The Bible and Slavery

“The ideal type of the slave is the socially dead chattel, ripped forcibly from organic ties of kin and community, transported to an alien environment there to be treated as merely a piece of property or as a factor of production to be used and abused at will, an animate tool or beast of burden with no sense of self other than that allowed by the slave owner and no legal, let alone civic, personality whatsoever. Societies with large numbers of such slaves, let alone societies based on them, have been very few. The City of Athens and central Roman Italy for periods in antiquity, and in modern times the slave states of the American Old South, the Caribbean, and Brazil, are the only known instances.” Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (OUP:1998) p670

1) The Old Testament texts are historical documents; when studying history we must remember that the passage of time creates chasms between cultures and societies. Every feature of the past must be interpreted in its own historical context. The experience of a black slave in the Confederate states was not the experience of a slave in ancient Israel. We can’t assume that Israel would have tolerated the slavery of the American Old South, or that the Slave States would have found the slavery of the ancient Israelites profitable or useful.

2) The slavery described by the Old Testament texts was different in purpose, function and practice than the slavery of the British Empire or the American colonies. Ancient Israel was an agricultural community in which every family was one bad harvest away from starvation. Money was rarely exchanged; there was no welfare system. The slavery described by the Old Testament law existed so that workers could provide for their families in lean times. If a crop failed a father could go to work for a land owner in exchange for a loan. Or he might send his wife or children to work in another’s’ fields for food and board.

3) A person could also become a slave to pay a debt. There was no shame attached to becoming a slave. For example, Jacob “volunteered” for slavery, working for Laban without wage so that he could marry Laban’s daughters. While Laban certainly proved to be a cannier and craftier business man than Jacob, he could not treat Jacob as a piece of property. Jacob, and other patriarchs like Joseph, suffered no dishonor for being slaves. In fact, slaves could hold positions of great importance in the Ancient World.

 4) This “indentured servitude” is more analogous to the life of peasantry in the feudal system than the lives of chattel slaves in the Slave States. Life-long servitude was strictly prohibited (Exodus 21 v 1-4). An injured slave was to be set free with all debts cancelled (Exodus 21 v 26-27). It was illegal to kidnap a person to sell them into slavery (Ex 21 v 16). An escaped slave was to be given refuge by whoever they sought refuge with (Deut 23 v 15-16).

  5) Slaves could marry one another, but could not leave until both had paid their debts. Kidnapping and slave-trading were forbidden, but foreign slaves could enter Israel as prisoners of war. If they were not ransomed, or if they could not save enough to purchase their own release, they could be slaves for life. However, they were within their rights to seek refuge with another if they were mistreated and were to be released if beaten.

6) The New Testament epistles have no love of slavery. Paul wrote an impassioned plea to the Church of the slave owner Philemon. He obliged Philemon to treat his slave, Onesimus, as a brother. Paul insisted that he should treat Onesimus just as he would treat Paul himself if he were to visit. As Paul was in chains at the time, and Philemon would want to free Paul, Philemon should free Onesimus.

 7) While slaves should feel no shame, Paul does not see life-long slavery as an ideal goalPaul encourages slaves to gain their freedom. In Roman society one third of the population were slaves; so Paul does not ask slaves to run away or to fight for their freedom. Abolition was an unrealistic (unthinkable?) goal and slavery did provide a means of social support for those who fell into debt and poverty

“Revolt was a dangerous form of resistance…jeopardizing prospects of emancipation and the family relationships slaves constructed.” (Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, p672)

8) 1 Timothy 1 v10 groups slave-traders with “law-breaker and rebels, the ungodly the unholy and the irreligious.”This reflects the Old Testament ban on kidnapping persons for the purposes of selling them. It is often unnoticed that if this command was followed consistently and univerally it would have undermined the practice and perpetuation of the slave trade in the Roman Empire.

 “In the absence of modern democracy it would have been impossible to conceive of an effective political protest against the institution; slave revolts had been put down with ruthless cruelty. The most effective amelioration of the slave’s lot had to depend on the master’s kindly treatment of the slave and his continuing positive patronage after the slave’s manumission” James Dunn Beginning from Jerusalem (SPCK: 2009) p1034

 9) What about the “household codes” which allow for slavery? (Eph 5v21 -33; Col 3 v18 – 4v1) . Paul has no love of slavery – but he aims to moderate its practice rather than abolish it in one revolutionary sweep. It is clear that Paul will not tolerate slaves being “treated as merely a piece of property or as a factor of production to be used and abused at will, an animate tool or beast of burden with no sense of self other than that allowed by the slave owner and no legal, let alone civic, personality whatsoever.” He expects slaves to take a full role in the Church.

10) Slaves were part of family life, and Paul was addressing household slaves and those who owned them. He encourages harmony, good working relationships and demands that slave owners be kind masters. Above all, we should not miss how radical Paul’s household codes were. He directly addresses household slaves as moral agents in their own right. Masters are warned that they will be held to account by their master. Above all, both household codes are to be read in the light of the profound moral and theological statements that precede them.

  • Colossians 3: 11 – “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
  • Ephesians 5:21 – “ Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

 The equality of all believers in Christ, and the call for mutual submission in the Christian household, precluded believers from lording it over one another. The brutal treatment of slaves was not an option for Christians and no Christian should believe in the inferiority of any other human being.

Source: Graham Veale

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