Slavery and the Bible, Take 2

Slavery and the Bible, Take 2 March 24, 2006

Eric Seymour has written a response to my post on slavery and the Bible and takes the often-stated position that Biblical slavery wasn’t like modern slavery. He writes:

But we also must bear in mind that the slavery which existed in the times and cultures in which the Scriptures were written was not the same as the enslavement of Africans in North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was not as brutal, not based on race, nor was it always lifelong. Some have compared Biblical slavery to military service.

Likewise, a commenter named John Rabe after his post takes an even stronger, though completely false, position:

Ed, as is so often the case, is simply wrong.

Exodus 21:16: He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.

Deut. 24:7: If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.

Both of these verses would be quite applicable to the American form of slavery as it was known in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of what is called “slavery” in the Bible is actually indentured servitude, and no, God does not condemn that (whether it’s tasteful to our delicate modern sensibilities or not). But the form of slavery in which someone is kidnapped and sold is dealt with in the strongest possible terms (and would give us insight into God’s view on both the kidnapper and the one who possesses a kidnapped person).

Now let’s look at what the Bible actually says. The primary scriptures addressing this are Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25. In the Bible there are two types of slavery found, one that applied to fellow Israelites and is limited to temporary servitude to pay off a debt, and one that applied to non-Israelites, which was indeed just like modern slavery. Israelite slaves were freed during the year of jubilee, while foreign slaves were owned for life. Let’s examine the texts that control each type of slavery.

First, notice that the verse from Deuteronomy that John Rabe uses applies only to buying and selling one’s own countrymen, i.e. fellow Israelites. Exodus 21 likewise applies only to the buying and sellng of Israelites, not to the buying and selling of foreigners. In fact, God specifically commands them to buy foreign slaves in Leviticus 25: 44-46:

“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 will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

Notice also that foreign slaves are slaves for life and are property to be inherited, just like modern slaves were. And notice that they are specifically commanded to buy them. Clearly then, the verses about buying and selling Israelites that Rabe cites do not rule out the buying and selling of modern slaves either, as they were also not from the same country.

Now, what about the claim that ancient slavery included treating the slaves better than modern slavery? If this is so, it isn’t by much. Exodus 21, which governs the treatment of Israelite slaves, says that a master could beat slaves, but if he beat them to death, he must be punished. If, however, they live more than a day or two, then he is not to be punished:

“And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money [property].”

And this is for the Israelite slaves, who were treated far better than the foreign slaves. So we know that they could beat their slaves as long as they didn’t kill them. We know that they were property to be passed from one generation to the next. There is also the matter of slaves taken as the spoils of war, which is authorized in many places in the Bible. Can you imagine the moral outcry if, for example, American soldiers brought home Iraqis to be their slaves? This is treated as absolutely normal in the Bible. Indeed, God explicitly commands them to capture slaves from among the people they conquered and pass them out as the spoils of war. They seemed particularly fond of virgin females.

Let me add one more thing for David Heddle, who seems to think that my objection concerns whether Paul should have declared revolt against Roman slavery. That is not my objection. My objection is that nowhere in the Bible is there a single statement saying that slavery is immoral, regardless of who practiced it. In fact, God (if you believe the Bible to be his word) specifically and explicitly commands them to buy slaves and to take captives as slaves. With all of the other far less heinous things that God takes the time to condemn as immoral, through Paul and Jesus and many others, slavery simply isn’t one of them. And that makes no sense to me at all. One would think that, at the very least, Paul would have instructed his fellow Christians in his letters not to own slaves themselves. You don’t have to revolt against Roman slavery in order to say, “This is wrong and those who follow Christ should not participate in it” – as he did with so many other things. That’s why I find it special pleading to take this one thing and say, “Well, maybe he was just revealing it to us slowly”. Why would that be the case only with this one thing? It simply isn’t consistent and the rationalizations for it don’t make much sense to me.

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