[Feb 23]--But What About Slavery?

Exodus 21:1-6, 26-27

As I mentioned before, biblical Christianity gets criticized sometimes because of its relationship with slavery. Since the Torah addressed this issue more than once, this might be a good point at which to examine it further.

First, let’s look at the accusation, namely that the Bible condones slavery. It is absolutely true that the Bible nowhere explicitly says that slavery in and of itself is wrong. The Torah regulated it and mitigated it, but it didn’t outlaw it. Jesus never spoke a word against it, and Paul only told slaves to obey their masters and masters to treat them well and not to threaten them. Unfortunately, many preachers from the pulpit, especially in the South, used the Bible to attempt to justify the “Peculiar Institution.”

However, there are a few points to consider:

When we read the word "slavery" in Scripture, we need to be careful about conflating it with what we visualize when we hear the word, especially in the context of the African slave trade, which supplied slaves in the United States, South America, and the Middle East in the last 500 years or so. It's the same word, but the two concepts are very different. 

When you read it in Scripture, it's usually referring to someone brought to that situation as 1) a prisoner of war, 2) in punishment for a crime, or 3) by voluntary signing up for it, usually for a limited amount of time. 

This is in stark contrast to the absolutely evil practice of what we're usually referring to when we use the word. That was going into another country (or continent), kidnapping people, then selling them into slavery far away from their homeland. This, of course, is exactly what was happening during the Atlantic Slave Trade. This slavery was not because of anything the slave had done, and it tended to be based on one's ethnic background and for life. 

So what exactly does the Torah say about this? 

1) As the main passage above explicitly states, actual (lifetime) slavery of one’s fellow Hebrew was forbidden. The most any Israelite could be made to serve would be seven years, which would be roughly equivalent to indentured servitude. If someone was so poor that they couldn’t eat or support their family, they could sell their labor to someone else for a specified length of time. It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s not permanent slavery, and it was only acceptable compared to the alternatives. 

2) What about Gentiles? If someone was a slave in this system, it likely was lifelong. But why would a Gentile be in this situation? Most likely because they were a prisoner of war. Again, not an ideal situation. But if the Israelites went to war with another nation and won, what were the alternatives? Let them go, making them pinkie-swear that they'd never fight Israel again? Or kill them all, including all the women and children?

And this is really a tough thing to keep in mind, but we need to remember that slavery wasn't even an official option for the actual Canaanites, who were under God's death penalty. The Israelites weren't supposed to take any of them as slaves or forced workers; they were explicitly commanded to kill them

2) Even if someone (a foreigner) was a permanent slave, the Torah eased their burden and curbed abuses. For example, it forbade physical discipline that resulted in any permanent harm (vss. 26-27). And...here's an interesting fact (credit to Dennis Prager):  Under God's law, a slave who fled his master could not be returned to him. Think about this for a moment. If you can walk away from your position at any time, and the owner has to let you go, then is that "slavery" as we normally use the term? 

As I've heard explained from multiple teachers, a lot of human laws throughout history were there to protect the rights of the rich and powerful. And yes, those are real: God explicitly warned judges to "not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great." But in stark contrast to virtually all of human history which protected the rights of slave owners, God's law gave explicit protections for slaves (of all types). His heart is always careful to protect the interests of the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, the refugee, the widow, the fatherless, and, yes, slaves. 

So how would God view the Atlantic Slave Trade? Well, we don't have to guess: Kidnapping was a capital crime, and this didn't just apply to kidnapping fellow Jews. And on a side-note, we can see how Paul viewed slave-traders in 1 Tim. 1:9-10 (notice what type of people they're listed with in the passage). 

In stark contrast to the system under the Torah, we had the "Fugitive Slave Laws" of the Antebellum United States. These were the (shameful) laws which required that if a slave escaped his master to another community or territory or state, the government of that new area was required by law to return the slave to his master once the master showed up to claim him and haul him back to the plantation. So I ask you, why did the slave owners push this type of legislation? Because if slaves could walk away, the system of slavery was completely unsustainable. They couldn't hope to keep slaves without that type of enforcement. 

Kidnapping people, holding them in slavery with no hope of eventual release, and returning fugitive slaves back to their master, all of these practices--which God explicitly outlawed--were perfectly legal in American race-based slavery, for the simple reason that these practices made American race-based slavery possible and sustainable.

I feel the need to repeat and emphasize: Under God's explicit command, slavery as practiced in the United States could not have existed.

3) This argument in no way condones the crime and injustice of slavery, but it should be recognized that by placing any limits on the institution, the Bible made huge strides in reform. There's never been a culture, society, or nation, that didn’t practice it at one time or another, and there were almost never any legal restrictions on how one could treat his slaves. For all recorded history, it was practiced almost universally, and no one questioned its intrinsic morality. Few rejected slavery in principle. There were slave revolts, because no one wanted to be a slave, but the former slaves usually turned around and owned slaves as soon as they got the chance. Then suddenly, about two hundred years ago, some believers started examining their Bibles and concluded that the whole institution (especially as it was currently practiced) was completely incompatible with Christian practice. Within less than a hundred years, slavery went from being practiced everywhere to being practiced almost nowhere (at least legally). This is almost completely due to an abolition movement which was almost entirely led and populated by fervent Christians who explicitly took God's word seriously. We’ll take a look at their reasoning tomorrow.

Father God, I don’t want to just examine your word, I want your word to examine me. Help me not make it say what I want to hear.

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