Bronze-level articleSlavery in the Bible

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For it is so written in

The Bible

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In modern times, slavery is generally considered immoral. Historically speaking, on the other hand—in the Roman Empire and in much of Europe and the "New World" between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries—opinions have varied more widely, tending toward a view of slavery as morally acceptable (except possibly by the slaves).

Slavery was also an important facet of life in biblical times. Both the Old and the New Testaments have instructions regarding slaves which most Jews and Christians disregard. However, some fringe Christian Biblical literalists, notably those who believe in Dominionism, argue that biblcal instructions regarding slavery and its institutions are still relevant today.[1] [2]

Contents

[edit] Slavery in the Old Testament

[edit] Overview

The Bible identifies different categories of slaves including female Hebrew slaves, male Hebrew slaves, non-Hebrew and hereditary slaves. These were subject to different regulations.

Male Hebrew slaves were to be released after six years and were treated better than other types of slaves. In general, the code for fellow Israelites involved a crude social safety net to prevent extreme and unnecessary hardship; so, if one managed to get into serious financial trouble to the point of being homeless, he could be "debt bound" to another Israelite. While easily translated as "slavery", it was more like getting someone to come work for you for free... oh, wait, that is "slavery". Evangelical Christians, especially those who subscribe to Biblical inerrancy, will commonly emphasize this distinction between debt bondage and race-based chattel slavery when excusing the Bible for endorsing "slavery"; the argument is that it's not real slavery, at least by 19th Century American standards, although this is arguably a distinction without (much of) a difference.

Female Hebrews could be sold by their fathers and enslaved for life (Exodus 21:7-11), but under some conditions.

On the other hand , according to Leviticus 25:44, non-Hebrews could be subjected to "slavery" in exactly the way that it is usually understood. The slaves could be bought, sold and inherited when their owner died. This, by any standard, is race- or ethnicity-based, and must necessarily involve some sort of slave trade.

Finally, there was evidently a caste of hereditary slaves who were born into slavery.

So the Bible endorses various types of slavery - though biblical literalists only want to talk about one version and claim that it wasn't really so bad.

[edit] Beating slaves

Beating slaves was perfectly allowable under the following rules:

Exodus 21:20-21 (NASB): 20If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.

Exodus 21:26-27 (NASB): 26If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. 27And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.

[edit] Male Hebrew slaves

Exodus 21:2-6 (NASB):

2If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment. 3If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. 4If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. 5But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ 6then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.

It is interesting to note that if a slave wishes to remain with his wife and family he must submit to his master for life.

On the other hand Hebrew slaves - and only those Hebrew slaves who entered slavery "voluntarily" - got some severance package as described in Deuteronomy 15:12-15 (NASB):

12If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. 13When you set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed. 14You shall furnish him liberally from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat; you shall give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. 15You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.

[edit] Female Hebrew slaves

Female Hebrew slaves were to be treated differently from males. Parents could sell their daughters into slavery. (Exodus 21:7-11 NASB)

7If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. 8If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her. 9If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. 10If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

[edit] Non-Hebrew Slaves

If the Israelites wanted full slaves they were instructed in Leviticus 25:44-46 (NASB):

44As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. 45Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. 46You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.

[edit] Hereditary Slaves

The children of slaves were born into slavery. Exodus 21:4 (NASB):

If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.

[edit] Abduction and slave trade

Hebrews were not allowed to abduct fellow Hebrews and sell them.

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

Given that the Hebrews were instructed in Leviticus 25 v 44 to obtain their slaves from the people around them, it is evident that this injunction to not abduct people referred to Hebrews and not non-Hebrews. Obtaining and selling non-Hebrews was evidently not a problem.

[edit] Escaped slaves

An escaped slave could not be handed over to his master, and would gain full citizenship among Israelites:

Deuteronomy 23:15-16 (NASB): 15You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. 16He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.

However, as BibleTrack complementaries put it regarding Deut 23:15

Most students of the Old Testament agree that this regulation concerns a slave who has escaped from his master in some foreign land and sought refuge in Israel. We do know that, in addition to slaves captured in battle, debt slavery and voluntary slavery existed in Israel and was protected by law, so it seems unlikely that this law applies to those two categories of slaves. We simply aren't given any detail beyond these two verses.
[3]

[edit] Slavery in the New Testament

The New Testament makes no condemnation of slave ownership but does have advice for Christian slaves and also regulates how Christian slave owners should treat the slaves they own. However, Paul, or whoever wrote the epistles, at no time suggested there was anything wrong with slavery. One could speculate that this might have been because he wanted to avoid upsetting the many slave owners in the early Christian congregations or to keep on good political terms with the Roman government. Or, more probably, he simply thought slavery was an acceptable fact of life which he had grown up with.

Ephesians 6:5-8 (NASB): 5Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.

Christian slaves whose masters were also Christian are told:

1 Timothy 6:1-2 (NASB): 1All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 2Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.

There are instructions for Christian slave owners to treat their slaves well.

Ephesians 6:9 (NASB): 9And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

Colossians 4:1 (NASB) 1Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.

Nevertheless in other parts of the New Testament slave traders (i.e. those who kidnapped and sold people as slaves) were considered "lawless and rebellious," and categorized with homosexuals, liars and promise breakers.

1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NASB) 9But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.

[edit] Moral relativism

This is probably one of the clearest example of religious moral relativism.

Most modern Christians prefer to avoid, or are unaware of, these sections of the Bible. If forced to explain Biblical justification for slavery, they may come up with something, but fortunately Christians as a group think it would be wrong to reintroduce slavery. Christian attempts to justify what is in the Bible can lead to them sanctioning things that most moral humanists, and even most Christians, would say are wrong, as can be seen from the quote below.

Here is a recent Christian attempt to justify slavery:

"They 'shall be of the heathen' is the key phrase here. God approved of slavery in this instance only because it was His hope that those who became slaves of the Israelites from foreign nations might "be saved." Even though they would lose their earthly freedom, God hoped that they would gain eternal freedom by coming to know Him, which is far more important." [4]

[edit] Attempts to justify the Bible's slavery passages

Argument 1: "Slavery in the Bible was more enlightened than that of 17th-19th Century America and other Ancient Near East cultures."

  • Even granting this point for the sake of argument, this fails to answer the simple question: is owning another human ever moral, or not? The relative kindness of a slave owner does not enter into the basic moral question of owning other humans as property.

Argument 2: "They could be let go after 6 years" or "It was a mechanism for protecting the those who could not pay their debts." (A.k.a. "Debt bondage")[5]

  • Only some Hebrew male slaves were to be freed in the 7th year (Exodus 21:26). Slaves from surrounding countries could be kept as property forever (Leviticus 25:44-46). A further exception pertains to women whose fathers sold them into slavery, and for whom there was no release after six years (Exodus 21:7).

Argument 3: The Bible restricted slave owners' actions (Exodus 21:20).

  • Exodus 21:20 does mandate punishment for a master who kills a slave with a rod, but the very next verse says "But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property" (NRSV). The NIV, by contrast, translates this verse as "if the slave recovers after a day or two", which changes its meaning. Either way, the emphasis is that the slave is first and foremost property, and therefore the greatest loss is to the owner, whose slave was "as good as money". [6]

Argument 4: "Slavery was allowed, but was not the ideal will of God."

  • There are many ways a creative, all-knowing, and all-powerful deity could make it clear that slavery is immoral while, for instance, giving the Israelite economy a grace period to let slavery "wind down", should that be necessary. The passages concerning slavery from the Pentateuch (e.g. Exodus 21:2-7, Leviticus 25:44-46), by contrast, provide guidelines that allow for slavery to continue indefinitely. New Testament writers, too, who had an opportunity to overturn or clarify the Pentateuch's instructions, did not do so.

Argument 5: "The term 'slave' is a poor translation. It should be 'servant'."

  • This may be plausible in some contexts, but not for Leviticus 25:46, which specifically allows that slaves are property who may be inherited by the owner's children and kept for life. This passage makes no sense unless they are discussing slavery—permanent ownership of one human by another—as we know it today.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

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