Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Due to an interesting discussion in yesterday's post, I thought I'd tackle a sticky question: Does the Bible condone slavery?

Many of you will be very surprised to hear that no, it does not.

The Bible was written during more savage times. At that time, it was written to people who lived in a very primitive system. And yet, the Bible actually demands that slave owners take good care of their slaves! In fact, many slaves were liberated every 7 years. Did you know that?

Many are shocked to learn that the slavery that was practiced in America actually went against Biblical instructions!

The Bible was written during a time when most or all cultures and nations owned slaves. It was common practice. Often these slaves were captured soldiers or people from a warring nation, and they were much better off pressed into slavery than executed. Thieves and criminals worked off what they owed. Some people (who wanted to pay off debts or be taken care of) willingly chose to go into slavery because slavery back then was not the slavery that was seen in America. Additionally, slavery was not a racial issue then. Slaves were usually the same color as their masters.

If a slave was lucky, they were enslaved to a devout Jew, who would treat them much better than someone from a different culture. Why? Because the devout Jew read and obeyed the Mosaic Law.

You may also be surprised to hear that under Biblical laws, any American slave traders would have been executed. Why? Because Exodus 21:16 says: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”

So let's break down what the Bible really says about slavery:

1. If a slave could run away, he was granted freedom. Anyone who didn't aid a runaway slave was also disobeying the Bible. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says: "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."

2. A slave could not be abused. A slave could be punished by striking with a rod (Ex. 21:20-21), but if the punishment was excessive, the slave was to be given his freedom (Ex. 21:26-27; Lev. 24:17). Later on in the New Testament (in the time of Christianity), Paul tells his audience: “Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven."(Col. 4:1)

3. Slaves had certain rights. They were allowed a day off every week (on the Sabbath) and they had certain positions of authority, sometimes even over the master's family members! (See Prov. 17:2 and Gen. 24:2)

4. Hebrew slaves were set free after six years of servitude.
Granted, Pagan slaves were not given that same option, but they were usually acquired through different circumstances.
(See Ex. 21:2, Deut. 15:12-13)

5. When a slave was released, if he was married when he became a slave, his wife was to go with him. If he chose to marry and have children with another slave while he was enslaved, they remained behind. However, he did have the option to buy his wife and children. (See Ex. 21:3)

6. The Bible demanded that a slave be given gifts when he was finally released. (See Deut. 15:12-15)

7. With the advent of Christianity, the New Testament pronounced that "You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men." (I Cor. 7:23) At this point, Christians were being told that voluntary enslavement would no longer be sanctioned. But this passage in I Corinthians also deals with the reality of slavery, and how both masters and slaves should behave. Many people point to this passage as the first blow to slavery in the Christian world.

Incidentally, some people complain that female slaves were treated unequally, and point to Exodus 21:1-11. I must admit that it makes my skin crawl and I agree that they were. However, women were seen as "less than men" in most Mediterranean cultures at that time, and some scholars say that this passage is attempting to minimize the damage that could happen in such circumstances. I'm not sure, so I can't really weigh in with an opinion on this matter.

I am very happy that slavery does not exist in the civilized world any more. From a personal standpoint, I find it completely reprehensible. One of my best friends is a black woman who is descended from the union of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. What most people didn't know is that Sally was probably only about 12 when Jefferson started molesting her. Under Biblical guidelines, this never would have happened. Neither would the myriad other atrocities that were practiced during that wretched period of American slavery.


Matt said...

Hey, a job's a job. At least they had that option, right Sauer?!

Saur said...

Matt, who had what option? I don't understand... Do you mean that the slaves who willingly went into slavery were essentially employees and not what we see as traditional slaves? Yeah, you've got a point. Someone who also read this post mentioned the same thing to me.

R2K said...

"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)"

Its ok as long as they dont come from a place near you to own slaves?

I personally think that not being clearly against slavery puts the bible (written by God no less) in a bad light. But it clearly does, at times, condone it. According to what I see anyway, maybe I am crazy.

"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)"

If he lives a day or two, it is ok.

" Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)"

I find it harder and harder to see how people can celebrate some parts of the bible while ignoring the other, crazy parts.

Do you guys mix grains? Mix fibers? We all do, so we are going against the bible. But everyone just forgot about that strange custom. But if God put it there, isnt it important?

Miss Cellania said...

Interesting point on #1- If a slave runs away, it probably meant he was being mistreated. So its really an "escape clause", huh?

Saur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saur said...

R2K, brilliant arguments. No, you are not crazy. I don't disagree that there are passages that make you want to scratch your head and say "whaaa...?"

I also don't like the passage in Exodus 21:20-21. But I believe that it's tempered by the passages that I mentioned in Ex. 21:26-27; Lev. 24:17. I cannot say for certain how it was interpreted by the Jews at that time, but since those verses are close to each other, we have to assume they were written at the same time. Unless the author was a madman, he wouldn't be deliberately contradicting himself later on. I think it's making the distinction between murder and manslaughter of a slave. However, you would think that murder or manslaughter of a slave should be punishable the same way it was if a freeman was murdered or killed accidentally!

Yes, it seems unfair that pagan slaves are treated differently that Hebrew slaves, but it was a primitive time, there were many wars, and most pagan slaves came from countries that were mortal enemies of Israel. It wasn't until the New Testament that the Bible begins to hammer home the Golden Rule. Of course, this brings up the excellent and difficult question: Does God change his mind? This also seems opposed to scriptures that say that God doesn't change.

The Ephesians 6:5 passage echoes other parts of the Bible, where people are told they should "fear" God. Scholars feel that in that context, "fear" is really intended to mean "respect". Since the analogy here is between God and master, "fear" (or "fear and trembling", as it's translated in some versions) denotes respect.

As for your argument about mixing grains, fibers, etc., you have to understand that devout Jews still live by these laws. However, Christians who follow the New Testament were told that many such restrictions were lifted. Christians believe that they now "live in the age of Grace" when they do not have to follow Kosher beliefs. There is also considerable debate about why God made such seemingly meaningless demands. Many scholars feel it was to make it difficult for the Jews to mix with Pagans, because their restrictions would make it impossible to do so.

Saur said...

Miss C, *LOL*

The Lazy Iguana said...

AH HA! Vindication once again! Bible "slaves" were actually "employees" or "indentured servants" by today's standards.

Saur - many people in this Country ALWAYS maintained that slavery was wrong. In fact, there is much historical evidence that the issue was debated during the earliest days of the formation of America. Abolitionists were around back then. They lost out at first due to economic factors (someone had to pick the cotton. But not rich white people. And all the not rich white people could just steal some land from an Indian Tribe, fence it in, and there you go! Instant farm!

Various churches and homes of people of faith were also stops on the famous underground railroad.

In the long run however, the abolitionist won. Slavery is no more in America. We call them "minimum wage employees" now :)

By the way, as I understand it other nations in Europe that had slaves dealt with the issue entirely differently than in the USA. I once heard that in England the crown bought up ALL slaves at a set price from the owners. It was a kingly decree kind of deal. Upon purchase by the king, the slaves were granted freedom.

Thus England was spared a lot of the crap America went through. Former slave owners did not loose their "investment" in human flesh as they were paid something for their slaves. At the same time, slavery was dissolved. There was no civil war, no KKK, and so on. There may be racism in the UK today, but I doubt it is the same kind of racism that has existed in the USA (and to some degree still does).

-- Lazy Iguana
Member - United Brotherhood of Wage Slaves Local #4594

Matt said...

I was just going to comment on the wage slaves....

I heard one "former slave" in a lunchline complain that she was "ass broke."

That's pretty broke.

Emma Sometimes said...

I agree with you, it does not condone slavery.

The Lazy Iguana said...

Well it seems to depend on what the definition of "slave" is.

From what is presented here, it seems that the word is not used in the same context as of what we think of when we say "slave". This of course would mean that even if there are Biblical Laws regarding the treatment of "slaves" - it may be that the translation is off. Slave may not be the proper word to use anymore.

This would, of course, suggest that the Bible does not approve of "slavery" as we think of it today.

Pretty simple stuff really :)

Saur said...

Lazy, very true indeed. You show the usual clarity that you always do. ;o)

Emma, :D

Matt, It sure is!

Bryan said...

Saur, God Bless you for spelling the Biblical slavery issue all out. I was once very familiar with it but over the years have forgotten some of the finer points you brought out, and I just didn't have the time to research it.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Bryan, ;o) I'm glad you enjoyed it. Read the questions that R2K brought up, read my answers, and let me know your thoughts. I'd be interested in hearing them!

Tea & Margaritas in My Garden said...

All I can really say is that it surprises me that people actually ever condoned slavery by using the bible as reference. But then again, it wouldn`t be the first time or last to find some excuse for sub-human behavior. Did they forget about the New Testament I wonder? Great post saur♥Kraut!

ts said...

Saur, you are just kicking ass and taking names in this post! Awesome job tackling some common prejudices against the Bible! I actually didn't know about some of the verses you mentioned. Thanks.

eshuneutics said...

But surely it isn't so much a question of what The Bible says as what people believed it said. The Bible is somewhat "pick 'n' mix" and slave owners could ignore what they wished. Then, does this even answer the issue? The Bible over centuries promoted racial interpretations that were greater than any particluar written statemement. The same is true of the attack on gay people--what Bible readers believe and the prejudice they originate is greater than the odd ambiguous sentence in the Old Testament. The whole edifice of slavery was built upon a foundation that supposedly followed biblical precedent; starting, with the right to enslave as the word of God known through a reading of The Bible.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Esh, BUT... the Bible was never intended to be "pick n' mix", although we do it. It also never preached a message of enslavement, but if someone chose to deliberately misinterpret it, he or she could. Yet as I said, the American slave trade was completely anti-Biblical because of Exodus 21:16. There were no gray areas there. Anyone trying to excuse it with the Bible either didn't know their Bible, or they hoped that their audience didn't know it!

TS, I'm so glad you liked it, my fellow scholar! :D

Tea, 'zactly!

eshuneutics said...

"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

History seems to say otherwise, sadly.

R2K said...

So do you guys also think the bible is not against being gay? Again I see a pretty clear statement against being gay in the bible, but the many openly gay christians somehow gloss over this or explain it away. I almost have more respect for the crazy, my way or the highway, 110% christians who take everything in the bible as edict from god. I think the "Cafeteria Christianity" is in some ways worse. Certainly, it is better for me as an atheist because Cafeteria Christians tend to be nicer more balanced people. It is like they found out half of the bible was crazy, and dropped that part, but never finished up and became atheists. You get rid of the god of the flood, of killing children with stones if they are rude to parents, and keep the god of Santa and eternal paradise.

Emma Sometimes said...


I think that no matter what anyone here believes, either way, no one here will change their ideas. So what would be the point of the debating biblical teachings on homosexuality?

There is not one blogger who posts or comments, nor have I ever in the past nor do I foresee in the near future, change or recant their ideals and beliefs. People argue till the sun goes down about how they are right. Or how their thinking is better.

I am not any different. Nothing that anyone here can say will change my believe and relationship with God.

No one will change my belief that the gay lifestyle is Biblically wrong (this after studying from the Greek literal translation and a lifetime of prayerful study).

Additionally, no one will change my believe that being gay and an alcoholic are any different sins in God's eyes and that God commands me to love both (and all people) equally. I don't have the corner on His blood bought redemption. So, I show love, grace and mercy to the best of my non-denominational ability.

(Sorry for the book, Saur.)