A massive caveat before I begin. It is very ambitious to think that every possible angle on the Old Testament and slavery could be covered by one article. I would not here go into the Hebrew distinctions of “Nokrim”, “Toshabim” and “Ger” which are three categories of strangers for the purpose of Old Testament slavery, neither would there be an extensive discourse on slavery in the ancient near east. For this, I would highly recommend chapters 12–14 of the book “Is God a Moral Monster” by Paul Copan for a somewhat more detailed distillation of these. The aim of this article is to outline the very basics sufficiently enough to challenge the notion that the Bible and Christianity support slavery as we imagine it in our subconscious.
Bill Maher on his show once stated that the Bible is a slave manual for slave owners. Sam Harris has also stated that Jesus said nothing about slavery and stated that slaves should serve their believing masters well. All of this is of course, in the words of Douglass Murray, “mouth wash” but behind all the fallacies, exaggerations and mendacity lies a very valid question, why does the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments permit slavery?
With the Old Testament, why did it recognise slavery to begin with? Before we answer this, we must be very clear on what Old Testament slavery was and was not. We must also be clear on what slavery the Old Testament sought to regulate.
When we hear the word, “slavery”, what do we think of? Our minds wander to the trans-Atlantic slave trade where Africans (mainly with the help of fellow Africans) were kidnapped from their homes, put on ships, transported to Europe or America and then sold for money. If that is the sort of slavery we think the Old Testament refers to, that could not be farther from the truth, in fact the Bible expressly prohibits this kind of slavery and imposes the death penalty for offenders,
“He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”
So every slave trader would have been sentenced to death in Israel under the Old Testament. The kind of “slavery” the Bible refers to is better described as “indentured servanthood”. To get more of a flavour of this, let us refer to the first ever instance of slavery in the Bible,
“When that year had ended, they (the people of Egypt) came to him (Joseph when he was ruler of Egypt) the next year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is gone; my lord also has our herds of livestock. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants of Pharaoh; give us seed, that we may live and not die, that the land may not be desolate.”
Then Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for every man of the Egyptians sold his field, because the famine was severe upon them. So the land became Pharaoh’s. And as for the people, he moved them into the cities, from one end of the borders of Egypt to the other end. Only the land of the priests he did not buy; for the priests had rations allotted to them by Pharaoh, and they ate their rations which Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their lands.
Then Joseph said to the people, “Indeed I have bought you and your land this day for Pharaoh. Look, here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And it shall come to pass in the harvest that you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh. Four-fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and for your food, for those of your households and as food for your little ones.”
So they said, “You have saved our lives; let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.” And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt to this day, that Pharaoh should have one-fifth, except for the land of the priests only, which did not become Pharaoh’s.”
(Genesis 47:18–25)- Parenthesis mine for explanation and bold mine for emphasis
Selling one’s self into slavery was a matter of desperation and a last resort. It was one’s final toss of the dice for a chance to remain alive. It was also a means to repay debt which a person was unable to repay. So in the days of Elisha, there was a widow in the following situation,
“A certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord. And the creditor is coming to take my two sons to be his slaves.”
(2 Kings 4:1)
Now to be clear, being a slave was not a good thing but this was the harsh reality of the Ancient near East in Old Testament times. In desperate times, people had to sell themselves and their families into slavery to put food on the table in Old Testament times. While it was not quite the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it was not Disneyland either. A person lost his freedom and was subject to his master.
Another thing clear about the Old Testament is that it did not perfectly represent God’s ideal state for Israel, it represented the best version of the environment the Israelites found themselves hence Jesus Christ stated that God gave laws concerning divorce because of the hardness of their hearts but it was not His plan from the beginning (Matthew 19). So the fact there was an Old Testament regulation for something does not mean that God approved of it. There were for instance causal laws regulating a case where a man had two wives but the original design was that a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife (not wives) and the two (not the three or more) shall become one flesh.
Further indications on God’s disposition towards slavery was His commandment that Hebrew slaves be released every seven years irrespective of their debt situation,
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release.”
“If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the Lord your God has blessed you with, you shall give to him.”
The Israelites were also not to withhold loans from the poor because the year of release was around the corner (Deuteronomy 15:7–11)
There was also a law that a runaway slave should not be returned to the master and he was also not to be oppressed.
“You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.”
This was in contrast with other laws around the Ancient Near East that demanded a slave be returned to the master to be punished.
All of these would seem to be mechanisms for reducing incidences of and suppressing slavery (i.e. indentured servanthood) within Israel. Oppression, which is a hallmark of the slavery still fresh in the memories of the 21st century was expressly prohibited,
“Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates. Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.”
There is an Old Testament passage which comes up over and over again in relation to slavery,
“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”
Does this not show that a slave is less than a human being? Why is there no punishment for his death in the second instance because he is a “property” of another?
First, the first sentence shows that there is a punishment (the death penalty) for killing a slave. There was no such concept in the version of slavery we are familiar with today. In fact I am reminded of a case I read somewhere, I believe it was the Zong Massacre, where slaves were thrown off a ship to lighten the cargo and the issue before the court was not murder but an insurance claim! The slaves thrown overboard were just cargo, the real question was whether the slave ship master could be compensated for loss of cargo. This is something even the Old Testament would not condone!
Second, the overall context of the verse is deciding whether or not to award the death penalty to an offender. The key issue is whether or not the master intended to kill the slave. If the slave survived a day or two afterwards, it might be presumed that there was no intention to kill the slave.
However, this does not still explain this expression, “For he is his property”. Now the issue here is translation. The ESV would translate this as “he is his money”, which would be more accurate to give the true sense. The idea is that in deciding whether or not there was an intention to kill the slave, the fact that the slave was the master’s money would be taken into account. Remember the slave is working off a debt so if the master loses the slave, he also loses his money (i.e. the labour in lieu of the money he would have received from the slave). Would any sane master really want to kill his slave and lose his money?
So what are the key takeaways so far?
- Slavery in the Old Testament (OT) is not kidnapping of innocents and selling them for profit, this was expressly prohibited.
- Kidnappers and sellers of men were to be put to death once found.
- Slavery regulated by the OT was indentured servanthood to pay debts or in exchange for sustenance.
- The fact a practise was regulated by the OT did not mean God endorsed or approved of it (See polygamy, divorce).
- God ordained the periodic release of Hebrew slaves and Hebrew debts
- God also ordained that a runaway slave should not be returned to his master but be left to live where we pleased among the Israelites and was not to be oppressed.
- The last two points were a mechanism to curtail instances of slavery in Israel.
- Killing a slave warranted the death penalty, which is in contrast to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade where throwing slaves into the sea to lighten the ship was not a case of murder but rather one of insurance claim since slaves were cargo.
- Oppression (the hallmark of the slavery we identify with) of both fellow Hebrews and of strangers or aliens in the land was forbidden by God.
…to be continued