Slavery. Bible style.
I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for quite a while now, and have finally been inspired into action after watching NonStampCollector’s latest video, Bible Slavery – TOTALLY DIFFERENT:
The video features a discussion between the biblical God and a group of angels, set around a table in the clouds. They are anticipating the kinds of wicked deeds humans will do, and discussing the commands God will give in order to reduce the damage. The angels are concerned about two main things: that God will make fair rules that will minimise suffering, and that he will make them clearly.
Eventually, however, the conversation morphs into the kind of frustrating dialogue I have had with several Christians regarding the biblical teachings on slavery. The Bible is very clear that slavery was not only permitted in ancient Israel, but was in fact endorsed by God (see the verses below), so Christians will sometimes try and argue that the slavery the Bible speaks about is of a different kind to what we envisage (people being captured and/or sold into slavery; humans owning other humans as property, possibly for life; violent and humiliating treatment; etc). Christians often point to passages like Exodus 21:2 and Leviticus 25:39-40 (see below), and claim that by “slave”, the Bible really means a “hired servant” who must not be treated as a slave at all, and must be set free after 6 years. One site even compares the master-slave relationship to the bond between a father and son! But these conclusions could only be drawn from these verses by ignoring the ones that come directly after. As we will see below, foreigners may be treated as slaves, only male Hebrew servants are to be set free after 6 years, and slave owners are permitted to beat their slaves to within an inch of their life.
The standard Christian apologetical tactics regarding slavery are most forcefully refuted in Hector Avalos’ comprehensive book Slavery, Abolotionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. Thom Stark‘s treatment in his (freely downloadable) book Is God a Moral Compromiser? (pp165-208) is also superb; in fact, I consider Stark’s book to be the best general reference work concerning the terrible ethics of the Bible.
But NonStampCollector’s video does an excellent job of summarising the basic ideas. As well as providing a humorous take on the kinds of frustrating debates that frequently occur (with the role of the Christian played by God himself), the video makes a number of serious points, which I’ll take as headings in the discussion that follows:
- The Bible is very clear about its commandments when it wants to be.
- There are very clear pro-slavery commandments in the Bible.
- There are no clear anti-slavery commandments in the Bible.
1. The Bible is very clear about its commandments when it wants to be
Here are a few biblical commands, all taken from Leviticus 19:
- Do not steal.
- Do not lie.
- Do not defraud or rob your neighbour.
- Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
- Do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great.
- Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life.
As you can see, there are no blurry edges around these commandments. If you’re wondering what God thinks about stealing, well, it’s right there: “Do not steal”. Case closed.
The above commandments seem very good to me, but there are also some fairly strange kinds of commands, some of which seem quite arbitrary. These are also from Leviticus 19:
- Do not mate different kinds of animals.
- Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.
- Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it.
- Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
- Do not put tattoo marks on yourselves.
It is clear that God just finds some things abhorrent. These include: mules and labradoodles, cotton-polyester clothing, rare steaks, men without sideburns, and tattoos. Putting aside the question of why God might dislike these things, he certainly makes himself abundantly clear: Do not do them!
2. There are very clear pro-slavery commands in the bible
Here are just three samples of the Bible’s teaching on slavery. There are quite a few other passages that could be cited – a quick Google search will come up with plenty. In each example, it is God speaking.
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
“But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
“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.”
“When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.”
Let’s just briefly summarise some of the clear teachings of these passages:
- A Hebrew may buy male or female Hebrew servants. (Ex 21:2)
- Male Hebrew servants are to be set free after 6 years. (Ex 21:2)
- If the master provides his male Hebrew servant with a wife, the freed servant must either leave the wife behind (and any children she may have had) or else become a servant for life. (Ex 21:3-6)
- Female Hebrew servants are not to be set free. (Ex 21:7)
- Female Hebrew servants are expected to provide sex for their masters. (Ex 21:10)
- If a female Hebrew servant does not please her master (I wonder what that could mean), he may sell her back to her father, but may not sell her to foreigners. (Ex 21:8)
- A master may designate a female servant for his son. (Ex 21:9)
- If a master of a female servant gets married, he must continue to provide for his female servant. If he doesn’t, he must simply set her loose. There is no punishment for the master. (Ex 21:10-11)
- Hebrew servants must not be treated as slaves, but as hired workers. (Lev 25:39-40,42)
- Hebrew servants are to be set free in the year of jubilee (which occurs every 50 years). (Lev 25:40-41)
- Male and female foreigners (whether living in Israel or another nation) may be bought as slaves (as distinct from servants). (Lev 25:44-45)
- Such slaves are regarded as the property of the master. (Lev 25:45, Ex 19:21)
- Slaves are not only property for life; they may also be passed on to the master’s children as an inheritance. (Lev 25:46)
- The above kind of treatment is considered “ruthless”; it is deemed acceptable treatment for foreign slaves, but it is forbidden to treat Hebrew servants in this way. (Lev 25:46)
- A master is permitted to beat his slave, but not so hard that the slave dies immediately. (Ex 19:20)
- If a slave survives for a day or two, but then dies from the wounds inflicted by a beating from its master, the master shall not be punished. (Ex 19:21)
I’d like to emphasise that these points are all taken directly from the Bible. And in each case, it is said to be God himself issuing the pronouncements. There is no exaggeration or clever interpretation involved.
It should now be adequately clear that it is wrong to claim that “slavery” in the Bible really just means “indentured servanthood”, a kind of employer-employee relationship based on mutual love and respect. Although it is perfectly natural for a Christian to want to think this, nothing could be further from the truth.
3. There are no clear anti-slavery commandments in the Bible
The heading says it all really. As Hector Avalos pointed out in his aforementioned book, the pro-slavery advocates had the upper hand over the abolitionists in the biblical debate over slavery in pre-war America. Here is what one pro-slavery advocate, Rev. Alexander Campbell, said:
There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.
Many more such statements may be found in Avalos’ book, or by a simple Google search. Here is how Vaughn Roste, a 21st century staff member of the United Church of Canada, puts it:
If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I’m afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution.
Of course the simple absence of anti-slavery passages would not entail that God was pro-slavery (as many Christians are fond of pointing out). But this is entirely irrelevant since, as we have seen, the Bible happens to contain numerous pro-slavery passages.
However, it is still noteworthy that the Bible contains no clear anti-slavery teachings. God is apparently against shaving sideburns, and he therefore gives very clear instructions against the practice. He is equally clear in countless other examples. (Have you read Leviticus and Deuteronomy?) If God really was against slavery, you’d think he’d follow his normal style and give some clear commandments. Maybe he’d have said something like:
- Do not force another person to work for you, or
- You must not own another person as property.
But such commandments are conspicuously absent from the Bible.
Since there are no specific anti-slavery teachings in the Bible, Christians often point to general biblical teachings in order to claim that the Bible presents an “overall” anti-slavery stance. A favourite, of course, is found in Genesis 1:27-28 (and 5:1) in which it is said that man is made in the image of God. Christians use other such general teachings (including Paul’s famous “neither slave nor free” passage in Galatians 3:28), but it won’t be necessary to list them here. While there is much to be said about such verses (and I’ll leave that to Avalos and Stark), all they do is, at best, contradict the passages that give clear and specific teachings on slavery; I hardly see why Christians should see this as some kind of support for their case. (It is also worth noting that these general teachings do not usually persuade the evangelical Christian to support gay rights or appoint female clergy.)
But what about the New Testament?
Christians also like to say things like “All those verses you quoted are from the Old Testament”. True enough. There are no verses in the New Testament in which God specifically tells his people where they may purchase slaves, or how hard to beat them.
The New Testament brings about all kinds of reforms. All of a sudden, it’s not necessary to circumcise male children, and it’s OK to eat ham and play sport on Sunday. But there just don’t seem to be any verses that say “It’s no longer OK to have slaves”. It’s not that slavery doesn’t get a mention. Far from it. Here are a couple of verses from the New Testament that mention slavery.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
1 Timothy 6:1-2:
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.
There are more such verses and, again, a simple Google search will reveal them. Christians will typically point out that these verses do not say “Go and get lots of slaves, and make them do lots of back breaking work, and then beat them”. Again, this is true enough. However, don’t you think it is noteworthy that there is not a single New Testament verse that speaks out against slavery, but several that speak about slavery as if it is the most natural thing in the world? Even Jesus makes passing reference to slaves (eg, Luke 12:47-48, Matt 18:23-35, Matt 24:45-51, Matt 25:14-30). While he doesn’t say “Slavery is great”, Jesus certainly does not indicate any negative feelings towards slavery nor any desire to stamp it out. In fact, in Matthew 5:18-19, Jesus gives his personal endorsement of every single Old Testament law when he says:
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
If the creator of the universe really had changed his mind about slavery (like he apparently did about beefalos and tattoos), Jesus’ ministry on earth was the perfect opportunity to point this out; modern Christians put a lot of stock in the “red letters”. Christians often like to say that Western culture was shaped by Christianity and the Bible. But imagine how much better the last 2,000 years would have been for a great many people if Jesus had unequivocally banned slavery.
Am I being a modernist snob?
In discussions on biblical slavery, Christians will often finally remind me that my ethical standards have been informed by modern societal values, and that to judge people of another time and place by our standards is a form of cultural imperialism. This is true, and we should all remember that if we were born several millennia ago, we would most likely have different views about many issues, slavery being one of them. The truth is, we are descended from animals that treated each other far worse than people did in Old Testament times; to get from there to here it was necessary to go through many intermediate stages as we gradually improved. We should also keep in mind that future generations will undoubtedly look back on some of our practices with distaste (eating animals seems like a possible candidate, and maybe even keeping pets – interspecies slavery?). Given this perspective, why should I propose to judge the people of biblical times for their views on slavery?
Well, the answer to this question is simple. I am not judging the people of biblical times, and were influenced by the views they inherited from their ancestors. I realise that they were operating in their own culture and time. Surveys of the ancient Near East clearly show that slavery was a widespread institution in those days (and we know it persisted in the West until only a few short years ago). We also know that people of the time generally viewed their laws as the commands of their gods. So, although I do think slavery is completely immoral (and that there are excellent reasons to think so), it comes as no real surprise that the people of Israel thought slavery was fine, and believed (or claimed) that their God commanded it. Although it makes me uncomfortable to say it, I don’t judge them for it any more than I judge them for thinking the earth was flat.
What I do find disappointing, tremendously disappointing, is that modern people would defend the abhorrent views on slavery we find in the Bible. After all the progress we’ve made. But they don’t just defend these views as the primitive ideas of people in an ancient society; they ascribe them to God. God! The creator of the universe! The unchanging, omni-benevolent designer of morality himself wanted the Hebrews to own other people as property? Wanted people to do hard labour and provide sexual services against their will, amid violent beatings that left them barely clinging on to life?
And it is Christians who ask me where I get my morality from?