You Say the Bible Advocates Slavery?

Recently I saw a skeptical friend of mine share a slogan very similar to this one. It makes a very powerful point, reducing to the absurd any notion of getting morality out of the pages of the Bible. On one hand the Bible seems to be condemning a loving relationship between two members of the same-sex, while at the same time endorsing such a reprehensible act as kidnapping Africans and shipping them overseas as pieces of property. Surely we’re beyond such an antiquated and silly book by now, right?

Admittedly, Christendom does have some ugly skeletons in its closet. Historically, we know that some of the Puritans in North America engaged in such deplorable practices. And in the times of the Civil War, many southern “Christians” used the Bible to defend their right to own slaves. As Christians, we need to be honest and up front about this. But were these Christians drawing their morality from the Bible by kidnapping Africans and selling them as property?

To answer this question, we can say unquestioningly answer in the negative. The Bible did not endorse any such activity, it clearly condemned such an activity. Exodus 21:16 says “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” (New International Version) You can’t get much stricter than that! If these laws were enacted or even the principles taken seriously, the type of slavery we normally think of would never have been able to get off the ground. St. Paul echoes the Old Testament ethic in his epistle to the young pastor Timothy, saying “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” (1 Timothy 1:9-10) So here we see that Paul does not endorse slave trading, but rather he condemns it along with lying, murdering and practicing homosexuality. So that means that this little meme is grossly inaccurate.The Bible is not “OK” with either practice.

Now at this point, some might be tempted to charge me with being naïve. Clearly the Bible did endorse some form of slavery, even if it didn’t involve kidnapping people into forcing them into slavery. But was it anything like the type of slavery we see in the antebellum South? Again, we would have to answer in the negative. While it would take a bit of unpacking to get into all the nuts and bolts of the Old Testament law and slavery, the kind of “slavery” the Bible is OK with would be better labelled as servanthood. When an Israelite could not pay his debt, he would sell himself into servanthood for seven years in order to pay it off. At the end of the seven years, or every fiftieth year in Israel – the year of Jubilee – his debt was automatically cancelled. (Leviticus 25:35–43) The servant , the provisions made in the Old Testament were to help the poor, not to allow them to be owned, bullied or treated as inferior. (Deuteronomy 15:10)

Furthermore, many scholars of history believe that when Jesus preached his famous sermon out of Isaiah 61, he was announcing that the Jubilee was fulfilled in himself. In saying that he was anointed to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, he was pronouncing a time for Israel to repent and to practice the spirit behind the Jubilee, which is to let men’s debts go free. He teaches that we are to “forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you”. (Luke 6:37-38) In Matthew we see the condemnation of those who are forgiven large debts but in return do not forgive comparatively small ones (Matthew 18:21-35). We look around today and see all the problems in the world that are being caused by people and nations being crushed by debt, both material and spiritual. Those who are trumpeting that the Bible as morally irrelevant to today’s times are the ones who are out of touch, not the reverse.

So in brief summary, the Bible does not endorse the type of antebellum slavery practiced centuries ago, nor anything resembling it. Those who would claim otherwise are either grossly misinformed, willfully ignorant or just plain intellectually dishonest. Not only does the Old Testament prescribe a way to help the impoverished, Jesus takes it a step further by pronouncing that the Jubilee has been fulfilled in himself, that we are to pray and ask God to forgive our debts, as we have forgiven the debts of others.

Further Reading:
Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by William J. Webb

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
  • Daniel Mann

    Erik, I appreciate your defense of Biblical slavery by distinguishing it from antebellum slavery. While some will defend the Bible by simply claiming that we are no longer under the OT, this type of defense, although easy to make, falls short of what Paul says about the holiness of the Law (Rom. 7:12).

  • Mark McGee

    Excellent points! The Old Testament Law demonstrates God’s compassion for people who are slaves. The Mosaic Law is the most compassionate of all ancient laws. Jesus fulfilled the Law and in Him all people, slave or free, have the option for spiritual freedom. The Apostle Paul directed slaves how to deal with their positions and how God would use them to impact the lives of others for eternal good. Paul also pointed out that the Law was a “school master, tutor,” to bring us to Christ. All people are slaves to sin. The Law of God condemns all people based on that legal position. Christ came to fulfill the Law and redeem slaves from sin so the Holy Spirit of God could place them in a new position of being adopted as sons and co-heirs with Christ. Amazing.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this important topic!

    Mark McGee

    • Bill Weatherby

      Come on Mark. A little bit of slavery is good? Slavery is slavery. Don’t pretend that there is good and bad slavery.

  • James Russell

    Since you cite Leviticus 25:35-43, I’m unsure how you missed verses 44 and 45.

    I’ll post it here for your convenience: 44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You
    may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and
    members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your
    property. 46 You
    can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make
    them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites
    ruthlessly.”

    I don’t see anything here that would prohibit buying slaves from other nations. In fact, the Bible supports this framework for slavery. And in the Atlantic slave trade, the European nations were usually buying from African brokers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade#African_participation_in_the_slave_trade)

    Additionally, we often hear the argument that the American slave experience was harsher, and that Biblical slavery was much gentler. I’m inclined to disagree, since as we see in Exodus 21, it’s okay to beat a slave as long as you don’t kill them: “20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” Well, well. As long as they survive you’re all set!

    There’s also the hairy issue of the systemic rape of captives, as seen in Numbers 31:”17Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” I suppose slavery, even sexual slavery, might have been preferable to the fate of their mothers and brothers, but I’m still unclear on why these young girls deserved their fate. Perhaps you could enlighten me.

    • Daniel Mann

      James Russell,

      Although I’m not expert regarding the Israelite culture of Moses’ time, I’ll try to answer your challenges. First of all, I think that the verses you cite fail to support your contention that Israel’s slavery was analogous to antebellum slavery.

      1. For one thing, antebellum slavery bought the kidnapped,
      something that was forbidden for Israelites (Exodus 21:16)

      2. Unlike in the case of antebellum slavery, the slave in Israel always had
      recourse to circumcision in order to enjoy all of the privileges enjoyed by
      Israelites. This means that they would go free after six years! Only the most
      recalcitrant would deny themselves and their families this privilege,
      especially in light of the very manifest presence of God in the midst of Israel!

      You complain about the harshness of Biblical slavery, that a
      master could beat his slave. You assume that the slave had no legal recourse to
      his mistreatment. However, the very verses you cite demonstrate that there were
      definite limits in place for the way masters could treat their slaves. Even if
      he knocked out the tooth of his slave, the slave would go free to compensate for
      his loss (Exo. 21:27).

      I think that you wrongly assume that loosing a tooth or an
      eye were the only possible grievable wrongs. However, Mosaic law was not
      exhaustive. It offered specific examples as principles to represent many types of comparable infractions and punishments. However, admittedly, slavery could be harsh. In fact, it needed to be harsh to some degree to ensure compliance and the viability of the institution.

      You also complain about the “systematic rape of captives”
      (Num. 31:17-18). However, there is nothing in this context about “rape.” In
      fact, there were laws which carefully governed the treatment of females
      captured in battle:

      “When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and Jehovah thy God delivereth them into thy hands, and thou carriest them away captive, 11and seest
      among the captives a beautiful woman, and thou hast a desire unto her, and
      wouldest take her to thee to wife; 12then thou shalt bring her home to thy house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; 13and she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thy house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto
      her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. 14And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not deal with her as a slave, because thou hast humbled her.” (Deut. 21:10-14)

      This, in no way comports to your charge of “rape.”

      • James Russell

        1. The law only forbids kidnapping. It makes no provision for someone who has been kidnapped and then sold. It’s also pretty apparent that this only provides for punishment against the kidnapper.

        Again, look at Leviticus 25:44-46. It provides a Biblical framework for lifelong slavery of foreigners (and the continued enslavement of their descendants).

        2. “Unlike in the case of antebellum slavery, the slave in Israel always had
        recourse to circumcision in order to enjoy all of the privileges enjoyed by
        Israelites.” I’m not sure where you’re getting this. Could you provide a specific passage?

        3. “However, the very verses you cite demonstrate that there were
        definite limits in place for the way masters could treat their slaves. Even if
        he knocked out the tooth of his slave, the slave would go free to compensate for his loss.” So the limits are (a) Don’t kill him and (b) Don’t knock his teeth (or even, if we’re going to take a very liberal reading of scripture, his other body parts) out. Sounds like this sort of thing is still kosher: http://www.doobybrain.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/slave-wounds.jpg

        4. I’m not sure where you’re pulling the “not exhaustive” thing from. Could you cite a specific passage?

        5. “In fact, it needed to be harsh to some degree to ensure compliance and the viability of the institution.” – I’m still at a loss as to why slavery was worth preserving. Could you enlighten me as to why this is?

        6. You make reference to Deut. 21:10-14. It’s nice to see you citing scripture again. Could you point out the specific place where the woman captive has a say in all this?

        Of course, we’re still not told why the male Midianite children were killed. I suppose God just works in mysterious ways?

        • Daniel Mann

          James,

          I’ll try to answer your responses point by point.

          1) (and 2) You correctly claim that Lev. 25:44-46 makes provision for “lifelong slavery of foreigners.” However, the “foreigner” always had the option of becoming an Israelite. In fact, it was encouraged:
          ·
          **“This is my covenant with you [Abraham] and your
          descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner–those who are not your
          offspring.” (Genesis 17:10-12)

          Israel was to be a model of inclusiveness. All could and should come; all were to be under the covenant of God, and none were ever turned away:
          ·
          “Any slave you have bought may eat of [the Passover] after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it…An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the
          LORD’S Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.” (Exodus 12:44-49)

          3) While I have already admitted that there were necessarily harsh aspects of Biblical slavery – and these were necessary in order to maintain the viability of the institution – there were also many humanizing factors:
          ·
          * “Bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the Lord. And there rejoice before the Lord your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns, who have no allotment or inheritance of their own. (Deut. 12:11-12)

          4) Regarding the Mosaic law not being exhaustive (its specific examples serving as models of how the law can be provided in similar cases), this is something that has been recognized by virtually all scholars. Even the Jewish scholars try to make a case for the
          authority of its ancient writings (Mishnah and Talmud) based on the fact that the Mosaic law doesn’t cover all the necessary specific cases. Therefore, there had to be other authoritative writings.

          5) You ask for the rationale for biblical slavery. For one thing, it served as the “criminal justice system,” in lieu of a much worse fate – prison:
          ·
          * “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” (Exodus 22:3)

          Slavery also represented a way to voluntarily get a fresh start:
          ·
          * “If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.” (Deut. 15:12-14)

          6) “You make reference to Deut. 21:10-14. It’s nice to see you citing scripture again. Could you point out the specific place where the woman captive has a say in all this?”

          Perhaps she didn’t have a say? However, her fate under the Mosaic system was far better than had she been made into a sex-slave as she would have been under other systems. Under Mosaic law, she was afforded the dignity of a wife with all of its protections.

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  • Throg Warhammer

    This whole argument could easily be settled if you would just wake up to the fact that the Exodus never happened, that Moses didn’t exist, and that Canaanites fabricated a history for themselves complete with a man made law, based off of the Code of Hammurabi which obviously advocated slavery because it was written by bronze age tribalistic people with morally pathetic views against women and other tribes. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan and you’ll get a good idea of the type of assholes you’re dealing with here.

  • Bill Weatherby

    I am always amazed by christians twisting and turning to justify or
    explain evil deeds committed by their god. Do we not believe that truth,
    falsehood, good and evil are immutable? Do we really believe that what
    is right or wrong should be viewed through some historical and cultural
    prism? If we do believe that, it means that we can do what we like now
    and wait on history to justify our deeds. Who can then say that the
    Holocaust is wrong? A thousand years from now we might think that ethnic
    cleansing is right. Rape and child pornography might also be
    re-evaluated as being right.

    In my simple mind, there are
    absolutes. Do the mothers of the babies killed by Joshua feel pain and
    fear when the heads of the babies were smashed against the walls? Did the
    Midianites not fear their daughters’ safety when they were taken as war booty by the Israelites? Did the daughters of Lot not feel
    fear when they were offered to the crowds? These people were humans like
    us. They loved, they cried and they cared for their children and
    family. Any archaeological discovery in the Holy Land would attest to
    the fact that there were like us.