Sunday, June 21, 2009

The bible and slavery

One cannot spend much time in the Civil War without coming across the Southern argument that the bible condones slavery and specifically slavery as it was practiced in the American South*. Jefferson Davis himself said that, "[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts."

The quotation is correct as far as it goes, for there was slavery in ancient Israel, regulated by Mosaic Law, and slavery in Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Sumer, China, Egypt, and nearly anywhere else there have been people. And there was slavery in the American South. Ergo, slavery as practiced in the Antebellum South is approved by God, right?

We Americans are at something of a disadvantage when it comes to exegeting on the issue of slavery because of our national experience - we think, without thinking, that slavery as we practiced it is what slavery was always and everywhere. However, a quick look** at some of the commandments regarding slavery that are ignored by slavery's proponents (and the Bible's accusers) will show us a few important differences.

Two pretty major distinctions are these:
  • If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you. (Deu 24:7)
  • Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee (Deu 23:15)
Well, there goes the Fugitive Slave Act, no? If you cannot involuntarily press someone into slavery, and if you cannot return a slave who has escaped, then it is obvious that our first major distinction - and perhaps the only one we really need - is that slavery was a voluntary institution in the Bible***. There is no other way around it. If all a slave has to do is leave, and no one can by law return him, then a person who is a slave is one because he chooses to be one. In fact, one way one ended up in slavery was to sell himself. Now, why would one sell himself?

"And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee..." (Lev 25:39, Jewish Publication Society, see also Lev 25:47 and Deu 15:12). In short, slavery was a voluntary way for the poor to get a long-term employer; it was not a system that involved Hebrew ships plying the Med in search of free labor.

Now, how long-term was the labor? Generally six years: "If one of your countrymen, a Hebrew man or woman, becomes your servant for a price and does work for you six years, in the seventh year let him go free." (Deu 15:12, BBE). It's not unlike the American practice of indentured servitude, where (most often) a Brit received passage to America in exchange for x years of work when he got here. And if he wanted to escape, well, there were plenty of places he could escape to.

Now, there are a number of other differences, and doubtless some sharp atheist will point out the fact that people often sold their children into slavery and that masters were allowed to beat their servants (though not to do bodily harm). We can deal with those if we have to, but suffice it to say that neither of them are, in practice, much different than the rights of parenting - you can make your children work and you can spank them. You just can't knock their teeth out or kill them, and neither could you with slaves.

Slavery in ancient Israel was not only qualitatively different from slavery as practiced in the American South, it was different than that practiced in the rest of the Ancient Near East (references available on request). We may not like it, though given the realities of poverty and starvation in the ancient world, it's hard to imagine that those whose choice was death or temporary slavery had much problem with the latter.

So does the bible condone slavery? Yes, but on its own terms and in its own economic and historical circumstances. Does it condone what Americans consider slavery, the kidnapping of people to perform a lifetime of forced labor on behalf of someone who buys them against their will? No, it does not.

* And one cannot read the atheist press without finding the same.

** We could do a long look, but it's my day off.

*** At least in the OT. Roman slavery was of a different nature altogether but is far less often used to justify the practice. Even then, though Paul sent Onesimus back to his Roman though Christian master, Philemon, it was voluntary: Onesimus did not have to go.

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