The Bible and Slavery

November 17, 2011

I recently had a conversation with someone about the issue of slavery in the Bible.  He expressed that it was one issue that kept him from believing that the Bible was inspired by God.   I thought I would use the conversation as a blog post and not let the research I have done go to waste.

I have heard other objections and questions on slavery before.  Some of the typical things said are; If slavery is objectively wrong, why would God allow it?  God command the Israelite people to take slaves.  Christians in the southern United States had slaves and used the Bible to justify their actions.  The Bible never says that slavery is wrong.   As I mentioned before in a previous post that most of these are Straw Man arguments that misrepresent the truth of the matter.   Here is what the Bible does say about slavery.

First, we must realize that slavery was not God’s original intent for mankind.  We see this in another issue that was raised to Jesus in Matthew 19:3-8.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”  “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”  “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.

Perplexed by the first answer that Jesus gave them, they asked Jesus about the laws of Moses that concerned divorce.  Jesus response was to the heart of the issue and pointed to the source of the problem, the harden hearts of the people.  God’s original design was for no one to experience divorce, but since the fall and the sinful nature of man, God gave Moses rules to help protect the people involved in the divorce.  The same principle can be applied to slavery as well.  Slavery was not God’s original plan from the beginning, but because of men’s sinful nature, God gave rules to help regulate and protect those who were slaves.

Secondly, the Biblical idea of slavery is not the same as African slavery that most Americans think about.  Leviticus 25:25-55 outlines the laws that God set for Israel to follow concerning someone who owed a debt and could not pay it.  God allowed them to sell themselves voluntarily and work off their debt.  The person who bought them could only keep them for a maximum of 7 years and then they had to let them go free, regardless if the debt was paid off or not.   I won’t go into all the details you can read it for yourself, but God set rules up concerning slavery after it had already been in practice so that people would not be taken advantage of by others.  The first slaves in the Bible came from Ham, one of the sons of Noah.

Not only was Biblical slavery or being a bond-servant voluntary but we know that they were not treated like slaves in America or other parts of the world with the respect of harshness and physical violence.  Many of the slaves were treated just like family and friends.  They were given positions of leadership in the home over children and possessions.  The story of Joseph is a great example in Genesis 39.  Realizing that not everyone might not treat their purchased slaves as they should, God also set up laws concerning the treatment and protection of the slaves.   Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.”  This gave the slaves a way out of the arrangement if they were being treated unfairly.  In Exodus 21:16 God strictly forbid the kidnapping of an individual and selling them as a slave.  In the same chapter, God also declared that if even an owner hits a slave and damages as little as an eye or tooth, that the slave can go free and the debt is canceled.  As you can see this is vastly different from the African slavery that was practiced by those in America and other parts of the world.

The most popular verses that are used by those who argue against the Bible are found in Leviticus 25:44-48.

44 “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.  47 “‘If an alien or a temporary resident among you becomes rich and one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells himself to the alien living among you or to a member of the alien’s clan, 48 he retains the right of redemption after he has sold himself. One of his relatives may redeem him:

Those who argue against the Bible will use this verse claiming that God commanded or gave permission to Israel to take slaves from the other nations around them.  The way the words are used make it look like that is the intent, but the truth is the scripture is not taken in context and if you look at the surrounding text and the language you can come to the correct meaning.  First, God has just laid out the laws concerning treating their own countrymen as slaves and warned them to treat them not like a slave at all, because they are Abraham’s children.  When the scripture says that they may keep the slaves from another country for life, it only meant beyond the 7 years maximum because they were not part of the nation of Israel.  When the debt was paid off the slave could go free.    In verse 44, the word “come” literally translates from the Hebrew word meaning “that exist” this makes the implication of the verses read differently. It would appear that God was referring to the slaves they already had possession of.  To further add a nail in the coffin, when you look at this verse in context with all the other verses that we have examined you can’t interpret it as a command to take slaves, because God has already spoken against it.  The idea that scripture interprets scripture is in play here.

One last objection that I have recently heard was that if God was an omniscient God, He would have know how people would have misused God’s Word to defend and justify horrific versions of slavery, Why didn’t God say or do something to stop it by including it in the Bible.  Yes, he would know that men would pervert his original design for life, but the question I have is would God break the free will He gives to man to stop the horrific treatment of a slaves.  I believe the answer is No.  We do know that any one can twist the Bible to make it sound like it supports their point of view on an issue.  It is easy to take one verse or a group of verses and single it out to read like you want it to.  Unfortunately, the slavery that was practiced  by the Christians in the southern United States was wrong, and those who were Christians didn’t bother to look at what the word of God had to say about the issue.  They were wrong.   At the same time there were also many other Christians who knew that it was wrong and choose not to participate.  Truth be told in history, it was the Christians who sought to free the slaves in England and America.  A popular Christian minister, William Wilberforce was one of the ones leading the charge in England.

As always, questions, comments, and discussions are welcome.


Knowing, and Not Knowning (part 1)

April 23, 2009

I went to see the new movie staring Nicolas Cage last weekend called KNOWING with one of the youth.  We had a good time and the movie sparked some great convo between us on the way home.  Without spoiling the movie’s ending I will try to share a few thoughts we had. 

A quick summary of the movie is this; 50 years in the past a 5th grade girl puts a sheet of paper in a school time capsule and it is sealed up.  Flash forward 50 years to present day where the paper lands in the hands of  John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) an astrophysicist who teaches classes at M.I.T. in Boston.  He discovers the pattern of numbers predicts the happening of tragic world events in which deaths occur.  As he struggles with the idea that everything in life is not random but planned with a purpose he becomes consumed with trying to help others avoid the inevitable.   I will not share anymore with you so I don’t ruin the movie ending.  Here are a few thoughts I had after the movie was over.

1. Randomness vs. Determinism.  Before the movie gets moving pretty quickly there is a scene where the college class is having a discussion on the two opposites of Randomness vs. Determinism.  One of the students asks John Koestler (Cage) “What do you believe, professor?”  He responses with a rather sarcastic tone.  “I believe that everything is Random and just pointless crap”   The idea of Randomness and Determinism is both addressed in the Bible.   First, God gave us free will, a sort of randomness, that we can choose to do and say what we want.  We can decide for ourselves what we should accomplish with our life.  We have the ability to choose to do right or wrong, just as Adam and Eve first did in the Garden of Eden.  God made us this way so that we would not be mindless robots, but have the choice to love God for who He is.   The Bible also speaks of a bit of Determinism.  The Bible says that God determined the exact time of our birth and the place where we would be born (Acts 17:26) and that His thoughts of us go back to before the creation of the world.  (Ephesians 1:11-12)  God set His determined plan into motion, but allows us to choose how our story is finished.

2. Why do bad things happen.  We just recently finished a Bible study with the youth about “Why do bad things happen?”  Many questions can arise from this topic some of which are; What is the source of all evil in the world?  Is there a difference between evil act and a moral evil?  Is there a supernatural being that is the source of evil?  If God created everything, then did God create evil?  I will not try answer these question here in this blog, perhaps another time, another blog.  The Bible says that evil entered the world through one man, Adam (Romans 5:12) and that through that one man, sin has been passed down from generation to generation.  The serpant (Satan) tempted Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:15-17 , Genesis 3:1-11,14-19)  into breaking the one rule that God set before them ,do not eat from the tree of Good and Evil.  I’m sure if I was there, I would have done the same thing.  While pain and evil are not fun, they do have a purpose according to the Bible.  The Bible says for those who are children of God, that God makes all things good out of the bad things in life (Romans 8:28).  Sometimes we may not be able to see that right away, or perhaps even never see it, but we know that God has a plan for it.   A few chapters before, (Romans 5:1-5) God promises that out of our suffering will triumph many good things like endurance, character, and hope. 

I don’t know where you are in life, but perhaps you are in a painful situation in life.  You can’t help but be depressed if you listen to more than 5 minutes of a news cast today.  Many people have lost jobs, homes, and much more.  I don’t have an answer for the question “Why?”  but I know that God does.  Hang in there and trust Him with all your heart.

I will save my other two thoughts for a second blog sometime later this week.  If you would like to talk about anything written above please feel free to contact me or if you just want someone to pray for you, I’d be honored to do so.

Serving Jesus with Joy,

John