Friday, July 25, 2014

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Does the Bible Approve of Slavery?

Hey Lenny,

I know you're probably busy, but I was wondering if you had any special verses off-hand or suggestions as to how to effectively address this issue with a non-believer.
My friend recently wrote a blog that said:

I DO NOT LIKE EXTREMISTS

Leviticus 18:22 "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination." - Basically homosexuality is wrong.

Leviticus 25:44 "And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have-from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves."  - Basically you can buy slaves so long as they are from neighboring nations.

You can not have your cake without your ice cream.  If you use Leviticus to justify the hate of homosexuals, then you are a supporter of slavery.

I mean, aside from the obvious differences in phrasing (one being stated as a command), I know there is context missing and I don't want to jump into a debate with him being that I feel slightly uneducated on this particular subject.

I was wondering if you might be able to enlighten me just a little bit more...?

Thanks!
Jessica

Hi Jessica,

Nice to hear from you. Your friend has some misunderstandings about the Bible and slavery. Let's look at the aspects of slavery in the ancient Near East and then focus on the Biblical passage in question.

1. The Concept of Slavery

The concept of slavery in ancient Israel and many ancient near eastern cultures is quite different than the type of slavery practiced in the Southern United States during the early 1800's.1 The term slavery was much broader then, since a king's subjects may be referred to as his slaves.2 Slaves were understood to be human beings instead of mere chattel. Slaves could own land and property - something that was illegal in the modern western version.

2. The Drivers of Slavery

Also, we need to remember that slavery in those ages was an aspect of the economic conditions of the day. In fact, most slave situations were not primarily due to a person being taken against his will, but because poor people either sold themselves or their children into slavery. Slavery was designed to pay a debt to a debtor, and once the debt was paid, the person was free. A slave could buy his own freedom from the profits of his selling his property.3

It is noteworthy that many people became bond-slaves (pledged to remain in his master's household for life) because their situation was better as a slave than as a free person. We sometimes assume a modern frame of reference when we talk about these things, but one must remember that life was extremely hard during these times, and to be free meant you had no guarantees that you would have enough food to eat or even a decent house to shelter your family. Add to that taxes from the ruling governments, no protection from raiding parties or foreign invaders and the expense of buying tools to accomplish tasks and you can see how being part of a larger organization could be inviting. You would share in the collective efforts of many people and have access to the resources of a rich master - much the same way the feudal serf system was constructed in the Middle Ages.

3. The Bible's Approach to Slavery

Now, to the Biblical pronouncements on slavery. One of the great things about the God of the Bible is that He provides a realistic approach to the issues of the times. Slavery is definitely not the optimal form of relationship for individuals, but for most of the world's history it is a reality. Therefore, the Bible addresses slavery and provides certain safeguards to make sure that slave are not mistreated and that their humanity will be respected. Let's look at the passage in question then make some quick points:

"If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

"If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. 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. (Lev 25.35-43)

  • Slavery was designed so that the poor could seek protection - this is noted in the passage of Leviticus that your friend quoted. It's driven by the need of the individual who is poor.
  • Slaves were to be recognized as human beings first and foremost, not property or chattel. Verse 40 states "He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you".4
     
  • Slavery had a specific time of service and afterward were allowed to go free. Note that the passage above even includes the family of the slave so as not to break up the family unit.
     
  • As an owner, you couldn't "cook the books". A big problem in those days was the charging of exorbitant interest so that slaves would stay indebted to their masters forever (remember Jacob and Laban?). Here, God specifically declares that this practice is forbidden.

According to anthropologist Dexter Callender:

"The Hebrew Bible refers regularly to the people generally as "servants"(>bdym) of God, on the one hand, yet attempts to restrict the possibility of chattel slavery, on the other. With regard both to the understanding of people generally as "slaves/servants" of the god(s) and to the limited role of chattel slavery, ancient Israel appears to have been similar to other ancient Near Eastern societies, and very different from classical Greek and imperial Roman societies. Yet the Hebrew Bible also articulates an opposition unusual in antiquity, to various forms of servitude, one that appears rooted in Israel's formative deliverance from bondage in Egypt, the basis of its own distinctive social identity."5

Overall, all the admonitions are targeted toward the slave owners. In other words, slavery in this day was inevitable, so let's make sure that there are specific protections in place to keep any abuse to a minimum.

I hope this will help clear up some misconceptions about the Biblical view on slavery. As I said, although the Bible gives certain guidelines for treating slaves, that doesn't necessarily mean the Bible condones slavery - especially the more modern type that was practiced in the pre-civil war South.

We are reminded that slaves were to be viewed as human beings and Hebrew slaves were to be released after seven years. Because God's word always portrayed slaves as human beings, once the Christian concept of inherent human value had spread across the world did the practice of slavery begin to fade from society. Christians such as William Wilberforce and others even fought to abolish slavery in more recent times. These points should not be ignored in any serious study of the Biblical position on slavery.

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References

1.  For a good source of understanding the aspects of ancient slavery, please see "Does God condone slavery in the Bible?" at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qnoslave.html Also see "The Newness of New World Slavery" Digital History Web site http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/black_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=5 accesses online 2/13/2007

2. Callendar, Dexter E. "Servants Of God(S) And Servants Of Kings In Israel And The Ancient Near East"
Semeia 83/84(1998): 67-82.

3. Ibid

4. See also Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East
Oxford University Press, New York 1994.  Accessed online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/lewis1.html 2/13/2007

5. Callendar, Ibid 72-73.


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