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Slavery

Slavery
by Dave E. Matson


What a shock it is to learn that God does not oppose slavery! In the Bible, God regulates slavery, even encourages it. Search the Scriptures, dear reader. Where is God's unconditional condemnation of slavery, a rule that should have been one of the Ten Commandments? We look in vain for those bold, uncompromising words "Thou shalt not enslave." Whence this hole, this tremendous gap, in a book that claims to be our moral compass? The answer is profoundly simple; the Bible was written by men who lived in a slave-owning age, not by a deity with a clear sense of right and wrong.


In ancient times, slavery was widespread and may have seemed normal. However, that does not change the fact that it is clearly immoral and a scourge to humanity. Large portions of history, including that of our own United States, have been blighted by the evils of slavery. Yet, nary a word against it, let alone a bold commandment, is to be found in the Bible!


Old Testament law did treat fellow Israelites, those who had to sell themselves into slavery due to poverty or to satisfy a legal penalty, better than the other slaves. Upon the seventh year he or she was to go free, ideally with a blessing (and some goods) from the master. However, if that slave wished to stay, his or her ears were pierced at the doorway as a sign of permanent ownership. That slave became a slave for life (Deuteronomy 15:12-18).


However, if the master gave the slave a wife, who had children by the slave, the wife and children remained the property of the master. Thus, those who exercised their right to leave on the seventh year had to kiss wife and family goodbye! The biblical alternative?

But if the slave declares that he loves his master, his wife, and his children and does not want to be set free, then his master shall take him to the place of worship. There he is to make him stand against the door or the doorpost and put a hole through his ear. Then he will be his slave for life.
(Exodus 21:5-6 Today's English Version)

Robert G. Ingersoll, one of America's greatest orators, a lawyer and a veteran, a man of moral grandeur, had this to say about God's law as depicted above.


Did any devil ever impose upon a household, upon a father, so cruel and so heartless an alternative? Who can worship such a god? Who can bend the knee to such a monster? Who can pray to such a fiend?

("The Gods," 1872, Works 7.19)

Daughters sold into slavery by their fathers were not so lucky! They remained a slave for life (Exodus 21:7).


Does this sound like the American dream to you? It is about as far from the American way as one can get! Yet, at this very moment, there are fanatical forces within this country working to place American society under biblical law. Here are some more examples of biblical law:


A master can beat a slave, for any reason, to the point of death. If the slave survives a day or two before dying, the master is not to be punished as "The loss of his property is punishment enough." (Exodus 21:21)


A master has to take some care, however, because if he hits his slave's eye and blinds it, or knocks out a tooth, the slave must be set free (Exodus 21:26). On the other hand, a good way for a vengeful master to get rid of a slave he doesn't like is to inflict such a wound before throwing the slave out.


A slave was worth 30 pieces of silver if killed negligently by a neighbor's bull (Exodus 21:32).


A slave could be bought from the surrounding nations, sold, or inherited; they were mere property. The children of foreigners temporarily living in Israel could also be purchased as slaves for an agreeable price (Leviticus 25:44-46).


Slaves were property and they were often treated no better than property. Consider the case of the Egyptian slave girl Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16, 21:8-21) who belonged to Sarah, the wife of Abraham. In the hope of obtaining children through her former property, Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham. Nobody asks Hagar if she wants to sleep with the old geezer. As the story goes, Hagar conceives and becomes contemptuous of the barren Sarah. Sarah complains and Abraham gives the pregnant Hagar back to Sarah. No big deal, just another transfer of property. Sarah then mistreats Hagar and forces her to run away. An angel, however, persuades Hagar to return and she has the child. Thirteen years later Sarah has a child of her own and views Hagar's child as a competitor for Abraham's inheritance. She asks Abraham to drive Hagar and her son out of the camp and into the desert, a death sentence for all practical purposes. At first, Abraham refused, pointing out that Hagar's son was by him. (Forget about the humanitarian reasons; the old geezer's property is at stake!) However, another angel changed his mind. So, Hagar, a family servant for probably more than 20 years, and her son were exiled into the desert. I guess the 20 years must have counted for something, because they sent her away with some bread and a big bowl of water!


This story indicates clearly the social status of what the Authorized Version politely called Sarah's "handmaid." The proper term is slave, and the social practices that the Bible takes for granted, without any criticism, are those of chattel slavery. Hagar was simply a piece of property, to be used as needed and thrown out when needed no longer. (Morton Smith, What the Bible Really Says, p.139; edited by Morton Smith and R. Hoffmann)

It is interesting how many Bibles play down the slavery problem by using such words as "servant" or "bondman" instead of "slave." Today's English Version, however, clearly differentiates between slaves and other types of servants. Thus, our preference for that version in exploring this subject.


Those who think that Jesus improved upon the Old Testament God's lapse of moral guidance are only fooling themselves. Neither Paul, Peter nor Jesus utters so much as a hint about a man's basic right to freedom. The concept is alien to the Bible. (Forget about woman; she is even further down the totem pole.)


Paul says that slaves are to obey their masters with "fear and trembling" because that is the way God wants it. Slaves are to do their work cheerfully; masters are urged not to threaten their slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9). Paul doesn't want slaves, many of whom were Christian, giving Christianity a bad name. Christian slaves are to set an example by serving their masters even better than non-Christian slaves. They are to regard their masters as worthy of all respect (1 Timothy 6:1-2).


Slaves, obey your human masters in all things, not only when they are watching you because you want to gain their approval; but do it with a sincere heart because of your reverence for the Lord.

(Colossians 3:22 Today's English Version)

Paul does admonish masters to be fair, but he doesn't give any remedy for the case of an unjust or evil master. They are simply to be obeyed, cheerfully.


Slaves are to submit themselves to their masters and please them in all things. They must not talk back to them or steal from them. Instead, they must show that they are always good and faithful, so as to bring credit to the teaching about God our Savior in all they do. (Titus 2:9-10 Today's English Version)

Paul's chief concern seems to be in keeping a good relationship with the powers of his day. He was not about to upset his Roman masters to whom slavery was an institution. Maybe that was just good politics, but we do miss the ringing words of, say, a Thomas Paine, who fearlessly advocated American independence. We miss Patrick Henry's bold words, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Where would America be today if such men followed Paul's advice? Shouldn't God's book be at least as courageous in opposing slavery? How is it that the wet blanket of politics enters into the matter?


Peter isn't any better. Slaves are to submit themselves to even harsh masters and show them complete respect (1 Peter 2:18).


Even Jesus was not rocking the boat. Certainly, some of his parables and sayings are based on the master-slave relationship. He deals with it as though it were a part of normal society.


The noble words of a Roman Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (60-120 AD), puts those biblical giants to shame, for he said that no one should own a slave because no one would wish himself to be a slave (Fragments 42). He thus demonstrated a better grasp of the Golden Rule than Jesus, himself.


In the American debate over slavery the Confederates clearly had the Bible on their side, if not the noble Epictetus. Can we blame Jefferson Davis for using that fact?


... Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God - let him go to the Bible, .... I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation.... Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments--in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere.

(Jefferson Davis by Rowland, Vol. I, p.316-317; from Biblical Errancy, #8, edited by Dennis McKinsey)

The Reverend Alexander Campbell put it thus:


...there is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it. It is not then, we conclude, immoral.

(Biblical Errancy, #8, edited by Dennis McKinsey)

The working brain doesn't need a wake-up call here. It immediately concludes that the Bible is a manmade work governed by manmade politics. "Don't rock the boat about slavery" makes sense to human authors living in a world run by powerful slave owners, which soon included the Church, itself. Such political calculation, however, can never be a part of God's thinking.


NOTES
Biblical Errancy #8. August 1983. edited by Dennis McKinsey

2500 Punderson Drive, Hilliard, OH 43026; p.1-2
Harley, Calvin. 1946. "Christianity: A Social History," Great Freethought Reprint Series; Reprinted from The Freethinker, June 1946, published by The Freethinkers of America
Mattill Jr., A. J. 1995. The Seven Mighty Blows to Traditional Beliefs; The Flatwoods Free Press, Route 2, Box 49, Gordo, Alabama 35466-9517; p.132-135
McKinsey, Dennis C. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy; Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, NY 14228-2197; p.206-208
Smith, Morton. 1989. "Slavery" in What the Bible Really Says, Morton Smith and R. Hoffmann, editors; Prometheus Books, Buffalo; p.139-146

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