Webster’s dictionary defines a slave as “a person held in servitude as the chattel of another”. The word ‘chattle’ refers to a human being that is owned by another human being. By our modern definition of slavery, we cannot comprehend the concept of a person being owned by another person without that owned person not being a slave.
On one side of this debate about the Biblical treatment of wives we have Christians who claim that there is absolutely no similarity at all between the husband/wife relationship and that of a slave owner to his slave while on the other side we have atheists and other humanists who claim that the Bible makes women into slaves. What do both of these sides have in common? Jesus said it best in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.”
Matthew 22:29 (KJV)
The truth is that the Scriptures teach us that is possible for one person to own another person without that owned person being considered a slave. In other words, from a Biblical perspective while all slaves are owned by other people, not all people who are owned by other people are to be considered slaves.
Wives and Children Designated by God as Property and Slaves Allowed as Property
The Bible shows us that God designed two social classes of human beings that were to be considered the property of men. He allowed a third social class of human being that could also be taken as property as well under certain circumstances.
In the 10th commandment God mentions a man’s wife, along with his male and female slaves amongst those things which are his property:
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”
Exodus 20:17 (KJV)
In the following passage we see that God gives children to their fathers as property:
“3 Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. 4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. 5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.”
Psalm 127:3-5 (KJV)
The English word “heritage” is a translation of the Hebrew word “Nachala” which literally means “inherited property”.
God authorized Israelite fathers to sell their daughters as indentured servants for a period of no longer than six years. This is shown in the following passages:
“7And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. 8 If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.”
Exodus 21:7-8 (KJV)
“And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.”
Deuteronomy 15:12 (KJV)
The passages above show that neither male nor female Hebrew indentured servants could be kept indefinitely unless the male Hebrew willingly wanted to stay and serve (see Exodus 21:5-6) or the woman was taken as a wife by the man who purchased her either for himself or one of his sons. Otherwise after 6 years male Hebrew indentured servants had to be freed and female Hebrew indentured servants had to be allowed to be purchased back by their male relatives or by another man wishing to take them as a wife.
And for those who think these daughters sold as maidservants could be used for sex outside a covenant of marriage, I would refer the reader to the following prohibition against fathers selling their daughters for this purpose:
“Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness.”
Leviticus 19:29 (KJV)
So, it is clear that God did not allow Hebrews to sell or buy their fellow Hebrews as slaves. They could only could only purchases the services of fellow Hebrews as indentured servants for a limited window of time. However, it is equally clear that God did in fact allow the Hebrews to purchase the children of foreigners within their land as slaves or they could purchase slaves from the nations around them.
“44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. 46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.”
Leviticus 25:44-46 (KJV)
And in the New Testament Paul gives the following command to slaves:
“Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;“
Colossians 3:22 (KJV)
The word “servants” in the KJV passage above is a translation of the Greek word “Doulos” which actually means “slaves” and this is how most of the modern translations translate this verse.
This brings us back to wives. We have already shown from the 10th commandment that it includes wives with male and female slaves as the property of men. But the ownership of a husband over his wife is seen even clearer in the original Hebrew language of the Scriptures. The noun form of the Hebrew word ‘baal’ which means ‘owner/master’ is used eleven times in the Old Testament to speak of a husband’s relationship to his wife. The word ‘baal’ is used an additional 11 times in verb form to refer to a woman coming to be ‘owned’, or married, to a husband.
The passage below from the book of Deuteronomy uses both the noun and verb form of the Hebrew word baal to illustrate a husband’s ownership over his wife:
“If a man be found lying with a woman married to an [verb ‘baal’ ‘owned by’] husband [noun ‘baal’ ‘owner’], then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.”
Deuteronomy 22:22 (KJV)
In the New Testament the Apostle Peter refers back to this concept of a woman being owned by her husband when he admonishes wives to follow the example of the women of past generations like Sarah who “obeyed” her husband calling him “lord”:
“5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: 6 Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.”
I Peter 3:5-6 (KJV)
Now having proven from the Bible that wives are actually considered by God to be property just as slaves are, we will go on to show that the responsibilities of owners toward these two types of human properties are very different.
8 Biblical Differences Between Wives and Slaves
As we have previously shown from Exodus 20:17 and Leviticus 25:44-46, wives and slaves are both considered by God to be the property of men. And both wives and slaves are commanded by God to obey their masters in everything as Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 5:24, 1 Peter 3:5-6 tells them to do.
But this is where the similarity between wives and slaves ends and the differences begin. Below are eight Biblical distinctions between wives and slaves.
1. Slave owners don’t have to sacrifice themselves for their property – husbands do.
“25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it“
Ephesians 5:25 (KJV)
2. Slave owners don’t have to teach God’s Word to their property – husbands do.
“And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.“
1 Corinthians 14:35 (KJV)
3. Slave owners don’t have to act as human instruments of God’s sanctification in the lives of their property – husbands do.
“26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
Ephesians 5:26-27 (KJV)
4. Slave owners don’t have to love and care for their property as they do their own bodies – husbands do.
“28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church“
Ephesians 5:28-29 (KJV)
5. Slave owners don’t have to give their bodies to meet the sexual needs of their property (nor should they) – husbands do.
“3 Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. 4 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.”
I Corinthians 7:3-4 (KJV)
6. Slave owners don’t have to honor their property – husbands do.
“Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.“
I Peter 3:7 (KJV)
7. Slave owners don’t have to give their property the fruit of their labors – husbands do.
“Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.“
Proverbs 31:31 (KJV)
8. God did not design men to be the property of other men. God did design women to be the property of their husbands.
“7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. 9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.“
1 Corinthians 11:7-10 (KJV)
We have shown conclusively from the Bible that contrary to modern humanist notions of equality, God has actually designated wives and children as the property of their husbands and fathers. And again, contrary to modern egalitarian views of what marriage should be, God commands wives to regard their husbands as their masters and like slaves to be obedient to their masters in everything. The obvious exception for both wives and slaves in their obedience is if their masters command them to sin against God. It is only in this case that they can and must disobey their masters as Acts 5:29 tells us.
The truth from the Scriptures is that there are indeed some similarities between wives and slaves but there are also significant differences between wives and slaves.
God created the relationship between a husband and wife to mirror the loving relationship between himself and his people. A wife is to be regarded as her husband’s most precious possession, one that he cares for and would protect with his very life.
Another significant difference between wives and slaves is husbands as their wife’s owner and master are required by God to give their wife the fruit of her labors as Proverbs 31:31 states. A slave is not entitled to enjoy any fruits from his labors.
Now this principle must be taken into account with the entire witness of the Scriptures. In Ephesians 5:24 wives are commanded to submit to their husbands in “everything”. And yes, that would most certainly include finances. Every dollar that comes into their home comes under the spiritual authority of the husband whether that is income from his work, his wife’s work or inheritances that either of them may acquire. Even if the wife does not work outside the home but instead is a keeper in the home her work there has great value.
What this means is that whether a wife works outside the home or is a keeper of the home the husband should allow his wife to have fruits from her labor. Practically speaking that means allowing her some discretionary use of money to buy things for the house or herself personally that she would like to buy.
Finally, on the topic of slavery. It is only because of the effects of sin in the world that God allowed for the practice of slavery but he commanded it to be done under humane conditions. For a more in-depth look at the reasons and conditions under which God allowed for the practice of slavery see my article “Why Christians Should Not Be Ashamed of Slavery in The Bible”.