Why is this important? Because "intellectual" types who are opposed to Christianity, whether atheist, agnostic, or whatever, have claimed the Bible could not have been written by God because it contains moral outrages such as slavery. They argue that slavery of any form is completely unjust and the fact that the Bible allows it proves that it could not have been written by a good God. So what do you say to that? Let me warn you, my answer is not short.
First, let me make this part clear. As a Christian, my morals come from the Bible. That means that when I talk about right and wrong, good and bad, righteousness and evil, I must base my discussion in what the Bible says. So when someone makes a statement like this, "Slavery of any kind is completely unjust," we have to ask them, "Why is it unjust?"
Atheists, agnostics, and others are left with only their opinions or government. Its wrong because they say it is wrong and it simply feels wrong. But the opinion of the ancient Israelite (and God as it seems) would disagree, so whose opinion is right? They may say its wrong because its illegal. But it wasn't illegal in ancient Israel, so whose government is right?
Christians, on the other hand, ought to get their morality not from opinions or from the government but from the Bible. So what the Bible says goes. If the Bible said that it was a sin to wear the color blue, I must submit and obey even if I really like blue and look good in it. This is because if God and I disagree on what is right and wrong, then one of us is wrong. As a Christian, I must humble myself and say certainly I'm the one that is wrong and not God. The issue of slavery is no different. If God says that slavery is allowable, then I can't stand back and call Him wrong, even if I really disagree!
Slavery in the Old Testament is not the slavery of America
But hold on a second. When you and I hear the word "slavery," what do we think about? Well, my thought is immediately flooded with images of Africans being conquered and captured and shipped to America. I think of rich white men in the south forcing their slaves to work and toil under torturous conditions with whips at their back. I think of the 1800's south where a white man could beat, torture, rape, or murder his slaves without facing a single consequence because a "negro" was not considered human so the laws did not protect him or her. I picture men and women living under these conditions for their entire lives with no hope of ever tasting freedom.
That's terrible! It violates the Image of God that all humans have! Would it shock you to find out that this is not the kind of slavery the Bible supports? Would it shock you to hear that there are numerous laws in the Old Testament that protect slaves from this kind of treatment? Its easy to be angry about slavery in the Bible when we take our understanding of slavery from what happened in our nation just 200 years ago. But let's be fair and examine what slavery in the Bible was actually like. I think you'll be shocked at some of the differences.
Laws protected slaves and afforded them dignity
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. -- Deuteronomy 5:14
Slaves were required by law to rest on the Sabbath just as their masters.
Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God. -- Leviticus 25:43
Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. -- Deuteronomy 5:15
Portions of the law like these make it abundantly clear that the heart of the slavery laws was to prevent masters from mistreating slaves. Often, these laws such as the Sabbath law are emphasized with reminders to the Israelites that they were once slaves in Egypt.
And there rejoice before the LORD your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns, who have no allotment or inheritance of their own. -- Deut 12:11-12
Slaves were to be included in festivals and celebrations for the Lord.
This next passage shows that slaves were treated as equals with freed men according to the law. They were not considered less than human and the law afforded equal protection to them. Read it here and then I'll break it down a bit.
"When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed. "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. -- Exodus 21:18-21 (ESV)
The first situation applies to two free men. What happens? They get into a brawl for unknown reasons and one guy really wrecks the other guy with his fist, a stone, or whatever. What are the consequences? Well, if the guy who lost the fight is injured, stuck in bed for a while, and can't go to work for a while but eventually gets better, then the guy who beat him up has to pay him for the days wages he lost out on while recovering.
The second situation applies to a master and a slave. What happens? The master beats the slave with a rod. Why was he hitting him with a rod? This passage doesn't say, but the Bible allows for the rod and whip to be used in discipline of free men and slaves alike (see Deut 25:1-3, 2 Samuel 7:14, Prov 10:13, 13:24, 22:15, 23: 13, 26:3). Based on the rest of the law, that is likely the implied case here. What are the consequences? Well, if the slave is hurt enough to be in bed but gets back up in a few days, then nothing happens. Why not? This is because the master is the one who lost out on the labor. The slave was not paid anything for his daily work so it is the master who already is losing money on this beating. What if the master kills the slave? Then the slave is to be avenged and the master is to be put to death! The slave is afforded the same rights here as a free man and the master is held accountable for how he treats his slaves.
"When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth. -- Exodus 21:26-27
If a master caused any excessive or permanent harm to a slave, the law ordered the slave to be freed. The passage right before this one uses phrases like "eye for eye" and "tooth for tooth." Phrases like those and the ones in this passage are to be taken as figurative representing the entire body. If a master did anything to a slave that caused permanent bodily harm, then the slave was immediately freed from his service. This law protected slaves from masters who might want to abuse them and falsely call it "discipline".
Slavery was temporary
"If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. -- Deuteronomy 15:12-14
Most of the cases of biblical slavery were Hebrews owning other Hebrews. Hebrew slaves were to be set free at the end of six years of service. Biblical slavery is not a permanent thing with no hope of freedom. The slave or his/her relatives could also purchase freedom according to Leviticus 25:49.
Foreign slaves (meaning a Gentile owned by a Hebrew) were far less common in Israel. However, even these foreign slaves were permitted to become Hebrews through circumcision and baptism into the covenant community! At that point, they would be required to be released after six years.
Slavery was primarily voluntary
"Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. -- Exodus 21:16 (see also Deut 24:7)
The kind of kidnapping and forced slavery we think of from 19th century America was completely illegal and brought with it the death penalty.
If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. -- Deuteronomy 15:12
The way you became a slave in Israel was by selling yourself into slavery! Why would anyone do that? Sometimes circumstances or poor choices would leave people in very impoverished circumstances. These people would sometimes end up in more debt than they could handle. Their options were to run away and try to hide from their creditors while living on the streets in miserable conditions with their families, go to prison for their debt and be unable to take care of their families at all, or to sell themselves into slavery.
When a person sold himself as a slave, the master would pay off his debts or cancel them if they were owed to him. The master would then take the slave and his family into his home and was required to provide food, shelter, and medical care to them. The slave would be required to perform domestic services six days a week (cooking, farming, cleaning, etc.) until his six year term was up. For many impoverished Israelites, this was a very pleasing option. In fact. . .
But if your servant says to you, "I do not want to leave you," because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, -- Deut 15:16
Its hard to believe from our American perspective, but oftentimes a slave's six year term would end and the slave would choose to remain a slave rather than go free! Slavery in ancient Israel was more akin to having a few butlers and their families who live in your home than the plantation owner who has fifty slaves who live outside the house and are treated worse than dogs. Many slaves in ancient Israel considered themselves to be a part of the family and found that serving their master was the best way to provide for themselves and their families.
Slaves were allowed to run away
If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him. -- Deuteronomy 23:15
This law blows me away. We've already seen a lot of laws that are clearly designed to protect the slave from mistreatment, but this one is the most powerful. If a slave runs away, the law prevented them from being returned to their former master! God commanded His people to embrace and respect the runaway slave. This law provides an out for any slave who finds himself with an abusive master who violates the laws of the Old Testament that require good treatment.
God allowed slavery in the Old Testament. God provided numerous laws that made it clear that slaves were not to be mistreated but were to be defended as any other free human being. Slavery was not a permanent life long trap. Kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery was punishable by death. Because of these protections, slavery was actually a beneficial option for the extremely poor and many chose to sell themselves into slavery and many chose to remain with their masters forever even when they were free to go.
When we speak of slavery in this context to atheists or agnostics, we can show them that it is not unjust as it upholds the dignity and humanity of the slave, gives them full protection under the law, is only temporary, and is actually a means for a poor person to eliminate their debt in six years. When we speak to Christians, we can show them how God's desire is to defend the slave. Congratulations! You finished the book! Let me know if you have questions or comments and, as usual, don't forget to vote on next Thursday's topic at the top right!