What Others Are Saying
John Chrysostom , Homily On Ephesians 22.6.9:
Society arrangements, like laws made by sinners, acknowledge these distinctions of classes. But we are all called to accountability before the law of the common Lord and Master of all. We are called to do good to all alike and to dispense the same fair rights to all. Gods law does not recognize these social distinctions. If anyone should ask where slavery comes from and why it has stolen into human life for I know that many are keen to ask such things and desire to learn I shall tell you. It is avarice that brought about slavery. It is acquisitiveness, which is insatiable. This is not the original human condition. M. J. Edwards Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture , 8:206.
Translation Of The Term ‘slave’
Need to know one Hebrew word: ebed . It is commonly translated ‘slave’.
The King James Version of the Bible had two occurrences of the word slave: once in each Testament. The New King James Version in the twentieth century had 46 occurences. There has been a general increase over time in the use of the word ‘slave’ in translations of the Bible into various languages.
ebed is translated as ‘slave’ in some cases and ‘servant’ in others. Leviticus 25:42 in the English RSV translation has slave once and servant once, but both translate the same word ebed.
‘Servant’ and ‘slave’ used to overlap much more in meaning, but now have different meanings. Servants are no longer seen as slaves.
The meaning of the word ebed is not inherently negative, but relates to work. The word identifies someone as dependent on someone else with whom they stand in some sort of relation. Being an ebed could be a position of honour. Everyone is a servant / slave of someone else.
The majority meaning of ebed is ‘servant’, but can also be translated ‘slave’. It is not an inherently negative term, and is related to work. The term shows the person is subservient to another. All subjects of Israel are servants of the king. The king himself is a servant of their God. So in the time of the Old Testament, no-one is free everyone is subservient to, an ebed of, someone else.
Gods Providence And Care
Paul now addresses the delicate matter at hand. While we may not be able to gain absolute certainty regarding the circumstances in which Onesimus left Philemon and joined Paul, it is clear that Onesimus was a slave and, as such, was in an extremely precarious position. He, in common with all slaves in Greco-Roman society, was regarded as the possession of his master and, depending on the attitude of his master, could face violence and even death upon his return.1
In Gods providence and care for Onesimus, however, it turns out that he had a gracious and skillful advocate in Paul. Pauls appeal to Philemon shows rhetorical skill as well as pastoral sensitivity. It would be unfair, however, to suggest that Paul manipulates Philemon. While it is true that Paul deals with the delicate situation very shrewdly, there is no reason to believe that anything Paul says is insincere or that he did not seek at all times to act in the best interests of both Onesimus and Philemon.
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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.
Slavery Or Indentured Servitude
Although God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, slavery is not universally prohibited in the Bible. Slavery was permissible in certain situations, so long as slaves were regarded as full members of the community , received the same rest periods and holidays as non-slaves , and were treated humanely . Most importantly, slavery among Hebrews was not intended as a permanent condition, but a voluntary, temporary refuge for people suffering what would otherwise be desperate poverty. When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt . Cruelty on the part of the owner resulted in immediate freedom for the slave . This made male Hebrew slavery more like a kind of long-term labor contract among individuals, and less like the kind of permanent exploitation that has characterized slavery in modern times.
In addition, an obvious loophole is that a girl or woman could be bought as a wife for a male slave, rather than for the slave owner or a son, and this resulted in permanent enslavement to the owner , even when the husband’s term of enslavement ended. The woman became a permanent slave to an owner who did not become her husband and who owed her none of the protections due a wife.
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Does The Bible Support Harsh Slavery
There are several passages that are commonly used to suggest that the Bible condones harsh slavery. However, when we read these passages in context, we find that they clearly oppose harsh slavery.
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her masters, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, I love my master, my wife, and my children I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl and he shall serve him forever.
This is the first type of bankruptcy law weve encountered. With this, a government doesnt step in, but a person who has lost himself or herself to debt can sell the only thing they have left: their ability to perform labor. This is a loan. In six years the loan is paid off, and they are set free. Bondservants who did this made a wage, had their debt covered, had a home to stay in, on-the-job training, and did it for only six years. This almost sounds better than college, which doesnt cover debt and you have to pay for it!
Slavery In The Roman Empire Was A Unique Institution
Slavery in the Roman Empire was not regulated by the OT provisions. Slaves made up anywhere between one-third to one-half of the Roman Empires population. People became slaves by military conquest, indebtedness, and birth. The owner had the right to use a slave as they saw fit, including the right to punish slaves severely. Many slaves performed manual labor. Yet others attained wealth and social status.
In contrast to the slavery of West Africans in the Americas, slaves in the Roman world had legal rights. They could own property and save money. They could lodge legal complaints about mistreatment. Slaves often had more social mobility than the free poor, and people often became slaves voluntarily to increase their chances of a better life. Setting slaves free was widespread, frequent, and often expected. Freedom was not always an advantage and slavery was not always a negative experience.
Does The Bible Condone Slavery Part I
Monday, May 28, 2018 by Larry Farlow
Those of us who believe the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God must be able to deal with the question of what the Bible says about slavery. Because, what it says on that subject is often used to question either the inspiration of scripture or the goodness of God, or both.
Some, in the past answered the question posed in the title with an unqualified, yes. Others, in more recent times with an unqualified, no. But the right answer, the answer based on what the scripture says, cannot be unqualified. It is more complicated than a simple yes, or no. We must consider in context what the Bible says then make a case for how that relates to Christians today.
I want to deal in this post with what the Bible says about slavery in the Old Testament. In the next post Ill look at what the New Testament says about it.
In the Old Testament, slavery is not forbidden by God, but it is regulated by Him.
This may be surprising to some, even troubling, but unless we deal with the text as it is, we cannot handle the issue correctly. Never defend the Bible by claiming it says something it doesnt say or by making it say what you wish it said. Youll end up doing the very thing youre trying to prevent, undermine the scriptures.
An exception to this lack of commentary is in Genesis 50:20 where Joseph says to his brothers:
In addition to limits on how slaves can be treated, there are limits on how they can be acquired:
Questions In This Episode
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How Scriptureanswers Does The Bible Condone Slavery
Nowhere does the Bible condone slavery in the racial and/or forced-servitude terms understood today, quite the contrary1,2,3,4,5,6,7,9,10,15. This is evident in times pre-dating the Mosaic law4 as well as Gods expectations under the Mosaic law1,2,3 and the gospel under Christ5,6,10,15. Slave trading is condemned throughout the Bible1,15 and it uniformly teaches that regardless of our station in life6,10,11,12,13 we are all made in the image of God9 and treat each other accordingly3,4,5,7.
In the Old Testament, slavery was a voluntary means of working off debt 1,3 regulated by God2. In the Roman times of the New Testament, slavery was a way of life and we see instruction to Christian masters and Christian slaves alike5,6,7,10,12,13 more akin to a modern employer/employee relationship. Indeed, the Bible is about mans opportunity to be free from slavery to sin8,11,14. All are one in Christ6,10.
our answer is built on the following scripture-blocks
please if you feel its not adequately or correctly presented
How To Overcome Injustice
It hurts to watch real people being hurt by injustice, devalued as less than human, crushed by profits, politics, and power, especially when the injustice is violently or systemically enforced. But evil cannot be fixed by condemning it, exposing how bad it is, demanding people do better. The broken social systems of this world are beyond repair.
Gods method for dislodging sins grip on the world was not condemning it he shouldered it, bearing it himself on the cross. It is irrational for the church to demand people who dont recognize King Jesus behave as if they did. Sure, its easy to shame leaders for their evil choices, but that wont change the world. We need to spend our finite resources is calling people to recognize the one ruler who can change the world.
Thats why the Bible doesnt condemn slavery. Theres no hope in trying to make a better Roman Empire. The only hope is in living as the kingdom of God.
So instead of condemning slavery, the Bible transforms this unjust relationship by calling both sides into mutual submission to each other as servants of King Jesus:
- Slaves, work as if you were serving Jesus as your master .
- Masters, transform the way you treat your slaves in light of how your Master treats you, because he doesnt see them as any less than you .
The world is transformed not by condemning sin, but by bringing people to give their allegiance to King Jesus, so we treat each other as he treats us. Thats the goal of the gospel.
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Transatlantic Slavery Is Not In Mind In The Bible
In Transatlantic slavery, by contrast, West Africans were forcibly kidnapped . Both their person and their labor were considered the property of the slave owner. The slave owners rights over slaves and their offspring were complete. They were subject to rampant physical violence and abuse. The death penalty applied if a master killed a servant. If a master caused any kind of permanent damage to a servant, that servant was given immediate freedom. Slavery in North and South America was motivated by the economic advantage it provided for the elite. In the OT, slavery was motivated by a desire to find a way to help the poor.
How To Answer This Common Question From Aggressive Skeptics
The triumvirate of complaints about the Bible from atheists typically consists of denouncing its science, denouncing its God, and denouncing its morality. Here well handle a classic moral objection: the Bible is an evil book because it supports slavery .
For example, in 2012, provocative atheist Dan Savage gave a keynote speech at a conference for high school journalists. The topic was supposed to be bullying, but instead he spent most of the speech criticizing Christianity and the Bible:
The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document. Slave owners waved Bibles over their heads during the Civil War and justified it. The shortest book in the New Testament is a letter from Paul to a Christian slave owner about owning his Christian slave. And Paul doesnt say Christians dont own people. Paul talks about how Christians own people.
We ignore what the Bible says about slavery, because the Bible got slavery wrong. Tim uh, Sam Harris, in A Letter to a Christian Nation, points out that the Bible got the easiest moral question that humanity has ever faced wrong.
How do we respond?
Even a quick examination of the New Testament and the letter to Philemon shows that Savage misses the mark in his interpretation. St. Paul exhorts Philemon to grant freedom to his slave Onesimus. In a key passage of the letter, Paul says:
Even after hearing these distinctions, a skeptic may press two additional objections:
Lets address each of those objections in turn.
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Consider The Whole Bible
Progressive revelation simply means that God didnt reveal his will and character to humanity all at once, but gradually over a long period of time. Thus, you have to look at the entire narrative of biblical revelation to interpret it fairly, rather than just pull a verse from here or there.
Christians also believe God accommodates his revelation to particular historical contexts, and even to fallen social structures within them. This makes sense when you think about itunless we require that God refrain from giving any instructions or laws to a particular people at a particular time until all societal evil has been removed. An ethical exhortation in an ad hoc document , then, may not tell you everything you need to know about Gods will and character. In fact, it will probably give you more of a picture of day-to-day life as a Christian in a certain context than the Bibles overall ideal with respect to institutional and structural evil.
Similarly, practices like slavery, polygamy, and divorce were common in antiquity. Biblical instruction that allows for them in certain contexts isnt necessarily biblical approval. We must interpret them in relation to everything else the Scriptures say.
Biblical instruction that allows for in certain contexts isnt necessarily biblical approval.
Creation is essential to consider because it reveals Gods original intent for the human race. And the gospel is essential because it reveals the ultimate trajectory of Gods redemptive work.
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.
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