Slavery in the Bible

9 04 2015

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? abolitionist medallion by Josiah Wedgwood

It is a good question asked by believers and unbelievers alike- “how come the Bible permits slavery”? How would you handle that question? Lawren Guldemond gives some helpful insight.  Pastor Dave

By Lawren Guldemond

In several of his letters, the Apostle Paul gave instruction that Christian slaves should be obedient to their masters, and Christian masters should be fair in ruling over their slaves.[1] Those letters are part of the Bible. Adversaries like to point this out and argue that the God of the Bible is in favour of slavery, and is therefore despicable and morally inferior to modern secular humanists.

If God is real and good, and the Bible is His Word, why doesn’t the Bible contain denunciations of slavery rather than apparent endorsements?

First of all, the Bible does prohibit slavery in its absolute form. Exodus 21:16 proscribes the death penalty for those who enslave others, and for those who buy the kidnapped victims of such slave traders. In his first epistle to Timothy, Paul reaffirms this by including enslavers in a list of denunciations (I Timothy 1:10).[2] Deuteronomy 23:15-16 prohibited giving runaway slaves back to their masters, and commanded that they be given refuge instead. If a master struck a slave and knocked out a tooth or blinded an eye, the slave went free (Exodus 21:26-27). If a master beat a slave to death, it was commanded that the master be punished (Exodus 21:20). Furthermore, the laws of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) mandated that everyone in bondage be set free every seventh year. Taken together, these limitations prevent the kind of unbridled despotism that slave owners practised in the antebellum American South. Observe that every one of these commandments was violated by those who ran the transatlantic slave trade and the southern cotton plantations.

The “slavery” allowed for in the Bible is not equivalent to the absolute slavery imposed on Africans in the New World.[3] The biblical model is better understood as indentured servitude. In a typical case, a free man who is struggling and failing to make a living as an independent farmer on his own land might decide to become a bondservant to a prosperous farmer in order to gain food security. According to Paul Copan:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts—much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.[4]

It was a provision for the welfare of those who became bankrupt, that they should become servants to others who were financially stable and competent and could therefore provide for them, in return for their service in labour. Biblical jubilee laws (Leviticus 25) mandating debt forgiveness, release of bondservants, and the restoration of farmland back to the family that had sold it all served to prevent those who fell into debt bondage from being trapped in that estate permanently. (For further reading, see the lengthy discussion of the nature of servitude in Hebrew society and the Gentile societies that surrounded them in the Ancient Near East (ANE) on Glenn Miller’s Christian ThinkTank website)

Advertisements

Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: