Biblical Slavery, Part 3

(See Parts 1 and 2 of this discussion.)

Let’s conclude this critique of a podcast titled “Sex, Lies & Leviticus” from apologetics.com that responded to Dan Savage’s criticism of the Bible. Italicized arguments are my paraphrases from the podcast.

Slavery doesn't make the Bible look too goodDan Savage and other atheists distort the Bible by imagining it supporting slavery. If Southerners used the Bible to support slavery during the Civil War, that was only because they distorted it. Consider the anti-slavery books of that time: The Bible Against Slavery (1837) or God Against Slavery (1857), for example.

Let’s consider the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination. It split with northern Baptists in 1845 because it insisted on maintaining its support for slavery. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the split, it published a resolution that repudiated racism and slavery. (Good for them for admitting their error, though the delay puts this correction in the same bin as the Catholic Church’s tardy embrace of Galileo in 1992.)

Looks like support for slavery is a plausible message to take from the Bible even if not everyone accepts it.

Were there anti-slavery books at that time? Were there Christians against slavery? Sure! How that gets the Old Testament off the hook, I can’t imagine. The verses quoted in the previous post show that the Bible is very plainly pro-slavery.

Consider Philemon, a short book in the New Testament. Here Paul sends a slave back to his master Philemon with the request that he be “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16). This was radical stuff—it was designed to bring about change within the Roman slave system.

Wow—that’s wishful thinking. If Paul shouted in public, “Don’t you get it? Owning another person is wrong! Free all slaves immediately!” that wouldn’t have changed the Roman system. Paul instead asking in a private letter that one slave be freed wouldn’t change the system, and it’s not clear he’s even asking for this.

Abraham Lincoln convulsed America in a Civil War, in part, to free the slaves. Jesus didn’t lift a finger to overturn slavery. In fact, the New Testament is full of pro-slavery statements.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. (Col. 3:22)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. (1 Peter 2:18)

All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect. (1 Tim. 6:1–2)

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything. (Titus 2:9–10)

Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. … Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to. (1 Cor. 7:20–24)

The Christian can respond with nice verses in the Old Testament—“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), for example—but here again the Bible makes a clear distinction between Jewish neighbors and those other guys. So back to Dan Savage and his claim that the Bible is radically pro-slavery: looks to me like Savage wins. Whenever Christians make a careful distinction between Jewish slaves in the Old Testament and African slaves in America, they’re playing games.

Let’s take a step back to see where we’ve been. On this podcast, two well-educated Christians spent an hour trying to shoehorn actual biblical slavery (that is: slavery for life; slavery not too bad considering that slaughter was the alternative; beatings okay unless the slave is incapacitated; etc.) into a package labeled “indentured servitude.” They pretended that biblical slavery was far, far different from the slavery in America.

It makes you wonder if they’d be happy to see this godly biblical institution in effect here in America. (Maybe when the theocracy comes?)

I don’t know whether to be offended that they think I’m so uninformed that I don’t see the deception or to be amazed that they honestly don’t understand.

But that’s not the crazy part. Halfway through the second hour, the host and guest acknowledged the irony that they are both African-Americans.

So we have two African-American men defending slavery. One of them likened biblical slavery to an “employment contract” (again, he seemed blind to the fact that the six-year Jewish slavery is not the interesting topic). “We’re in a form of slavery when we’re working on a job for somebody else,” he said. Uh, no—being a waiter is not even close to being a slave. When people complain that it’s the same, they’re exaggerating. Yes, we’re constrained when we’re employees, but who seriously equates present-day employment in America to the abhorrent kind of slavery we’re talking about?

So a white guy has to remind modern-day African-Americans on the problems of slavery. Wow. This is what Christianity can do to people. It makes them check their brains at the door—not all Christians, of course, but some. They defend the morality of biblical slavery, if such a thing can be imagined. They reject science for creationism. They support torture in proportion to their religiosity. They reject stem cell research and the best methods for preventing unwanted pregnancy. They dismiss the injustice of eternal torment in hell by saying, “Uh … the gates of hell must be locked from the inside!” They dismiss evidence that televangelists are charlatans. They rationalize away biblical genocide.

Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery. Dan Savage was right. Just admit it.

Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told.
Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right.
Andy Thomson at American Atheists 2009 conference

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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22 thoughts on “Biblical Slavery, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Biblical Slavery, Part 2 | Cross Examined

  2. Pingback: Old Testament Slavery—Not so Bad? | Cross Examined

  3. To Bob S,

    I think the most unsettling part to me is that Jesus did nothing to end slavery or to condemn it in any way.

    However, I heard that some Stoics argued against slavery. I cannot retrieve the text, so my claim is to be checked.

    ««« Morality is doing what is right regardless of what we are told.
    Religious dogma is doing what we are told regardless of what is right. »»»

    It may apply to fundamentalist ethics, but not to Catholic natural law ethics, which rests on argument, nature and reason, which theoretically are open to everyone. Of course I am not a natural law theorist, yet it would be wrong to claim that Catholic ethics is authoritarian by nature. Catholics at least attempt to rationally ague for their norms.

    • “the Stoics produced the first condemnation of slavery recorded in history” Source

      not to Catholic natural law ethics

      If it relies on argument, nature, and reason, then it sounds like they’ve left religious dogma behind as well.

    • Jesus didn’t address lots of things directly. Drug abuse. Incest. Homosexuality. Pedophilia. Do you believe that means he endorsed them? There are lots of ways in which he addressed the underlying principles behind slavery, such as discussions of selfishness, greed, abuse of power, and the “doing unto others” principle. You can’t make a case demonstrating Jesus was in favor of slavery, so his silence on this particular abuse is not indicative of his beliefs. His life and other teachings was.

      • Jesus didn’t address lots of things directly. Drug abuse. Incest. Homosexuality. Pedophilia. Do you believe that means he endorsed them?

        Jesus said “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17–20). Since the OT endorses slavery, it seems to me that Jesus must as well. He was a devout Jew, after all.

        And I’ll repeat: that Jesus didn’t say anything against slavery says loud and clear to me that he had no problem with it. The alternative (that Jesus abhorred slavery but somehow didn’t get around to condemning it) makes no sense.

        I suppose you could argue that he did preach against it but that his listeners didn’t care for that bit of wisdom and so suppressed that in the oral history that was finally documented as the gospel story decades after the fact. Are you suggesting that?

        Granted, he did discuss other nice topics, but how anyone can deduce from that that (despite appearances) he really did detest slavery and intend to communicate that message is beyond me.

        You can’t make a case demonstrating Jesus was in favor of slavery

        But you can argue that we can deduce nothing from his silence on a moral issue so obviously wrong (to our eyes) as slavery? Weird.

  4. On the general topic of slavery, I think we can agree that the Old Testament version of it is a challenging topic, to say the least. Can we agree that New Testament slavery as practiced properly by the Jews (if it ever was practiced properly, of course) was an economic condition which allowed the slave to work off a debt and end up freed after it was paid? If so, then we can turn our focus to OT slavery without the confusion.

    Fair enough?

    • Rick:

      I haven’t seen any comments from you for a while. Good to have you back.

      I think we can agree that the Old Testament version of it is a challenging topic, to say the least.

      If you mean by this that the Christian has a challenging job handling this issue, I agree.

      Can we agree that New Testament slavery as practiced properly by the Jews (if it ever was practiced properly, of course) was an economic condition which allowed the slave to work off a debt and end up freed after it was paid?

      No.

      I count 11 supportive references to slavery in the NT. If you’re saying that the NT doesn’t make the distinction between Jewish slaves and non-Jewish slaves, I agree. That may be made in the NT, but I don’t see it.

      But I disagree with your proposal because the NT is full of support for the general institution of slavery. There is no redefinition of slavery (“In the days of Joshua, slavery was like X but now it’s like Y”). I must conclude therefore that “slavery” to the people of the NT was the same as OT slavery–that is, it made a distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish slaves.

      If so, then we can turn our focus to OT slavery without the confusion.

      Yes, we can do that because there’s no reason to think that OT slavery was any different.

      • If this is your position, then you are not reading the Bible clearly and I see no reason to engage on this topic. You clearly refuse to recognize the distinction and the teaching regarding the economic slavery that shared terminology alone (the root word) with the OT slavery that you want to lump in together.

        As for not being here in a while, we have some big projects going on…

        • I’m happy to read the Bible clearly. If I’m not, then correct me. Indeed, as you’ve seen in this 3-post series, not reading the Bible clearly is precisely what I’m accusing the other guys of doing. If I’m making a mistake, correct it before I continue to publicly make a fool of myself. There’s no refusal on my part.

          I very clearly see the distinction between debt slavery of fellow Jews and captured-prisoner slavery. And that’s been precisely my point in these posts. What am I missing?

  5. The Biblical case against slavery is (like its cases against polygamy and primogeniture) much more subtle and nuanced, and hence more powerful that a simple prohibition.

    You must remember that the Bible is for the most part story, and so presents most of its arguments, and its most powerful arguments through story.

    The Bible (yes, even the OT) is continually inverting the accepted nature of things my exalting the younger son, showing the failure of polygamy, and giving special honour to slaves.

    God speaks directly to a young slave girl.
    He even chooses a nation of slaves as his chosen people.

    Look carefully and see how the stories in the Bible treat slaves and you will see that they more often than not are portrayed more sympathetically than others.

    Yes, the Mosaic Law has instructions for slaves. I believe that this is for the same reason as it has instructions for divorce – which Jesus explicitly said was “because your hearts were hard”. The nation of Israel was not ready at the time to let go of slavery, and we think too much of ourselves if we think we are better than them because we think slavery is bad. We are products of our time as much as they were.

    • karl:

      The Biblical case against slavery is (like its cases against polygamy and primogeniture) much more subtle and nuanced

      … or it’s nonexistent, and modern-day apologists try to spin the OT message to make it comport with modern sensibilities.

      … and hence more powerful that a simple prohibition.

      “Nonexistent” doesn’t look very powerful to me. Sorry.

      Suppose for a minute that the Bible is merely the blog of an early Iron Age prescientific desert tribe that (like the other cultures nearby) invented a theology to explain nature. Suppose further that the religion morphed over time into a popular modern religion. This is exactly the kind of argument we’d expect to see.

      Since we have a satisfactory natural explanation for Christianity, I don’t see any need to posit anything supernatural.

      Can you pick ‘n choose within the Bible to justify just about any belief you have? Sure. Doesn’t give much support for the thesis that it’s true, though.

      Look carefully and see how the stories in the Bible treat slaves and you will see that they more often than not are portrayed more sympathetically than others.

      “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” (Ex. 21:20–21)

      You mean like that?

      The nation of Israel was not ready at the time to let go of slavery

      Tough! When the Big Man says “Jump!” you say, “How high?”

      It’s ridiculous to imagine that God knew that slavery was wrong but was just giving Israel some slack because they were fallible humans. For a thousand years?? When was God going to spring on them, “Y’know, this slavery thing has been wrong from Day 1 …”?

  6. … or it’s nonexistent, and modern-day apologists try to spin the OT message to make it comport with modern sensibilities.

    There is a difference between “I don’t see it” and “non-existent”. Something that unfortunately many people with modern sensibilities don’t understand.

    In any case, if the message is in the narrative as opposed to spelt out in a prohibition, this is actually something that runs counter to modern sensibilities, but speaks powerfully to both pre-moderns and post-moderns.

    (Ex. 21:20–21)

    You mean like that?

    I said stories, not commandments. How many stories can you find in the Bible where a slave ends up being exalted or getting treated with special honour?

    It’s ridiculous to imagine that God knew that slavery was wrong but was just giving Israel some slack because they were fallible humans. For a thousand years?? When was God going to spring on them, “Y’know, this slavery thing has been wrong from Day 1 …”?

    Well, what did he do with divorce? pretty much exactly what you say is ridiculous about slavery.

    It is easy for us to be self-righteous about slavery in times gone by because we don’t let those things happen now. Except for the fact that we do let things that almost any other age would recognize as abhorrent happen today. Vichy France valued peace more than the French Resistance, yet history won’t judge them kindly. How will history judge our generation? The fact that we did not practice slavery may end up being a mere footnote against our record of cruelty and avarice. Our generation may be the one which history judges as coming closest to becoming inhuman. At which point “At least we didn’t keep slaves” may be as hollow a point as Mussolini making the trains run on time and as blind as Marie Antoinette’s offer to let the poor eat cake.

    • It is easy for us to be self-righteous about slavery in times gone by because we don’t let those things happen now. Except for the fact that we do let things that almost any other age would recognize as abhorrent happen today.

      Yes, our society may be harshly judged by the future. So what?

      We’re talking about something quite different here–a God-guided culture. And (from our standpoint), it looks pretty hideous. Slavery? Genocide? You’re seriously going to defend their morals??

  7. Yes, our society may be harshly judged by the future. So what?

    We’re talking about something quite different here–a God-guided culture. And (from our standpoint), it looks pretty hideous. Slavery? Genocide? You’re seriously going to defend their morals??

    So what? Well, you did say …

    Slavery is a bad thing, and the Bible condones slavery. Dan Savage was right. Just admit it.

    The NT condemns slave traders.

    That the OT doesn’t does not mean that God approves of slavery.

    My point was that to point out an ill of society that was not dealt with doesn’t mean that the ill is approved of. There are many reasons why a certain ill may not be dealt with immediately.

    • The NT condemns slave traders.

      Of Jewish slaves? OK. I doubt it condemns traders of Other slaves.

      That the OT doesn’t does not mean that God approves of slavery.

      You’re telling me that all the regulations on slavery doesn’t show that God approves? If that is what God does when he doesn’t approve, I’d hate to see the world in which God does approve of slavery!

      My point was that to point out an ill of society that was not dealt with doesn’t mean that the ill is approved of.

      The Big Man has no problem with laying down prohibitions, with death as the penalty for breaking the rules. So it’s possible that God is dancing gingerly around this custom? Is he afraid that the Israelites will scold him or something?

      You give the OT to an objective observer and ask whether God approves of slavery or not. What are they going to say?

      • Yes, I too am weary of the “God had to present it in such a way as the culture could understand” or “God had to work with the culture as it existed, look how much better it was than X”.

        Yeah. So, you’re an Iron-age goat-herder and this great voice from Heaven commands you to cut off a chunk of your penis, so you happily get out the castrating knife and get to work. But, giving up the institution of slavery was just too far out there?!

        I am pretty sure the most die-hard Southern plantation owner would have gone out and “…picked his own damn cotton” rather than carve off a piece of Mr. Happy…

  8. Of Jewish slaves? OK. I doubt it condemns traders of Other slaves.

    1 Timothy 1:9-10 “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels … for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine”

    The letter was written to Timothy (who was not a Jew) who was pastoring a congregation of mixed Jewish/Greek background in Ephesus.

    The Big Man has no problem with laying down prohibitions, with death as the penalty for breaking the rules. So it’s possible that God is dancing gingerly around this custom? Is he afraid that the Israelites will scold him or something?

    You give the OT to an objective observer and ask whether God approves of slavery or not. What are they going to say?

    I’m saying it’s about timing.

    And you ask me to give the OT to an objective observer. Now by this do you mean an ignorant observer? Because you run into a problem when you remove ignorance, it can be difficult to retain objectivity. Because I agree that if you ignore all of the historical and economical situations, and disregard any ultimate purpose that God may have regarding people’s future (both as individuals and as societies) then, yes, it could look like the OT approves of slavery.

    However this still ignores one of the major narrative threads of the OT. God choosing, freeing and exalting a nation of slaves as his chosen nation.

    • 1 Timothy 1:9-10 “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels … for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine”

      OK, that might be a general “slavery is bad” claim. The NET Bible uses “kidnappers” instead. I suspect that this is aimed at enslaving Jews since the rest of the Bible so consistently makes this distinction, and this interpretation would be consistent with that.

      We’re left with the OT making clear that enslaving people from other tribes is OK.

      Now by this do you mean an ignorant observer?

      I mean an observer who will approach this with no preconceptions and simply take the plain meaning of the words.

      it could look like the OT approves of slavery.

      It’s a simple fact: the OT approves of good old-fashioned slave-for-life slavery.

      However this still ignores one of the major narrative threads of the OT. God choosing, freeing and exalting a nation of slaves as his chosen nation.

      No. This fits perfectly into a slavery context.

      American slavery made a clear Us/Them distinction. Same with God. He hates slavery … when it hurts his people. When it’s the enslavement of other people, he’s OK with that. Just like in the American South.

  9. OK, that might be a general “slavery is bad” claim. The NET Bible uses “kidnappers” instead. I suspect that this is aimed at enslaving Jews since the rest of the Bible so consistently makes this distinction, and this interpretation would be consistent with that.

    Sorry, but the epistle was written to a non-Jewish pastor of a church which was majority Gentile, and a long way from Judea (Ephesus). I don’t think you can make a case that it is referring to Jews at all.

    Actually more context on the relationship between slavery and the early church can be found later in this letter. In 1 Timothy 6:1 “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.”

    You probably know about Spartacus. what you may not be aware of is that his revolt was the third such one in less than a hundred years, just a hundred or so years before the beginning of the church. Paul is careful in what he writes and teaches that he does not give Rome this excuse to attack the church, or perhaps more importantly that the church doesn’t get hijacked by those who want to start a rebellion. After all, as Orwell so cleverly wrote in Animal Farm, slaves make no better masters than the ones they depose.

    I mean an observer who will approach this with no preconceptions and simply take the plain meaning of the words.

    So you mean ignoring the historical, cultural, societal context of those words?

    American slavery made a clear Us/Them distinction. Same with God. He hates slavery … when it hurts his people. When it’s the enslavement of other people, he’s OK with that. Just like in the American South.

    You can only come to such a conclusion about the OT by ignoring the stated purpose of the nation of Israel.

    • 1 Timothy 6:1

      Yes, that’s an interesting verse. The NT makes no attempt to overturn slavery.

      So you mean ignoring the historical, cultural, societal context of those words?

      No. Show me how the context changes my interpretation of the slavery verses.

      You can only come to such a conclusion about the OT by ignoring the stated purpose of the nation of Israel.

      Uh … OK. Fill us in on the stated purpose of the nation of Israel.

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