Sexual And Conjugal Slavery
There were two words used for female slaves, which were amah and shifhah. Based upon the uses in different texts, the words appear to have the same connotations and are used synonymously, namely that of being a sexual object, though the words themselves appear to be from different ethnic origins. Men assigned their female slaves the same level of dependence as they would a wife. Close levels of relationships could occur given the amount of dependence placed upon these women. These slaves had two specific roles: a sexual use and companionship. Their reproductive capacities were valued within their roles within the family. Marriage with these slaves was not unheard of or prohibited. In fact, it was a man’s concubine that was seen as the “other” and shunned from the family structure. These female slaves were treated more like women than slaves which may have resulted, according to some scholars, due to their sexual role, which was particularly to “breed” more slaves.
Sexual slavery, or beinge sold to be a wife was common in the ancient world. Throughout the Old Testament, the taking of multiple wives is recorded many times. An Israelite father could sell his unmarried daughters into servitude, with the expectation or understanding that the master or his son could eventually marry her It is understood by Jewish and Christian commentators that this referred to the sale of a daughter, who “is not arrived to the age of twelve years and a day, and this through poverty.”
The Drivers Of Slavery
Also, we need to remember that slavery in those ages was an aspect of the economic conditions of the day. In fact, most slave situations were not primarily due to a person being taken against his will, but because poor people either sold themselves or their children into slavery. Slavery was designed to pay a debt to a debtor, and once the debt was paid, the person was free. A slave could buy his own freedom from the profits of his selling his property.3
It is noteworthy that many people became bond-slaves because their situation was better as a slave than as a free person. We sometimes assume a modern frame of reference when we talk about these things, but one must remember that life was extremely hard during these times, and to be free meant you had no guarantees that you would have enough food to eat or even a decent house to shelter your family. Add to that taxes from the ruling governments, no protection from raiding parties or foreign invaders and the expense of buying tools to accomplish tasks and you can see how being part of a larger organization could be inviting. You would share in the collective efforts of many people and have access to the resources of a rich master – much the same way the feudal serf system was constructed in the Middle Ages.
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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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.
Be Faithful With What You Have
Whatever your status in life whether you own your own million dollar business or work for an oppressive boss the important thing is what you do for Christ. Whether you were born in white privilege or your parents sat in the back of the bus, the only thing that matters is if you are born again. Jesus acknowledges that life is unfair. Some people are given 1 talent, some 2 and some 5. We all have different starting points. God wants us to be faithful to him with what we have to work with. We should not spend our lives harping over past and present injustices, but ensuring that our future reward in heaven is secure. We should not focus on how much we dont have, but use what we do have to glorify God. Forget about slavery and other social injustices, just live for Christ.
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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.
New Testament Views On Slavery
The New Testament also gave slave-supporting Christians fuel for their argument. Jesus never expressed disapproval of the enslaving of human beings, and many statements attributed to him suggest a tacit acceptance or even approval of that inhuman institution. Throughout the Gospels, we read passages like:
A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master
Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.
Although Jesus used slavery to illustrate larger points, the question remains why he would directly acknowledge the existence of slavery without saying anything negative about it.
The letters attributed to Paul also seem to suggest the existence of slavery was not only acceptable but that slaves themselves should not presume to take the idea of freedom and equality preached by Jesus too far by attempting to escape their forced servitude.
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties.
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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.
Slavery In Biblical Context
When Paul was writing much of the New Testament, about 80 percent to 90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome were slaves, according to Ortlund. Slavery wasnt based on race in ancient Rome, like it was in the 17th-19th century Western slave trade. Rather, Ortlund said it included foreign prisoners of war and local men and women who sold themselves into slavery in order to relieve a burdensome debt.
Most people, hearing or reading his letters when they were first written, were slaves. Yet, Pauls letters speak to slaves and masters alike: he expects them to fellowship together in the same church as brothers and sisters in Christ, Ortlund said.
Peter encourages the Church to live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil live as Gods slaves . The Churchs greatest allegiance is to God, and they can glorify Him by submit selves for the Lords sake to every human authority, , including emperors, governors, and even earthly masters.
While many in Pauls audience were literal slaves, the message of Christ was applicable to all who recognized their bondage to sin and wanted a way out of it. According to Gods Word, not just 80 or 90 percent, but all believers were once slaves to sin . And those who are saved by Christ are now slaves to Christ .
Everyone is a slave to something. As Justin Buzzard said at Crossway.org:
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Slavery In The Bible Verses
In the Bible people voluntarily sold themselves to slavery so they could receive food, water, and shelter for themselves and their family. If you were poor and had no choice, but to sell yourself to slavery, what would you do?
1. Leviticus 25:39-42 I If your brother with you becomes so poor that he sells himself to you, you are not to make him serve like a bond slave. Instead, he is to serve with you like a hired servant or a traveler who lives with you, until the year of jubilee. Then he and his children with him may leave to return to his family and his ancestors inheritance. Since theyre my servants whom Ive brought out of the land of Egypt, they are not to be sold as slaves.
2. Deuteronomy 15:11-14 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land. If any of your peopleHebrew men or womensell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the LORD your God has blessed you.
Why Doesnt Scripture Say More
So I dont think the explanation of the New Testaments silence based on ancient slaverys relative moderation is persuasive. The lack of comment of Scripture on the evil of slavery itself may not become fully explicable to us in this life. It is hardly a cop-out to remind ourselves of the Lords caution to his people in Isaiah 55:8: My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. Yet there remain some caveats that can somewhat mitigate our perplexity on the matter. One is that the Scripture does attack certain essential aspects of slavery as practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. Second is that at the time of the New Testament letters, Christians could hardly imagine changing the laws of society at large, since they were a small and often-persecuted sect that many outsiders regarded as a bizarre cult. Few could have imagined a post-Constantinian order in which Christian morality became the law of the land.
The Old and New Testaments do forbid practices that stood at the heart of the institution of slavery.
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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.
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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How Bad Was Biblical Slavery
Evangelicals routinely answer that the slavery in the Bible was much different and more humane than the chattel slavery practiced in America from the 1500s to the 1800s. Of course, we generally know more about the practice of slavery the farther forward you proceed in time. It is a bit artificial to compare the slave regulations in the Pentateuch, to those in Pauls letters, to the vast amount of historical information we have about slavery in the early modern world. But if you consider what Exodus tells us about slavery, there are reasonable signs to suggest that ancient Hebrew slavery was a less totalizing institution than what it became for enslaved people in the 1700s in South Carolina, Jamaica, or Brazil. There was an end point to a slaves term of service, for instance. Exodus 21 suggests that slaves would be freed by the Israelites in their seventh year, and that people became enslaved for life only by choice . Exodus also shows great sensitivity to the wrong kind of slavery, as seen in the ruthless enslavement the Israelites experienced in Egypt, and from which God delivered them.
Enslaved people during both eras, who were typically slaves for life, suffered routine and sometimes unspeakable abuse.
Comparing Early America With Biblical Times
Professor, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
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.
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