The socioeconomic institution of slavery was present in both Israel and early Christianity. Slavery among the Israelites shared many of the features present in other ancient Near Eastern cultures, just as slavery among Christians was similar to the practices prevailing in the Roman empire. Throughout the Bible, however, distinctive humanitarian impulses regulate the treatment of slaves.

Exodus 21.1–11, Leviticus 25.39–55, and Deuteronomy 15.12–18 define the status and regulate the treatment of slaves. Each text is literarily framed by Israel's moral obligations to God's order for their lives: Exodus 21 by the Ten Commandments (20.1–17), which put the Covenant Code laws (chaps. 21–23) under sole allegiance to Yahweh (note that the rights of the slave's release are guaranteed as the code's first stipulation); Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 by Sabbath and sabbatical regulations, which include the obligation to treat the poor generously. Rather than viewing slavery as a divinely sanctioned institution, as proslavery writers argued over a century ago, the biblical texts accent how God's commands protect slaves from cruel and capricious treatment. (see Slavery and the Bible.)

Three types of servile status are identifiable in Israel's practice: an Israelite became a servant to a fellow Israelite voluntarily as security against poverty, or by birth or purchase (Exod. 21.32 sets the compensation for a slave's death at thirty shekels); Israelites took non‐Israelites as slaves through capture in war or purchase; Israelites sold themselves to non‐Israelites as security against debt. In the first category, servants were guaranteed both the seventh‐year sabbatical and fiftieth year jubilee releases (Exod. 21.2–6; Lev. 25.10, 38–41). In the second category, slaves, though circumcised and sworn into covenant membership (Gen. 17.9–14, 23; Deut. 29.10–15), did not receive the benefit of these releases (Lev. 25.44–46), but were protected against oppression (Exod. 22.21; 23.9). In the third category, slaves were eligible for redemption by a relative at any time, and were mandatorily freed in the jubilee year (Lev. 25.47–55). Slaves in all categories enjoyed Sabbath rest and participated in Israel's religious festivals. (See Hebrews.)

The moral imperative that mercy and kindness be shown toward slaves was based upon God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deut. 15.15; see also Lev. 25.42–43). The prophets also criticized injustices in Israel's slavery: forbidding King Ahaz to enslave captives from Judah (2 Chron. 28.8–15), attributing Israel's exile to failure to give sabbatical release to the slaves (Jer. 34.8–20), calling Israel to “let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke” (Isa. 58.6). In the eschatological vision of Joel (2.29), God's spirit would be poured out also on slaves.

Jesus' ministry and the writing of the New Testament literature occurred within the cultural practice of slavery, both Jewish and Roman. The Talmud indicates that various types of servile status continued among Jews from around 200 BCE to 400 CE. Many events and teachings in the Gospels reflect the presence of slaves, especially in the household (Luke 7.1–10; 12.37–46; Matt. 26.51; 24.45–51; 25.14–30).

The New Testament letters frequently regulate the conduct of masters and slaves (Eph. 6.5–9; Col. 3.22–4.1; 1 Tim. 6.1–2; Titus 2.9–10; 1 Pet. 2.18–19). Although the gospel of Jesus Christ abolished distinctions between slave and free (Gal. 3.28; 1 Cor. 12.13; Col. 3.11), slaves were instructed not to presume upon their new standing to legitimate careless work or disrespect toward masters. Slaves were called to direct accountability to God for proper conduct within the existing social institution. Masters similarly were told to treat their slaves justly and kindly. Paul sent the runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner Philemon, instructing Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” even “as you would welcome me” (Philem. 16–17).

The biblical vocabulary for slavery, in both its noun (Hebr. ʿebed, Grk. doulos) and verb forms (ʿābad; douloō), carries a wide range of meaning, from domestic service to enforced labor (1 Kings 9.15–22), and is metaphorically extended to the relationship of humans to God. Thus, both Moses (Deut 34.5; etc.) and David (Ps. 18.1) are called the “servant [Hebr. ʿebed] of the Lord,” and Israel and others are instructed to “serve” (ʿābad) the Lord (Deut. 11.12; Ps. 2.11; etc.; see Worship). The same imagery is found in the New Testament. Just as Jesus took upon himself “the form of a slave” (Phil. 2.7), so Jesus' followers are also to think and do (Phil. 2.5; cf. Mark 10.42–45); thus, Paul identified himself as a slave of Christ (Rom. 1.1; Phil. 1.1).

Willard M. Swartley