Atheist scholar John Loftus asks this question, “So again, why didn’t God tell his people, ‘Thou shalt not own, buy, sell, or trade slaves,’ and say it as often as he needed to ?1 One of the accusations that skeptics make against the God of the Bible is that he was “pro-slavery.” This topic came up for me recently as I was reading in the book of Jeremiah and he was discussing slavery in chapter thirty-four. What does Jeremiah have to say about slavery? Reading him would be a good place to start to see if God was/is, in fact, “pro-slavery.”
Before going into that, yesterday, I was reading the family history and saw where one of my English ancestors, George (b. 1770) was sold by his father (also named George) into indentured servitude in order for the son to become an apprentice as a turner (machinist). There was a contract that was drawn up showing the amount paid to his father and for the time period of the indentured servitude. Also, the “master” (the turner) would be responsible for George’s upkeep. But aside from that, the “master” had control over George for a period of seven years and in return George would work for him as a turner’s apprentice. So, my ancestor was willingly sold into servitude in order to learn a trade.
Going back into ancient history (6th century BC), the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was conducting a military campaign against Judea, in particular, Jerusalem. Nebucahdnezzar had laid siege to Jerusalem. During this campaign, King Zedekiah, ordered that all of the Hebrew slaves be released. In turn, the people released all of their slaves but after a short period of time, they forced the Hebrew slaves back into bondage. In response to this, the prophet Jeremiah delivers a prophecy against Jerusalem. Here are the verses from chapter 34 concerning these slaves:
8 The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. 9 Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. 12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 14 ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’[a] Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. 17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine.
What is of particular interest to me is what Jeremiah states regarding how the slaves came to be slaves in the first place and the requirement to release them after a short period of time. In verse 14, it states that the slaves “sold themselves into slavery” and also as provided for by the Mosaic law, they were to be released every 7 years. Therefore, because the slave owners reneged on their agreement to release the slaves, God was going to punish this injustice by the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.
So we find in these verses that the slaves sold themselves into servitude and that they were to be released after six years which reveals that God was compassionate towards slaves. What is also striking is how bad of an offense God thinks it is. Injustice towards these slaves is so bad in God’s opinion that he will permit the destruction of Jerusalem as a result of this offense. So, it is clear that in these verses from Jeremiah that God is very concerned with social justice, that God is compassionate, and that he is concerned about the victimization of the innocent. There is a lot more to be said in the pages of Jeremiah about the abuse of the vulnerable at the hands of the powerful (actually a recurring theme in the OT) but odds are that you won’t read the rest of this article if it is too long so I’ll end now. But suffice to say that Jeremiah shows us that the “God of the Old Testament” was not an ogre at all as some would have you think. Rather, he cared and still cares for those who are not in a position to protect themselves.