Monday, 24 October 2016

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

This is something I wrote two years ago when challenged to a debate by a guy styling himself "War_Eagle" on CARM. He then failed to show up, pretending he never knew about, claiming to have put me on ignore after issuing the challenge. How very brave of him!

To their credit, CARM were then willing to move the thread to the atheism section, where others could respond. However, they do keep that hidden to casual visitors, so you would eed to get an account to see it.

Slavery in the Ancient world

Slavery was institutional in the ancient world. In many cultures, such as ancient Rome, a slave might have a pretty good life, but many slaves, even in the same culture, were treated badly.

For example in Egypt:
The least fortunate captives were sent to work as slaves in the dreadful gold and copper mines of Nubia and Sinai, where, according to the Greeks, water was rationed and men died in great numbers from exhaustion and dehydration in the desert heat. On the other hand not all the prisoners were enslaved: some were absorbed into the army, where Sherden for instance constituted a large part of the bodyguard of Ramses II.
And of course Roman:
Slaves had no legal status; they were property, ‘tools with the power of speech’. A master’s power over a slave was absolute. Life as a slave depended on the type of work the slave did and whether they lived in the city or the country. Life as a gladiator or in the mines was especially hard and dangerous.
Most had been captured during the various wars that Rome engaged in. The enemies of Rome were well aware that if captured, their inevitable destination was the slave-market. Many chose suicide as an escape.
Nor does it seem that the treatment of the slaves who worked the vast farmlands of Italy was very much harsher than or different from that meted out to African slaves on the American and West Indian plantations in the eighteenth century

Slavery in the New Testament

The problem with the NT is more of omission. While it fails to say slavery is right, it also fails to say slavery is wrong, even when the opportunity is there. If a book regarded as a moral guide discusses slavery and fails to make it clear that slavery is wrong, then it fails as a moral guide.
Ephesians 6:5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.
Here we see Paul telling slaves to be good, but he fails to tell slave owners that they should free all their slaves, that slavery is morally wrong.
1 Timothy 6:1-2 Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.
Here is clear acknowledgement that Christians were keeping slaves at that time. And what is missing is any verse telling Christians that doing so is wrong. Not even a verse saying Christians should treat their slaves well!
Luke 12:47-48 The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. "But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given."
This is an allegory, so not great evidence, but does suggest Jesus accepted the brutal treatment of slaves as part of life.

Slavery in the Old Testament

The OT has two large sections dealing with how to handle slaves, Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25, but it rears its ugly head as early as Genesis:
Genesis 9:24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,
"Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers."

26 He also said,
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s[b] territory;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth."
Right from the first book of the Bible, we have verses saying that one people are entitled to enslave another.

Instructions for Slave Owners in Exodus

Exodus 21:2 "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.

5 "But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges.[a] He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

7 "If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

12 "Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. 13 However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. 14 But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.

15 "Anyone who attacks[c] their father or mother is to be put to death.

16 "Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.

17 "Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.

18 "If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist[d] and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, 19 the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.

20 "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.

22 "If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[e] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

26 "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.
One of the first things to note is the different rules for different types of slaves. A male Hebrew slave was to be freed after six years - but not so female slaves or gentiles.

The issue of female Hebrews slaves is complicated, and it gives the impression that daughters were sold to be a wife. Is this moral? The implication is that the girl would then be obliged to have sex against her will, i.e., rape. It also suggests women are to be considered little more than property. On the other hand, it does ensure a future for the girl in which she is provided for.

Verse 16 is about taking free people and enslaving them, and is a clear prohibition. But read it in context of the whole chapter, and it is clear that owning and trading slaves is fine. What this law does is to protect free people from becoming slaves. The last thing the slaver owners wanted was to become slaves themselves, so naturally they made that illegal.

Indeed, verse 20 makes it clear that brutal treatment of a slave is acceptable; as long as the slave survives the beating, the law has not been broken. Verse 26 goes on to say that also the slave must not lose an eye or a tooth. All very noble.

Instructions for Slave Owners in Leviticus

Leviticus 25:39 "‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 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. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.

44 "‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 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. 46 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.

47 "‘If a foreigner residing among you becomes rich and any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to the foreigner or to a member of the foreigner’s clan, 48 they retain the right of redemption after they have sold themselves. One of their relatives may redeem them: 49 An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in their clan may redeem them. Or if they prosper, they may redeem themselves. 50 They and their buyer are to count the time from the year they sold themselves up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for their release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired worker for that number of years. 51 If many years remain, they must pay for their redemption a larger share of the price paid for them. 52 If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, they are to compute that and pay for their redemption accordingly. 53 They are to be treated as workers hired from year to year; you must see to it that those to whom they owe service do not rule over them ruthlessly.

54 "‘Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
These instructions also make a clear distinction between Hebrew slaves and gentile slaves. Hebrew slaves appear to be comparable to indentured servants, working off a debt for a limited time. Most of the text is about these Hebrew slaves, but with regards to the gentile slaves, we see in verses 44 and 45 that the Bible permits the buying of slaves, that those slaves become the property of your children when you die and they are slaves for life.

Does The Bible Stand Against Slavery?

There are verses that are quoted as being evidence that the Bible does not condone slavery. I shall take a look at some of them.
Exodus 2:23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
I have seen this verse quoted as though it shows the Bible is anti-slavery. Sorry, I do not get it. God allowed the Hebrews to become slaves in the first place. Here we see God finally remembering his promise. He does not say slavery is wrong, he merely decides it is now wrong for his chosen people to be slaves.

When God has freed his people, they settle down and then in a later chapter, God is giving instructions for how the Hebrews should keep others as slaves. There is no suggest God has a moral problem with slavery at all. Only that he has a problem with his chosen people as slaves.

This is like saying the enslavement of blacks in the US was fine because there were laws protecting the white man!
Exodus 21:16 "Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.
This verse is about protecting free men from getting enslaved. Just four verses later, the Bible is saying that it is fine to beat a slave as long as you do not beat him to death, so to claim that verse 16 is a law against slavery is untenable. The same sentiment appears in Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy:7 If someone is caught kidnapping a fellow Israelite and treating or selling them as a slave, the kidnapper must die. You must purge the evil from among you.

Exodus 21:26 "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.
This is about as good as it gets, with regards to gentile slaves. If they lose a tooth or an eye, they are to be set free. think about what it is not saying. If you whip your slave, then that is fine, as long as he does not lose a tooth or an eye. The implication here is that brutal treatment is perfectly acceptable, but there are limits.
Exodus 21:2 "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.
Hebrew slaves seem to have been more like indentured servants. just like the slavery in the US, this was based on racism. You treat slaves of your own race well, the rest can be treated as harshly as you like..
Leviticus 25:10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.
This would seem to be about Hebrew slaves too, as it is talking directly to Hebrews ("you") returning to their clans. Verse 46 in the same chapter makes it clear that gentile slaves were slaves for life ("You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life").
Deuteronomy 23:15 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 is to be applauded. But what it fails to say is that slavery is wrong.

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon

The shortest of Paul's letters appears to be Paul asking Philemon to free his slave, Onesimus. However, this interpretation has been challenged. It hinges on verses 15 to 16:
15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
Allen Dwight Callahan pointed out that this could easily mean they are estranged brothers, and hence brothers in the flesh, as well as the Lord, and now Paul is trying to reconcile them. More here:

Let us assume, however, that this is not the case. What we see here is Paul asking a Christian slave-owner to release one slave. What we do not see here is Paul saying slavery is wrong, that Christians should not own slaves, that Philemon should free all his slaves.

There is no condemnation of slavery here, or indeed anywhere in the Bible.

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