Slavery: In Many Shapes and Sizes

February 15, 2023

The following letter is from this week's Dear Rabby, an advice column in our weekly publication, Shulchan Shelanu. This blog offers a slightly expanded response to the question posed in the letter.

Dear Rabby.

I am a high school student from a bi-racial family. My Dad is black, and my Mom is a white Ashkenazi Jew, so that makes me a Jew too. These are interesting identities to juggle!

For the past year and a half, my Mom has been involved in one of the Messianic Jewish congregations in our area. She has me reading the Bible, and lately, I have run into passages about slavery that really upset me, Frankly, at best, the Bible seems very loose about slavery. At worst, the Bible seems to accept it. I am especially upset because these passages would really weird out my father for whom slavery is a matter of family history (for me too).

What do you say?


Dear Karen,

You are asking a big question that cannot be comprehensively treated here. But let me give what help I can now.

Slavery in the Bible and slavery in pre-Civil War America were different in many ways.

  1. Slavery in the Bible was not based on race, while slavery in pre-Civil War America was. In the Bible, slaves were often prisoners of war, debtors, or individuals who sold themselves into slavery to preserve their lives or as a means of joining the community of Israel. They came from a variety of ethnic groups and were not defined by their skin color.
  2. Slavery in the Bible was not hereditary. Children of slaves did not automatically become slaves themselves, as was the case in pre-Civil War America.
  3. Slavery in the Bible was regulated by specific laws that protected slaves from mistreatment. For example, Sh'mot/Exodus 21:20-21 states that if a slave owner beats their slave and the slave dies, the owner shall be punished. Slaves in pre-Civil War America had no legal protection. And if slaves in the Bible were physically abused so that they lost a tooth or an eye, they had to be released from their servitude. You can see how such a provision would restrain masters from abusing their slaves. 
  4. There were different classes of slaves, with different rights and privileges. In the Older Testament, there were Hebrew slaves who had to be released after six or seven years. These slaves were indentured servants. Many of the colonists who came to America were themselves, indentured servants. And some slaves in the Bible were foreigners, prisoners of war or survivors of a conquered people.
  5. Slavery in the Bible was often temporary. Certain classes of slaves were released after a set period of time or after a debt was paid. But in pre-Civil War America, slavery was a life-long condition.
  6. Slaves in the Bible had certain rights, including the right to own property, marry, and raise families. These rights were often denied to slaves in pre-Civil War America.
  7. Slaves in the Roman world were often highly educated but lacked full citizenship rights. They were treated like members of the family, were sometimes tutors of the children, etc. They were an underclass, yes. But they were not treated with the brutality of American slavery. Writing to the Roman world, Paul advised Christians who were slaves to behave honorably, but if possible to get free. He did not commend slavery but said, “You were bought at a price, so do not become slaves of other human beings” (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Modern Slavery

Slavery is a global reality even now. Estimates of the number of people in slavery ranging from the tens of millions to over 40 million. However, it is important to note that determining the precise extent of modern slavery is a complex task, and the numerical estimates given by various organizations vary.

According to the Global Slavery Index in a 2021 report, an estimated 40.3 million people were living in conditions of modern slavery. However, other organizations offfer different estimates; for example, the International Labour Organization estimates that there are 24.9 million people in forced labor worldwide. In either case, we will agree the numbers are staggering.

Modern Sex Slavery

But what of sex slavery, also known as sex trafficking?

Modern sex slavery, also known as sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation, is a form of modern slavery that involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of people, primarily women and girls, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Millions of people are affected by sex trafficking and exploitation worldwide, but it is difficult to determine an exact number due to the hidden and underground nature of the crime.

However, the Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 4.8 million people in forced sexual exploitation worldwide, although others report the actual number of victims is much higher.

Making Peace With Being God's Slave

I close with a comment by Mookgo Solomon Kgatle, a Black South African, writing about how being a disciple of Jesus involves being both a servant (Greek, diakonos) and a slave. (Greek, doulos). He chooses a teaching of Jesus, “whoever among you wants to be a leader must be your servant; and whoever wants to be first among you must become everyone’s slave!” (Mark 10:43-44).

He writes,

Doulos is a call to become a slave of the master, Jesus. Both Diakonos and Doulos in Mk 10:43 are a call for a disciple to follow on the footsteps of Jesus and live a life of enduring hardships and suffering. This life is exemplified by Jesus himself because he did not come to be served but to serve others.

Mookgo Solomon Kgatle, “Diakonos and Doulos as Concepts of True Discipleship in Mark 10.43–44,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 28, no. 1 (March 20, 2019): 71–83,

As a Black South African, Dr. Kgatle certainly knows about racist brutalization and abuse. But as a Christian and a scholar, he also discovered that the terms “servant” and “slave” are not terms of contempt and oppression when the Master is Yeshua, our Lord and Redeemer.

Peace to you, Karen, and to all your family.


Photo by Richard Ashia at

One comment on “Slavery: In Many Shapes and Sizes”

  1. If the concern of this young woman is that the notion of slavery appears at all in the Torah or in the apostolic writings, perhaps it would be worth noting that it is never presented as a good thing to do or a good state to be in. It simply provides rules to be followed if someone is a slave -- rules which required that a master honor the humanity of a slave throughout the period of his or her indenture. Slaves in the Torah were not reduced to the conditions of animals, and generally their slavery was temporary. Nor was it permitted to kidnap people to enslave them. That crime was punishable by death. The one rule which allowed for a slave to volunteer for a permanent status as such was strongly discouraged and never the result of coercion. Hence, what is called slavery in the Torah was really not chattel slavery or ownership of human beings. It was rather a kind of employment contract -- though not one that would be employed in modern times.

    Slaves in Greek culture had it worse, being viewed as animated tools. But even so, the goal for disciples of Rav Yeshua was to be set free if possible, and patient and diligent in service if freedom was not possible -- much like the responsibility of a soldier who has been drafted involuntarily. Those who were masters over slaves before they became disciples were required to treat them well, even if societal and economic conditions would not permit setting them free immediately.

    Setting captives free has always been a Torah value, even for non-Jewish disciples. Enslaving them has never been encouraged, even when circumstances outside the discipleship community imposed it. Thankfully, nowadays in the USA there is no involuntary military conscription and there has been no sanctioned slavery for more than 150 years. But there are nowadays criminals who kidnap and enslave human beings as illegal immigrant workers and sex-traffic victims. The values of the Torah and the apostolic writings demand of Rav Yeshua's disciples that they seek to end such trafficking whenever they may encounter it.

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