Biblical Slavery & American Slavery (An Inconvenient Truth)
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
In my career as a choir director I have either directed or co-directed a number of stage musicals. In almost every production there is at least one moment that calls for a little director and stage 'trickery'. There are moments when the goal of the director is to create staging that draws the eyes of the audience off a specific area of the stage and on to another. Perhaps there is a quick prop, set, or costume change that needs to take place quickly with no time for the actor(s) in question to actually leave the stage. Or, maybe a once off-stage actor needs to magically appear on a part of the stage without the audience seeing it. Whatever the case may be, the goal of the director is to set up the staging in such a way that draws the eyes of the audience away from the portion of the stage where the 'trickery' takes place. We do this by utilizing lighting and moments of visual staging and action.
And usually it is successful.
There is a similar form of trickery that is utilized in both American and Church history that seeks to take the eyes of the modern American and Church audience off of a less than flattering historical truth onto that of a half or completely made-up 'truth,' which, in turn, serves the purpose of keeping the audience from realizing the actual truth - the truth now left in the dark. And when successful, as it has proven in the past, the audience is none-the-wiser until someone in the audience says: "Look over there!"
The difference between these two uses of 'trickery' is that when I utilize it in a musical stage production, I harm no one. (Hopefully.) However, when our American and church society uses it, it has proven to cause physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual harm to countless fellow human beings.
Audience, I beseech you: LOOK OVER THERE!
The Truth about Slavery in the Bible as compared to that of American Slavery.
One of the devices used in the trickery of both American citizens and American Christian Church participants in the past decades and centuries has been a 're-telling' of a specific story or narrative in an effort to cast the problematic decisions of a certain region's or church's past in a more flattering light.
We have seen this trickery used in"The Lost Cause" narrative which was used by white southerners, and supported by the Southern Evangelical Christian Church, to rewrite the story of the south to cast it in a more flattering light which was then (and still is) used to justify its past actions. This proved especially useful in the Jim Crow era.
We have seen this trickery used in proclamations of the modern Evangelical Christian Church that, if it hadn't been for the Christian Church, there would have been no end to slavery, segregation and other evil practices. *Incidentally, this modern narrative will be the topic of my next blog.
And currently, the modern retelling of the narrative of American slavery as compared to that of Biblical slavery is one of these examples and is the focus of THIS blog.
An 'A' and 'B' Conversation.....(so 'C' your way out of it)
The conversation typically goes a little something like this:
Person A: "The people involved in the evils of American Slavery were convinced that God condoned slavery in the Bible. Did the Bible, indeed, condone slavery? If so, how could we blame those involved in the American Slave Trade and institution of Slavery? Does this mean we could be wrong about other things?"
Person B: "American Slavery looked nothing like that of Biblical slavery. Here are the differences. (Insert a list of differences here seemingly backed up by random Scripture references here.). Therefore they were incorrect in their thoughts and they were simply twisting Scripture to defend their evil practices."
Person A: "Oh....okay. What's for dinner?"
In this conversation PERSON B is using a modern, more flattering, narrative by placing a spot light on the 'action' that exist in utilizing a seemingly convincing list of differences between American slavery and Biblical slavery to take the eyes of PERSON A off of the actual truth - the whole stage.
My goal of this blog is to put the spotlight on the whole stage - not just a portion of it - so that the reader can see the truth.
A Bible-Apologist' Argument
*I should quickly state that my ultimate goal here is NOT to condemn the Bible but rather, question common perceptions of the Bible. There is a significant difference. When I hear a 'Bible-Apologist' argue his or her case what I'm usually hearing is them arguing NOT the Bible's case but that of the way they have been taught to perceive and use the Bible.
It is in that spirit that I move forward.
The argument that PERSON B tends to make, in regards to Biblical vs American slavery, comes in the form of a now common narrative and if I could summarize that narrative to just a few sentences it would be this:
Biblical slavery differs from American slavery in that Biblical slavery involved something more akin to indentured servitude or debt-slavery whereas American slavery involved 'chattel slavery.' In Biblical slavery, indentured servants were not considered the property of their master, had certain rights as outlined in the Law, and were not life-long slaves but rather short-term servants. These servants were only to come from within the land of Israel and not from foreign lands. American slaves, 'chattel slavery' on the other hand, were considered the property of their owner, did not have certain rights, were life long slaves, and were brought here form foreign lands.
In even shorter terms,
Debt-slavery (Bible) vs. Chattel Slavery. (American)
Not property (Bible) vs. Property (American)
Temporary (Bible) vs. Life-Long (American)
Native (Bible) vs. Foreign (American)
*To be clear there are other nuanced differences that are used in this re-telling narrative and, rest-assured, we will get to those, but these 4 differences are a good place to begin.
The justification as told above is now a well-crafted, popular, and often used narrative by many in the church today. In fact, if you GOOGLE something like "slavery in the Bible" you will come across video after video, blog after blog, and sermon after sermon that, to some extent, gives the exact same argument with the exact same Scripture references.
The problem is that PERSON A usually just listens to the argument or sermon that PERSON B is giving, figures and TRUSTS that PERSON B knows what he or she is talking about, realizes their own personal lack of knowledge on the issue, especially when confronted by the very complicated and somewhat intimidating nature of the Old Testament, and takes what PERSON B says as gospel Truth.
"Oh....okay. What's for dinner?"
As for me there was a time that I was PERSON A and because I believed the PERSON B's in my life to be telling me the truth, I, in turn, became a PERSON B and shared my knowledge with other PERSON A's.....and so on.
But I have now come to a place on my journey where I have discovered that I am no longer interested nor content with being PERSON A or PERSON B.
I want to step back, adjust the lens of my heart and mind a little, and not just assume that everything I 'know' today to be truth is actually truth - especially when there is evidence that some might be suffering in some capacity because of what I have always assumed to be 'right' or 'True.' I want to do my due-diligence of study and research and look for patterns of Good fruit vs. Bad fruit, which I am now convinced is the ultimate sign of whether something is 'right' or 'Truth.'
I want to be PERSON C.
4 Questions from 'PERSON C' to 'PERSON B'
As it pertains to this topic of slavery, if we want to begin being PERSON C then we can simply unpack the PERSON B argument as outlined above by asking 4 simple questions.
DID 'chattel-slavery' exist in Biblical times as it did in America?
WERE slaves in Biblical times treated as property as they were in America?
DID slaves in Biblical times only serve their master on a temporarily basis as opposed to those who were enslaved in America?
WERE slaves in Biblical times ONLY to be native Hebrews according to the Law?
We will discover here in a bit that Questions 2, 3 and 4 are, to some extent, inherently answered by answering Question 1. Of course, other questions could be asked but answering these four will get us quite a ways.
So let's start answering.
DID 'chattel-slavery' exist in Biblical times as it did in America?
First - it may be useful to offer quick definitions of Debt-Slavery and Chattel-Slavery.
Debt-Slavery - (also called debt servitude, debt bondage, or debt peonage) is a state of indebtedness to landowners or merchant employers that limits the autonomy of producers and provides the owners of capital with cheap labour. (Gerald D. Jaynes, Britannica)
Chattel-Slavery - the enslaving and owning of human beings and their offspring as property, able to be bought, sold, and forced to work without wages, as distinguished from other systems of forced, unpaid, or low-wage labor also considered to be slavery. (dictionary.com)
4 MAIN CONSIDERATIONS (Remember these for later)
Further study and considerations offer some more nuanced and clear differences between the two practices:
1. Slaves within the debt-slavery system are there, usually due to personal economic hardships and often voluntarily, to pay off some type of personal debt. Slaves in the chattel-slavery system are there by force (not voluntarily) and are bought and sold as work-labor for the financial benefit of their master. (not as a way to pay off personal debt.)
2. Slaves within the chattel-slavery system, because they are bought and sold as a work-force commodity, are considered to be the PROPERTY of their owner and have few, if any rights as a human being. On the other hand, slaves within the debt-slavery system are not considered the property of their master and are protected by certain rights as a fellow human-being under the law.
3. Slaves within the debt-slavery system typically served only a certain or specified amount of time, assumedly long enough to pay off their debt. On the other hand, slaves in the chattel-slavery system were usually considered life-long slaves with little-to-no-chance or opportunity to exit out of slavery.
4. Let's consider, from the perspective of an Israelite, 3 Groups of people.
Group 1. Fellow Israelites (not foreigners) that lived within the land of Israel.
Group 2. Foreigners that lived outside of the land of Israel.
Group 3. Foreigners that lived inside the land of Israel.
Again - there are other differences but these are a good place to start.
WHAT DOES SCRIPTURE INDICATE?
When using Scripture to study the event of slavery as it appears in the Bible, I find it best to
1. First consider the Law (Mosaic Law/Law of Moses) as found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy which outlines the regulations pertaining to slavery and gives us a good framework.
2. Then consider Scriptures from other passages (Genesis, Nehemiah, Ecclesiastes, 2 Kings, etc.) that sheds light on the actual practice of slavery and not just the regulations as outlined in the Law.
*In some cases you will find that the actual PRACTICE of slavery in the Old Testament was not always in accordance with the Law.
In this section we will MOSTLY focus on THE LAW as outlined in Exodus 21 (The Covenant Code), Leviticus 25 (Holiness Code) and Deuteronomy 20-23 (Deuteronomic Code) which provides the law, as given to the Israelites, and gives us the framework of Biblical slavery.
Now let's unpack!
The Spot-lit Scripture
Leviticus 25:39-43 “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 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."
We can unpack this Scripture passage through the lens of the 4 considerations mentioned early:
These slaves, or servants, are voluntarily placed into slave-life to pay off a debt.
Though it is not, perhaps, explicitly stated, there is at least an implicit understanding that these debt-servants are not to be looked at or treated as property.
It is abundantly clear that these debt-servants are not in this position on a permanent basis, but rather, on a temporary basis.
It is explicitly made clear that these debt-servants are those of FELLOW ISRAELITES and not foreign.
This is clearly evidence of Debt-Slavery present in the Old Testament.
It is no surprise, then, that this is a popular Scripture passage used by those who are compelled to defend the notion that Biblical slavery is vastly different than American Slavery.
But....wait. LOOK OVER THERE!!!
The problem is that, whether out of agenda or ignorance, an attempt to only spotlight this assumedly significant difference between Biblical slavery and American slavery, causes PERSON B to stop after Verse 43 and PERSON A, unfortunately, doesn't give it another thought.
But if we read further into the VERY next verse....
Leviticus 25:44-46. “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly."
Well - now this seems to be telling a much different story.
Let's unpack it, again, with our 4 Considerations
These slaves are purchased and forced into slavery rather than voluntarily entering slave-life to pay off a debt.
These slaves are explicitly stated to be considered property.
These slaves are explicitly stated to be 'slaves for life.'
These slaves come either from foreign nations outside of Israel ('the nations around you') or from foreigners that preside within the land of Israel ('temporary residents living among you...')
Personally, I don't think it takes a well-educated Bible-scholar, and I certainly am not that, to see that this is clearly describing 'Chattel-slavery' but perhaps it would be best, to take an even closer look at this particular passage just to be sure.
When we compare both the Leviticus 25: (39-43) and (44-46) passages, we see that the Holiness Code made it clear that Israelites could NOT purchase fellow Israelites as chattel-slaves but could only take them up as debt-slaves with the understanding that they are not to look upon or treat these debt-slaves as property and they are also not to keep these slaves on a permanent basis. They, however, COULD purchase foreigners (whether outside the land or traveling inside the land) as chattel-slaves with the understanding that they ARE permitted to treat and look upon these slaves as property and on a permanent basis.
The very last line of this passage circles back and reminds the reader, with emphasis, that though they are allowed to treat and look upon their foreign chattel-slaves as property they are NOT to treat their fellow Israelites who may now be serving as debt slaves 'ruthlessly.' We even get an understanding of WHY this is the case from within the passage itself:
Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.
3. These chattel-slaves could be passed down from the master to his heirs and are considered 'inherited property' and could be 'made slaves for life.'
Let's pause for a second and take a closer look at that word: 'property' that we see in Leviticus 25:45-46
.....and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life,......
The Hebrew word used in both of these places for 'property' is ahuzzah.
If you look more broadly at Leviticus 25 as a whole, you will see the Hebrew word ahuzzah appears 11 ADDITIONAL times in this same chapter. For each of these additional times, ahuzzah is used when describing possession of land, property or commodities that is/are perpetually owned.
In other words, the same word that is used to describe the land property and other possessions is the same one used to describe the ownership of a newly purchased foreign slave.
They were property of the master just like the master's land and could be passed down to the next generation as 'inherited property' and would be 'slaves for life.'
Let's take another pause and take a closer look at the word 'buy' as it appears in this passage. Some may convincingly argue that the word 'buy' here could be more accurately interpreted to mean 'acquired.' In doing so they are saying that the Law is not giving permission to purchase but rather to acquire - or take in as captives of war.
I would say their argument is justified - but only in part. There are plenty of Scripture references that makes it clear that purchasing a slave with money is viewed as justified in the eyes of the Law.
Genesis 17:12 Throughout your generations, every male among you at eight days old is to be circumcised. This includes a slave born in your house and one purchased with money from any foreigner. (See also Gen. 17:13, 23, 27, 39:1, Ex. 12:44, Lev 22:11, 25:50, Rth 4:10, Eccles 2:7, Zech 13:5)
In light of these references it may prove best to look at the word 'buy' in the Lev. 25 passages as that of 'acquire' meaning an all encompassing term. In other words, whether purchased (exchange of money) or taken in as captive, the Law specifically expressed that they were to do so ONLY from those of foreign lands or foreign members who presided within the land of Israel. This interpretation is far more consistent with the framework of slavery as outlined in the Law as a whole, as well as other cultures of the time (more on this later). Furthermore, the allowance of a Hebrew to 'buy' a slave from a foreign person presiding within the land of Israel should be enough to convince that this isn't JUST talking about captives of war.
Children as Slaves
We know that children entered a life of slavery in a variety of heartbreaking ways:
1) They were sold into debt-slavery by their parents to pay off a debt.
2) They were sold into debt-slavery ALONG with their parents to pay off a debt.
3) They were forced into slavery due to being a part of the spoils of war as is seen in the following passage.
4) They were born into slavery. (More on this in a second.)
Deuteronomy 20:10-15 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.
In this passage we see the following:
1) Here we are dealing NOT with Hebrew debt-slavery but foreign chattel-slavery.
2) If the city that is attacked surrenders, all peoples, including men, women and children will be subject to forced labor. (chattel-slavery)
3) If the city under attack does NOT surrender, the men are to be put to death, the women and children of the captured are permitted to be taken in as 'plunder' - the spoils of war and will enter permanently into a life of slavery. (chattel-slavery)
Scripture passages such as Nehemiah 5:5 and 2 Kings 4:1 also describe instances of children taken into slavery.
Children Born Into Slavery
It is common understanding upon Biblical scholars that, whether we are discussing Hebrew debt-slavery or foreign chattel-slavery, a baby born OF a current slave is a baby born INTO slavery. He, or she, will themselves, become a slave. The ONLY difference between the two may be that a baby born to a foreign chattel-slave will be a slave for life whereas a baby born of a Hebrew debt-slave MIGHT be freed along with his parents after their time is served - though, as we will see, even this is not common.
Exodus 21:2-5 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. 3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
We can see from this passage that if the master of a debt-slave gives his debt-slave a wife to marry, when the debt-slave is set free the master keeps the wife and any children she may have had with the debt-slave.
Other Scriptural references regarding babies being born into slavery can be found in Leviticus 22:10-11, Genesis 17:12-13,
Women as slaves.
Though there is SOME ambiguity and disagreement regarding some of the practices and treatment of women in slavery, there are some general characteristics we can assign. (I would like to qualify that further by saying that there are some HEARTBREAKING general characteristics we can assign.)
1) Women who entered into slavery either voluntarily or by force, often took on the role of a permanent sex slave, concubine, or a wife to her new master.
2) As seen above in the Deuteronomy 20:10-15 above, women, along with children, could be forced into chattel-slavery for life as part of the spoils of war.
The passage below sheds even more light on what it was like for a women forced into slavery.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
3) Women, who were virgin captives of war, were forced into a sexual relationship with a man as seen in this story from Numbers describing women as the spoils of the war between the Israelites and Midianites.
Numbers 31:17-18 [The Lord said to Moses] Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
According to Numbers 31:35 this resulted in 32,000 women who had never slept with a man. These 32,000 women, along with the 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys were split between the soldiers who took part in the battle. Each man, was then commanded to give a specified portion of their winnings to both Eleazar the priest as the Lord's part and to the Levites. They could keep the rest.
4) An Israelite Father could sell his unmarried daughter(s) into servitude providing that they end up becoming the wife of the master or his son. This would, of course, place her in life-long servitude unless the master decided he was no longer interested in her. (Exodus 21:7-9)
In short, women who entered into slavery, were almost always placed there by force to serve as either a sex-object, concubine or wife to her master or her master's son. Furthermore, this would almost always result in live-long bondage.
Treatment of Slaves
Whether through the Covenant Code, Holiness Code or Deuteronomic Code, we can get a good understanding on the expectations of how slaves were to be treated. As one might imagine, the regulations as outlined in the Law most typically pertained to Hebrew debt-slaves but there are some regulations regarding foreign slaves as well. Having said that, in some instances, there is debate among Biblical scholars whether any given slave regulation applied only to Hebrew debt-slaves, foreign chattel-slaves, or both.
*On a very personal note, I do not find myself troubled by these 'unknowns' because, to me, the bottom denominator between the debt-slave and chattel-slave, that is ownership by another human being, whether temporarily or permanently, is an inhumane enough practice in-and-of itself. But more on that later.
Scholarly conflicts and disagreements aside there are SOME generalizations that can be made in regards to the expectant treatment of slaves.
1) Foreign chattel-slaves were to be seen as property while Hebrew debt-slaves were not.
2) Slaves were expected to be physically punished by their masters as it was commonly 'understood' that a slave, having no material possessions that could serve as leverage, could only be beaten into submission. Slaves were considered to be of a 'lower-order' much like the children of the household. Much like parents were commanded to NOT 'spare the rod' so, too, masters were expected to apply physical correction upon their slaves. (Proverbs 29:19-21)
3) Though masters were encouraged, by the Law, to physically punish their slaves, they were not permitted to kill their slaves. In other words, the practice of physical punishment did have its limits. (Of course, by today's standards, we would find these treatments inhumane even WITH the limits in place.)
Exodus 21:20-21 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
Exodus 21:26-27 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.
4) As mentioned earlier, generally speaking, debt-slaves were to only serve a specified amount of time. Depending on which progression of the law you read this could be 'after 6 years' or 'in the year of Jubilee.' The main take away is that a debt-slave was in bondage on a temporary basis while the chattel-slave was in permanent bondage. A master who did NOT free his debt-slaves as required by law was breaking the law. As you can imagine, and as evidenced in other places in The Old Testament, this particular law was broken often.
5) Deuteronomy 23:15-16 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.
This particular passage is often used by those who insist that permanent chattel slavery could not have existed in Biblical times. And though there is some debate among scholars whether this particular regulation was referring to a debt-slave temporarily owned by a Hebrew master, a foreign-chattel slave permanently owned by a Hebrew master, or a runaway slave from a foreign master in a foreign land, the latter of these 3 is the most likely option when compared to known practices of slavery in the Near East (foreign lands) and when put in context with the rest of the Law.
6) There is some evidence, as will be seen in the following passage, that masters of male slaves, whether a temporary Hebrew debt-slave or a permanent foreign chattel-slave, would need to see to it that the covenant practice of circumcision was applied.
Genesis 17:12-13 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. (See also Genesis 17:23-27)
7) Leviticus 22:10-11 “‘No one outside a priest’s family may eat the sacred offering, nor may the guest of a priest or his hired worker eat it. 11 But if a priest buys a slave with money, or if slaves are born in his household, they may eat his food.
8) As seen before, if a male Hebrew debt-slave entered slavery with his wife, then when he is freed his wife will be freed with him. However, if he did not enter slavery with a wife but his master gave him a wife, once freed, his wife, nor their children born into slavery, would be freed. The man, however, could make the decision to give up his freedom to stay with his family under PERMANENT servitude. Exodus 21:2-5
*I think it's worth noting here, just in case it is lost on the reader, that a master would often give his male slaves a wife, expect them to produce children, in order to gain more permanent slaves through blood (birth.) In other words, the gesture of the master to give his temporary male debt-slave a wife was for economic purposes and NOT as a gesture of companionship or kindness.
There are other regulations, of course, but the ones given above are some of the highlights.
Biblical Slavery in Context of the Ancient Near East
When studying ANY topic discussed in the Old Testament it is important to study that topic in light of the historical and cultural context in which the Old Testament Hebrew text was written. In other words, Israel was not the only society and culture of its time. There were others that we often refer to as the wider Ancient Near East. Broadly speaking, there were COMMON cultural customs and practices of the time, in both Israel AND the Ancient Near East, that helped shape the written law as we see in the Old Testament - namely the Pentateuch.
To save time, I will not go into much detail with this save to say that much, if not all, of what has been discussed above is considered by Biblical scholars to be consistent with the common culture and practices of the Ancient Near East as seen and studied in historical artifacts and documents that we have from that time period OUTSIDE of Hebrew Scripture (Law of Moses/Torah) . (Code of Hammurabi, Code of Ur-Nammu, Code of the Assura, etc.)
What about the New Testament?
By the time we get to the time period as covered in the New Testament, slavery was alive and well and had certainly made its way to thriving in the Roman Empire. Further study will show the slavery that existed in the Roman Empire and mentioned in the New Testament was, in broad terms, very similar to institutions of slavery in the Old Testament.
You still had debt-slaves.
You still had chattel-slaves.
There were, of course, some modifications and generally speaking, the treatment of slaves, at least by law, was improved upon - well - at least for the debt-slave, and, at least, according to the law though the practice was often against the law.
As we see slavery mentioned in New Testament Scripture, generally speaking, there is a reoccurring call for:
1) Masters to treat their slaves well.
Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. - Colossians 4:1 (See also Ephesians 6:9,
2) Slaves to obey their masters.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, - Ephesians 6:5 (See also 1 Peter 2:18, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5-8)
*I will expound on this later but it is important to note that nowhere in Scripture, whether Old or New Testament, is the very institution of slavery, whether debt or chattel, condemned. We do see that, though not condemned, it is regulated. There is, however, evidence that it's not JUST regulated, but, at least seemingly (if not outright) condoned.
Back to the 4 Questions From 'PERSON C' to 'PERSON B'
At this point I think we have enough information to go back to the initial 4 QUESTIONS I posed earlier in this blog:
DID 'chattel-slavery' exist in Biblical times as it did in America?
WERE slaves in Biblical times treated as property as they were in America?
DID slaves in Biblical times only serve their master on a temporarily basis as opposed to those who were enslaved in America?
WERE slaves in Biblical times ONLY to be native Hebrews according to the Law?
QUESTION 1: Did 'chattel-slavery' exist in Biblical times as it did in America?
ANSWER: Yes. The Hebrew text clearly states that, in addition to debt-slavery, chattel-slavery was practiced in Biblical times as it was in America.
QUESTION 2: Were slaves in Biblical times treated as property as they were in America?
ANSWER: Yes. Or, at least, SOME slaves were looked at and treated as property in Biblical times as they were in America.
QUESTION 3: Did slaves in Biblical times only serve their master on a temporary basis as opposed to those who were enslaved in America?
ANSWER: No. Or, at least, not ALL slaves served their master on a temporary basis. Foreign chattel-slaves, along with most women and children born into chattel-slavery were their master's slave for life.
QUESTION 4: WERE slaves in Biblical times ONLY to be native Hebrews according to the Law?
ANSWER: No. As we saw slaves could either be native or foreign - depending on the type of slavery. (debt vs. chattel)
What do we (I) make of this?
To be honest with you, offering simple answers to these questions doesn't seem enough to me because neither the questions, nor their answers, offer an accurate, honest or perhaps even genuine view on just how evil the practice of slavery, in ANY form (whether Biblical or Modern, whether debt or chattel) truly is and was.
In that light there are a few more POINTS I would like to consider:
POINT #1. Did some form of debt-slavery, where a person was voluntarily, or at least, strongly compelled, to be placed into slavey on a temporary basis in order to pay off some form of debt exist in both the Ancient Biblical period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes
POINT #2. Did some form of chattel-slavery, where human beings were bought, sold, and owned as property, exist in both the Ancient Biblical period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes.
POINT #3. Could family members be auctioned-off, stolen, and/or forced away from their family members in a life of slavery in both the Ancient Biblical Period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes.
POINT #4. Could children be born into some form of slavery in both the Ancient Biblical Period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes.
POINT #5. Could little girls, teenage girls, and women that existed in the institutions of slavery be treated as lower-class citizens; considered sexual objects, raped without consequence to the rapist and abused in countless ways in both the Ancient Biblical Period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes.
POINT #6. Did slaves, whether temporary debt-slaves or a chattel slaves, have limited to no rights as fellow human beings in both the Ancient Biblical Period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes.
POINT #7. Was there an element of human trafficking and human slave trade present in both the Ancient Biblical Period and the Modern Early American Period? Yes.
You may be asking yourself why I seem to be beating a dead horse here?
What am I possibly getting at?
If you are asking these questions then it is sad that it is not clear.
How can anyone, regardless of religious or spiritual background, find ANY sense of Biblical Apologetic refuge in claims that Modern American slavery was NOTHING like the slavery of Biblical times?
In doing this it is my sincerest belief that they are not being genuine.
They are not taking a truthful look at Scripture.
The evidence is rather clear.
But even if the evidence wasn't clear....
Even if I have failed to convince them that the practice of chattel-slavery was alive and well in the Old Testament, something of which their argument and defense of their interpretation of Scripture relies heavily on....
What then does that say for their, or perhaps your, thoughts of debt-slavery?
Perhaps I can be more clear if I ask this simple question:
Why is even debt-slavery illegal in the US today?
If the general argument is that the chattel-style of slavery that existed in the US was evil and not the same type of slavery that existed in Biblical times - and that the chattel-style of slavery only existed in America because evil men misinterpreted, twisted, and abused Scripture to defend the practice of American slavery, then what argument do you make to the fact that Scripture was ALSO used to defend the practice of debt-slavery in both before and after the common practice of chattel slavery in American history.
To be clear - there is AMPLE evidence that chattel-slavery existed in the ancient days of The Old Testament....but even if that wasn't the case- even IF the only commonality between American and Biblical was was POINT #1 above,......
would that not be enough?
Would that not be enough to determine that, as confusing as it may be to us and as challenging as it might be to our personal faith and how we view, or have been taught to view Scripture, maybe we need to shift our lens and look at Scripture in a new light.
Again, THIS is NOT condemning Scripture. This is challenging the way we have been taught to view Scripture.
Why is debt-slavery illegal today in the United States? Because, at its very core, it is inhumane. It manipulates and exploits an unequal balance of power. It fosters ill-treatment and unethical practices of others.
It is evil.
FORCING A PUZZLE PIECE THAT JUST WON'T FIT
As mentioned earlier, those who feel compelled to defend Scripture, or, put more accurately, those who feel compelled to defend the way that they both VIEW and USE Scripture in their life, when related to this topic of slavery, are quick to only mention Scripture passages that they are convinced support their claims while conveniently leaving out those that don't.
There are a few Scriptures (what I call 'puzzle piece' Scriptures) that are often used to support the claim that 'to view Biblical slavery in the same light as American slavery is incorrect.'
When I consider these Scriptures I am put in mind of a young child playing with one of those puzzle-ball toys. You know, that ball-shaped toy you had that had different shapes cut out with shaped puzzle pieces to fit within those cut-out shapes? (Look at the picture.)
However, in this particular case, when considering the Scripture references that are used by these PERSON B's to defend their argument, it is more like they are attempting to magically and forcefully reshape the WHOLE ENTIRE PUZZLE BALL to somehow come out of itself to fit within one of the given shapes.
In other words, instead of putting any one of these given Scripture references in context of the Bible as a whole, they are trying to cram the whole Bible into their much NEEDED interpretation of that one Scripture reference.
PUZZLE PEICE #1.
Galatians 3:28,29. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (See also 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11)
Here the argument seems to be that since Paul is stating that there is neither slave nor free that it can then be assumed that neither Paul, nor God, condones slavery.
To be honest I find this argument rather disingenuous when it is coming from those who base their entire belief system and ministry on the concept that we have our physical bodies and we have our spiritual bodies. In context this Scripture reference, and those similar to it, is referring to spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom and declaring that those who are in Christ are SPIRITUALLY made free.
In even more simple terms it is stating that whoever you are, (whether Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, female, etc.) you can belong to Christ. It is NOT, however, indicating that Paul is condemning the institution of PHYSICAL slavery unless one would also like to argue that Paul is condemning all Jews for being Jew, Gentiles for being Gentile, free men for being free, males for being male, and females for being female)
Other Scripture passages that indicate the differences between physical and spiritual slavery: (Philemon 1:16, Luke 4:18, 1 Peter 2:16, John 8:34, Romans 8:15, Romans 6:22, John 8:36, Romans 6:5,6)
I should mention that we also receive foreshadowing of this understanding from back in Geneses when it was impressed upon slave-holders to have their slaves, whether debt or chattel, native or foreign, etc., circumcised in accordance with the Covenant Law.
PUZZLE PEICE #2.
1 Timothy 1:9,10 We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine
This is another commonly used reference to prove that Paul, nor God, approved of slavery - and perhaps more specifically, chattel-slavery. And, at face value, one can understand why.
But this is yet another example of someone taking the whole Bible and making it fit within the context of this one Scripture as opposed to taking this one Scripture and making it fit within the context of the whole Bible.
It should be said that there are interpretations of this Scripture by other Bible Scholars and translations that suggest the Greek word used here andrapodistais is referring to 'kidnappers' (NAS), or 'men stealers' (KJV, INT), for example.
What we do know is that this particular word used andrapodistais is the ONLY time this word is used in the Greek New Testament making it even more difficult to have a true understanding of what Paul was referring to exactly.
Some Bible Scholars have suggested this could be referring to the practice of stealing another person's slave, or perhaps stealing someone to be your slave as opposed to purchasing them, etc. Some scholars have suggested that, in order to get a better understanding of what Paul was referring to here, one needs to have a better understanding of what was taking place in Ephesus during that particular time which lead Paul to write the letter to Timothy in the first place, given that the list of sins appears to be particular to the peoples of Ephesus. (This is another blog for another day.)
Exodus 21:16 might can be used to shed a little more light on this and is a similar passage used to argue that God does not condone practice of slavery.
“Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves.
Again, here on the surface it might seem to suggest that this is referring to 'kidnapping someone and enslaving them' but Scholars have also interpreted this: as one was not permitted to steal the property of another man, so too is he not permitted to steal or kidnap a man's human property to serve as a ransom.
Though these two Scripture references may give us pause what they do NOT do is cancel out the entire Old Testament law which showed that not only was it acceptable to either purchase slaves or steal men from a foreign land but, in some very sad cases, it seems to have been condoned.
Which transitions to my next and final point.....
Did God condone slavery?
Some have argued that though it appears that God never condemned but regulated slavery, that is not the same as saying He condoned it.
For obvious reasons this is not an argument I enjoy making.
But there are 2 stories in Scripture that give me great pause as it pertains to this question:
Deuteronomy 23:17-18 “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.
In short, according to the Law, any monetary element gained from an exchange with a prostitute is unworthy to be used in the house of the Lord. And when I consider this passage in context of Revelation 21:8 and Genesis 38:24 where a prostitute, even a pregnant prostitute, was damned to fire and death, I can clearly see why God would not approve of these monetary elements being used in the House of the Lord.
Contrast this standard with that in a passage we have already discussed above:
Numbers 31 (Vengeance on the Midianites)
*Though I encourage you to read ALL of this story in Numbers 31, in an effort to keep this short, I am only including the verses that help outline the main points of the story.
(1) The Lord said to Moses, (2) “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.
(7) They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man.
(9) The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. (10) They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. (11) They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals,(12) and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.
(17) Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, (18) but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
(25) The Lord said to Moses, (26) “You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. (27) Divide the spoils equally between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community. (28) From the soldiers who fought in the battle, set apart as tribute for the Lord one out of every five hundred, whether people, cattle, donkeys or sheep.
In addition to the horrible and inhumane atrocities depicted in this story of vengeance, treatments that would not even pass our standards today, what I find to be the toughest pill to swallow is that, according to God's own words and command, these women and children who were the unfortunate spoils of war, taken as property and plunder, were acceptable as fitting tributes to God.
When compared to very clear judgment of prostitutes in the previously discussed passage, if this isn't at least some problematic evidence of the condonation of the institution of slavery as well as the products of slavery I'm not sure what is.
So Did God condone slavery?
The best I can answer is: "He certainly didn't show very many, if any, signs of condemning it."
The most truthful way that I can answer that question is: "He certainly showed plenty of signs of condoning it."
When taken as a whole it is clear to me that though God, through Scripture, expresses some interest in the treatment of slaves, (many treatments of which we, as a modern and enlightened society, find immoral today) He does not seem to show ANY evidence of condemning the actual practice of the institution of slavery itself and, in many ways, seems to show signs of encouraging and condoning it.
Please understand me, even as I type these words both my heart and breath are still; my lip is quivering, and I am uneasy.
This is not me condemning the Bible. This is me trying to make sense of God's Word, God's character, and what it means for me in my life and faith journey.
I do not have all the answers and I certainly don't claim to.
But one thing I know for sure.
I won't find these answers by taking a disingenuous and untruthful approach to Scripture. Especially when there is evidence that there are many who are suffering either directly or indirectly because of that disingenuous and untruthful approach to Scripture as they have for centuries.
And that's just not right.