Biblical Slavery

The issue of genocide and slavery have come up a few times in a few conversations I’ve gotten involved in, here and here. Ed and DarkSyde have been making the point that the fact that the Bible endorses both slavery and genocide are proof that modern moral standards are superior to those of the Bible. I’ve addressed the genocide issue in a couple of different places. My position would be that if God commanded the destruction of an entire people due to their wickedness, then God was right to do so because God created those people, and they richly deserved being destroyed due to their rebellion against God. Genocide wouldn’t be right just whenever someone felt like it and claimed God told them to, but only if God had actually told them to.

My critics claim this is a ‘might makes right’ argument, or a ‘divine command theory’ of morality. But neither of these is the case. It’s not God’s right to give or take life just because he’s strong. It’s right because He created everything, and it all belongs to Him. And I reject a divine command theory of morality, which would teach that anything that God commanded is moral. Rather, I believe that the Bible teaches that morality flows from God’s nature, and God cannot contradict his own nature. Therefore we avoid both saying that God could be absolutely capricious in His commands or decrees, and that God is subject to some prior or superior standard of morality. The first possibility could lead to the conclusion that God could command a heinous crime and it would then be good. Skeptics (including Ed) are right to assert that this means moral standards are impossible. If it could be shown that God gave commands that were contradictory, or issued moral principles that were contradictory, then that would be a strong objection to the truth of the Bible, I believe. I have never heard any such demonstration, however. And the second possibility fails to address the issue. If God is subject to some standard external to Him, then morally speaking He’s in the same boat we are, and we still haven’t addressed where morality comes from or what it is.

The issue of slavery is a little more complicated. The people of Israel were not allowed to own perpetual slaves that were fellow Israelites. Israelites could sell themselves and their families into slavery for seven years, but after that they were freed (with compensation) unless they wished to stay in the service of the master forever (see Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15). If a Jew bought a woman to be his wife, he had to treat her as a full wife with all of the wife’s privileges. He could not sell her, and he could not refuse to take care of her. Perhaps the idea of buying a wife sounds very strange, but arranged marriages were the habit of the day. This was really no different.

Further, kidnapping and slave dealing were prohibited. You could sell slaves gotten in war, but you could not kidnap people in order to enslave them. Sexual slavery also did not exist within the law. A woman who was taken for that purpose was to be treated as a wife, with all of the protections and privileges of a wife. Everyone was commanded to take care of the poor, and assist them any way they could, even giving them money just before the sabbatical year when they probably would not get repaid.

Exodus 21:20-21 is cited as an example of the cruel regime of slavery. If a man beat his slave and he or she died, he was to be treated as a murderer. But if the slave did not die, there was no punishment. Ed has claimed that this means that if the slave died a few days later, then there was no punishment. But this is not what the passage means at all. Exodus and Deuteronomy is what we call case law, or principial law. It’s not meant to cover every single case, but rather to establish principles. The principle clearly established here is that if it is clear that the slave died from harsh punishment, then the master is to be treated as a murderer. But if it is not clear (the slave lives for a while), then he is not to be punished for beating his slave. This is clearly the import of the passage, especially when combined with what comes later in the passage (Exodus 21:26-27), that if a man beats his servant hard enough even to knock out a tooth, the slave was free. The principle established is clearly that a man is not to beat his slave, or he risks loss of the slave (the slave would go free) or the possibility of criminal punishments, but that light physical discipline was permitted. Again, these laws establish principles. They do not attempt to describe every possible situation.

So, they could not own Israelite slaves permanently unless the slave agreed. The slave was to be compensated. And the slave could not be treated like an animal. He could not be beaten to death or even beaten enough to cause any permanent injury. They were not allowed to oppress or “rule over [a slave] with rigor” (Leviticus 25:43). Slavery was viewed as a way for a man to help out someone else in need. If a man had become poverty stricken, then he could sell himself and his family to another man, as a way of getting himself out of debt. This model of slavery looked nothing like the slavery that was practiced in the ancient world, or the black slavery that existed in this country for many years.

They were also allowed to buy slaves or capture slaves of non-Jewish people. These were permanent slaves that did not go free. But there is no indication that they were to be treated any different than other slaves. Further, they could join the Jewish faith, become proselytes and then they were treated as Jews. But they were still not allowed to kidnap them, kill them, or defraud them (see Exodus 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34). They were not allowed to have different laws for foreigners, but had to treat a foreigner traveling in their land the same as anyone else (Lev. 24:22). The only difference was that they were allowed to buy slaves or to take slaves in battle. So no free man could be made a slave- they could only take slaves that were already slaves, or had lost their freedom in battle. And this was not a free pass to attack other nations to get slaves. Their success in battle was dependent on God’s approval of the war, and many times in their history Israel lost in battle due to fighting without God’s approval.

In the Old Testament, God had declared the people of Israel to be His chosen people. There was therefore a distinction between the Jews and all other people in God’s decree. In God’s judgment then, the people of other nations were not equal to the Jews, in terms of what rights or privileges they had. Slavery existed because of the curse of sin that was on the world, and that curse was God’s doing. But God gave the people of Israel a foretaste of what would come in paradise by prohibiting permanent slavery among each other.

When Christ came, the distinction between Jew and Gentile was erased. No more was there just one nation or people that were esteemed by God, but all nations were brought into the kingdom of heaven (Eph 2:14, among many others). If all nations were therefore regarded as equal in God’s eyes, there would be no need for a command outlawing slavery. The prohibitions of the Old Testament on owning permanent slaves would now apply to all people.

Some have objected to the fact that Paul gives commands to slaves to obey their masters, as if this were an endorsement of slavery. But in fact, all it is is an injunction for all of us to submit to the situation God has put us in. Jesus also told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matthew 22:16-21), and Paul (Romans 13) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13) both tell us to submit to rulers. This was not a blanket endorsement of whatever rulers did, but Christians are forbidden to rebel against God-ordained authority, even when that authority is unjust. The principles were all there, and they were quickly applied.

Everywhere that Christianity advanced, slavery disappeared. Paul taught Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal brother in Christ, despite the fact that Paul was sending Onesimus back to serve Philemon. They not only could not teach rebellion against the Roman Empire, as it would have destroyed the early church, but it would have been wrong to do so by their own principles. But they constantly taught the equality of all before God, and this principle quickly led to the end of slavery.

Slavery in Christian lands made a brief (historically speaking) comeback due to Portuguese traders coming into contact with African tribes that made a habit of enslaving each other. The Portuguese were good at making a buck, and they recognized the business opportunity. It persisted for a few centuries, but it was again Christians who ended the practice. Yes, it’s true, Christians were on both sides of that argument, but the arguments of those supporting black slavery (principally the “Curse of Ham” argument) were ridiculously unbiblical and did not stand the test of time. Black slavery as it existed in this country and in Europe had nothing to do with Biblical slavery, and the Christian world came to recognize this, though it is certainly to our shame that it took as long as it did.

But Christians have often mis-applied the teachings of Scripture. This says a lot about Christians, but is not an argument against the morality of Scripture.

When you understand the division between Jew and Gentile that existed pre-Christ, and the disappearance of that division, and you really look closely at the laws governing slavery, you will recognize that the morality of the Bible again far surpasses anything that the world has ever invented. Slavery in Islam or the caste system in Hinduism or the slavery that existed and continue to exist under the Atheist systems of Communism, Fascism and Nazism that have existed in this century were and are horrible regimes of cruelty and oppression. Slavery in the Bible was nothing like that, and as it existed between the people of God was little more than a long-term economic contract.

But if morality is only discovered by reason, then reason has no good answer against slavery. Many regimes kept themselves in power for centuries by enslaving others. The ancient world was a world of slavery. Everywhere in that world, most of the people were slaves. It was slaves that built the Great Wall, the pyramids, and the White Sea-Baltic Canal. Slavery generated huge wealth for the South before they were forced to give it up, and the economic development of the colonies would not have occurred as fast as it did without it. It made rational sense on many levels. But it was still wrong.

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