Has anyone every told you they just can’t believe the Bible because they believe that it condones the institution of slavery? This is a favorite target area for critics, because nowhere in the Bible does it command the total abolition of slavery. Indeed, instructions are given for proper behavior for masters and slaves, with no mention of abolition. So does the Bible actually endorse slavery, especially the kind we are most familiar with, the oppressive slavery of the American antebellum South?
First, we need to understand the cultural context in which the Bible was written. Then, we also need to understand the whole scope of what God is doing throughout history regarding slavery and freedom, by viewing the various scriptures on this subject as various snapshots in time along the way.
In the ancient near east (ANE), slavery was common to just about every society. It was an integral part of the economic systems of most nations. Critics tend to target the Old Testament verses in the Torah that deal with slavery, without pointing out something very important. The fact is, slavery in the ANE had some major differences from that of the American antebellum South. Understanding these differences is key to appreciating what the commands in the Bible concerning slavery are all about.
In the American South, being a slave was not voluntary. You were kidnapped from your homeland and taken away from your family to a far away country. Once a slave, you could not get out on your own. If you escaped, you were hunted down and severely punished. Slavery in the South was for the economic benefit of the rich slave owners, not the slaves. A slave could own no property and could not buy or sell, but rather were treated as property themselves, like so many cattle. Furthermore, slavery was associated with ethnicity and skin color. And there was no codes for treatment of slaves, so owners could be as abusive as they wanted to with their slaves, with no accountability.
In the Ancient Near East (ANE), entry into slavery was generally voluntary. Someone who was poor would sell their services and work for someone to take care of their family, or to pay off a debt that they owed. So a key difference here was that slavery was for the benefit of the poor, not the rich.
Remember, there were no credit cards in those days, so often selling oneself into slavery was the only way to pay a creditor when they didn’t have the funds available. Rather than owning the person, what was owned by the master was the labor of the slave. Slaves could be workers all socioeconomic levels, not just menial jobs. They could be in households, own property, and even have slaves of their own. Also generally, the ANE slavery was not racial, except for incidentally when prisoners of war became slaves.
Slavery in Egypt was an exception to the ANE slavery conditions, and was much more like the antebellum south, in that they were abusive, as can be seen in the Exodus accounts, and were treated more like property. As we shall see, when God in the Old Testament gives instructions on the humane treatment of slaves in Israel, He tells them: “Remember, you were once slaves in Egypt”, in other words, “remember how badly you were treated in Egypt? Don’t treat your slaves the way you were once treated!”
In Israel, God’s intentions are clear in the Law that the poor are to be provided for by the rich, if all obey the Law. Ideally, a person with means should lend money to a poor person (Deut. 15:7-8), or leave some crops in their fields for the poor people to glean (Leviticus 19:9-10). The tithe that was collected every third year was to be provision for the poor and widowed (Deut. 14:28).
If a man or woman in Israel was poor and had no alternative but to sell themselves as a slave, their wealthy fellow Hebrew must not refuse to take them in, and furthermore, they must be treated as a hired worker and not as a servant whose services can be bought and sold, and they would work for them until the jubilee year. (Leviticus 25:35, 39-40) If a Hebrew man or woman sold themselves into slavery, it was required that they be released every seven years during the sabbath year (Deut. 15:12). And this passage also commands that they not be sent out empty handed when freed, but with much provision, God again reminding the masters not to treat their slaves like they were treated in Egypt (Deut. 15:13-15. And sometimes the slave actually enjoyed their setup and wanted to stay, and the master could not forbid them. (vv. 16-17). One could not even imagine a slave in the American South loving their situation and wanting to stay!
Unlike the American South, a slave could leave an abusive master. Deuteronomy 23:15 forbids anyone to forcibly return an escaped slave back to their master, but rather they should take the slave in and not oppress them. In the South, an escaped slave was hunted down and severely punished.
Another major difference was that a slave could not be kidnapped and forcibly interred into slavery as in the South (Deut 24:7 pertaining to Hebrew slaves, also Exodus 21:16 includes all slaves, native or foreign, in this law). Indeed, the penalty was death for what was called “manstealing'”
These last two laws, in particular, kept people from being forced into slavery or being bought and sold as property.
So we can see that the Bible did not condone for a minute the kind of slavery that existed in the American antebellum South, contrary to what the critics of the Bible say. This doesn’t mean there weren’t abuses, and preventing these are what some of the Old Testament laws address. In the next article in this series, we will address some difficult verses in the Old Testament often brought up by skeptics concerning slavery. and in the final article we will look at slavery in New Testament times and the overall progression in the Bible toward equality and freedom.
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