Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Slavery and the Bible, Take 2

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan
    March 24, 2006

    So the justification for biblical slavery is that it wasn’t as bad, relatively, as chattel slavery in the pre-Reconstruction United States?

    Well there you have it, then. I’m certainly sold.

    Just curious — did they also claim that the biblical slaves liked being slaves? That they were happy being under the control of a benevolent master? Or that slavery was actually for their own good? Since, you know, those kinds of arguments are just about as persuasive as “Slavery Brand X wasn’t as bad as Slavery Brand Y” arguments.

    Keep digging, guys. I know it stinks, but there must be a pony in there somewhere…

  2. #2 Soldats
    March 24, 2006


    So the justification for biblical slavery is that it wasn’t as bad, relatively, as chattel slavery in the pre-Reconstruction United States?

    Bad Dan! You know only aethists and secularists are moral relativists!

  3. #4 ruidh
    March 24, 2006

    You are all looking at an ancient practice with modern eyes. Slaves were conquered people. The alternative to slavery for the conquered was death.

    I personally refuse to apply Old Testament standards of morality to Christians.

    I understand that the Bible makes no clear statements that slavery is wrong. That it took the rationality of the Enlightenment and the concepts of individual rights where developed then to come to that moral conclusion.

  4. #5 Jeff Rients
    March 24, 2006

    “I personally refuse to apply Old Testament standards of morality to Christians.”

    I will apply those standards to any Christian who claims to adhere to them. Someone needs to ask these folks questions like ‘Would you be satisfied with the status quo if, instead of the abolition of slavery, the US had opted to start enforcing Old Testament slavery laws?’

  5. #6 Mark Olson
    March 24, 2006

    Ed,
    I tried trackback on your previous post on this last night. I guess it didn’t take. It didn’t take. My initial response can be found here. I’d like to respond to this as well, but it may take a few days, I’m traveling this weekend with the family.

  6. #7 ma3rk
    March 24, 2006

    ruidh, I don’t mean to guess at your beliefs, but certainly a number of very vocal christians have no hesitation in applying old testament morality to others, gays in particular.

  7. #8 tubi
    March 24, 2006

    ma3rk, I was just about to ask if ruidh’s contention means we don’t have to apply OT prohibitions against homosexuality found in Leviticus to the modern world, that has advanced through the Enlightement of the 1970′s to recognize that homosexuality isn’t really that big a deal. thanks for beating me to it!

  8. #9 Ed Brayton
    March 24, 2006

    ruidh’s answer, I have no doubt, would be to agree that we should not apply OT prohibitions against homosexuality to gays today. Ruidh is a liberal Christian, both theologically and politically.

  9. #10 David Heddle
    March 24, 2006

    Jeff Rients,

    “I will apply those standards to any Christian who claims to adhere to them. Someone needs to ask these folks questions like ‘Would you be satisfied with the status quo if, instead of the abolition of slavery, the US had opted to start enforcing Old Testament slavery laws?’”

    Gee Jeff, that sounds like a threat, but feel free to apply. The answer, by the way, is “no”, because that would represent a serious misunderstanding of God’s dealing with the Jews and how it does and does not apply to us, in the era of the New Covenant. This is not unlike the discussion on the ceremonial law, several threads removed.

    I am curious, but perhaps I misunderstood. Your bravado suggests that you actually think that, given the Old Testament mandates certain laws for Jews, that any evangelical, to be self-consistent, must admit that we should adhere to those laws today? Do you think that is a difficult conundrum for evangelical Christians?

    Or am I mistaken as to who you mean by “these folks”?

    By the way, I don’t agree with the position that the difference between 19th century slavery and slavery in biblical times is theologically significant.

  10. #11 Will
    March 24, 2006

    If your assumption is correct Ed that ruidh is accepting of homosexuality, what about abortion? Why is there any difference?

  11. #12 Ed Brayton
    March 24, 2006

    Will-

    Well, one difference would be that the bible never actually addresses abortion at all. But I know that Ruidh is strongly for gay rights.

  12. #13 tacitus
    March 24, 2006

    Ed, David already gave his answer on Biblical slavery on the previous thread:

    What we can say about the Old Testament is that the instructions for the Jews, not just for slavery but also for the slaughter of entire nations during the acquisition of the Promised Land, was for good, not evil.

    Basically, not matter how heinous we think an act might be, if the Bible says God commanded it, then it’s all good. I don’t see how you can have further rational debate with him after that. You don’t believe such a deity exists and so there is no common ground upon which to discuss it.

    If God showed up tomorrow and started tearing killing all male Muslim babies in their cribs, (nothing worse than happened in the OT several times) David would have to accept it as a “good thing”, since, by definition, God cannot do evil.

  13. #14 Jeff Hebert
    March 24, 2006

    Tacitus said:

    If God showed up tomorrow and started tearing killing all male Muslim babies in their cribs, (nothing worse than happened in the OT several times) David would have to accept it as a “good thing”, since, by definition, God cannot do evil.

    It’s not just that what God does that’s good, it’s also that what God commands is the only good. In Christianity there is no objective “good and evil” intrinsic in any act other than what God wills. The only “good” is obeying God’s commands, whatever those commands are. The only “evil” is in disobeying God’s commands. The notion of a morality that exists eternally and mostly unchanging — “Murder is ALWAYS wrong” — is a more modern position and not a part the orthodox Christian faith.

    Murder is not wrong because it’s wrong regardless of what a divinity says about it. It is wrong because God said not to do it. The sin is not in the murder, it’s in the disobedience. If God therefore commands you in your heart that you are supposed to “kill a Muslim baby” as you say, then the moral “good” thing to do in the Christian frame of reference is to kill the baby.

    To use a less inflamatory analogy (since I don’t intend to call Christians baby-killers!) if God were to tell you not to, oh, step on a crack in a sidewalk and you did it anyway, that would be a sin. If he then turns right around and tells the next person to step on the same crack and they do NOT do it, that is also a sin.

    It’s the obedience, not some calculus of morality intrinisc to the act itself, that determines whether something is a sin in Christian morality, if I understand it correctly.

  14. #15 Jeff Rients
    March 24, 2006

    “Gee Jeff, that sounds like a threat,”

    While perhaps I came on to strong, I wasn’t threatening anything other than to read the words in the Testament some people claim they fastidiously apply in their lives and ask them why they still eat shellfish or wear cotton/poly blends. I hope that’s not too threatening a position to take.

    “but feel free to apply. The answer, by the way, is “no”, because that would represent a serious misunderstanding of God’s dealing with the Jews and how it does and does not apply to us, in the era of the New Covenant. This is not unlike the discussion on the ceremonial law, several threads removed.”

    We’re in agreement on this point, then.

    “I am curious, but perhaps I misunderstood. Your bravado suggests that you actually think that, given the Old Testament mandates certain laws for Jews, that any evangelical, to be self-consistent, must admit that we should adhere to those laws today? Do you think that is a difficult conundrum for evangelical Christians?”

    I think it is a difficult conundrum for those Christians who cite Old Testament authority only when it suits them.

    “Or am I mistaken as to who you mean by “these folks”?”

    I think you are. I was not attempting to attack you, rather the practice (which seems rather common) of selectively reading the Old Testament, then citing those prefered parts as infallible authority. Sorry if I was unclear!

  15. #16 Ed Darrell
    March 24, 2006

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, there were different forms of slavery. Especially after the break up of the Roman empire, slavery in Europe was called by other names, but the practices remained basically the same — some people were attached to the estate as if they were fixtures to the land (chattels), and passed with the estate from generation to generation or from seller to buyer.

    It doesn’t matter. All slavery is oppressive, and all slavery is, ultimately, uneconomical, as Adam Smith observed in 1776. He had significant sections on sleavery in Wealth of Nations, noting that the practice could not possibly survive in America, especially since it wasted so many “factors of production” (human resources, capital, natural resources especially, and sucked the entrepreneurship out of enterprises).

    Different doesn’t mean “not oppressive.” Different doesn’t mean “not immoral.” Slavery is immoral, a violation of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t care what the ancient practices were, abolition of slavery was a great improvement in the moral climate of the world, where slavery was abolished.

  16. #17 tubi
    March 24, 2006

    “the practice (which seems rather common) of selectively reading the Old Testament, then citing those prefered parts as infallible authority.”

    I.e. citing Lev. 18:22 to show that homosexuality is an abomination, but neatly forgetting Lev. 20:13, which mandates execution for homosexuals.

  17. #18 KeithB
    March 24, 2006

    While the search for a reason to use the Bible to *condemn* slavery is interesting. Of course, the flipside has a lot more support, that the Bible actively *supports* slavery, and was used to *justify* the slave trade:
    http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mdrunknoah2.html

    I will just sit here and wait for the “No True Scotsman” fallacy to roll in.

  18. #19 pough
    March 24, 2006

    So for a modern christian who DOES follow the instructions of the OT as much as possible, does that mean they can take a slave who isn’t a countrymate, or does it mean they can take a slave who isn’t Jewish?

  19. #20 Matthew
    March 24, 2006

    Is modern sex slavery then only immoral because of the prostitution?

  20. #21 MTully
    March 24, 2006

    OK,

    I am always amused when one form of slavery is compared to another and then followed by “you see, it is no sooo bad.”

    But, let’s look at Roman slavery particularly this time. It seems some of Ed’s critics think it was not a bad way of life at all.

    Would a slave, living the good life, be willing to volunteer to be a gladitor, where his fate could be determined by the thumb of an aristocrat if it was a good deal?

    Would a slave, living the good life, join a rebellion with Sparticus, against the greatest army in the history of their time, to escape a good deal?

    Finally, would have Cicero, admonished his son to treat slaves as employees and not abuse them, if that was the norm of the time?

    Slavery is now, was in 1860 and was in 45 an affront to humanity.

  21. #22 Skemono
    March 25, 2006

    While the search for a reason to use the Bible to *condemn* slavery is interesting. Of course, the flipside has a lot more support, that the Bible actively *supports* slavery, and was used to *justify* the slave trade:
    http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mdrunknoah2.html

    In addition to Noah’s Curse and The Curse of Ham, I’d recommend Ham and Japheth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South on that topic.

    And I’d add that some of the religious roots of slavery can be seen in the language used in some of the early laws of the United States. Whites were referred to as “Christians” early on, and only after a great number of blacks had been converted did the language change to refer to them by skin color.

  22. #23 Dave S.
    March 25, 2006

    Biblical justification of slavery in the 19th century American south took many forms and was the cornerstone of any defense of slavery at that time. To wit -

    1. Argument from Divine Decree: God Himself had decreed slavery before it even existed in Genesis 9:25, the so-called Curse on Canaan.

    2. Divine Sanction: Slavery was ordered and sanctioned by God all throughout the period of the Patriarchs. Hagar was ordered to return to Sarah is a cited example.

    3. Mosaic Law: Codified slavery rather than abolished it, and established that the chosen people were to be treated differently from aliens in this respect.

    4. Leviticus 25: 44-46. This is the bedrock of the Southern Biblical case for slavery. It accepts not only the institution, but the buying/selling/owning of slaves. They were property. Joshua himself applied this to the Gibeonites.

    5. The 4th and 10th commandments also provided authority. The 10th with regards to property rights, and the 4th comparing the master-slave relationship to father-child. This paternalistic relationship was argued extensively in the South.

    6. The negetive case was also emphasized. Nowhere was slavery condemned.

    7. The New Testament was also looked to for support. Jesus said he came to fulfill the word, not destroy it. Therefore, Christ sanctioned slavery just as it was sanctioned in the OT.

    8. The negetive case applied here too, as nowhere does Jesus speak out aganst slavery, even though every place he went he had contact with it.

    9. The Apostles taught submission, not emancipation. Paul is mentioned in the return of Onesimus to his master.

    In addition, the theory of Negro Morality was espoused by some. The idea that the Africans were the descendents of Cursed Canaan through Ham and that slavery in the American south was the completion of this prophesy. But the argument there was more convoluted and less convincing to many.

    Of course they also advanced a myriad of secular arguments ranging from the social to the economic. One response they used that I think is quite clever is in response to the Abolitionist point that slavery was like a cancer on the nation. The southern apologists replied that even if it was a cancer, it would still be wrong to cut it out. Just as it’s wrong for a doctor to cut out a biological cancer even knowing that the cancer will probably kill eventually, as the cure would kill even sooner. Bear in mind we’re talking mid-19th century surgury here.

  23. #24 Jim Lippard
    March 26, 2006

    Ed:

    The Koran is similarly free of condemnation of slavery:

    http://answering-islam.org.uk/Silas/slavery.htm
    http://uqconnect.net/slsoc/manussa/tr05manu.htm

    I wonder if Christians would be persuaded by arguments analogous to the ones they are using to defend the Bible, if presented by Muslims in defense of the Koran. My guess is that they wouldn’t.