Sunday, December 6, 2009

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Does the Bible condone slavery? Yes. However, I think that it's appropriate for us to understand exactly what this means. In the Western world, we have a very specific idea about what slavery is. We will either link it to the African slave trade that plagued our nation up until the 1860s, or compare it to the cruel sex slavery that's still going on all over the world. However, I think it is important to note that while the Bible does condone slavery, it is a different kind of slavery than you and I are used to thinking about. I want to lay out just a few of the details from Scripture to paint a picture of what slavery looked like in ancient Israel, and then I would like to respond to some charges from skeptics that the kind of slavery the Bible allowed was as oppressive and dehumanizing as the slavery that took place in the United States.

Slavery in Old Testament times was quite different from American slavery up until the 1860s. In ancient Israel, slaves were acquired either from Israelites who had failed to pay their debts so sold themselves into slavery to regain financial freedom again, or from other nations, generally taken after war. It was forbidden, however, to kidnap men and sell them as slaves under penalty of death. Hebrew slaves were freed after 6 years (their masters were also ordered to provide them with enough financial security to start their lives over in Deuteronomy 15:12-18), or on the Jubilee which happened every 50 years, though foreign slaves could remain slaves and be passed down through the slave-owner's family. All slaves, whether Hebrew or foreign, were given the Sabbath day off to rest.

There is one law in the Old Testament that anti-Christian website has described as:
"[permitting] owners to beat their slaves severely, even to the point of killing them. However, as long as the slave lingered longer than 24 hours before dying of the abuse, the owner was not regarded as having committed a crime, because -- after all -- the slave was his property."

How well does this description capture the original law?

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

[NOTE: Before I begin to respond to this passage at it is laid out, I want to first note that some translators (including the NIV version of the Bible) interpret a phrase in it as, "if he stands after a day or two," not "if he survives a day or two." This would change the meaning of the verse significantly. However, I will, for sake of argument, deal with this passage as if it read "he survives a day or two," implying that the servant dies after a couple of days. Most of the arguments I use below would still apply to understanding the perceived cruelty of this passage, but the outcome of the slave-owner's strike would be different and certainly more morbid if the "survives a day or two" translation is accepted.]

First of all, it is misleading to translate the Hebrew word "naqam" as "punished" in verse 20, but "vengeance" in 21 (or "punished" in both places as the King James translates it). The word means something like "avenged" or "vengeance" everywhere else it is used in the Bible. Because of this, I believe the verse is saying that the man who strikes his slave so that he/she dies that day will be killed for what he has done to his slave. The fact that slave-owners would be punished for killing their slaves creates an incredibly important distinction between Israel and many other societies with slaves-- the slave was viewed as a human being with a right to life.

The Religious Tolerance author made another point also. The owner was not regarded as committing a crime if the slave died a few days later. Why is this? The text explicitly gives one reason, which is that the slave is under the authority of his master. This does in fact give a sanction to the idea that it was considered appropriate to use force against a slave who was (presumably) being disobedient or refused to work. This may sound harsh to modern ears, but this is what the Bible seems to indicate. But despite the fact that the Bible says it is sometimes okay to use force against your slaves to discipline them, it seems clear from the context of this verse that the slave-master who INTENDS to kill his slave is a capital criminal. If he had intended to kill his slave, the slave would have surely died that very day without the advent of modern medicine and life support. If he did not intend to, if a blow that lead to death was unintentional, the slave would have lived on, at least for a few days.

This is an important distinction because the Law of Moses elsewhere (in fact, only a few verses before this passage in Exodus 21:12-14!) defines murder as intentionally taking the life of another human being. Manslaughter, on the other hand, was not punishable by death. In this regard, this slavery law is not very different from the laws where non-slaves are affected. This would change how we might understand the verse to something like, "if a man purposefully hits his slave so that he dies, the slave will be avenged. But if it was an accident, he will not be avenged because it is not against the law to chastise a disobedient slave, nor is it a capital offense to kill someone on accident."

Some may accuse me of "reading into the text," however, I don't believe I am guilty of doing this. The laws of ancient Israel are not formulated like ours are. They show principles by giving examples, whereas we are much more specific in giving our laws. Because of this, we may come across a law in the Bible which forbids a man from taking both the eggs from a nest and eating the mother of the chicks, and totally misunderstand why such a law would be written. That is because this command is not a PRINCIPLE of morality, but an EXAMPLE of it-- do not destroy the environment around you, but take what you need to survive. We may also note the command to establish a fence around one's roof. Because people would often climb onto the roof to escape the heat of the house, a fence would be a way to protect people from falling and being hurt. This law does not only command that we build fences on our roofs, but that we secure our homes to protect our families and friends. To pull ONLY the words from these two texts and ignore the principles behind them would be to ignore the purpose behind what the author is writing. The same goes for the above verses on slavery. While it is accurate to say, "this passage says it's okay to kill your slave if they die a few days later," it completely misses the point of why the law was given. I am not reading into the text by discerning purpose, but attempting to handle the text according to why the author wrote it. It is the skeptic who refuses interpretation who is handling the text inappropriately (the examples I used are from Deuteronomy 22).

It is of course noteworthy that the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt and had been killed and abused. They themselves supported this law, which on one hand argued that it was okay to use force against a lazy or disobedient slave, while also supporting the other part of the law which argued that slave-owners who purposefully killed their slaves must be paid back for their sin. Furthermore, only a few verses later we see another law related to slavery which gives us a look into the heart of the same author who wrote the first:
"If 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. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." (Exodus 21:26-27)

This passage gives us irrefutable proof that the author of Exodus is concerned for the rights of slaves in ancient Israel. Not only is the kind of strike intended to kill a slave forbidden, but even a strike hard enough to knock out a tooth is forbidden. Using this kind of force against your slave would result in his automatic freedom. This seems to give strength to the above interpretation of verses 20-21 which argues that the main concern in view is protecting slaves from unnecessary violence, while still giving the slave-owner the right to discipline disobedient slaves who are benefiting from their master's financial support (through food, clothing, shelter, etc.) but refuse to earn it. Similarly (though not the same circumstances), a disobedient child could be punished via the "rod," and parents were actually explicitly encouraged to do so when the situation called for it (Proverbs 13:24, 22:15).

Not only were the rights to life and a non-abusive master extended to slaves, but the slave whose master was harsh and dangerous had the right to run away!

"You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He 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." Deuteronomy 23:15-16

I think a clearer picture is emerging of what slavery looked like under ancient Israel (that is, if it was indeed following the Laws which God had given them). It was considered a necessary institution by society, but God placed laws on His people with the result that those those who fell into slavery were being treated with dignity and respect, as human beings just like their masters.

"The most astonishingly unique slave law in the Old Testament is the law of asylum in Deuteronomy 23:15-16. Runaway slaves, far from being punished or sent back, were to be given freedom of residence in a village of their choice. The universal law of the rest of contemporary societies (as indeed of modern societies before slavery was abolished) not only punished runaway slaves but also laid severe penalties on anyone who gave them refuge. Israel's law was the diametrical opposite, on of the most countercultural pieces of Old Testament legislation to be found. Israel's law not only allowed runaway slaves freedom; it went beyond that and commanded their protection."
(p. 336, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher J. H. Wright)

So yes, the Bible does not condemn the practice of slavery per se, though it would have an awful lot to say those who supported the African slave trade and much of the slave trade all over the world today. The Bible, as opposed to the godless institutions of slavery we have encouraged, supports the idea that slaves are human beings like their masters with rights to life and fair treatment, whether Hebrew or foreign, and allowed for abused slaves to run from their masters if they saw fit. It was a social practice that God allowed, though biblical principles such as the equality of all men (Acts 17:26, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:5-9, James 2:1-9, Philemon) would in time overturn it.

Questions for the skeptic:
Does my explanation help you to feel more comfortable with the Bible's allowance of slavery?

If not, what is it about the practice of slavery specifically that bothers you?

Why does this quality of slavery bother you?

How would you take an argument like Noam Chomsky made regarding capitalism and socialism that claimed that people who "owned" their workers treated them better than those who "rented" their workers? Did capitalism alleviate the sufferings of slavery or make them worse?

If the practice of slavery was carefully regulated to allow for people to leave when they choose, and if they received fair treatment, would you still object to it?


  1. "Does my explanation help you to feel more comfortable with the Bible's allowance of slavery?"

    No since we are dealing with humans being treated as property. Traded, inherited, marked as cattle and (as if that were not enough) beating them.

    Any system that allows human to be treated this way is wrong. I wouldnt want to be treated as property, marked, beaten or traded like a piece of furniture. I wouldnt want to do that to anybody and I would try to prevent it if I saw it.

    Its also illegal pretty much everywhere and nobody would advocate something like this in the world we live in today except for tyrants and dictators.

    "If the practice of slavery was carefully regulated to allow for people to leave when they choose ,and if they received fair treatment, would you still object to it?"

    If they were still somebody's property then yes. If they were not, well... it wouldnt be slavery anymore would it?

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I assume by your comments and username that you're an atheist (and as I looked into your profile, I realized that you're Marco from Facebook!). I'd like to ask you a couple questions to further develop where you're going in your responses.

    You argue that humans shouldn't be treated as property, and that this kind of treatment is "wrong." This assumes that humans have intrinsic value. Is this simply a personal opinion of yours, or can you justify that humans have actual value if there is no real meaning or purpose to the universe?

    I also wonder how much your view of slavery is based upon your cultural upbringing? Why is it that a capitalist system that leaves people starving in the streets is better than a system that allows people who can't afford to eat to sell themselves into service that would allow for them to be cared for, and if mistreated, run away (or even hold their masters accountable, neither of which are allowed in contemporary slavery)? Obviously neither of these systems are perfect. A perfect system would guarantee that every person could be taken care of and remain totally free, but I'm not sure that such a system exists. Any society is going to struggle to offer these goods completely when they seem to be in opposition. In the ancient world, slavery was common. In ancient Israel, slaves were still guaranteed rights and the ability to work their way out of it, which set them apart from the societies around them.

    In most of these biblical cases, slavery was a free choice last resort that someone used when they had gotten themselves into debt. Because of the strong poor laws in Israel, getting into debt serious enough to consider slavery was also less likely to occur in Israel than in other places.

    I think these are important points that puts biblical slavery in a category distinct from the slavery we often think about it, though certainly there is nothing in these passages that assert that slavery must exist. They all assume that slavery will happen in ancient society because of the economy of the time, and put forth laws to limit its practice. Biblical principles like the universal brotherhood of man were in fact what inspired abolitionists to overturn anglo-american slavery.