Slavery: a brief history Part 3

In case you missed the first part of this post or the second part of this post please check it out before reading this one.

Now that we have discussed  the difference between the grid by which we see slavery and how slavery is viewed in the Scriptures, let me just go through a couple of biblical insights for you regarding slavery.  This will begin to show us the trajectory of God eliminating once and for all the injustice of particularly one people group, one ethnicity suppressing and relegating as lesser than other ethnicities. Notice in the creation narrative (cf. Genesis 1 – 3) when it’s not good for man to be alone and man has a lot of work to do, God doesn’t give the man slaves; He gives man a wife and says, ‘have babies. Fill the earth, subdue it. It’s going to be a lot of work. You’re going to need some babies.’  So men,grow up, get a skill, find a wife, have babies, fill the earth and subdue it. It is not, “Here are seven [insert people group here] to help you.  They basically inferior anyways so have at it”.  That is not what happened and it would be safe to say it will never happen.  You begin to see God in the theocracy use Israel as an agent of His righteous wrath against some people in the ancient world (which is a subject for another day I promise). Once a people group was conquered those brought into the nation were enslaved but in a way that respected there humanity completely.  Check out the passages in Leviticus that begin to unpack the Sabbath, New Moon Festivals, Festivals of New Grain and Wine, it was commanded in all those festivals that the Israelites were not allowed to shut down and party while the slaves continued to work. He said, “Everybody parties or I kill everybody.” So on the Sabbath, the slave gets off too. On the New Moon, the slave is off too. In the Grain and Wine Festival, they are shutting down the field, they are putting down the oxen and no one works. They all celebrate together.  In both Old and New Testament, provisions are made for the slave to be a part of religious festivals and rituals. This is completely different than how even Rome viewed the presence of a slave in a religious ceremony.  If a slave were to be there somehow the presence made the ceremony unclean. So they were good enough to run the empire; they just were not good enough to participate in the religious practices. God explicitly tells Israel, “No, they are coming in to the temple and they are worshiping Me.”

Another very interesting distinction is the Biblical injuction of “No interest loans” within Israel.  These were an attempt by God to reduce the amount of slave debt. So if I owed you $100,000 and I came to you and said, “I can’t pay $100 grand. Please don’t send me to prison. Please don’t have me arrested. Let me work off my debt,” you could not biblically go, “Okay, but at 20% interest per year.” You were not allowed to put interest on my debt if I put myself into slavery under you to work off a debt. That was also not heard of in the ancient Near East.

Although there is not text in the Bible that universally condemns slavery as a whole, colonial slavery and the modern day sex slavery that you’re beginning to see specials on and Christian groups are beginning to fight against is explicitly condemned in the Scriptures repeatedly. The idea of stealing someone from this country or kidnapping someone from this place and forcing them into slavery was viewed as wicked, and God [in the OT] used the nation of Israel to punish those countries and, even in some cases, destroy those countries outright.

In the end let us please be honest with ourselves, we don’t want to do that work. Most people don’t want to really wrestle with it what I have just finished writing or the many other things that can be said.  People rather  just use this as an excuse and then build around that excuse with the hypocrisy of people they know and then go, “See? God can’t be trusted. The Bible can’t be trusted.” But in reality, if we’re honest, we are lazy and watch the Discovery or History Channel [way] too much.

There is one last thing that I want to mention before. In a radical departure from the prevalent views of the day, Israel became a safety zone for runaway slaves. So if you escaped Gaza, if you escaped Tyre, if you escaped any of the neighboring countries and made it into Israel, Israel had not extradition treaties with any of those countries. If you made it into Israel, you were a free man or woman. They would not send you back to your master, and they would not enslave you when you got in. What you will see over and over again in the Old and New Testaments is the command put on God’s people to serve, to feed, to love and to embrace the alien stranger and sojourner.  So think of the redemptive themes that are already being the redemptive seeds that are being sown when God says, “If you make it into Israel, you’re free. If you make it into My people, you are free.” This is a shadow of what is to come.


About Jon Nelson

I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody [Christ Jesus]!

Posted on February 22, 2011, in ...from Jon, Black History Month 2011, Slavery. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. ‎”However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.” (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

    “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NLT)

    What I’m wondering is this; in what context is any of this ok? You would think that God could have made laws that stand the test of time. Even though these are trivial and meaningless scriptures, the fact that they are confusing and useless says volumes about it’s ridiculousness.

    • Luke,
      Thanks for the engaging question. I hope that you take the time to read the other post as this one is a part of a whole. Furthermore, I hope that our dialogue can but amicable as we search for the answer s to the questions posed. Now on to the question at hand….

      I will grant that the Bible does not specifically condemn the practice of slavery. But, slavery in the Bible was not exactly what slavery has been in the past few centuries (ie. Colonial slavery vs. Near East “slavery”).

      For Hebrews, slavery was not based on race, by nationality or color of the skin. It was more of a form of social status like being poverty level is today. When a person didn’t have enough money to pay a debt or provide for their families, they’d voluntarily sell themselves into slavery to payoff that debt. In the NT, there were times where doctors, lawyers, and even politicians and even Bishops that were slaves.

      Being a slave was not to be a permanent situation.The longest time a slave could be kept was six years. He was set free in the seventh year and given livestock and food so the slave wouldn’t have to turn around and sell himself again the next day in order to eat.

      A slave could go free at the end of six years. But there would be the occasional slave who might not want to go. Maybe he had a hard time earning a living, and the room and board he had as a slave was better than anything he’d been able to find for himself or maybe he had grown comfortable with his master and his household. In that case, the Bible had a special destiny for him. This was called a bondservant. God did not condone the race based slavery that was practice in the past few centuries. So, yes, the Bible does condemn some forms of slavery. The slavery that the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries. Furthermore God did not condone “man stealing.” Whoever kidnaps someone must be put to death, regardless of whether he has already sold him or the person is found still in his possession. (Exodus 21:16)

      Secondly, in reference to Deut. 22:28 – 29. t should also be noted that the Old Testament nowhere records a rape victim being forced to marry her rapist. Even if that is the correct interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, the Bible nowhere records the command being enforced. Further, if a rape victim being forced to marry her rapist is the correct interpretation, it must be viewed in light of the culture of the time. In the case of Tamar, she would have rather have married her rapist than remain single the rest of her life. Reading modern Western societal mores into ancient Israel warps the meaning of the passage.

      Lastly, if Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is interpreted as referring to rape, it clearly requires restitution from/punishment for the man who rapes a young woman that is not betrothed. That punishment consisted of two parts: he must pay the woman’s father fifty shekels of silver and he must marry and support the woman for the rest of her life. Fifty shekels of silver was a very substantial fine as would have represented as much as 10 years of wages for the average person. The fact that a man was in any way punished for rape was revolutionary for that period of time in history. No other ancient legal system punished rape to anywhere near the degree outlined in Deuteronomy 22:22-29. While it is unrealistic to say that because of this command rape never occurred, hopefully the severity of the punishment was a strong deterrent to the exceedingly evil act of rape.

      So, back to the question at hand: Does Deuteronomy 22:28-29 command a rape victim to marry her rapist? While that is a possible, perhaps even likely, interpretation of the passage, it is not the only possible interpretation. Even if Deuteronomy 22:28-29 does command a rape victim to marry her rapist, it is crucial to remember that such a fate, as difficult as it would be, was, at least for some, much better than the alternatives.

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