They had come to Egypt along with many other Western Canaanite Semitic people in a wave of migration beginning about 1800 B.C. They settled in Lower Egypt along the Nile River in a land called Goshen along with the multitude of other Semitic or Asiatic people. These Semitic people later became known as the Hyksos. Joseph, Jacob's son, due to wise council he had given Pharaoh, had risen to a place of authority and served as Pharaoh's governor (Genesis 42:6).
In the years that followed Joseph's death the Hyksos people and the Hebrews grew more numerous and stronger, and by 1650 B.C. the Hyksos, meaning foreign rulers, had come to rule all of Lower Egypt from Avaris, the Hyksos capital. The Egyptians, however, resisted the rule of the Hyksos and in a war between Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt that ended in 1550 B.C. they expelled the Hyksos from Egypt.
At that point Canaanites and the Hebrews, who remained in Egypt and who were virtually indistinguishable from the Hyksos were subjected to increasing oppression.The Bible says that a Pharaoh came to power "to whom Joseph meant nothing." He conscripted the Hebrews into forced labor, and so the Hebrews were slaves for nearly 100 years. The Bible describes their servitude as harsh.
When Moses rose to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, the treatment they had experienced as slaves was a fresh and bitter memory they took with them. At the mountain where Moses received the law from God that would govern their life as a nation, laws were included to ensure that the Hebrews did not turn to enslaving their own people or treating others as they had been treated.
Here are some of those Old Testament laws:
Exodus 21:2, Hebrew slaves.
Hebrews might become slaves, usually because of economic necessity. But Hebrew slaves were to be set free after 7 years. They were to be set free fully provisioned (Deut. 15:12-15). But a slave wife, if she had been purchased separately by the slave owner and she became the wife of a slave later, was not set free at the same time. She apparently still had to fulfill the 7 years of service due her master.
Exodus 21:7-11, women slaves.
When a woman was purchased as a slave she was to be considered the wife of the slave owner. She had the rights of a wife, and that included protection from being sold to someone else. She would not be displaced by a later wife. If she was not treated as a wife, she had the right to her freedom.
Exodus 21:20, killing a slave.
If a slave owner killed a slave, it was a crime to be punished. Whether that was to be capital punishment or some other is not certain in the verse. But because no other penalty is required, we can infer the same punishment for a man who kills another either by accident or intention (Ex. 21:12-14).
Exodus 21:21, 26-27, injury to a slave/servant.
If a slave owner injures his slave but the slave recovers from his injuries, the loss to the slave owner of the time of recovery was considered to be the penalty. But if the injury was serious enough to maim the slave, that slave was to be freed as compensation for his injuries.
Some have argued that Ex. 21:21 allows a slave owner to beat his slave nearly to death and get away with it or that if the slave dies after a few days the slave owner is not to be held responsible for the death. That takes the passage out of context with the other rules of just treatment and penalties. Because the death of a slave due to beating is covered in verse 20 and the significant and long term injury to a slave in verses 26-27, we can infer that this case was different. It was an injury that didn’t lead to death and it was an injury that was not permanent.
Leviticus 25:42-46, a Foreigner could be a slave for life.
Foreigners were not protected from slavery. They were protected as slaves by the same laws that applied to all slavery, but they did not have the right of release after 7 years or at the year of Jubilee. They would be slaves for life.
Yet, there is no evidence of an institution of slavery. Apparently, the children of those slaves were not to be considered slaves. Those children might even have been considered as Israelites since they would be circumcised.
Deuteronomy 23:15, runaway slaves.
Slaves who had run away from masters outside of Israel were to be given refuge and not returned to their owners. They were to be free.
The land of Israel was a land of refuge for both the Israelites who were refugees from Egypt and for anyone else seeking refuge. It was better to be in Israel than anywhere else. That general principle might be the guiding principle regarding slavery and foreigners. Being a slave in Israel for a foreigner was better than being free outside of Israel. As noted before they were accorded the same rights as Israelites, except for their bondage. They had become, as it were, the people of God and covered by the covenant.
That was a blessing that far outweighed their bondage. They had the blessing of knowing of God and his mercy. They had the blessing of knowing God personally, and many foreigners became fully men and women of faith – as did Ruth and Rahab.
Tying it all together: Slavery was a reality everywhere. But it was not universally evil. In some cases it served the critical needs of a slave for home and livelihood. In some cases it resulted in the opportunity for improvement for their families that would not have been possible otherwise. In every case from beginning before the law to the end of the Old Testament, slaves were to be treated generously and with a sense of equality. Mistreatment of slaves was punished. A Torah observant, faithful Jew, such as Boaz, lived a well ordered life following the law as a servant of Yahweh God. He would not have mistreated his servant/slaves.
Slavery in the New Testament
Slavery was an institution in the Roman world. At the beginning of the first century A.D. and through the second century the number of slaves might have been as many as 10 million people, 1/6 of the population. Many had been captured during wars with Rome, but many were also the children born to those captured and enslaved enemies. Since Rome had no provision like the Jews of including the children of slaves in the nation as people with rights under the covenant of God, slave children often remained slaves. These slaves might have been laborers and have been mistreated, but there were also well educated slaves who served in households as servants and many times as what we would consider professionals like teachers and doctors.
When Christian began to make converts among the Romans and Greeks many of those Romans were slaves, and a few were even slave owners.
To these Christian slaves and slave owners Paul wrote instructions in several of his letters to churches and one letter to a particular slave owner, his friend Philemon. Here’s what he said:
To slaves he urged obedience to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8 and 1 Timothy 6:1). They were to render service to their masters in the same spirit as they were to serve God. They were to consider their service to their masters AS service to God. Paul told them that in so doing they would bring honor to the Lord.
Their life witness to the Lord was more important than even freedom, especially if that freedom would result in defrauding their master. Paul even sent runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon because he did not want Onesimus to live with the fact that he had not only wronged Philemon by running away but had apparently stolen from Philemon when he left and had not returned what he had stolen (Philemon 14 )
But Paul’s instructions were not to slaves alone. He also wrote to the masters who were Christians. He wrote that they treat their slaves with kindness, those who were believers as fellow believers (Ephesians 6:9). It is the same thing he asked of Philemon (Philemon 16). But he went beyond merely asking Philemon to take Onesimus back; he asked Philemon to accept him back as a redeemed freed man, redeemed by the debt Philemon owned Paul (Philemon 19)
Paul believed that freedom is God’s design for human beings. He says so in Galatians 3:28 and 4:7. But that freedom of which he wrote was more than the freedom from slavery to a human master; it is freedom to God. And he believes that freedom to God is God’s design equally for men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave or free (Galatians 3:28). That freedom to God is our most urgent need. Freedom from slavery to a human master is desirable, and if it can be obtained lawfully a slave should seek it, but if not believers who were slaves should consider slavery as the place where God had placed him (1 Corinthians 7:21,22); it was his job. On the other hand, if you are free, Paul says, do not choose slavery.
(The last may sound odd, but, in fact, a free man in Roman society could sell himself into slavery.)
Tying it all together: Slavery is not God’s design for human beings. But it is a reality in our world and has always been. God’s laws given to Israel controlled slavery and made it humane. His commands for Israel also resulted in foreign slaves having the rights, privilege and blessing of a natural born Israelite. That was a blessing that could not be measured. It made the serving worth the cost.
In the New Testament, Christians were the agents of freedom. They not only proclaimed the good news that God had set them free from slavery to sin but by their transformed lives began the process of changing the culture. And they did change the culture. Historian David Brion Davis argues that "the Judaeo-Christian belief in a monotheistic God who rules over a homogeneous group of people generally prevented European Christians from enslaving one another. As more Western Europeans converted to Christianity, this unified religious identity enabled the decline of slavery in Europe." Slavery in Europe
But there remains the sad fact that hundreds of millions today are in slavery. Had God made a law making slavery wrong would it all be different? Unlikely. God made a law against stealing and lying yet there remains stealing or lying. No. Our selfish human natures pay no attention to God's laws. What is needed and what God provided was an inner change of heart and mind that willingly submits to God's design for a well ordered life, a heart that is generous to the slave and servant and careful about his or her good and sets the prisoners free.