Many may be surprised to learn that in the Old Testament, God expressly forbids the slave trade, commanding that anyone who steals a man is to be put to death, whether he has sold the victim yet or not (Exodus 21:16).
Naturally, this raises the question of why God had laws on slavery. It must be understood that there were different types of slavery in the ancient days. One was the all-too-familiar slave trade of kidnapping a person from their home country and selling them for profit (this being the type God forbade). Another was those in debt who sold themselves into slavery.
This second type of slavery was the most common, and was based on finances, not on race (oftentimes Jews had Jewish slaves). If a person ran into debt, instead of ending up homeless and desolate, he could sell himself as a slave. Basically, a well-to-do man would “buy” the one in debt, and from then on the one bought was the “slave.” The buyer or “master” would then pay off all the slave’s debts, and in return the slave would work for him for a specified amount of time until this loan was paid back (in Jewish culture this was no more than six years, for God ordered that slaves were to be freed the seventh year). In the meantime, the slave was guaranteed food, clothing, and housing.
Laws which protected slaves were virtually unheard of in that day, yet God demanded the Jews to treat their slaves, and issued several laws of protection for the slave, in the event that a Master did not treat him as he should. For example, if the master beat the slave and did permanent damage (even the loss of a tooth), he was to set the slave free—his debts were paid, and he was freed from the work contract (Exodus 21:20). If the master beat a slave to death, the Master was to be killed (21: 26-27). Many times slaves were treated so well that they wished to remain with their masters even after their debt was paid (21:5).
In the midst of all these slave protection laws, one verse jumps out as being cruel to the slave, and is often taken out of context and used by anti-Christian atheists to demean the God of the Old Testament. Exodus 21:21 states that if a Master beat his slave but the slave didn’t die, or survived the beating for a few days, the Master was not to be killed. In context, this verse in no way implies God condones the beating of slaves as long as they don’t die. All it is saying is that if the slave did not die, or survived for a few days, the Master did not beat him with the intent of killing him, thus the Master was not to be executed for first-degree murder. Cases for which God did not prescribe a specific punishment were to be taken to the courts, and the particular circumstances of why the owner beat the slave (in some cases, this could even be self-defense) would be taken into consideration before a sentence was handed down.
So while the term slave today evokes images of Africans being kidnapped from their homeland and sold to greedy Americans who treated them cruelly, this is not an accurate picture of the slavery discussed in the Bible. And though the Bible speaks of slaves as property, conjuring the idea of people be treated as sub-human and mere objects, this too is an inaccurate reflection of God’s view of human life. Jesus Christ paid for all mankind with his blood – He underwent an excruciating, torturous death in order to “buy” us. While those who accept His purchase of them could be considered His property, it is understood that does not make us worthless; to the contrary, we are His most prized possessions—worth so much, that He was willing to die for us.