Does The Bible Advocate Slavery
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If the Bible is about God’s love for humanity, how can it advocate slavery?
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. Leviticus 25:44-46a
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them. Titus 2:9-10a
Lets be honestthese verses from the Bible can really rub us the wrong way. Everyone knows that quotes can be taken out of context. Understanding the historical and cultural contexts of statements clarifies their meanings. But however you cut it, these verses and many others seem to suggest that the Bible is fine with slaveryand maybe even supports the practice.
Then why do Christians condemn slavery today? Indeed, many people of faith have dedicated their lives to ending slavery.1 Have such do-gooders misread the Bible? Have they turned a blind eye to passages that blatantly endorse one of the worst forms of human oppression?
So lets tackle the issue head-on: Does the Bible advocate slavery?
The Essence Of The Old Testament Institution
In the patriarchal system, the work in someone’s household was carried out by herdsmen and domestic servants, but if Abraham had had no offspring one of his servants would inherit all he had . Servants were trusted with money and weapons. There is no approval for selling people, although Abraham ‘acquired’ people for silver.
The following table shows a comparison of slave systems.
Conditions of slaves in different systems
Deuteronomy 23:15-16 forbids returning a runaway slave to his master. This contrasts to former slavery laws in America or even in the ancient lawcode of the Babylonian king Hammurabi .
The Bible And Slavery
The Bible contains many references to slavery, which was a common practice in antiquity. Biblical texts outline sources and legal status of slaves, economic roles of slavery, types of slavery, and debt slavery, which thoroughly explain the institution of slavery in Israel in antiquity. The Bible stipulates the treatment of slaves, especially in the Old Testament. There are also references to slavery in the New Testament.
Many of the patriarchs portrayed in the Bible were from the upper echelons of society and the owners of slaves and enslaved those in debt to them, bought their fellow citizens’ daughters as concubines, and perpetually enslaved foreign men to work on their fields. Masters were men, and it is not evident that women were able to own slaves until the Elephantine papyri in the 400s BC. Other than these instances, it is unclear whether or not state-instituted slavery was an accepted practice.
In the 19th century United States, abolitionists and defenders of slavery debated the Bible’s message on the topic. Abolitionists used texts from both the Old and New Testaments to argue for the manumission of slaves, and against kidnapping or “stealing men” to own or sell them as slaves.
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Episode 2: Does The Bible Support Slavery
Slavery in the Bible can be a really difficult topic to wrestle with. The First Testament approves of harsh treatment of slaves, Jesus doesnt talk about it, and the New Testament apostles seem to take it for granted as well. What are we supposed to do with this troubling issue?
Understanding the Bibles redemptive movement on the institution of slavery requires a different kind of interpretive lens. Alex and Glenn discuss the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic and how it sheds light on Scriptures subversion of slavery.
William Webbs books on the Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic:
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.
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God Doesn’t Justify Our Sin He Redeems
Gods not after perfection, but surely isnt justifying our sin either. Thats why we need Jesus for salvation.
Dont put it past Him to work a miracle through a fallen situation to restore life to a dead place, or to save a heart that the rest of us deem unworthy and less than.
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother .
Some people are born into unfair circumstances. Others are brought into them under no control of their own. Slavery is an injustice, but God is just .
Gods people cried out to Him for help, and James urges us to pray when we are in need . Though God does not support slavery, or any other crime against humanity and His law to love each other as He has loved us, He does chase us down through our low moments to bring us to our knees and home to Him.
Father, Praise You for making a way for us through Jesus Christ. Thank You for restoring us to Your presence through our acceptance of Him as our Savior. Father, forgive us for any injustice that we have laid upon another human being. We confess and repent any attitude of our hearts that tempts us to loft our own lives above any others in value or purpose. Bless all of those who suffer in slavery. We pray for the hope of freedom that only Christ can give. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/AndreyKrav
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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Justifying Injustice With The Bible: Slavery
Complementarians are absolutely convinced that what they teach on the man-woman relationship is what the Bible teaches. To reject their teaching is to reject the Bible, and because the Bible is literally God’s words, to reject that teaching is to disobey God himself. After giving a lecture outlining CBE’s position, one Sydney theologian told me publicly, “You reject what Scripture plainly teaches. Those who disobey God go to hell.”
When faced with such weighty opposition, it is helpful to note that we find exactly the same dogmatic, vehement opinion voiced by the best of Reformed theologians in support of slavery in the 19th century and Apartheid in the 20th century. They too appealed to the Bible with enormous confidence, claiming that it unambiguously supported slavery and Apartheid.
However today, virtually all evangelicals believe they were mistaken in their understanding of the Bible, that the Bible condemns slavery and Apartheid, and that these things are not pleasing to God!
In Part 1 of this series, we will examine the biblical case for slavery. In Part 2, we will explore the biblical case for Apartheid and compare the complementarian position.
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.
The Enslaved And Christianity
One of the most common misconceptions about Christianity was that it turned Africans into servile slaves. A more accurate reading suggests that Africans accepted and incorporated aspects of Christianity that were in keeping with their traditional belief systems. Others withstood centuries of slavery and missionary influence to practise traditional beliefs that thrived despite great attempts by the respective authorities to stamp them out.
Adherents to Islam also faced great restrictions on their ability to practise their religion openly. When Non-conformist missionaries stepped up attempts to evangelise Africans during the late 18th century it was noted that the African Muslims still held on to their tendency to pray with their arms open, as opposed to the Christian way with hands clasped.
The Africans who embraced Christianity identified closely with the Bible’s view of freedom, equality and justice and especially drew parallels between their own situation and the Hebrew people in the Book of Exodus. Indeed, such was the potency of this Old Testament story that many clergymen were instructed to avoid it in their Bible lessons. However, for the Africans it demonstrated that God was on the side of the oppressed and would send a Moses to free them. It was ironic that for Africans, the Americas represented the Biblical Egypt or Babylon a place from which to escape – while for persecuted European Christians it was the Promised Land.
Slavery And Racism In The Bible
- M.A., Princeton University
- B.A., University of Pennsylvania
The Bible contains quite a number of broad, vague, and even contradictory statements, so whenever the Bible is used to justify an action, it must be placed in context. One such issue is the biblical position on slavery.
Race relations, especially between whites and Blacks, have long been a serious problem in the United States. Some Christians’ interpretation of the Bible shares some of the blame.
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Israels Origins And Laws
Slaves in Israel had more legal rights, protection, and security than those in other ancient societies. Part of the reason was Israels history as a redeemed peoplethey themselves had been rescued from slavery in Egypt.
In fact, the Ten Commandments begin with these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.7 And the memory of their past guided their laws: Do not oppress a foreigner you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.8
Specifically, the laws regarding slaves were unique in the ancient world. Slaves were included in religious ceremonies, festivals, and practices.9 They were also instructed to cease work on the Sabbath, just like the families they served.10 The Sabbath was a day of rest for both slave and free.
Does The Bible Support Slavery
This lecture responds to the accusation that the Bible actively supports slavery. Peter J. Williams examines the issue by explaining how biblical words connected with slavery in the Old and New Testament texts have been translated and how contemporary understandings of these words have changed over the years.
The lecture is about one hour long, followed by 15 minutes of questions and answers.
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Does Exodus 21 Treat Slaves As Chattels
Exodus 21:18-27 contains laws on how to treat slaves. Verses 18-19 deal with guidance in cases of injury. Verses 26-27 give the consequences of injuring slaves. Verse 21 seems to suggest that the slave is a possession: “for the slave is his money” . This does not indicate that the master owns the slave and can do what he likes, as the rest of the Old Testament shows that that is clearly not the case, but the “for” indicates the reason that the slave is not to be avenged: it is because the slave is the master’s “money” . In other words, because the master benefits from the slave being alive, it is to be presumed that when he struck the slave, he did not intend to kill the slave. The consequences of striking and injuring a slave are given in verses 26-27.
Kevin Rudd Correct On Paul’s References To Slavery In The Bible
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s fiery defence of gay marriage on Q& A went viral, but his comments have faced scrutiny by religious leaders and theologians.
Mr Rudd was asked by a pastor how he could support gay marriage and call himself a Christian.
“I just believe in what the Bible says and I’m just curious for you, Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?” pastor Matt Prater asked.
Mr Rudd responded: “Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition,” he said, receiving a loud applause from the audience.
“Because St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’. And, therefore, we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US war. I mean, for goodness sake, the human condition and social conditions change.”
- The claim: Kevin Rudd says St Paul said in the New Testament, ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’.
- The verdict: Mr Rudd is correct. There are two statements from Paul in the New Testament which call on slaves to be obedient to their masters. But the Bible does not present a single view on slavery.
ABC Fact Check considers Mr Rudd’s statement about the New Testament is assessable, as it was clearly referenced and defined.
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What The Old Testament Says About Slavery
First, we must recognize that the Bible does not say God supports slavery. In fact, the slavery described in the Old Testament was quite different from the kind of slavery we think of today – in which people are captured and sold as slaves. According to Old Testament law, anyone caught selling another person into slavery was to be executed:
“He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.”
So, obviously, slavery during Old Testament times was not what we commonly recognize as slavery, such as that practiced in the 17thcentury Americas, when Africans were captured and forcibly brought to work on plantations. Unlike our modern government welfare programs, there was no safety-net for ancient Middle Easterners who could not provide a living for themselves. In ancient Israel, people who could not provide for themselves or their families sold them into slavery so they would not die of starvation or exposure. In this way, a person would receive food and housing in exchange for labor.