Slavery In the Scripture
There is an argument that I’m seeing pop up a lot these days. It’s like the understudy in the theatric production of any moral issue debate that uses biblical scripture for reference…. keeping it’s fingers crossed that the lead actor will come down with a last minute flu. I heard it sneak a few days ago from a caller on one of my favorite radio shows over the matter of a one-world government. I read it most recently in an online discussion about gay marriage.
It goes something like this, though the actual lines vary from act to act,
“You say the bible says (fill in the blank) is wrong, but slavery was allowed in biblical times and we all know that is wrong.”
First of all, why do so many people think that if something took place in the bible that God is ok with it? The scripture is not an instruction manual on how to live your best life, it’s a commentary of actual events. Did slavery occur? Yes. Was it God’s original design? No.
Our definition of slavery and the biblical definition of slavery are different. If you’re like me the image you get in your head as soon as you hear the word ‘slave’ is close to this:
But biblical slavery doesn’t fit the definition of modern slavery because it was voluntary servitude.
In the Old Testament. God actually prohibited forced slavery. (and assume that references to God commanding the slaughter of entire nations will have to be an entirely different article.) “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death. Exodus 21:16 With the acception of some extreme cases (ie. the entire nation of Isreal being enslaved) a man or woman generally became a slave voluntarily. It was a method for paying off a debt or providing for a destitute family. It was not to last more than 6 years (released on the 7th year… The Year of Jubilee, whoo hoo! Another different discussion, but I wonder what our world’s economy would be if we cancelled all debts every 6 years? Ok, back on topic…)
- A man who is poor Lev. 25:47
- A man could sell his daughter as a servant Ex. 21:7
- If a thief could not pay back what he stole he could sell himself Ex. 22:3
It was not a mandatory institution, but a solution to some sticky situations, and the Hebrew word for ‘slave’ in the Old Testament is frequently misinterpreted and should be ‘servant.’
Hebrew slaves/servants were fiercely protected by God. They could not be harmed or sold, and if they were mistreated they were granted freedom. Masters never had freedom to abuse their servants.
I don’t see quite as much about slavery in the New Testament. There’s that odd little book of Philemon that I would’ve never studied had it not been an assignment in school. Onesimus is a slave who runs away and the Apostle Paul pleads with his master to let him return not as a slave, but as a ‘beloved brother.’ Obviously, Paul opposes such servitude.
As do I.
I believe our intolerance of slavery stems from our very Creator who sent his Son for our freedom. I think Jesus gave the best inaugural speech ever…
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”