Slavery Is Not Gods Ideal
Contrary to what Sam Harris thinks, God doesnt want us to have slaves. Just because the Bible describes slavery and regulates the already existing institution doesnt mean God thinks its ideal. Consider Jesus words in Matthew 19:8 with respect to divorce. He says, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. In other words, God allowed for divorce under certain circumstances and even gave laws related to its practice, but that doesnt mean God was happy with it. After all, Jesus previously said, Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate .
In the same way, just because God established laws regulating the already existing institution of slavery doesnt mean he approved of it. Rather, it seems that God gave laws that sought to mitigate slavery and undermine it altogether.
For example, because poverty was the main cause of slavery, God made laws that benefited the poor. He decreed that landowners leave the crops on the edges of their fields for the needy , ordered the wealthy to never charge interest on loans to the poor , and permitted the poor to sacrifice less expensive animals . Additionally, God ordered that lenders cancel all debts every seven years .
Slavery In The Bible Must Be Limited To Its Appropriate Contexts
Sadly, the Bible was used to justify slavery during the Transatlantic period. But this is a misuse and manipulation of scripture. The Bible does not sanction the kind of slavery practiced in the Americas. In the OT, it was a social institution strictly regulated for the people of Israel and was not meant as a template for any other situation. In the NT, it was a Roman institution not a Christian one with which the early church had to contend. The NT strongly encouraged the church to move away from slavery and explicitly condemns certain elements of slavery, such as racial targeting, slave trading, deprivation, and cruelty the very elements that made Transatlantic slavery so evil.
The Bibles emphasis on conscience-based decision-making suggests that choices about master-slave situations were not to be solved by a broad proclamation, but by individuals in their unique situations living in a non-Christian society that relied upon slavery. Ancient documents indicate that some Christians literally sold themselves into slavery to purchase the freedom of others, while some churches collected money to buy slaves freedom.
A holistic biblical worldview for Christians today is ultimately inconsistent with slavery.
Does The Bible Explicitly Condemn Slavery
If we are talking about the kind of slavery that took place during African slave trade, then the answer is: Yes.
Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.
Man-stealing or kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery, or purchasing someone who had been enslaved this way, was considered one of the worst kinds of sin, those punishable by death.
This is found in the New Testament as well. In 1 Timothy 1:10, slave-trading is listed among the most sinful practices, along with murder.
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Slavery Was Pervasive Throughout The Entire Ancient World
Its estimated that of all the people in the first century Roman Empire, 85 to 90 percent were slaves.2 We also know from the Code of Hammurabi and another ancient Near Eastern law codes that slavery was pervasive in earlier times.
Not only was slavery the norm, but it was also corrupt and extremely harsh. We see this in how the Egyptians treated the Israelite slaves forced hard labor, whippings, and killing young children. As youll see below, Israels slavery laws were a vast improvement on this horrendous institution.
A Biblical Worldview Ultimately Undermines Slavery
Jesus never spoke to the institution of slavery, either to challenge or defend it. But the Apostle Paul laid a theological foundation that in time undermined slavery and led to its demise in the Western world. Galatians 3:26-28 argues that our identity in Christ transcends any social distinctions like slave or free. Ephesians 6:5-9 points out that Jesus is Lord over all relationships, and both masters and slaves are accountable to him. In the context of Ephesians 5:21, both masters and slaves are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. In 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul urges slaves to become free if they can which they often could. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 clearly denounces slave trading. And in Philemon 8-21, Paul urges Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, who had come to faith in Christ.
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Comparing Early America With Biblical Times
Professor, Baylor University
ABSTRACT: Many Christians, keenly aware of the evils of early modern slavery, have suggested that the slavery mentioned in the New Testament was far more humane than its American counterpart. Yet the historical data suggests that Greco-Roman slavery could be just as oppressive and abusive as the later system and in some ways even more so. Nevertheless, the Bibles relative silence on ancient slavery need not be taken as an endorsement of injustice. In an indirect way, the biblical writers attack central pillars of the Greco-Roman system, such that by the close of the New Testament canon, the foundations of abolition were already in place.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Thomas Kidd, Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, to compare Greco-Roman slavery to American slavery.
As a believer in Christ and a professor of American history, there is no greater teaching dilemma I face than that of slavery and the Bible. At times, part of me dearly wishes there were an eleventh commandment in the Bible that says, Thou shalt not own slaves. That would make my job a lot easier. With such a commandment in hand, students and I could simply condemn slave-owning Christians, including evangelical heroes such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
Brief Notes From The Lecture
Is there a distinction between slavery and forced labour in certain circumstances, eg. making people who are in prison work?
Thesis of the talk: when we consider historical definitions of slavery it is clear that the Bible does not support that kind of slavery.
Sam Harris talks of slavery and the Bible in Letter to a Christian Nation, calling it “an abomination”, quoting Leviticus 25:44-46 .
The issue we face as Christians can be set out as follows:
The talk is in four parts: 1. Translation of the term slave 2. Examination of what the Old Testament says on the subject 3. A re-examination of the account of the Exodus 4. Examination of what the New Testament says on the subject.
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Property Ownership And Sale
In Hebrew, the term for selling and for buying are not distinguished from acquiring without money, so often these words in the context of slavery are about debt slavery or servitude, people “selling” themselves or a daughter in return for something when they have no other economic resources to survive. It is a pledge of future work, temporarily, for a meal today. The selling of a daughter is also related to marriage and dowries.
In interpreting the Old Testament, it is often helpful to go back first to what Creation teaches rather than to start with what the Law stipulates . Often the Old Testament Law is a matter of permitting or regulating something, rather than saying that it is good.
The Bible Does Not Condemn Slavery
When you peruse the scriptures, you will find that the bible does not condemn slavery per se. There are aspects of slavery that are ungodly, but the scriptures merely acknowledge that slavery is a cruel reality in sinful human existence. There are different things that comprise slavery:
- Ownership of other human beings
- Inhumane working conditions
All of these issues are bad. All of them constitute social evils that make the world a worse place. No one should be discriminated against on the basis of their race or ethnicity. No human being should be owned by another. Everyone should be fairly compensated for the work they do. And no one should have to live and work in abusive environments. Slavery is the result of sinful human beings, and is a shameful blot on world history. Yet we find slaves in the bible. God even gave laws on how to deal with slaves. Why didnt God just set the record straight and abolish slavery before it ever began?
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How Christian Slaveholders Used The Bible To Justify Slavery
During the period of American slavery, how did slaveholders manage to balance their religious beliefs with the cruel facts of the peculiar institution? As shown by the following passages adapted from Noel Raes new book The Great Stain, which uses firsthand accounts to tell the story of slavery in America for some of them that rationalization was right there in the Bible.
Out of the more than three quarters of a million words in the Bible, Christian slaveholdersand, if asked, most slaveholders would have defined themselves as Christianhad two favorites texts, one from the beginning of the Old Testament and the other from the end of the New Testament. In the words of the King James Bible, which was the version then current, these were, first, Genesis IX, 1827:
Despite some problems with this storyWhat was so terrible about seeing Noah drunk? Why curse Canaan rather than Ham? How long was the servitude to last? Surely Ham would have been the same color as his brothers?it eventually became the foundational text for those who wanted to justify slavery on Biblical grounds. In its boiled-down, popular version, known as The Curse of Ham, Canaan was dropped from the story, Ham was made black, and his descendants were made Africans.
The New Testament Teaching On Slavery
Christians could not change the legal system. A slave rebellion would have led to the execution of the rebels. There were also legal restrictions concerning the number of slaves who could be freed and freeing them early could bar them from becoming Roman citizens .
Commanding Christians to free their slaves would not therefore have been legal, nor would it have worked as, by state law, some of those slaves would still not have been free. But Christians were commanded to love others as Christ loved us. That meant that people could no longer be treated as slaves, but Christians would then become the servants of all, as Christ was .
In their letters, Paul and Peter mention Christians exchanging a holy kiss. For the general culture, a kiss was a greeting for family only. It was not how people generally greeted each other. The runaway slave Philemon is received back “above a slave” . Jesus is called Lord because he is their Master and so no-one else could claim to be someone’s master.
Although Christians could not abolish Roman slavery, they started a new form of society, a new ‘race’, within the Roman Empire in which they lived, and this effectively challenged the status of human beings either as masters or as slaves to other human beings.
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Why Doesnt The Bible Condemn Slavery
Why does the New Testament accept slavery, when treating another person as property is inhuman?
Ephesians 6 5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
Why require slaves to live in a way that falls far short of the kingdom of God, a society where everyone treats each other the way God treats us in Christ? Ultimately, injustice must yield to Christs reign, so why doesnt the New Testament call us to speak out against institutionalized systemic injustice?
In the big arc of the Bibles narrative, slavery is wrong. The Bible begins with humans equal under God , and the first time slavery appears its labelled as a curse . The Bible concludes with the powers of evil falling, when avarice ceases and no longer are human beings sold as slaves .
So why doesnt the New Testament call Gods people to condemn slavery? The tough questions are our friends, friends that challenge and reshape our understanding.
Lets see if we can make sense of what Pauls saying by examining what he did.
What The Bible really Says About Slavery
Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary
Slavery stands as the single most contested issue in the history of biblical interpretation in the United States. Not only did the nation fracture over slavery, denominations did too. Northern and Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists remained divided until well into the twentieth century in fact, Southern Baptists still represent the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. What did slavery mean in the biblical world, and how did biblical authors respond to it?
Don’t let anybody tell you that biblical slavery was somehow less brutal than slavery in the United States. Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others. Slaveowners possessed not only the slaves’ labor but also their sexual and reproductive capacities. When the Bible refers to female slaves who do not “please” their masters, we’re talking about the sexual use of slaves. Likewise when the Bible spells out the conditions for marrying a slave .
Does Paul encourage slaves to embrace their captivity or to gain their freedom?
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Women Sex And Law In Surrounding Cultures
Almost all Near Eastern societies of the Bronze Age and Axial Age were patriarchal with patriarchy established in most by 3000 BCE.:xxxii Eastern societies such as the Akkadians, Hittites, Assyrians and Persians relegated women to an inferior and subordinate position. There are very few exceptions, but one can be found in the third millennium B.C. with the Sumerians who accorded women a position which was almost equal to that of men. However, by the second millennium, the rights and status of women were reduced.:42:45
In the West, the status of Egyptian women was high, and their legal rights approached equality with men throughout the last three millennia B.C.:56 A few women even ruled as pharaohs.:7 However, historian Sarah Pomeroy explains that even in those ancient patriarchal societies where a woman could occasionally become queen, her position did not empower her female subjects.:x
Classics scholar Bonnie MacLachlan writes that Greece and Rome were patriarchal cultures.:vi
Rome was heavily influenced by Greek thought.:248 Sarah Pomeroy says “never did Roman society encourage women to engage in the same activities as men of the same social class.”:xv In The World of Odysseus, classical scholar Moses Finley says: “There is no mistaking the fact that Homer fully reveals what remained true for the whole of antiquity: that women were held to be naturally inferior…”:16
Distinctive Elements Of Early Types Of Slavery
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Slavery Was More Like Indentured Servitude
In colonial America times, many foreigners couldnt afford the fare to cross the Atlantic. So theyd contract themselves agree to work for a set period of time until they paid back their debt to the one who paid for their passage.
In the same way, ancient Israelites often times found themselves in financial trouble. In order to get themselves out of debt, theyd agree to become someones servant or slave until they could get themselves back on their feet.
Leviticus 25:39 describes this when it says, If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. Furthermore, verse 47 even reports that Israelites became slaves of foreigners living in the land. It states, If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner
Unlike antebellum slavery where the owner had complete ownership over the slave, biblical slavery was more equivalent to an employer/employee relationship. This setup provided financial security for people who otherwise wouldnt be able to survive on their own. By agreeing to become someones slave, they received regular food, shelter, and clothing.