Slavery & the Bible (Part 2) Not All Types of Slavery are Equal

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When it comes to slavery and Christianity, three major criticisms are often brought up:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

This breakdown into three major criticisms is helpful, because we actually are talking about three distinct types of slavery in three distinct eras of human history. In other words, recognizing that “slavery” is not identical in these three eras is important.

So, let’s start with the most recent and work back in time:

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American Slavery

Many know the deplorable history of this stain on the United States, a country built upon the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Slavery is the sad, sad irony of the Land of the Free. American slavery was a system based on the forceful kidnapping and enslavement of African people. It was race-based, where an entire race was demeaned to subhuman status to justify their treatment as literal objects of property.

American slaves had no rights as human beings and were at the sole mercy of their owners, no different than had they been pigs or cattle. Therefore, they could be worked ruthlessly, often within striking distance of a whip. Few slaves could read or write or were allowed any sort of an education. Families could be ripped apart as parents and children where bought and sold at the whim of their masters. Slave masters also were free to starve, beat, and even rape their slaves without facing any legal consequences. Further, these slaves had no hope of freedom.

It’s a dark stain on the history of the United States indeed, one that still haunts us to this day.

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Roman Slavery (New Testament Era)

The slavery we find in the New Testament is specifically the slavery of the ancient Roman Empire, which is different from both American slavery and the slavery we find in the Old Testament, yet it shares some similarities with both.

Almost everything said about American slavery above can be said about Roman slavery, except Roman slavery was not race-based. Race was not a factor; one could become a slave by being born into it, by committing a grievous crime, by going into debt, by being a prisoner of war, by being sold by his or her parents, and even by voluntarily selling oneself into slavery. But Roman slavery was also a much more diverse, complicated social and economic system than American slavery.

To put it simply, Roman slavery included a wide, wide spectrum of types of servanthood within that system. So, many slaves were treated similar to American slaves, but many were also treated quite well and benefited from the arrangement. Many slaves actually chose to be slaves; some actually preferred to be slaves due to their low economic status and the benefits of being a “slave” under an affluent person. Slavery guaranteed a roof and food in an unstable world. Many Roman slaves were highly educated, even highly successful and wealthy. Like American slaves, Roman slaves were at the mercy of their masters and were property, but unlike American slaves, Roman slaves had many of the same opportunities given to free men, and it was likely they could even become free themselves.

Often modern people look at the word “slave” in the Bible and immediately connect that word with American slavery, but it’s a mistake to assume all “slavery” during the Roman Empire is the same as American slavery. Often it was much more similar to what we would call indentured servanthood, where one would be under contract to another person for a limited time until they fulfilled their contract or bought their own freedom.

Please don’t misunderstand me; much of the slavery of Rome was just as dehumanizing as what happened in American’s past. Gladiators were slaves, forced to battle, even die, for entertainment (though even gladiators could be wealthy celebrities as slaves). Some slaves were kept strictly for sex. Some slaves, usually criminals, were essentially issued death sentences to work in the darkness of underground mines until their lungs gave out. Runaway slaves were branded on their foreheads. If a slave master were murdered, all of his slaves would also be killed. This was a way of quelling thoughts of rebellion, as a huge part of Rome’s population were slaves. There is a record of one incident where 400 slaves were killed because their master had been murdered though there was no evidence the slaves had anything to do with it.

But there was also the indentured servant or contracted worker side of the Roman “slavery” spectrum, where many slaves/servants benefited under the care of someone better off economically than they were, and where they even had an opportunity to make an independent living, or where they may even choose to stay as a part of their master’s household once they earned their freedom. This sort of contract “slavery” could even be compared to an apprenticeship or the sort of service contract one makes when he joins the modern military. The Greek word often translated “Slave” in the New Testament can also be simply translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles will state this in the footnotes.

The important thing to remember concerning Roman Slavery is that it was deeply ingrained in the culture and economy, and there was a wide spectrum of variety within that slavery/servant system.

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Israelite Slavery (Old Testament Era)

In the Old Testament era, the cultures surrounding Israel had slavery, and the Israelites themselves were slaves in Egypt for 400 years before being freed. The type of slavery that surrounded Israel was the type most of us think about when we hear “slavery.” Like American slavery, the slavery of much of the ancient Near Middle East was harsh and dehumanizing. But not so with Israelite “slavery.”

Later in this series, we’ll be specifically looking at Israelite “slavery” in the Old Testament, because it – unlike American and Roman slavery – is part of God’s Word. In a way, those hostile to Christianity are right: God does endorse this type of “slavery” (and this type only). But the slavery of ancient Israel is nothing like American slavery, nor other Near Middle East slavery. It’s a truly unique biblical, Israelite “slavery.” Just like the ancient Greek word, the Hebrew word often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant,” and most modern Bibles tell you this in the footnotes.

As I said, we’ll explore this idea much more in depth in later articles, but for now know that Israelite slavery is more comparable to indentured servanthood or working under contract than slavery proper. So, where we find Roman slavery is a spectrum that goes from American-type slavery (minus the racism) to indentured servanthood and contract workers, Israelite “slavery” is simply a type of indentured servanthood or contract work.

In later articles, you’ll see just how radically different biblical, Old Testament “slavery” is from American slavery and the slavery of the nations surrounding Israel. (If you’d like a preview, I addressed some of this already in Part One of this series)

 

In this series, we’ll be addressing the 3 criticisms concerning Christianity and slavery:

  1. In the United States’ past, Christian slave-owners used the Bible to justify slavery.
  2. In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles never condemned slavery. In fact, they even told slaves to be obedient.
  3. In the Old Testament, God actually endorses slavery.

Thus, we will be exploring:

  1. What the Bible says about American slavery.
  2. What the New Testament says about Roman slavery.
  3. What the Old Testament says about Israelite slavery.

As I said above, the Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible that are often translated “slave” can also be translated “servant.” This shows the wide range of meaning those words can have. Perhaps if the translators of the Bible simply used “servant” instead of “slave,” Christians would have to address this issue much less!

NEXT: The Bible VS. Race-Based American Slavery
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Slavery & the Bible (Part 1) Cherry Picking, Worldview & Consistency

As a follower of Christ, I believe the God of the Bible is loving and just, so it deeply troubles me when my faith is associated with something as evil as slavery in memes on social media like this:

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Or like this:

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Interestingly, I once saw one on Facebook like this:

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I say “interestingly” because the meme quotes Exodus 21:20-21, but ignores other passages surrounding it, such as:

Exodus 21:12: “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.”

Exodus 21:16: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”

Exodus 21:26-27: “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.”

We also find memes like this quoting the New Testament:

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But we never see memes for, say, 1 Timothy 1:10, which includes “enslavers” (ESV) in a list of “the ungodly and sinners” and “the unholy and profane.” The original Greek word used here in 1 Timothy, sometimes translated “kidnappers” (NASB) or “slave traders” (NIV/NLT), specifically means a person who captures someone in order to sell him into slavery.

So, is the Bible anti-slavery or pro-slavery? Why do those hostile to Christianity and Judaism cherry-pick certain verses and ignore others? Isn’t this exactly what they accuse Christians of doing in memes like this…

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 So, what we have here is an issue of consistency.

Christians can accuse hostile skeptics of cherry-picking certain verses and ignoring others.

And skeptics can accuse Christians of doing the same thing.

And both would be right.

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So, we can recognize that those hostile towards biblical faith cherry-pick verses, but let’s keep with that honesty and admit many Christians do the same thing. They remember the parts they like from the Bible and ignore other parts.

The reason Christians do this could be for any number of reasons. For instance, they may ignore verses condemning certain sins like, say, greed or slander because they’re still allowing those sins to rule their lives. Or, let’s be honest, many Christians simply don’t know what to make of certain troubling verses. Many Christians don’t have a good enough understanding of history or biblical theology to understand them. But they trust God and love Jesus, so they continue on.

But we also have to admit, skeptics often do have a just reason for calling Christians inconsistent. But the more important issue is: Are these Christians inconsistent because of a lack of knowledge or because the Bible itself is inconsistent?

 

WRESTLING WITH THE BIBLE

I’m not saying all of these Christians should be ashamed for having holes in their knowledge. And I’m not saying they’re even willfully ignorant (though some are). But I will say that if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, you should do all you can to understand it, which means wrestling with troubling passages.

Studying the Bible is a life-long endeavor, so everyone is going to have holes in their knowledge; there’s no shame in that. But blatantly ignoring troubling passages is a mistake for a number of reason. For one, it gives ammunition to hostile skeptics and may prevent people from hearing the gospel.

Yes, what is said in those memes above should certainly be troubling to Christians who take the Bible seriously. And, yes, there are passages in the Bible that at first appear alarming. But we also have to understand we’re reading them thousands of years after they were written with a modern mindset and little (if any) understanding of the ancient culture where these writings are coming from. But, I believe, with enough study, one comes to understand those troubling passages in the historical and biblical context, and they’re found not to be so alarming.

 

THE REAL ISSUE

So, the issue comes down to this:

Both Christians and skeptics are liable to be inconsistent. But is the Bible consistent?

Both Christians and skeptics, to remain consistent must not isolate verses out of context. But… is the Bible consistent?

Both Christians and skeptics, to remain consistent must look at the Bible as a whole. But, again… is the Bible consistent?

So, the debate isn’t whether Christians and skeptics can be inconsistent (because we know they can) but the big question is — you guessed it:

Is the Bible consistent?

If we work to understand the Bible as a whole, which means not looking at only isolated verses, will we find that the Bible contradicts itself?

That is the big question, and the only question that matters.

I believe the Bible is the Word of God, so I believe that when correctly understood, the Bible is consistent. This means it’ll take a lot of time and study; it means we must understand the verses in the context of history, the culture, and even the languages they were written in; it means we’ll have to wrestle with verses that at first are troubling and even appear inconsistent with other parts of the Bible.

But, as I said, when correctly understood, I believe the Bible is consistent.

This series will explored the subject of slavery and show how God’s view of slavery has not changed throughout history. In the first book of the Bible, we’re told man and women, regardless of religion, race, or economic class, have inherent worth as image-bearers of God. Thus, God and his Scripture has always been anti-slavery.

WORLDVIEW

Like many controversial issues, especially concerning religion and God, how someone would answer that question of whether the Bible is consistent comes down to worldview.

Worldview is simply “a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life” (Ronald Nash) and “the thought system we develop for explaining the world around us and our experiences in it” (Tim Warner).

All worldviews consist of assumptions (presuppositions) – which may be truth, false, or partially true – that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about “the basic make-up of our world” (James Sire).

In other words, worldview is your basic philosophy about life, which both influences — and is influenced by — how you answer certain significant questions, such as:

Where did we come from?

Where are we going?

What is the primary problem with the world?

How do we solve it?

So, for instance, to someone with a naturalistic, atheistic worldview, of course the Bible is not the Word of God; therefore, the Bible can be inconsistent. In fact, they expect it to be. The Bible was written over a period of about 2,000 years by multiple authors; how, they say, could it possibly be consistent? Thus, they feel no need to understand it consistently.

On the other hand, Christians do believe in a supernatural Creator and that the Bible is the Word of this Creator, so they believe the Bible is consistent. Yes, the Bible was written by multiple authors over 2,000 years, yet Christians find it to be remarkably consistent because these men were guided by the Holy Spirit. If someone thinks about how much culture changes in just 100 years, the consistency of the Bible is incredible! Thus, when Christians encounter difficult verses that may seem to contradict clear teachings elsewhere in the Bible, they work for a deeper understanding of those passages. This usually means a lot of hours of study and a lot of wrestling with God’s Word.

As I said above, person’s worldview effects how he or she approaches the Bible.

(Side note: Another question to ask concerning worldview is does a person’s worldview even give them any grounds for making claims against slavery — or about human rights in general — or any moral claims at all?)

(Another side note: One way Christians are often accused of being inconsistent is how Christians follow some of the Old Testament law and not all of it. This is because Jesus Christ’s death on the cross fulfilled — and thus, freed Christians from — the Old Testament religious law. Christians are no longer bound by ancient Israel’s civic law either, but are still bound to it’s moral law. God’s moral law, since it’s based in God’s unchanging nature, doesn’t change. I address this in an earlier 2-part GFTM series here:

AN ILLUSTRATION: EXODUS 21:20-21

To illustrate how worldview effects understanding, a typical exchange may go something like this. (This will also give you, the reader, a preview of some things we’ll be discussing in future articles about slavery and the Bible.)

Let’s look at that meme again we looked at earlier in this article:

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Skeptic: The Bible condones slavery. Exodus 21:20-21 says, “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

Christian: There are certainly some parts of those verses that are troubling, but let me point out that before 21:20-21, we see 21:12, which says, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” So, we see in the passage you quoted that slaves in Israel were equal to everyone else in that if someone killed a slave, even the slave’s own “master,” that person would be put to death.

Skeptic: Still, Exodus 21:20-21 says it’s OK to beat slaves.

Christian: Does it? Just afterwards in Exodus 21:26 we find, “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.” It appears to me the Old Testament is protecting slaves from abuse, not promoting it.

Skeptic: But Exodus 21:20-21 says the master is allowed to beat his slaves.

Christian: Where does it say he is allowed to beat him? Exodus 21:20-21 is an example of case law, meaning it’s addressing a specific situation. Case laws always start with “If…” or “When…” It’s not saying to do this; it’s saying “if this happens, then do this…” “When [or “If”] a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod…” Also, notice there’s equality among the sexes here too. In ancient Israel, it was eye for an eye, a life for a life. If a person attacks a slave – male or female – and kills him or her, the attacker forfeits his life. If the slave suffers excessive injury, 21:26 tells us the slave — man or woman — gets his freedom.

Keep in mind, eye for an eye wasn’t always carried out literally. But appropriate, equal restitutions were to be made — no more, no less. So, for example, right in Exodus 21:18-19 we see a law similar to the slave passage you quoted, and we’re told if two men get into a fight and one is injured and “does not die but takes to his bed, then if the man rises again… he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time…” So, if the injured man doesn’t die, the death sentence isn’t a consideration, but the other man is still expected to make restitutions and pay for the injured man’s loss of time and work and money. Notice it doesn’t say the injured man gets to beat the other guy silly so he loses out on work. Eye for an eye isn’t always practiced literally, but means an equal restitution or punishment for the crime. These were violent times; eye for an eye was actually quelling the violence. It was actually putting a fair limit on how much someone could get “pay back.”

So, we see this same idea in the passage you quoted, Exodus 21:20-21. If the slave is injured, but not killed, the attacker is not put to death, but the slave may be given his freedom. If the slave stays, the master has punished himself in that his slave was unable to perform his normal duties for him, losing the master his own means of making money.

Skeptic: You’re just putting a positive spin on it. It stills says the slave is his property. This is no better than the slavery we fought against in the Civil War.

Christian: I’d like to know the nuances of the original Hebrew word that’s translated “property.” The ESV, which is a solid translation, translates it “money.” And the NASB, another solid translation, has a footnote stating that the word could be translated “money.” This supports what I said before about if the master injuries his own slave and the slave can’t work, it’s a punishment to himself because it will cost him money by having a worker out of commission.

It’s important for you to understand that “slavery” in ancient Israel was more like indentured servanthood. The footnote at the bottom of my ESV Bible even tells us the word translated as “slave” covers a range of social and economic roles. Exodus 21:2 tells us after seven years, slaves are set free. That doesn’t sound like the type of slavery you’re talking about – like the type of slavery we saw in America’s past. Plus, Exodus 21:16 says, “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” This is clearly not the same “slavery” as the evil slavery we had in early America.

Skeptic: The Bible is just a bunch of random stuff written by men. It contradicts itself.

Christian: You think it would be inconsistent even within the very same book of the Bible? Even within a few lines of each other? Everything we just talked about is in Exodus 21. You really think the Israelites were so dumb that they didn’t realize their own laws were inconsistent?

Skeptic: I’m only telling you what I see with my own eyes.

Christian: And I’m telling you there’s to be a better explanation, which some study, thought, and research reveals.

———–

Notice how the differing worldviews and assumptions (presuppositions) effect their approach and understanding of the Bible: The skeptic assumes the worst about the Bible and interprets the tension between the verses on slavery as inconstancy within the Bible. The Christian assumes the best and works to understand the various verses as a whole, assuming the Bible, as the Word of God, is consistent.

All that being said, this series is specifically for Christians — Christians who trust God, recognize that they’re saved by grace through Jesus Christ, but they find parts of the Bible troubling, and because they love God’s Word, they want to better understand it.

Skeptics are, of course, welcome to read this series as well, and I hope they will. But, if I were challenged by a skeptic on what the Bible says about slavery, I’d likely handle it much different than how I would address a Christian about it. I wouldn’t go into the biblical data with them without first challenging their own worldview. In other words, to make a moral stance against slavery, one first has to have a basis for morality and human rights — a basis I don’t believe most skeptics have, especially naturalists, materialists, and atheists. To address this, I steer you towards this earlier GFTM article: Morally Schizophrenic: Moral Outrage in a Land With No Moral Compass.

NEXT: Israelite Slavery Vs. Roman Slavery Vs. American Slavery: Not all types of slavery are equal.

Other related GFTM articles:

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 1 of 2) Are OT laws arbitrary, offensive & silly?

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 2 of 2) Why do Christians follow some OT laws & not others?

Check out the new GFTM book on Amazon

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