googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Is the Bible Immoral? Part 3: Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Is the Bible Immoral? Part 3: Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 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. 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. (Leviticus 25:44-46, NIV)

Another way that critics try to portray the Bible as “evil” is to claim that the Bible condones slavery. The criticism strikes a chord with many people because of America's tragic history of slavery. We consider ourselves to be a better nation for having ended the practice here and so, when we read passages like Leviticus 25 which seem to support slavery, doubt about the Bible can creep into our minds.

It should be noted first that there's a little bit of dishonesty behind the criticism – even if it's not intentional. When we hear the word, slavery, we immediately think about the subjugation of blacks in the South. It's a highly, emotionally charged word which is the impression critics want us to have. It's an unfortunate consequence of translation that words of different languages seldom have exactly the same semantic range of meaning. It's nearly unavoidable that when we substitute an English word for a Hebrew or Greek word, we interpret the text according to our understanding of the English word. In English, slavery sounds like a terrible thing which makes this criticism seem to have merit.

This is not a trivial point. This criticism's entire weight rests upon the negative connotation implied by the word, slavery. Critics routinely beat this drum by using disparaging language like, Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do (source). It's a type of straw man argument. The moral quandary only exists if the slavery mentioned in the Bible resembles the slavery as the typical, modern reader understands it.

The reality is that the “slavery” discussed in the Bible is not at all like we experienced in the US. For example, Exodus 21:16 specifically proscribes the death penalty for anyone who kidnaps a person in order to sell him. In his letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul includes “enslavers” (ESV) in the same list as murderers, liars, and other sinners (1 Timothy 1:8-10). The type of slavery once practiced in the US, where dark-skinned natives were kidnapped in Africa and sold in America, is specifically forbidden in Mosaic Law and is clearly identified as a sin.

When the Bible talks about “slaves,” it is primarily talking about 2 groups of people. First, a tiny minority of slaves were prisoners taken in war. War was a grim reality at the time of the Old Testament and conquered kingdoms meant defeated populations that needed to be dealt with. If you defeat and enemy, you can't simply pack up and go home or else you'll be fighting the same enemy again sometime later. The Law gave instructions in dealing with enemy prisoners that was more practical than internment camps and more humane than summary execution. This doesn't mean that God “condones” war or slavery. Just like Jesus said about the law allowing divorce (Matthew 19:8), laws dealing with captured prisoners were merely allowances made for people living in a fallen world. It doesn't reflect God's perfect will.

The far more common slaves in biblical times are what we might call indentured servants. In biblical times (both the Old and New Testaments), there were no such things as government welfare or bankruptcy. Out of economic necessity, chronically poor people could pledge their future labor in exchange for things like forgiveness of debt, a lump sum of money, and food and shelter. The practice isn't as foreign when we look at similar arrangements that aren't called slavery. Kings had vassals. Knights had squires. Vassals never became kings and squires never became knights but in both situations, the subordinate served the master exclusively and permanently.

Such an arrangement might still sound bizarre to modern readers, but it was often easier for the impoverished person to do this rather than try to provide for himself. Once again, such an arrangement isn't “condoned” by the Bible. God created a world where “work” meant tending a garden and picking food off the trees to eat. In the fallen world, people have to work hard to eat. This type of arrangement existed and the Law gave instructions to regulate it.

It would take too much space to address every verse in the Bible that discusses slavery but, in general, the Bible tries to make the arrangement more professional and less like “slavery” as we typically understand it. Colossians 4:1 commands masters to treat their slaves “justly and fairly.” Jewish slaves were commanded to be freed in the year of Jubilee (every seven years). Even after being freed, a Jewish servant could choose to permanently remain with his master. In other nations, female slaves were often used for sex but the Law commanded that if a Jewish owner had sex with a slave, he must treat her like a wife. These are just a few of the types of regulations the Bible lists concern the practice.

Finally, God ultimately does not distinguish between slave and master – both are equal in His eyes (Galatians 3:28). In his letter, Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus, not as a slave but as a brother (Philemon 1:16). Paul even refers to himself as a “slave” to Christ (Greek, δοῦλος, Romans 1:1, et al). Indeed, Christ Himself gave us the parable of the unprofitable servant, Luke 17:7-10. He has forgiven my debt, paid the penalty for my sins, and given me eternal life. He is my Lord. I owe Him all I have and could serve Him my entire life and still never repay all He has done for me.

1 comment:

Steven J. said...

You yourself quote a passage that says that foreigners, under the Mosaic law, could be owned as permanent, inheritable chattels. Indeed, that clause that forbids ruling ruthlessly over one's fellow Israelites could be understood (given the legal maxim that "the exception proves the rule" -- if X is forbidden where condition Y prevails, you are otherwise free to do X) to allow ruthless treatment of one's foreign chattels.

How different is this from the race-based slavery prevalent in the United States before 1865? I note that, unlike the practice of the Roman Empire (and many other ancient slave-owning societies), the U.S. did not allow slave-owners to kill their human chattels, so in this respect, again, American slavery resembled that authorized by the Mosaic Law. I don't know that there was any law (certainly, if there was, it went generally unenforced) against sexual exploitation of American slaves, but I think that law in the Pentateuch about treating a slave as a wife if you used her sexually applied, again, to Israelites sold into (theoretically) temporary bondage, not necessarily to foreign slaves.

For example, Exodus 21:16 specifically proscribes the death penalty for anyone who kidnaps a person in order to sell him.

After 1807, the United States forbade the importation of new slaves into the country, and treated the international slave trade as piracy -- jailing many, and on one occasion hanging a man, for trying to transport slaves between Africa and Brazil. At the same time, human chattel servitude (of Black non-citizens) was protected by law (e.g. the Fugitive Slave Act). It was not at all legal in the U.S. to kidnap free people -- even free Blacks -- into slavery (cf. the protagonist of Twelve Years a Slave, eventually freed by a southern court because it wasn't legal to enslave him). Granted, the existence of a law does not guarantee universal or enthusiastic enforcement of a law (a point noted by several Old Testament prophets about aspects of the Mosaic Law, of course), but the letter of U.S. law towards enslaved Africans between 1807 and 1865, and that of the Mosaic Law towards enslaved foreigners, was well-nigh identical.

And yes, indentured servitude also existed in the early United States, closely modeled after Old Testament rules regarding temporarily enslaved Israelites (these laws were sometimes evaded and abused by people using indentured labor -- a problem that, again, seems to have occurred in ancient Israel). This allowed poor Europeans to settle in the New World without coming up with the price of a trip and homestead all at one time. Again, the standard of freedom after seven years and a chance to set oneself up as an independent land owner did not apply to enslaved Africans, as it did not apply to non-Israelite slaves.

Oh, by the way, very few Black Africans were kidnapped by white slave traders. That was dangerous and impractical. In general, they went to African slave markets, and bought prisoners of war, and people enslaved (by local African rulers) for debt or for various crimes (the usual sources of slaves). They didn't think of themselves as thieves or kidnappers; they were merchants, buying a product where it was cheap and selling it where it was expensive. The product simply happened to be human beings of another nation, a practice specifically allowed in Exodus 25:44-46.