A Sin to Slave: How Slavery in the American South Was Incompatible with Covenant Code

Assyrian Slave Relief

The mention of slavery in the Bible often brings up images and notions of slavery from our more recent cultural past, which presents a stumbling block for many in coming to faith in Christ. It is understandable that if God condoned the atrocities committed with the African slave trade in America, then such a God is neither great nor worthy of worship. However, a careful examination will uncover that slavery in the Bible is not the same as slavery in the American South.


To support that African slavery in the United States is incompatible with Mosaic Law, to a general audience, an examination will be conducted on (1) the practice of slavery and slave codes in the ancient Near East, (2) the regulations of slavery under Mosaic Law, and (3) early slave codes of the United States.

People naturally see and interpret the world through the lens of the culture in which they live. Conflict arises when one attempts to interpret an event of a foreign environment from within their cultural milieu. When Westerners hear the word slavery, it is often heard with western ears. A pre-understanding of the modern reality of racism and the memory of African slavery in the American South shapes many Westerners view of this word. Skeptics often make the claim that slavery is an immoral act condoned in the Bible and suggest the Christian has only two choices; either God is not benevolent, or the Bible is wrong. Either option poses a profound theological conflict for the believer. However, when examining the Biblical texts concerning slavery from within the context of the culture of its authors and original audience a third option is revealed; that the type of slavery mentioned in the Bible was not only different from the practice of slavery in the pre-Civil War American South but was also forbidden under Mosaic Law.

The human institution of slavery has existed in nearly every civilization throughout history (Engerman et al. 5). The first mention of slavery in the Bible occurs in Genesis, post-Flood, as a curse from Noah onto his grandson. Canaan is condemned to be “a servant [‘eved] of servants [‘eved]” (English Standard Version, Gen. 9:25). The New International Version renders this “the lowest of slaves” (Gen. 9:25). The wording suggests that Noah had previously understood the concept of slavery or servanthood. Such understanding would have been prior to the Flood when the earth was full of violence, and its entire people had “corrupted their ways” (Gen. 6:12). The negative context of a curse in which slavery first appears lends further support to its pre-Flood human origin.

The first task when clarifying the definition of a slave is to look at the Hebrew word ‘eved, one of the words frequently translated as “slave.” While this word has a variety of meanings depending on its context, it is important to note that it comes from the root of the word meaning “to work.” Some would suggest, “a slave is only a worker or servant” (Cohn 667). Theologian John Goldingay notes ‘eved is not only the word for “a serf and for a bondman, but also a servant who is not actually bound to a master” (460). He goes on to suggest that a servant can be applied to a state official who is a servant of the king, and the king himself who is a servant of God (460). He recognizes that “slave” is a controversial translation when considering how the word is interpreted in English (460).

By contrast, the 1740 Slave Code of South Carolina describes a slave as “property in the hands of particular persons” and further declares that they are “chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors” (“An Act Better”). Chattel refers to a movable article of personal property. Interestingly, the word chattel originates from the same word as cattle (“Chattel”), and both are applied to livestock. Chattels are property, not people, and this is how slaves were viewed, not only in pre-Civil War America but also in much of the ancient Near East.

However, word studies and definitions alone cannot provide sufficient evidence as to the differing nature of slavery in the South and slavery in the Old Testament. The practice of slavery in the ancient Near East can be best understood through the archeological discoveries of ancient legal series. The most famous, and most complete, is the Code of Hammurabi, which comes out of eighteenth century B.C. Mesopotamia, and was collected and compiled by the Babylonian king Hammurabi (Coogan 87). This legal code contains two hundred and eighty-two statutes, ranging from assault and theft, marriage and divorce, as well as dealing with slaves. Two earlier, and much less complete, legal series that bear similarity to Hammurabi are the Lipit-Ishtar Law Code and the laws of Ur-Nammu. The first comes from 164-175 years prior to Hammurabi (Steele 159) and when compared to the Hammurabi code bears “remarkable parallels” (162).  The second was compiled by the king of Ur, in southern Mesopotamia in the twenty-first century B.C. (Canby 1). These Ancient codes are similar in nature and parallel in many of their statutes, suggesting they were modeled after each other. However, the laws of Ur-Nammu and Lipit-Ishtar were poorly preserved, and only fragments have been discovered rendering a much less complete reading. Therefore focusing on the code of Hammurabi is significantly more conductive.

Not only do these legal series bear similarity between one another they also bear a similarity with the Covenant Code Moses delivered at Sinai. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright suggests that it is not the similarity between these codes that bear the most significance; it is in their differences. He points out that the regulations on slavery are some of the most noteworthy differences and “quite unparalleled in any other ancient Near Eastern code” (292). The regulations in Mosaic Law, when read against the backdrop of the surrounding culture, appear to be “given in protest not only against Egypt, but also against the Code of Hammurabi” (Bakon 91).  For example, regarding runaway slaves Mosaic Law states; “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them” (Deut. 23:15-16). By contrast, statutes 15-19 of the Code of Hammurabi state that runaway slaves must be returned to their master (“The Avalon Project”). Hammurabi further grants a reward to those who return a runaway slave and prescribes death to those who harbor such a slave (Roth et al. 84). This comparison alone shows that slaves in the ancient Near East were regarded as property. Moreover, laws concerning runaways were more concerned with the rights of the owner than the rights of the slave. Contrarily, the Mosaic Law appears to be more concerned with the protection of abused persons, foreign and domestic. A parallel law is also found in statutes 25-28 of the A.D. 1740 Negro Act of South Carolina. This Act requires runaway slaves to be returned to their masters, and further grants monetary compensation to the apprehender of the slave upon return (“An Act Better”). Similarly, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act allowed slave catchers to enter and retrieve slaves from any state, including states where slavery was prohibited (Finkelman 144-145). The regulations regarding runaway slaves in America shows they were treated much like slaves in the ancient Near East; as property to be returned.

The book of Exodus began with the oppression of the Israelites when Egypt came under the control of a new king. This king, out of fear of losing power, “put slave masters over them [the Israelites] to oppress them with forced labor” (Exod. 1:11). These slave masters “made their lives bitter with harsh labor . . . [and] worked them ruthlessly” (v 14). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 430 years (Exod. 12:41), and while no codes exist from ancient Egypt, it is probable that such codes were based on Hammurabi’s and the surrounding culture. The Israelites would have been familiar with Hammurabi and similar codes, and there are many parallels between them and the Covenant Code. This similarity need not suggest that Moses copied and compiled the Law in the same manner as Hammurabi. It is possible that God was working within the world and expressing himself through a system already familiar to the Israelites. One of the most striking differences is in the reasons these codes were given. The prologue of Hammurabi describes how Hammurabi was appointed by the gods as king and was commanded “to provide just ways for the people of the land (in order to attain) appropriate behavior” (Coogan 87-88). Likewise, the regulations of the 1740 slave code of South Carolina reads that the laws are given “so that the slave may be kept in due subjection and obedience, and the owners . . . may be restrained from exerting too great rigour [sic] and cruelty over them, and that the public peace and order of this Province may be preserved” (“An Act Better”). By contrast, the Covenant code was given not to preserve the peace of the people amongst themselves, but to preserve the peace of the people with God. God gave the regulations so that “out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exod. 19:5). Slavery existed in the ancient world, and the Israelites were well acquainted with it, and the abuses of the system. God chose to regulate this system instead of abolishing it. For a clearer image as to this peculiarity, it is worthwhile to examine the types of enslavement.

There were multiple methods of enslavement in ancient culture, both voluntary and involuntary. Debt-slavery was the most common type of voluntary slavery, and the form most referenced in the Bible. Goldingay notes that it was normal in Israel to work within the family (461). When someone became impoverished and could no longer support his family, he had to go outside of the family for employment, or more frequently he would send one of his dependents to work outside the family. Theologian and philosopher Paul Copan notes debt-slavery was similar to the “employee/employer relationship” (125). Wright claims that debt-slavery was, in its experience, similar to “many kinds of paid employment in a cash economy” (333). A debt-slave in both Israel and the surrounding cultures was a person who became impoverished, usually through excessive taxation, high-interest loans, or the monopoly of services and resources by a corrupt upper-class (Chirichigno 142). Debt-slavery, thus, is a voluntary contractual agreement between two people. Complications arose within debt-slavery as early as twentieth century B.C. Mesopotamia, and it “continued to be a major problem throughout the history of the ancient Near East” (54), hence the legal codes regulating such institutions. For instance, in Israel the term for a debt slave was six years, after which would come freedom (Exod. 21:2). Hammurabi statute 117 calls for a three-year term of servitude (Coogan 88). Deuteronomy, however, adds “And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you” (15:13-14). The Mosaic Law adds this regulation as a safeguard against the released slave returning to poverty, a safeguard not found in Hammurabi.

Poverty was not part of God’s design. The Old Covenant was made so as to separate Israel out of all it’s surrounding nations (Ex. 19:5), so that they may be “a light for the nations, that my [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6). In this covenant God placed restrictions on depraved human hearts and “promulgated certain basic rights to the slave ensuring his decent treatment” (Bakon 93), and slowly guide the world to freedom, back to His original design. Until this time, God sought to regulate the practice of slavery to ensure his people were taken care of in a world that was stricken with greed and poverty.

A practice similar to debt-slavery was also instituted in colonial America, where in return for passage immigrants would agree to work for a specified amount of time (Kolchin 8). This form of indentured servitude founded most of early American labor needs in the seventeenth century A.D., and the importation of African slaves during this time was negligible. It was not until the late seventeenth century, following a series of events that African slaves became the primary source of American labor. A sharp increase in the population as indentured servants were released from service created an increased need for labor, which was followed by a decline in the number of migrants seeking transportation to America which left that need unmet (12). After an increase in the availability of Africans through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and their price fell below that of an indentured servant African slaves became the primary means for meeting those unmet labor needs (12). The concept of indentured servitude as a means of labor fell out of favor before the founding of the United States in 1776. Thus, any regulation regarding debt-slaves is ill-applied to the slavery of Africans, which ended with the 13th amendment in 1865.

Africans became slaves in a variety of ways, none of which were voluntary. Some were kidnaped and sold to slave traders, many were captured as prisoners of war, and even more were born into slavery. The kidnapping and selling of servants was common practice in the Middle East (Goldingay 471). In the Bible, Joseph was enslaved in a similar manner by his brothers who then sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:19-28). In comparing abduction codes, presumably for slavery, statute 14 of the Code of Hammurabi states, “If a man should kidnap the child of another man, he shall be killed” (Coogan 88). In Exodus, God declares, “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession” (21:16). Hammurabi calls for death only in the case of the kidnapping of a child. The Bible, however, instates death for the kidnapper of anyone, and further clarifies that this capital offence is punishable whether the victim has been sold into slavery or kept. It should be noted that Deuteronomy specifies the victim as a “fellow Israelite” (24:7); it is thought that Deuteronomy is meant to clarify the Exodus text. However, the Old Testament provides other safeguards if “fellow Israelite” is the intended meaning of the Exodus text, such as “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exod. 22:21), and “you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). These regulations are unparalleled in any of the other examined legal series of the ancient Near East. In fact, Israel’s covenant code comes out of the context of abused slaves and attempts to minimalize this abuse for the benefit of all people. This kidnapping regulation is not dispensed with under the New Testament either. In the New Testament, Paul writes to Timothy, “the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful . . . for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” (1 Tim 1:9-10). However, very few slave owners in the American South personally kidnapped the slaves they owned. Pro-slavery advocates noted that they were not kidnapping; therefore, such Biblical prohibitions did not apply to them (Harrill 171). Unfortunately, had such advocates been following any Covenant Code regarding these slaves the appropriate response would have been to treat them like foreigners who God loves and provides for (Deut. 10:18).

The majority of Africans imported through the Atlantic slave trade were captured as prisoners of war “victims of military conflict among African nations” (Kolchin 20). Dr. Louis Frank writes in his memoir on the traffic of Africans into Cairo that this cause of slavery appears, “as the result of frequent quarrels among their kings or their sultans . . . captives are either kept in his service or are sold or exchanged for commodities” (Engerman et al. 221). Regulations regarding prisoners of war appear in the Old Testament. Deut. 20:10-15 describes how to approach a city with an offer of submission and forced labor, however, this “need not imply they are made to work excessively hard or are ill-treated; they are simply not free to give up this work” (Goldingay 474). Should the city choose to fight and not surrender, those who were left alive and taken captive would have most likely been women and children. In Numbers, God tells Moses and Eleazar to count the people and animals that were taken (31:26). It further goes on to record and clarify that there were “32,000 women who had never slept with a man” (31:35). Dividing that number in half later refers to “16,000 people” (v 40, 46). It is made clear that of the people captured they are all young girls. It is further made clear that they were regarded as separate from livestock, as a separate count of livestock is later given. For any such woman who had been taken captive Deut. 21:10-14 gives strict regulations and prohibits raping, selling, or enslaving her, and calls for her freedom if her captor is no longer interested in marrying her (Goldingay 565). Furthermore, and as reviewed above, prisoners of war would be considered orphaned foreigners and would have been treated as such. It should also be observed that African slaves captured as prisoners of war were prisoners of someone else’s war, not an American war. If the American slave owners had been following the Mosaic Law in regards to the prisoners of war, slaves should have again been welcomed as foreigners.

Leviticus has a note on permanent slaves, which should not be overlooked.  In a section on the release of debt-slaves, it mentions that foreign slaves can be purchased as permanent slaves, or even bequeathed to children as inherited property (25:44-46). Chirichigno refers to these people as chattel slaves in his work Debt-slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East. However, his use of the term chattel is in general reference to permanent slaves and has little to do with the manner in which they were treated. These permanent slaves in Israel could not own land, as it was already promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 33:1). In the culture, slavery was the only means by which they could survive. These permanent slaves were not property; they were people in need. Chirichigno notes that in the Old Babylonian and Middle Assyrian periods “owners could mutilate their slaves” (146). He claims that the terminology used in the Laws of Hammurabi makes a clear distinction between the debt and chattel slaves, and does not appear to regulate the treatment of slaves by their owners, while “the majority of the biblical slave laws do refer to the fair treatment of slaves by their owners” (147-148). Biblical laws were progressive for their culture and “extended to chattel-slaves rights that were afforded to members of the covenant community” (185). Furthermore, during the Babylonian exile, God grants equal status to foreigners and grants them land rights (Ezek. 47:21-23).

However, the vast majority of African slaves in the United States prior to the start of the Civil War were not imported; rather they were born in America. By the time the American colonies declared independence and formed the United States, about 80% of slaves were native born (Stark 319-320). In 1808 a federal law was enacted which stated, “It shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell . . . as a slave or to be held to service or labour “ (“An Act March”). This prohibition, however, did not lead to a decline in the number of African slaves in the United States. According to federal census data collected after this prohibition act, and that of five years prior to the end of slavery, the population of slaves in the United States increased by over 200% (Kolchin 93). The Bible is fairly silent on birth slaves. The only possible mention of this is Ex 21:4 indicates that if a master gives a servant a wife and she bears children the wife and children belong to the master should the servant decide to leave. Goldingay points out that a servant taking a wife may have implied taking on permanent servanthood (466). However, this could also imply that if the servant chooses to neglect and leave behind a wife and children, they will remain under the care and protection of the master. It could also be that the woman was still under a debt contract. In any case, this says nothing about the status of the children. By contrast the 1740 Slave Code reads:

“All Negroes . . . who now are, or shall hereafter be, in this Province, and all their issue and offspring, born or to be born, shall be, and they are hereby declared to be, and remain forever hereafter, absolute slaves, and shall follow the condition of the mother, and shall be deemed, held, taken, reputed and adjudged in law, to be chattels personal, in the hands of their owners and possessors” (“An Act Better”).

What this law makes clear is that the children of slaves are the property of slave masters. That the attribute slave depends on one’s race, much like the Hebrews who were enslaved in Egypt.  Furthermore, in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States” (Dred Scott). This decision extended no constitutional rights to any person of African descent, further treating them as property, and as a race of permanent foreigners.

When examining the Bible from within the context of its setting, slavery in Ancient Israel was not the same as chattel slavery in American history. One was person oriented, the other property oriented. In light of other texts from the ancient Near East, slavery of the South bears more semblance to slavery in this context; a context that Mosaic Law prohibited and drastically improved. Under the Old Covenant, slaves became servants, and property became people. Under the New Covenant, servants became brothers (Phlm. 1:16). Believers in Christ “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Eph. 2:19). Faith in Christ creates true equality, abolishes any man-created social status of slave or free, making all who would ask children of God and heirs to his promises (Gal. 3:26-29).

Ironically, skeptics distort Scripture with their cultural blinders in the same manner nineteenth century slave owners distorted it to support slavery, by assuming African slaves in the antebellum South were the same as those mentioned in the Bible, but responsible hermeneutics shows the fallaciousness of this viewpoint. The question, however, cannot be overlooked; why did God regulate instead of eradicate any form of slavery? Bakon suggests that slavery was an answer to poverty (90).  Goldingay points out that after the sin of Adam and Eve “work” became “labor” and “service” became “toil” (462). Thus poverty is the result of sin, as where there is sin there will be exploitation of people and resources. Abruptly ending a system of welfare so entrenched in the ancient world would have left countless people without any resources to care for themselves or their family.

However, until the New Covenant, when God would write his law on the hearts of men (Jer. 31:33), and people would no longer be controlled by sin (Rom. 6:14), God’s intent would not be fully actualized. When the practice of slavery reached its maximum depravity, the people took notice. Much like the Hebrew slaves cried out under oppression in Egypt (Ex. 2:23), the slaves in America too cried out. Where God once sent Moses as his representative to free His people, he now sent his people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as his representatives to free the rest.


Works Cited

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  • Stark, Rodney. “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery”. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.
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