In the Bible, God defined rules for slavery that made biblical slavery basically identical to American slavery.
The United States had two kinds of servitude. With indentured servitude, Europeans would come to America to work for fellow Europeans. Masters paid for their servants’ transportation, and they provided food, clothes, shelter, and training. In return, the servants were usually obliged to work for five years. Roughly half of the European immigrants to the thirteen colonies came as indentured servants.
The other form of servitude was chattel (ownership) slavery. These slaves were rarely Europeans, and they remained slaves for life, as did any children.
The Old Testament defined the same two categories. Fellow Jews could be slaves, but only for a limited time. God said, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free.”
Many Christians have heard that this indentured servitude is the extent of biblical slavery. This ignores the other kind, about which God says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you. . . . You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.”
God approved of slavery in the same way he approved of commerce—by regulation. The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures. God’s regulation of commerce makes clear that he approves of it when honestly done, and his many rules about slavery make clear that he approves of that, too. For example, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”
Again, this sounds very much like slavery in America, which also had rules to “civilize” it. For example, the 1833 Alabama law code stated, “Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person.”
Christians may defend God by saying that social conditions of the time constrained him, though God didn’t feel bound by the status quo when he imposed the Ten Commandments. They weren’t the Ten Suggestions, and the death penalty backed most of them. If God had room for “Don’t covet,” surely he could find room for “Don’t enslave anyone.” Slavery clearly wasn’t a problem to God in the Bible.
Another response is that Christians helped abolish slavery in the West. That’s true, but the Bible was a tool for Christians on both sides of the issue. During the American Civil War, some in the South argued that abolitionists were apostates for denying the clear meaning of the Bible.
Granted, slavery was common in the Ancient Near East, but surely an all-wise god can rise above manmade customs. That God sanctioned slavery that was as degrading as American slavery makes God look no wiser than a character in a manmade myth.
Continue to chapter 15.
Image credit: Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash
Ancient Near East: the region that roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East from the beginning of civilization in Sumer through the Bronze and Iron Ages. It includes the Egyptian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Israelite civilizations and more.
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years”: Exodus 21:2.
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you”: Leviticus 25:44–6.
The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures: Proverbs makes this demand four times: in verses 11:1, 16:11, 20:10, and 20:23.
“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod”: Exodus 21:20–21.
“Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life”: Alabama slave code of 1833, http://www.archives.state.al.us/teacher/slavery/lesson1/doc1-3.html, section 3.
the death penalty backed most of them: For breaking the first commandment against worshipping another god, see Exodus 22:20. For idols, Exodus 32:27. For blasphemy, Leviticus 24:16. For not keeping the sabbath day holy, Exodus. 31:15. For dishonoring parents, Leviticus 20:9. For killing, Exodus 21:12. For adultery, Leviticus 20:10. For lying, Proverbs 19:9. Stealing and coveting did not always have a death penalty.
“Don’t covet”: Exodus 20:17.
abolitionists were infidels for denying the clear meaning of the Bible: Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press: 2002), 640.
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