Biblical Slavery: What It Is And What It Isn’t

This may be a rather lengthy post, but I want to start addressing some atheistic misrepresentations of biblical law. The matter that I wish to specifically address is that of biblical slavery. At the outset let me hasten to say that whatever the Bible teaches on slavery I hold to be finally authoritative, equitable and righteous. Thus, I will not be apologizing for the biblical position of slavery. But it seems to me that the biblical doctrine has suffered from caricature from those of the atheistic crowd. I think they do this, not because of genuine misunderstanding, but out of dull-headed malice. The article I will be referencing to is from evilbible.com (I know, right?)

Some preliminary concepts should be discussed before delving into the author of evilbible.com. Biblical law is based on restitution.  Thus, slavery has some element of restitution in it. In fact, this is not at all that difficult to point out. Suppose individual X steals my chickens and he is not apprehended for his actions for several weeks. Biblical law requires the man to restore what was lost by fourfold (2 Samuel 12:6, Luke 19:8, Exodus 22:1).

Now suppose an individual which we’ll call Mr. X doesn’t have anything to give. He is to work off his debt with labor, that is, he becomes  my slave. The word “slave” itself  carries with it

all sorts of emotional assumptions and this is unfortunate. Unfortunate because those who are usually so vehemently opposed to

Basically, there isn't much good one can do in a cell. No restitution.

slavery (like the writer of evilbible.com, or from now on referred to as “our Fellow”) are for slavery in other areas, or at least indifferent. For example,  America is for slavery. That’s right, we have legal slavery in America and it’s called the prison system. But, unlike the biblical case of slavery, it is not based on restitution, yet I haven’t seen very many emotional outbursts against this institution coming from our Fellow. Let’s reapply the example of  Mr. X in our American system and see which is equitable.  Suppose Mr. X commits grand larceny against me (suppose he takes and destroys my means of livelihood: tools and property) and for weeks he is not apprehended. Ah, but news comes to me that Mr. X has been caught. Joy fills my heart! At last, I shall be recompensed! But do you know what happens? The government fines him; I don’t see a penny unless I hire a lawyer and sue him and this is something added other than the fine that the government gives (which means Mr. X is paying more than he should be). This of course could be dragged on and on for a year or more with court hearings. But this doesn’t help my current situation. Oh, but it gets better. The individual who wronged me, instead of helping me with his labor (which would be beneficial at this point given my situation), gets sent to prison to either sit there idly or works for the government doing “community service” for free. If you were in such a situation, would you rather sit idly in a cell block or help pay off your debt? Oh, and by the way, Mr. X is put up all at my (and you, the taxpayer) expense, that is, I am the one providing the man free room and board. Here’s a question: does the victim get compensated? Forced labor without compensation for the labor is ipso facto slavery. You see, most everyone is for slavery, but the question is this which sort of slavery are you for?

Our Fellow starts out his article against biblical slavery with this comment:

“Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do.  Yet slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Bible clearly approves of slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them, and when you can have sex with the female slaves.”

This is a rather queer statement. For one thing, he is borrowing our terminology to try to make his point. The word “murder” is a specifically religious concept since it is distinguished from mere killing by the fact that the life is taken outside of the perimeters God has set for man to live. In an atheistic universe where the highest form of appeal is to the self there is no distinction between “murder” and “killing”. Also, one could take issue with the author being able to call anything “immoral”, but I digress. The author is correct when he says that the Bible approves slavery. This should at least let evangelicals to pause and at least lend an ear to this individuals criticism instead of pretending slavery is nowhere in the Bible.

 “Many Jews and Christians will try to ignore the moral problems of slavery by saying that these slaves were actually servants or indentured servants.  Many translations of the Bible use the word “servant”, “bondservant”, or “manservant” instead of “slave” to make the Bible seem less immoral than it really is.  While many slaves may have worked as household servants, that doesn’t mean that they were not slaves who were bought, sold, and treated worse than livestock.”

The author engages in what is called “a distinction without a difference”. It is a logical fallacy. No one is even attempting to avoid anything by calling slaves indentured servants; they’re the same thing. Yes, some were bought, some were gotten by conquest and some were slaves because of a debt they incurred. But were they treated worse than livestock? We’ll see later how he goes about to substantiate this.

The following passage shows that slaves are clearly property to be bought and sold like livestock.   However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.  (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

I have no contention with the fact that slaves were bought and sold. Given the considerations of what biblical slavery is about, this is their prerogative.

The following passage describes how the Hebrew slaves are to be treated. If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years.  Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.  If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year.  But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him.  If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master.  But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children.  I would rather not go free.’  If he does this, his master must present him before God.  Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl.  After that, the slave will belong to his master forever.  (Exodus 21:2-6 NLT) Notice how they can get a male Hebrew slave to become a permanent slave by keeping his wife and children hostage until he says he wants to become a permanent slave.  What kind of family values are these?[2]

Notwithstanding our Fellow’s comments, this passage is actually about the limitations on slavery. He often makes this mistake in his writing. Add to that that he goes beyond the words of most passages he cites,  most of what he says can be disregarded. But I’m not going to do that. For instance, our Fellow tries to stretch the text to say that the master is holding hostage the family of the slave who is going free when the text, yet the text plainly states that the master is actually the one who gave the slave a wife. How heartless of the master! Also, at this point, the slave could refuse a wife given what his circumstances might be on the year of Jubilee. The fact is that the slavery in the Bible is not some harsh enterprise that devastated individuals. Notice the slave says, “I love my master, my wife, and my children. Being a slave meant working free of charge, but with the benefits of housing, food and protection under the law. And if you were a God fearing Jew, you would “love your neighbor as yourself”. But this protection under the law is something that our Fellow twists into something quite interesting! Look what he has to say:

 What does the Bible say about beating slaves?  It says you can beat both male and female slaves with a rod so hard that as long as they don’t die right away you are cleared of any wrong doing. When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.  (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

This is a most absurd interpretation of the matter.   This passage actually deals with the sanctions of killing one’s slave. If a master beats a slave and they die, he is punished. It most certainly does not commend beating a slave. If the slave is hurt, but recovers fully, he or she remains a slave. But, if the manservant or maidservant is beaten so that there is a loss of eye or a loss of tooth, they are to go free for the damage done to them (Ex. 21:26-27). Thus, these passages are actually dealing with how a master is to be punished if he mistreats his slaves, not about how masters can beat their slaves harshly! Like I said, these misrepresentations are motivated by a dull-malice. You have to be trying to make the passage say something like our fellow alleges that it says. This passage deals with, like I said above,  the slave’s protection under the law.

Dull malice without the malice

You would think that Jesus and the New Testament would have a different view of slavery, but slavery is still approved of in the New Testament, as the following passages show. Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.  Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.  (Ephesians 6:5 NLT) Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed.  If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.  (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)

Our Fellow is right in that Jesus does not have a different view of slavery than that of the Old Testament.  But his report is, as I would have expected, only partial. Paul writes in Colossians 4:1 “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” Paul exhorts slaves too about their masters in 1 Timothy 6:2-3: And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. The most explicit is Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 6:9
“And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” One may argue a fortiori that if one is to forbear threatening, one is to forbear beating them. But even so, one could argue that any beating of a slave in Scripture is about sanctions for wrongdoing, as our Fellow even quotes of Christ:

In the following parable, Jesus clearly approves of beating slaves even if they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong.  The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it.  “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly.  Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.”  (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)

The key word is that they were doing something wrong. It could be that the master has prerogative to chastise his servant if he does a moral evil like becoming drunk, stealing, etc. Really, such application is only for the sake of argument since Christ’s parables are not necessarily teaching normatively on this, but rather, he is teaching by way of analogy. Perhaps with more study this matter could be better clarified, but I don’t think it necessary at this point.

Footnotes:

[1] Also, biblical slavery should be distinguished from kidnapping. The Bible actually pronounces the death penalty against kidnapping in Exodus 21:16.
[2] In our fellow’s commentary on Exodus 21:7-11, our Fellow asserts that the Bible teaches the permissibility of sex slavery. The passage, however, nowhere describes sex slavery. I fear that our Fellow may have drunk a few too many at this point.

– Jesse Murch

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2 responses to “Biblical Slavery: What It Is And What It Isn’t

  • Kevin Amundson

    Thank you for bringing this topic to light. When most people here the term “slavery”, they immediately think of antebellum slavery which was predominantly, though not always; involuntary, unmerited, perpetual, absolute, and hereditary. God’s Word is very forthright on the just treatment of slaves as you have alluded to.

    I would just make a side note that only Biblical slavery allows the slave to leave his master without fear of being forcibly returned to him. This was a preventive measure so that masters would not be cruel to their slaves.

    Also, the slave that has been given a wife by his master can redeem his wife and children when he goes free because he is their kinsman (Lev. 25:48-49). This assumes a Biblical/Christian economy where the slave has the ability to be productive on his own time besides working for his master.

  • Reformed Inquisitor

    Good points Kevin. The discussions of this subject in the atheist world could drive one insane. It would do them well if they studied theology.

    -Jesse

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