In the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) we read that God gave a code of law to the Hebrew people and within this code was a system of slavery that God established for his people.
If you want to know what Old Testament slavery was like and for some reason you don’t want to read through the Bible to find out, I recommend visiting a few apologetics’ websites and a few atheists’ websites. The apologetics’ websites typically cherry pick certain verses to show how the slavery practiced by the Hebrews was better than that practiced by other ancient Near East cultures. The atheists’ websites typically cherry pick certain verses to show how the slavery practiced by the Hebrews was worse than that practiced by other ancient Near East cultures.
For example, apologetics’ websites will say that Hebrew slaves were by and large fellow Hebrews who sold themselves into slavery until their debts were paid off. (Exodus 21:2-3)
This ignores the fact, which is highlighted on atheists’ sites, that Hebrew fathers could choose to sell their daughters as slaves and also many slaves were foreigners. (Exodus 21:7, Leviticus 25:39-46)
Apologetics’ websites will say that slavery never lasted more than 6 years since slaves were set free on the seventh year, which was a jubilee year. (Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12)
While this was true for Hebrew men and women who sold themselves into slavery, atheists’ websites point out the fact that girls sold into slavery by their fathers and foreign slaves were slaves for life. In addition, masters would buy girls to give as wives to their male Hebrew slaves since children produced in these marriages belonged to the master and were slaves for life. This created a dilemma for the male Hebrew slaves when it came time for them to go free: They could either obtain their freedom and walk away from their wives and children or agree to become slaves forever in order to stay with their wives and children. (Exodus 21:7, Leviticus 25:39-46, Exodus 21:4-7)
Apologetics’ websites will say that slaves were treated relatively well. They were ensured one day of rest each week (Sabbath) and if their master damaged an eye or knocked out a tooth while beating them, he would have to give them their freedom. (Exodus 20:8-10, Exodus 21:26-27)
Atheists’ websites will point out that although this was true, slaves were considered the property of their masters, and masters could beat their slaves at will. A master would only be punished if he beat a slave so brutally that the slave died within two days of the beating. (Exodus 21:20-21)
Apologetics’ websites also point out that some of the slaves were foreign virgins mercifully taken in battle by Hebrew soldiers. (Numbers 31:1-18)
But atheists’ sites question whether or not this practice was in fact merciful. The young virgins, after witnessing the slaughter of their families, were claimed by Hebrew soldiers as slave wives. (The Hebrew soldiers would spare the lives of girls they found attractive.) The soldiers would shave the girls’ heads, trim their nails, and destroy the girls’ foreign clothes to signify a complete break from their pasts, and then after giving them a full month to mourn, they would have sex with them. If after having sex with them the soldiers found them to be unsatisfying, they were to let them go free. (Deuteronomy 21:11-14)
Note: Slavery, which is found in both the Old Testament and New Testament, is never condemned by God, his prophets, his priests, or the apostles; however, God’s people are instructed in both testaments to treat their slaves well.
Although the Bible never condemns slavery, 21st century Jews and Christians unanimously oppose slavery and view it as immoral; this, of course, makes these passages from the Pentateuch all the more problematic…
For more on this topic:
Slavery and God’s hierarchical kingdom