“Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?” This was John Loftus’ question in his book, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. He posed it after sharing the following chilling account of slavery as practiced in the antebellum American south,
He took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist. He made her get upon the stool, and he tied her hands to a hook in the joist. After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor … No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin.
Loftus is not alone, it is often affirmed as an incontestable and obvious truth that the Bible supports slavery. Atheist philosopher Walter Armstrong substantiated this accusation with a citation from the book of Leviticus, “as for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations around you” (Lev 25:44 ESV).
The ESV here uses the English word ‘slave’ to translate the Hebrew word ebed. The problem is that it is not at all clear that these two terms are analogous. In 1690 philosopher John Locke argued that an examination of the Old Testament’s references to an ebed shows that it is not the equivalent what we think of when we hear the term ‘slave.’ Locke is only one of many scholars who have come to the same conclusion.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a slave as a “person who is the legal property of another or others and is bound to absolute obedience, human chattel.” Rodney Stark utilises a similar definition, “A slave is a human being who, in the eyes of the law and custom, is the possession, or chattel, of another human being or of a small group of human beings. Ownership of slaves entails absolute control, including the right to punish (often including the right to kill), to direct behavior, and to transfer ownership.” Timothy Keller astutely observes that the English term ‘slave’ carries connotations of new-world slavery as it was practiced in the British Empire and made infamous in the antebellum southern states of the US.
In the British Empire and in many US states, slavery was governed under the Code of Barbados. This code was explicitly racist and described Africans as “heathenish, brutish, and an uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people.” It allowed owners to use, “unlimited force to compel labor without penalty even if this resulted in maiming or death.” It denied slaves due process rights and permitted owners to, in effect, kill their slave for any cause. It forbade slaves from marrying. It effectively prevented owners from setting their slaves free. Keller writes that, “The African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping.” Stark notes that “20 to 40 percent of slaves died while being transported to the coast, another 3-10 percent died while waiting on the coast, and about 12 to 16 percent boarded on ships died during the voyage.”
However, what the Old Testament refers to differs from slavery, so understood, in several important respects.
First, an ebed was not acquired by kidnapping. Kidnapping a human being and selling that person as a slave was a capital offence in the Old Testament (Ex 21:16). Moreover, slave trading is implicitly condemned in the book of Revelation (Rev 18:13) and explicitly condemned by Paul as contrary to the law and sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10).
In the Old Testament an ebed was usually person who offered to work for another, free of charge, in exchange for a debt being cancelled. It resembled a form of indentured servitude.
Second, the institution was not based on notions that ebed were of an inferior race. In fact, the opposite is affirmed. In the book of Job we read,
If I have rejected the cause of my male or female slaves [Hebrew: ebed amah] when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make them? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:13-15)
Here Job refers to an ebed as having a right to go to court and sue his or her “owner” in pursuit of his or her rights. Job bases this on the idea that both he and his ebed are equal, both are created by God.
Third, as Locke noted, an ebed was not the property of another and could not be disposed of. To deliberately kill an ebed was a capital offence (Ex 21:20-21). Similarly, it was illegal to strike an ebed (Ex 21:26-27).
However, some dispute this latter point on the basis of Exodus 21:20-21,
If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
Some interpret this passage to mean that because a “slave” is the property of another they can severely beat the slave and providing the beating is not fatal, there is no legal punishment. However, this fails to deal adequately with the context and the Hebrew text, the word translated as ‘property’ here is actually ‘silver’ (a reference to money) and the word translated ‘punishment’ here is not the usual word for punishment.
Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright notes that the word implies “the shedding of the blood of the master of the slave” and so refers to capital punishment. It is used in direct contrast with the same word in the previous verse where it is stated that deliberately killing an ebed is to be avenged. Therefore, it does not say the person will not be punished for beating a slave, it says he will not be executed for it unless he kills the slave. For further evidence that the passage is not a license to beat, a couple of verses later even causing a minor injury on an ebed, such as a bruise, is explicitly condemned. The same contrast occurs in the passage immediately preceding where a free man who struck and killed another was to be “held responsible” but not if the person survived. It is clear, however, that the person was in fact to be legally punished as v 19 states he had to compensate his victim for the injury. Hence, in context the ‘held responsible’ is referring only to being held responsible for murder and is not speaking to the lesser charges of assault. What Ex 21:20-21 says then, is that if a person deliberately kills his or her ebed then that person is to be held responsible for murder and executed. If the slave “gets up after a day or two,” then the person is not to be held responsible for murder because the ebed is his or her “silver.”
This makes sense as a few verses later, in Ex 21:26-27, striking a slave is explicitly prohibited and the legal punishment is for the ebed to go free. In The Old Testament, the penalty for assault was for the assailant to provide monetary compensation to the victim. This would create a quandary in this case as an ebed is in a position of servitude because he or she is in debt to the person he or she works for. In such a case the assailant would owe money to a person who owes him or her money. The Old Testament resolves the issue by declaring that even a trivial strike, such as causing a bruise (v21:25) should result in an immediate cancelation of the ebed’s entire debt, which would often result in a financial loss to the assailant. The New Testament similarly concurs, prohibiting “masters’ from even threatening their “slaves” (Eph 6:9) and to treat their “slaves” the way the “slave” is required to treat them.
Further, unlike new-world slavery which was life long and where, under the Barbados Code, emancipation was effectively prohibited, an ebed could not be held in service for more than six years (Ex 21:2). Upon release, their employer was morally required to give them sufficient resources for them to be set up on their own feet (Deut 15:12-18) and the community left resources for them to live on for a year (Ex 23:10-11, Lev 25:2-7).
These passages are often thought to refer only to Hebrew and hence Jewish slaves. Wright, however, argues that that in its original context the key word ibri designated a social class, not an ethnic group. This was the class of people who did not own land and in an agrarian economy survived by hiring themselves out to land owners.
In fact, in the passage immediately before the verse Armstrong cites the Old Testament forbids any Israelite taking another Israelite as a ebed on the grounds that they are a “ebed of God” whom God has redeemed. Paul applies the same teaching to Christians prohibiting Christians from being sold as ‘slaves’ (1 Cor 7:23). Similarly, the Old Testament commanded people to prevent family members from becoming an ebed by paying their debts for them (Lev 25:48). Further, Paul, after writing to the Corinthians and encouraging them to “retain the place in life that the Lord assigned,” encourages slaves to purchase their freedom and to not remain in this position if it was possible to do so (1 Cor 7:21-22).
Finally, if an ebed fled from an oppressive employer it was illegal to return him or her to “his master.” Instead, he or she was to live “wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses” (Deut 23:15-16). It was forbidden to send an ebed back to his or her owner; contrast this with the practice in the antebellum south, the Fugitive Slave Act 1850 required the return of run-away slaves at penalty of law.
Contrary to what some contend, the Old Testament does not permit slavery. It is more accurate to say it tolerates indentured servitude under certain situations; the paradigm being where the servitude is voluntary, temporary, is done in exchange for payment of a debt where the alternative is starvation and destitution and only in situations where the servant is given the same basic legal rights as everyone else and is protected from abusive treatment. To suggest this picture fits with the opening quote above is a stretch to say the least.
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the April 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com
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