Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

The Bible and Slavery

Posted by Tony Listi on May 17, 2008

There seems to be a lot of ignorance and confusion among Americans (especially on the Left) about what the Bible says about slavery and the impact that the Judeo-Christian tradition had on that peculiar institution. So it’s time to set the record straight: the Bible does not encourage or approve of slavery and it is the Judeo-Christian tradition that provided the moral force to abolish it.

First of all, it is important to realize that slavery was by and large uncontroversial and accepted in the ancient pagan world. Slavery was widely practiced in every ancient civilization, but only one civilization took it upon itself to abolish slavery within its own communities by force of law: the Christian West. In fact, slavery still exists today in some parts of the Islamic world and Asia.

It is not surprising that historically the Judeo-Christian tradition is responsible for abolishing slavery if one takes a careful look at the Bible. Equality before the eyes of God became equality before the law for all.

The Old Testament and Slavery
In ancient times, slavery was not based on racism. In ancient Israel, the slaves were prisoners of war, criminals, or indentured servants. Relative to the time, slavery was a humane alternative to slaughter, cruel punishment, starvation, or debt imprisonment. Most Hebrew slaves were probably bondsmen who voluntarily bound themselves to a master and thus not really “slaves” in the modern understanding of the term.

Keep in mind one crucial point when reading the Old Testament: just because it regulated a practice does not mean that it approved of that practice. For example, the Old Testament regulates divorce, but it also says that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). And Jesus tells us that the Father tolerated divorce among the Israelites because of the hardness of their hearts (Mk 10:4-5; Mt 19:8) Thus, though the Old Testament regulated slavery, it did not approve of it.

Moreover, compared with the other ancient civilizations of that time, the regulations of slavery within the Old Testament were almost always to moderate the practice. For example, according to the Code of Hammurabi, a person who harbors a runaway slave should be put to death. In contrast, the Old Testament prohibits one from returning a runaway slave to its master: “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deut 23:16-17).

Anyone who abducted another person and sold them into slavery (cf. the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis): “A kidnapper, whether he sells his victim or still has him when caught, shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:16).

It was required that slaves be freed after six years or on the Jubilee Year:

“If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, sells himself to you, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year you shall dismiss him from your service, a free man” (Deut 15:12; see also Exodus 21:2).

“When, then, your countryman becomes so impoverished beside you that he sells you his services, do not make him work as a slave. Rather, let him be like a hired servant or like your tenant, working with you until the jubilee year, when he, together with his children, shall be released from your service and return to his kindred and to the property of his ancestors. Since those whom I brought out of the land of Egypt are servants of mine, they shall not be sold as slaves to any man. Do not lord it over them harshly, but stand in fear of your God” (Lev 25:39-43).

A slave could also buy his freedom or be redeemed by relatives: “When one of your countrymen is reduced to such poverty that he sells himself to a wealthy alien who has a permanent or a temporary residence among you, or to one of the descendants of an immigrant family, even after he has thus sold his services he still has the right of redemption; he may be redeemed by one of his own brothers, or by his uncle or cousin, or by some other relative or fellow clansman; or, if he acquires the means, he may redeem himself” (Lev 25:47-49).

Moreover, a slave was to be treated quite generously upon emancipation! “When you do so, you shall not send him away empty-handed, but shall weight him down with gifts from your flock and threshing floor and wine press, in proportion to the blessing the LORD, your God, has bestowed on you.For remember that you too were once slaves in the land of Egypt, and the LORD, your God, ransomed you. That is why I am giving you this command today. If, however, he tells you that he does not wish to leave you, because he is devoted to you and your household, since he fares well with you, you shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear into the door, and he shall then be your slave forever” (Deut 15:13-17; emphasis added).

A slave not wanting to leave his master? Obviously, this is not the kind of slavery that most Americans envision when they hear the word.

The Mosaic Law recognizes that slaves are human beings, not merely property. The punishment for killing a slave is the same as for killing a free person, i.e. death: “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…. But if injury, ensures you shall give life for life….” (Exodus 21:20, 23). This was unique in the ancient world at that time.

All slaves were expected to participate in religious ceremonies and duties of the household too, including observing the Sabbath and all holy days:

“…but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD, your God. No work may be done then either by you, or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your beast, or by the alien who lives with you” (Exodus 20: 10).

“In the place which the LORD, your God, chooses as the dwelling place of his name, you shall make merry in his presence together with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and the Levite who belongs to your community, as well as the alien, the orphan and the widow among you” (Deut 16:11).

If a household had no heirs, the slave could inherit the estate: “Abram continued, ‘See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir'” (Genesis 15:3).

There are even special regulations for female slaves. Whereas sex slaves were common in the ancient Near East and in the Islamic world, it was forbidden under Mosaic Law: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the LORD, your God, delivers them into your hand, so that you take captives, if you see a comely woman among the captives and become so enamored of her that you wish to have her as wife, you may take her home to your house. But before she may live there, she must shave her head and pare her nails and lay aside her captive’s garb. After she has mourned her father and mother for a full month, you may have relations with her, and you shall be her husband and she shall be your wife. However, if later on you lose your liking for her, you shall give her her freedom, if she wishes it; but you shall not sell her or enslave her, since she was married to you under compulsion” (Deut 21:10-14).

And of course, we must not forget the Exodus story, how God freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. God continually reminds them of the freedom he gave to them and thus to take it to heart not to mistreat their own slaves. And let’s not forget that black slaves in America looked to the story of Exodus for hope and inspiration.

The New Testament and Slavery
In the Roman Empire (the time of the New Testament), slaves were apprentices and indentured servants. They represented a broad social and legal category. Some slaves were very well educated and thus more valuable to their owners (e.g. Epictetus). It was common for slaves to live apart from their masters with their own home and families. In fact, many slaves did not want to be free, and some owners wanted to be rid of their slaves! Slaves were expensive to feed and house. (The high cost of feeding slaves is a common motif in Roman literature.) With this context in mind, the following statement of St. Paul makes perfect sense: “If you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Cor 7:21).

Also, when Jesus talks of slavery (which is not often) in the New Testament, it almost always in the context of a parable. Thus, Jesus is not approving of slavery; he is merely using examples of everyday life in Roman Palestine.

Like Jesus, St. Paul does not seem to think it is important whether one is a slave or free man: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a disciplinarian. For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:25-29; emphasis added of course). Thus sprang the Western conception of equality of dignity of all human beings. For the Christian community, there is no slave and free.

Moreover, St. Paul and the early Christians believed that the Apocalypse, Christ’s 2nd Coming, was near. There was no reason for sweeping social reforms if Jesus was to going to establish justice soon enough.

St. Paul also says, “Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Do not be concerned but, even if you can gain your freedom, make the most of it. For the slave called in the Lord is a freed person in the Lord, just as the free person who has been called is a slave of Christ. You have been purchased at a price. Do not become slaves to human beings” (1 Cor 7:21-23). He urges people not to bind themselves in servitude to others.

Paul did not approve of slave-trading: “We know that the law is good, provided that one uses it as law, with the understanding that law is meant not for a righteous person but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, practicing homosexuals, slave traders, liars, perjurers,…” (1 Tim 1:8-10).

The most important slavery that concerns Jesus and St. Paul is spiritual slavery, slavery to sin. But even so, the entire book of Philemon is an emotional appeal by St. Paul on behalf of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul writes to the master, Philemon, and asks him to show mercy and receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ: “Perhaps this is why [Onesimus] ran away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me. And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 15-18).

Slaves and masters are brothers in Christ. This spiritual equality laid the foundation for social and legal equality.

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16 Responses to “The Bible and Slavery”

  1. […] For the correct analysis of the relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition and slavery please see my post. […]

  2. What total deceiving tripe! This gives all conservatism a bad name. The fact is that The Bible approves of slavery IN EVERY INSTANCE. It is never condemned. It was a fact of life in their civilization, so never to be questioned. Slaves were not freed after 6 years, as this self-serving nonsense claims; only indentured servants were. Slaves were slaves, in perpetuity. Jesus not only approves of slaves; he enumerates conditions under which they may be beaten. He never opposed slavery morally. Forget the parables; he had many opportunities. This so-called “slavery to sin” which is supposed to be the REAL issue of slavery is revisionist lunacy. Human bondage is all over The Bible. AND IT IS NEVER CALLED INTO QUESTION ON MORAL GROUNDS. This article was a weak transparent effort to not deal with the truth. And not even offered above a real signature.

    Let’s expose this transparent masturbation for what it is and get down to reaffirming conservative principles for the coming administration.

  3. foospro86 said

    Mr. Gillespie, I don’t think that you are a conservative at all. The coming administration will not be conservative. You are either a liberal posing as a conservative or profoundly misguided about what conservatism really stands for.

    My entire post above is filled with specific citations of Scripture in support of my claims. Citing the original source precludes revisionism. Your comment, on the other hand, is full of unsubstantiated (and false) claims about what the Bible says. Anyone who takes the time to read my post and cares about evidence will see my view as more valid. Feel free to actually cite Bible verses and authorities of the Judeo-Christian tradition to try and validate your claims rather than mere denials of my claims. Anyone can deny; denial requires no critical thinking. Few actually form a coherent argument these days.

  4. Tim 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)

    He seems to have forgotten something! Good old Leviticus!

  5. foospro86 said

    True, Tim. This is when I appeal to being a Catholic Christian, not a Jewish, supporter of the Judeo-Christian tradition. No orthodox Christian accepts mindlessly the Old Testament at face value but rather acknowledges that the New Testament commands supercede many of the Old commands. The “stiff-necked people,” as Yahweh called the Israelites, were not ready for Christ’s message in its entirety. God revealed himself gradually to his chosen people.

    Moreover, as my post says, “Keep in mind one crucial point when reading the Old Testament: just because it regulated a practice does not mean that it approved of that practice. For example, the Old Testament regulates divorce, but it also says that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). And Jesus tells us that the Father tolerated divorce among the Israelites because of the hardness of their hearts (Mk 10:4-5; Mt 19:8) Thus, though the Old Testament regulated slavery, it did not approve of it.”

    Regardless, the fact remains that the abolition of slavery in the West had its roots in Christianity.

  6. The Bible?
    And the christian-criminal Education!
    1. War
    2. Racism
    3. Genocids
    4. Vandalism
    5. Cannibalism
    6. Separatism
    7. Intoleranz
    8. Militarypropagand
    9. Militarystrategy
    10. Exorcism (New Testament: U.S. Education? Mr. Obamas Edu-
    cation??? Demons, Engels, Satan: Mr. Obamas Education?

    Atheist!

  7. Clark Coleman said

    In response to Leviticus 25:44-46, in all ancient lands it was considered merciful to enslave a prisoner of war rather than kill him on the battlefield. For the great empires, which constantly fought wars of expansion, such prisoners were the majority of slaves. As seen in Leviticus, the Hebrews enslaved some of the Canaanites when they conquered the promised land, with the same justification. Otherwise, however, the Hebrews were not building an empire or expanding their borders and do not compare to the other great empires of the Mediterranean and Near East.

    This hardly compares to the more recent slave trade, in which men traveled to lands far away from their own land, with which their nations were not at war in the first place, and captured people in order to enslave them. Without this practice, there could have been no American slavery.

    For this reason, among many others, American slavery could never have existed if Biblical regulations were followed. Those who tried to justify American slavery with Biblical quotations were probably not fond of quoting the numerous Biblical regulations about the treatment of slaves, redemption of slaves, harboring runaway slaves, etc.

  8. jan brandt said

    Foo,
    You hit it right on the head concerning Forest,at the moment we are having the same problem with lefties posing as conservatives on Andrew Bolts web site, among others, in Australia.

    I like your description of slavery, today we have a much harsher system which entails a mortgage and keeps people bound for many decades, unless they get the place repossessed and lose everything.
    Strange, how the lefties do not complain about that system of slavery but make asinine comments about cannibalism, racism, etc.

  9. How dishonest can you get? Care to illuminate people on what you left out in that little ellipsis between Exodus 21:20 and 21:23?

  10. OlyDave said

    Um, that bit about why a slave would _want_ to stay? Here is similar passage:

    If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever. Exodus 21:2-6

    So, keeping his wife as your personal slave would perhaps encourage him to stay? Morally this is very sound.

    — — —

    How about this?

    When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment. Exodus 21:7-11

    So female slaves are not free at the end of that 6 year term then! Just male slaves…solid family values there.

    — — —

    Exodus is a virtual treasure of slavery information!

    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

    WOW! This must not have been in the bible you were quoting from then eh? God thinks slaves _are_ property after all. My, my.

    • Tony Listi said

      Something to keep in mind is that God was dealing with a barbaric people, the Israelites. All ancient peoples were pretty barbaric back then. God gave these laws to a barbaric people and these laws WERE a GREAT improvement over ancient standards common at that time. These laws, like many other laws, were never meant to be permanently binding or the standard of perfect justice. God had to deal with humanity at the barbaric level that it was at.
      Deuteronomy and Leviticus came later and are thus more authoritative for the Old Testament, by the way.

      Exodus 21:2-6 says that the master gives the wife to the slave. The slave would not have a wife or children but for his master in that situation. So there is a certain sense of primitive justice to the master keeping the wife and children. Besides, the Bible still makes quite clear why some slaves didn’t want to leave their masters: “because he is devoted to you and your household, since he fares well with you.”

      No, female slaves are freed too after 6 years: “If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, sells himself to you, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year you shall dismiss him from your service, a free man” (Deut 15:12). Though I’m not sure why female slaves sold by their fathers are an exception.

      Yes, parts of the Old Testament recognize a slave as property in some sense, but you are ignoring all the revolutionary precepts in the Old Testament for that time which clearly demonstrated that a slave was still a human being and not merely property:
      The punishment for killing a slave is the same as for killing a free person, i.e. death: “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…. But if injury, ensures you shall give life for life….” (Exodus 21:20, 23). This was unique in the ancient world at that time.
      All slaves were expected to participate in religious ceremonies and duties of the household too, including observing the Sabbath and all holy days….

  11. I just think that this post was mind blowing , please add more mistress posts and I will be back all the time lol!

  12. […] to care for, and some slaves liked living off their masters. Learn more about slavery in the Bible here. In our modern egalitarian society which prizes individual autonomy and liberty, it is hard for […]

  13. Tony Listi said

    Something that everyone needs to keep in mind is that God was dealing with a barbaric people, the Israelites. All ancient peoples were pretty barbaric back then. God gave these laws to a barbaric people and these laws WERE a GREAT improvement over ancient standards common at that time. These laws, like many other laws, were never meant to be permanently binding or the standard of perfect justice.

    God had to deal with humanity at the barbaric level that it was at. This was why Jesus could later fulfill and reform the Old Law, making it more stringent and consonant with the demands of justice and love.

  14. Tony Listi said

    The Catholic Church never supported the slave trade, opposed abusive slavemasters, and for centuries set up orders and ministries to ransom them from captivity. The Catholic Church never opposed interracial marriage.

    http://catholiceducation.org/articles/facts/fm0006.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Coyle

    http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=2585

    http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=550379

    http://romereturn.blogspot.com/2010/02/catholic-churchs-black-popes.html

  15. […] as for the captive Midianite virgins, God permitted the Israelites to take them as wives or servants, and both wives and servants had particular rights under Mosaic law, including prohibitions […]

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