Does the Bible condone, or even endorse slavery?
You can’t look at the news in recent months or even years, without seeing the racial tensions that exist in America. White rights, black rights, racial supremacy. All of these terms get tossed about. When you start talking about race, what often comes up is the historical fact that Christians often owned slaves long ago. Sometimes this was couched this in terms of slavery being talked about and provided for in the Bible. The question we want to address today is, “is slavery actually condoned, or even endorsed or encourages by the Bible?”
Before we get there, there are a couple concepts I want to address. The first is something called the “Is-Ought Fallacy.” This is to mistakenly believe that something ought to be a certain way, because it is that way.
Here’s an example. Jesus gives a provision for divorce. In Mark 10:5 he says, “Abraham wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts.” He’s not saying you should get a divorce, he’s saying that this happens, but that doesn’t mean it should be that way. We’re going to see this same type of thing when we talk about slavery.
The other concept is something that C.S. Lewis coined. Chronological snobbery. That’s to mistakenly think that the thought, morality, art, or science of an earlier time period is inherently inferior to that of our current time. It’s really easy for us to look back and say, “Gosh, how did they get it so wrong?” I wonder who’s going to look back at us and think, “How did they get it so wrong?”
On to slavery. When people think about slavery, that often envision something like this quote from Frederick Douglas, and here’s what he says.
“He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slave holding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I’ve often been awakened at dawn by the most heart-rending shrieks of my own aunt of mine, whom he would tie to a joist and whip upon her naked back until she was literally covered with blood. I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I remember it well, and I never shall forget it whilst I remember anything. It was the first of a long series of outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”
That’s Frederick Douglas writing.
He accurately captures very vividly the picture of what we often think about when we think of slavery. We think of antebellum, pre-civil war south. We think of chains and slave ships, and subjugation of a race, and kidnapping, and forced labor, and all of these types of things. When we come to the Bible and we see the word “slavery,” we bring all of this baggage with us, and that’s a mistake.
The slavery in the old testaments, specifically with regards to Israel, was servitude. This is the same type of servitude that was in play when Britain brought people over to the colonies. In fact, 2/3 of the white immigrants to the colonies were indentured servants. They had said, “Well if you take me over to the new world, I will work for you for this length of time. You “own me” when it comes to my work product, what I’m going to produce, and who I’m going to work for.”
We actually use terms today like, “Buy, sell, acquire,” And we don’t think of these as slavery endorsing terms. Someone will buy a sports team, well what is that? That’s a group of people. Players will be traded, or acquired. This doesn’t mean that they’re treated poorly. This same type of language is used in the old testament of servants. The first thing we need to understand is that the slavery of the old testament was different. It was servitude.
Servitude allowed for providing food or shelter for your family. Leviticus 25:47 says, “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself,” So you could sell yourself into servitude to avoid not being able to provide for your family. Just 2 versus later in verse 49 it says, “If he prospers, he can redeem himself.” You could get out of that servitude relationship. What we see here, is that servitude was voluntary, not compulsory. That’s a big difference from the slavery most people have in mind of the south. In fact, unavoidable lifelong servant hood was prohibited.
Debts were to be forgiven every 7th year. We see this in Deuteronomy 15. Property that had been mortgaged was to be returned after 49 years, on the year of jubilee. It gets even more different from the concept of slavery in the south that we often think of. The Bible says, “You must not rule over him harshly,” Talking about a slave, or a servant, “But you must fear your God.”
We’ve got 2 things at play here. Don’t rule over your slave harshly, well that’s very different from that Frederick Douglas quote that we looked at. Additionally, it says you must fear your God. I think the reason for this is, the servant owner, if you will, that term doesn’t totally capture the concept, but nonetheless we’ll use it, was a man in authority over his servants. He needed to remember that however he treated them, he was under the authority of God. There’s a hierarchy. He is not God of these people, someone else is. It wasn’t even supposed to get to this whole concept of indentured servitude, though. The poor were given opportunities to glean from the edges of fields, or pick lingering fruit on trees after their fellow Israelites had harvest the land.
Israelites were commanded to lend freely to the poor with no interest. Quite a few differences so far. You could voluntarily enter this, you could buy yourself out of this arrangement, which was to provide for your family. A slave owner or servant owner could not treat you harshly, but more than that, you weren’t allowed to kidnap people.
In fact in Exodus 21:16 it says, “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” Then additionally in Deuteronomy 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 that you shall purge the evil from among you.” No kidnapping, another big difference.
Now, is this a perfect system? No, it’s not. There are other things we haven’t gotten into, but what I want you to see just right off the bat is it is quite different. It is culturally and geographically revolutionary for the time in which this took place.
When you look at the surrounding other Ancient Near East groups of people, their track record on human rights and civil liberties was horrible. Was Israel perfect? No, but what we see is God moving people towards a better system all throughout the old testament ultimately foreshadowing the need for Christ, because no set of laws could ultimately provide for a perfect and stable society forever.
So, that’s old testament slavery, in a very short summary. Now, we’ll briefly look at new testament slavery, which is is very different. When you read the word “slave” in the new testament, and you think of antebellum slavery, you’re on the right track. These exist in very different time periods. The Old testament laws we looked at were for when Israel was its own sovereign nation state. The new testament is largely written to people under Roman rule. The slavery that exists is one of the Roman empire. Often, slaves were not treated well in that type of environment. What’s noteworthy is that slaves are told to serve their masters well.
Now sometimes people want to say, “See? That’s an endorsement of slavery.” It’s actually not, because what would happen if a slave got converted to Christianity, and then all the slaves started revolting? They’re all going to get killed. Additionally, what happens when a slave stays and serves his master well, and serves him better because he’s a Christian? What we see when we look at accounts of the new testament church is that oftentimes slaves and their masters went to the same church. Slaves could help convert their masters to Christianity, which they would not be able to do if they fled once they became a Christian. Furthermore, Galatians 3:28 paints a picture of how God sees everyone. “There’s neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female” in God’s eyes at the foot of the cross. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ in that way as Christians. There’s no hierarchy in the church in how people exist, or in how God sees us.
So, that’s slavery in the Bible. It’s not the slavery we think of when we think of the Civil War in the south and all of that. Was it a perfect system? No it wasn’t, but it was so much better than in the surrounding areas, and honestly it’s so much better than what existed in the south. The last thing I want to point out is that this doesn’t this mean that everyone who was an Israelite applied what the Bible said they should. Not every slave or servant owner treated their servant well and didn’t treat them harshly. It doesn’t mean that no one was kidnapped. We’ve got examples of Joseph who was kidnapped by his own brothers, and then sold into slavery. This is what I was getting at initially when I discussed the Is-Ought Fallacy. There are things described in the Bible that should not be that way. They ought not be that way, but they were that way.
Murder is recounted as having happened in the Bible, but murder is obviously wrong. We can’t just look at something that is described to have happened, and then think that it was prescribed to be that way. This whole concept of descriptive versus prescriptive is extremely important. We’ll talk more about it in future weeks on this podcast at some point.
I hope you see that you’ve got some talking points when it comes to people bringing up slavery and what the Bible has to say, and that it’s very different from slavery in the south. I’m talking to you from beautiful Yosemite National Park at the Wawona Inn, and so if you’ve heard music or odd sounds in the background, it’s because I’m in a different set of circumstances this week. I will be back in beautiful, hot Tallahassee next week, and I hope you’ll join me then for Unapologetic.