Christopher Wright on Slavery in Ancient Israel

This past Sunday I mentioned Christopher Wright and his helpful comments on slavery in the Old Testament. I thought I could summarize one section of his book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Chapter 10 of Wright’s book wrestles with how God’s people are to relate to the cultures in which they live. Wright classifies the responses in three categories: total rejection, qualified toleration, critical affirmation.

The worship of foreign gods and things like child sacrifice fall into the first category – total rejection. So God says things like, “Do not follow their practices” (Lev. 18:3).

On the other side of the continuum, God’s people affirmed, critically, the family structure and it’s foundational nature in ways very similar to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.

In the middle, between rejection and affirmation, is qualified toleration. Wright explains, “Some customs and practices common in the ancient world were tolerated within Israel, without explicit divine command or sanction, but with a developing theological critique that regarded them as falling short of God’s highest standards. The customs in question were then regulated by legal safeguards in such a way as to soften or eliminate their worst effects” (330). It is into this category that Wright puts things like polygamy, slavery, and divorce.

Focusing here on slavery, Wright reminds his reader that 1) “slavery in relatively small societies like Israel was qualitatively vastly different from slavery in large imperial civilizations” (333), and 2) “slavery in the Old Testament was not simply tolerated with a ‘rubber stamp’ of uncritical approval” (333). The harshness of slavery in Israel was mitigated first by Israel’s own history as slaves in Egypt, second by Israel’s slave legislation that “accorded to slaves in Israel a degree of status, rights, and protection unheard of elsewhere” (334), and third by the theological affirmation that both slave and master were created equal (Job 31:15, Prov. 14:31, Prov. 17:5).

Wright considers at some length how these Old Testament patterns of relating to culture carried over into the New Testament. Certainly the authors of the Old Testament reject some cultural customs outright. In addition, it’s clear that some aspects of Greek culture were affirmed critically, such as Greek philosophy. Paul could find connecting points, saying, “on this we agree, here’s where we diverge.”

Likewise, there are aspects of culture which are tolerated on qualified terms. Wright continues, “the experience of Old Testament Israel prepares us to allow for the fact that society is fallen. Even God accepts this fact! That is the point of Jesus’ saying that while, from the beginning, God’s creation purpose was lifelong marriage, nevertheless he ‘allowed’ divorce ‘for your hardness of heart'” (349). Slavery continues to fall into this category – it was tolerated on qualified terms, not in the unregulated and harsh manner of the Roman empire. Wright makes the connection between early Christian’s toleration of slavery and our toleration of unjust economic situations today. I’ll quote at length:

“Similarly, though we may have technically abolished slavery (though even that is a dubious claim in view of pockets of continuing slavery around the world), there remain structures of economic and industrial life that fall far short of God’s standards for human dignity. Christians have to tolerate these to the extent of being able work within them and address them. At the same time, however, they must seek to challenge and reform them in light of the Old Testament’s own clear principles of justice, fair trade and compassion for the weakest. We might even be led to ponder the fact of Israel’s toleration of slavery, as to whether it might even have been preferable to other alternatives. Immediately, one has to say this is not in any sense at all an attempt to justify the enslavement of any human being in the normal meaning of that term. No human being has the unqualified right to own another human being as a piece of property or to treat him or her as such. But when we look at the main problem in society for which bonded service was Israel’s solution, namely debt, we wonder if Israel’s solution does not have at least some defensible aspects. The debtor undertook a bond. he was bound to the creditor and worked off his debt through his labour. One could argue that this is at least worthy of sympathetic consideration in comparison with the alternatives in modern society. Modern responses to unrepayable debt range from bankruptcy, where the creditor may get nothing, which seems unjust, to imprisonment, which benefits nobody and costs society dearly. Indeed, as we saw in the last chapter, considered simply as a legal penalty, it is arguable that time limited slavery for debt on Israelite terms was more humane than imprisonment on ours. The slave stille lived at home. He worked with human company in the ‘normal’ world. He walked on God’s earth under God’s sky. Imprisonment denies all these things, and it is interesting (to say the least) that imprisonment is never prescribed as a penalty anywhere in the Torah (though it was practised in the later monarchy). The point of this comparison is not, of course, to advocate the reintroduction of slavery, or to image that these are easy alternatives to imprisonment in modern society. It is rather to suggest, given our instinctive recoil from slavery but our easy tolerance of imprisonment, that the Old Testament challenges us to think rather more carefully through the ethical (and not so ethical) aspects of both. We may find we have more to learn from the Old Testament’s paradigm than we thought.”


Certainly my point isn’t to advocate for slavery, but to remind us that we still live in a fallen world. While we might wonder how saints in the Old Testament or believers in the early church could have tolerated slavery, they might equally wonder how we could tolerate many of the economic injustices we pass by without a thought. This side of Christ’s return we offer incomplete and imperfect solutions to our world’s problems.