Bound but unchained – don’t confuse biblical slavery with the American version

by Peter Barnes, p7, “Australian Presbyterian”, Summer 2014/15

It is not uncommon to say that the Bible is a vicious book because God ordains slavery in the Old Testament, and the slavery of the American South, at least until the tragic Civil War of 1861-1865, showed how brutal and unjust slavery can be. Hence Sam Harris, a rabid atheist, declares that the books of the Bible are bursting with “obscene celebrations of violence” and they condone the practice of slavery whereas “the entire civilized world now agrees that slavery is an abomination.”

However, there is considerable difference between the God-ordained and regulated slavery of the Old Testament and that which prevailed in the Confederate States of North America in rather more recent times.

Chris Wright maintains that the Hebrew slave was more a bonded worker than a slave. In the first place, a Hebrew slave could normally obtain his freedom after six years: “If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing” (Exodus 21:2; see Deut. 15:1-18). There were no life-long slaves unless the slave wished it in which case he went through a ceremony which bored his ear with an awl to signify his lifelong attachment to his master (Ex. 21:5-6). Otherwise, six years was the maximum. And if the Year of Jubilee rolled around, as it did every 50 years, it was further reduced (Lev. 25:39-41). Much later, Jeremiah was to denounce King Zedekiah of Judah for not releasing slaves when he had promised to do so (Jer. 34).

A slave whom the master injured in some way was to go free (Ex. 21:26-27). An escaped slave was to be well-treated:

“Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: 16 he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”
(Deut. 23:15-16)

This probably only referred to a slave who had escaped from another country rather than a Hebrew who had jumped the fence. In the Code of Hammurabi, anyone who harboured a slave or helped him to escape was to be put to death. Israel, on the other hand, was to be a place of refuge for a slave on the run.

Another significant difference is that Old Testament slavery was normally linked to punishment for stealing. The law was that “If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.” (Ex. 22:1-3).

Under the law of Moses there were no jails. Instead, a system of restitution plus compensation was to operate in dealing with robberies. Most of the Hebrews who were slaves in the Old Testament period were debt slaves – they owed money and were paying it off, or they had stolen something and could not pay it back with the added compensation, so they worked it off. This is neither cruel nor an abomination, but eminently sensible.

Old Testament slavery did not consist of one nationality oppressing another nationality as in American slavery in the 19th century. Nor was it part of some arbitrary caste system. It was part of a very fair and effective system of justice when it was applied rightly.

One of the more startling differences between slavery in the Old Testament and that in the southern United States is that the Bible condemns kidnapping as a capital crime (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). Before the law of Moses was given, Joseph’s brothers trampled all over this principle, which was written on their hearts (see Gen. 37:25-28). It is instructive that the law against kidnapping is repeated in the New Testament (1 Tim. 1:8-11). The NIV has “slave traders”, the ESV has “enslavers”, and the NKJV has “kidnappers”, the King James has “menstealers”. Whichever translation is used, it would condemn the African slave trade and the existence of slavery in the southern states of the USA in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Perhaps something like 14.5 million Africans were brought to the New World in chains, but many others died on the way. Almost all of them were kidnapped from their homes in Africa. In 1787 John Newton condemned this as “a commerce so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive”. It was a special horror to him: “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”

Olaudah Equiano was a former slave who obtained his freedom, became an evangelical Christian, married a well-to-do Englishwoman who bore him two children, and published his life story in 1789. He claimed that “Tortures, murder, and every other imaginable barbarity and iniquity, are practiced upon the poor slaves with impunity”.

(1 Timothy 1:8-11) would condemn the African slave trade and the existence of slavery in the southern states of the USA.

Far from seeing slavery as something that is natural, the God of the Old Testament commands the death penalty for kidnappers.

Finally, the Old Testament declares that all peoples, being in the image of God, are to be treated with fairness and compassion. In defending himself, Job declared:

“If I did despise the cause of my manservant or of my maidservant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him? Did not he that made me in the womb make him? and did not one fashion us in the womb?” (Job 31:13-15)

How do we understand all human beings on this earth, and our relationship with them? We are created in the womb by God. We share that commonality; we are all united in that sense. When John Newton wrote against the slave trade that he had once participated in, he cited the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12.

The church can easily descend into a kind of Pelagian racism. During the 19th century, one American Presbyterian preacher apparently proclaimed: “You slaves will go to heaven if you are good, but don’t ever think that you will be close to your mistress and master. No! There will be a wall between you; but there will be holes in it that will permit you to look out and see your mistress when she passes by.”

Against that kind of theology and practice, Calvin cited Isaiah 58:7 about not looking down upon our own flesh. He explained: “By that he means we cannot look upon another human being without having before us a living representation of our own selves, and if we deny him our help, it is as if we were refusing it to ourselves”. Indeed, he added that even the pagans have recognised “what is so difficult for us to get into our heads”, namely that there is “a universal kinship within the human race”.

The Old Testament has a temporary provision for slavery, usually for stealing; kidnapping was a capital crime; and Hebrews, because of their understanding of God as the creator of all mankind, were enjoined to treat all human beings with fairness and compassion. That is why Confederate slavery was so wrong.

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