just be taken then as a wife immediately that yes, she was taken into a household. She's shaving her head and pairing her nails as a sign of mourning. And she's given a month to lament and grieve her family before she is taken as a wife, and she can't be sold as a slave.

And so the instructions that God gave his people were vastly different than the instructions to the conquering nations. I'm sorry, not the conquering nations, but the nations around Israel. Then we see slavery again in the New Testament, and there's not a whole ton written in the New Testament about slaves. There's some instructions about how slaves are to interact with their masters, but we also see in the New Testament that slaves who were converted to Christianity, who are reconciled in their relationship to God, they were viewed as brothers. That's what Paul writes about in the letter to find Lehman that Onesimus this runaway slave. He had runaway, he had become a Christian. He interacted with Paul, and Paul was sending him back to his master. And Paul tells Emon to view Onesimus as a brother. And records from the early church show that in the early church, slaves were in positions of leadership in the early church, and they were even in positions of authority over some free people in the body that slaves could become elders.

Because as Paul says in Galatians 3:28, that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, because Christ, our relationship in Christ is the great equalizer. So in the New Testament, okay, did slavery still exist? Yes, but slaves who were Christians were viewed as brothers and sisters and their position in society had nothing to do with their position within the church. Now, as I mentioned before, when we think of slavery, we tend to think of the transatlantic slave trade and antebellum slavery. And that just thinking about that form of slavery is something that we are to grieve over. I remember growing up, my mom had this book in our house that was called Lest We Forget, and it was actually photos from the 1800s of slavery. And I remember there was this one photo that was of a man and his back. He just had had these scars that actually looked like mountains on his back, that they were so jagged and peaked from the times that he had been whipped.

And I remember sometimes I would just take out that book and I would just look at that picture and I would cry because that is something that we are to grieve over. And this is why it bothers me so much when history teachers are like, so does the Bible condone slavery? Because this is automatically what we think of. But I'm going to show you from one verse in the Bible that the Bible does not condone, did not condone the antebellum slavery in the South. It did not condone the slave trade. It doesn't matter how many people who claim the name of Christ tried to use the Bible to justify slavery. This one verse proves that it did not. In Exodus chapter 21, verse 16, this is what Moses writes, what the law of God was for the Israelites, "whoever steals a man and sells him and anyone found in possession of him shall be put to death."

So according to the Mosaic law, what should have happened to everyone involved in the transatlantic slave trade? The Africans who kidnapped their kinsmen and sold them, the slave traders who bought the slaves and transported them across the ocean, and all the slave owners who then purchased those slaves according to the Mosaic law, what should have happened to them? They should have been put to death because all of them stole men and women and children and were found in possession of them. And according to the Mosaic law, what was God's heart for that? Anyone who stole a man and sold him and anyone found in possession of him shall be put to death. So does the Bible condone the transatlantic slave trade and antebellum slavery? Absolutely not. Now, this is a short podcast. I know that I've answered this question very quickly, so obviously I have not answered it comprehensively.

But I think if we can get our children just thinking through some of these basic things, why is slavery wrong? And helping them see that there needs to be this objective grounding in the doctrine of the image of God, and then helping them think about what has happened in slavery throughout history. So they understand that throughout history, we live in a very unique society, that this is the first civilization that has outlawed slavery. And then help them to understand what does the Bible actually have to say about slavery? How is that slavery similar or different to the slavery that we found we found in the US in the 1700 and 1800s? And then showing them that verse, Exodus 21:16, "whoever steals a man and sells him and anyone found in possession of him shall be put to death."

Well, that's a wrap for this episode. But as always, my prayer for you as we leave this time together, is that a matter of the situation in which you and that children, God is placed in your care, find yourselves that you would trust that God is working all things together for your good by using all things to conform you more into the image of His Son.

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